SCRIPTURE: Genesis 1-2:2
PREACHER: Rev. David Exley
One of the first things you do in Seminary when you study the Hebrew Bible (what we most often refer to, in our tradition, as the Old Testament) is you look at how the Judeo-Christian creation narratives compares to other creation accounts from the Ancient Near East. We do this because if we’re going to understand our own creation narratives, we must understand what other traditions had to say about the cosmos and how they informed what has evolved into our own tradition. These ancient Near Eastern creation narratives were unapologetically polytheistic. In these creation narratives there are many gods. Some of them are more powerful than the others. In some narratives, these gods are aloof and disconnected from the earth. In others, the gods are actively engaged in the lives of humans. In one narrative, a Babylonian myth story known as the Enuma Elish, the gods “created humans, [and then] later regretted the decision and schemed to destroy the human race because we were too ‘noisy.’ These deities would battle, kill, enslave and retaliate against each other, and humans were often caught in the midst of these disputes.”*
The Israelite tradition is one of the first to portray God and Creation in a very different way. Yes, there are still remnants of a pre-monotheistic tradition. Just look at verse 26 in the opening chapter of Genesis where we read: “Then God said, “Let US make humanity in OUR image to resemble us.” But, this is really the first narrative to approach the relationship between God and Creation (God and humanity) as one of deep connection… deep love… and blessing. Genesis One is very much a love song or a poem that reflects a God who creates with great intention—this is a God who looks upon creation (and humanity) with great love. One need not worry about the order of what happens on each day. This isn’t a scientific or historic text—it’s a spiritual one. All we need to know is the repetitive phrases of “God said…” and “God saw how good it was!”. And, while the concept of the Trinity is only vaguely present in the text, the one thing we do see is God’s very nature being rooted in relationship.
With that in mind, on this Trinity Sunday, I want to focus on three images that may guide us to a deeper understanding of the power of what it means to be a people who worship and are in relationship with the Triune God—a God who is Father/Mother, Jesus the incarnate or Human One, and the Spirit. OR put a different way—a God who is Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer.
The first image is one that you may have heard me talk about before. It’s a 15th century Russian icon called “Trinity” created by Andrei Rublev. Richard Rohr calls it (for him) “the most perfect piece of religious art there is”.** The painting is also known by another name, “The Hospitality of Abraham” as it depicts the story of the three “angels” visiting Abraham and Sarah at the Oaks of Mamre found in Genesis 18. I love the idea of Rublev weaving together the image of the Trinity with this story from Genesis. It gives us something to consider as we ponder our relationship with God and the vision that God has for the world. I love the femine images present in this as well, reminding us that using feminine imagery and pronouns for God is not a recent development. In this icon (this image), I believe, we see the same vision that the writer of Genesis ONE sees—a God who sees goodness in the world... and a God who is rooted in relationship. Experts who have studied this icon suggest that there may have originally been a mirror attached to the bottom of it, suggesting that the artist’s intention was to invite us into the image (into the icon). We can see the opening at the feet of the “angels” or figures in the image. In fact there is a triangle (a Trinitarian image) that is incomplete at the bottom. In this, we imagine that God is not complete without us. And, we are not complete without God. The table always calls out for one more to join.
Using this image, Richard Rohr states, “This table is not reserved exclusively for Three, nor is the divine circle dance a closed circle: we’re all invited in. All creation is invited in, and this is the liberation God intended from the very beginning.”***
This icon is about freedom, openness, and liberation… which is why I love the reinterpretation of the Trinity icon that artist Meg Wroe created a few years ago. The piece was inspired by an observation by Elizabeth Henry, National Adviser for the Committee for Minority Ethnic Anglican Concerns in the Church of England, who said that when people from black or minority ethnic communities enter church buildings they often won’t see themselves represented in the iconography or visual art. Adding, “Art should be better than this.”**** Through this work of art, we see an image of our God “who has created and is creating”... one who continues to speak words of creation (like in Genesis one) and after the creation of life is the one steps back and we hear those words: “God saw how good it was.” When we see “how supremely good” our own image is, coupled with the relational image of our Creator, we begin to see as God sees.
The second image comes from a prominent First Nations tribe of North America. In the Lakota tradition, they have a particular individual that they call the heyoka. The heyoka is someone who receives the vision in their adolescent vision quest that they are being called to this role. The role is not an easy one. Alexander J. Shaia suggests that this role “is the most honoured and the most arduous role of the entire people because the heyoka is called to enflesh in every way being ‘the other’.” “The heyoka at a wedding is going to wail as if at a funeral, and at a funeral is going to be humorous and joyful perhaps as a wedding. You'll often see the heyokas walking backward. You'll see the heyoka learning to be ambidextrous. They take on the physical and emotional characteristics which are opposite most of us. And the most honored role of the heyoka is what they do when they are at council, when the tribe is discerning. When the chief or the elder has called the people together to be in discernment about some question that's facing them as a people. At this moment (like any tribe or group of people) the voices around the circle may begin to move in one direction. The heyoka (from a place of inner truth and integrity) must speak to the opposite. They are not to be adversarial, but the indigenous peoples of the Americas know that unless every voice is heard and respected, we cannot make a good discernment. So the heyoka is speaking what we often are uncomfortable with.*****
I can’t help but be moved by this image from the Lakota people. In some ways, I see the story of Creation from Genesis One as a heyoka-like story. While all the voices of the Ancient Near East spoke of the gods as adversarial, perhaps completely disconnected from humankind, OR angry at humanity. The writer of Genesis One takes the opposite view and explores what it might be like to look upon God with different eyes—to look upon one another with eyes of love rather than eyes of judgement. Likewise, I believe that the Trinitarian God we worship (or, at the very least, the One that we attempt to understand) is a God who welcomes the voice of “the other”. God’s very nature is one that longs not for conformity, but plurality. The image of the Trinity is one that celebrates difference. To be complete as a people—to be made in the image of God—is to welcome the heyoka. And not just “the other” that exists on the outside… but welcoming that voice of the heyoka that comes from within.
The third image is one that fits well with the Trinity icon and with the concept of the heyoka. It’s a troubling one, but one that we need to look upon through the eyes of faith and love. This past week, during a protest in nearby Buffalo, New York, many of us watched as an older man walked toward police in riot gear and was knocked violently to the ground (suffering some serious injuries, but fortunately being in stable condition in the hospital). This image for me represents a modern day example of what it means to reject the heyoka—or, put in our faith context—to reject the Trinitarian God of love—the One who longs for relationship and the One who always welcomes the Other to the table. To be a person of faith in the Christian tradition is to do the opposite of what we saw from that scene in Buffalo. If we’re going to faithfully hold up the Bible and proclaim our allegiance to the God of Love (the God who is Three in One) we must embrace the other—most especially when they disagree with us. We need one another to be whole. For the God who spoke into the darkness before the universe was formed saw humanity in all its shapes and forms. The God who saw not only me and people who look like me and “saw how good it was” BUT a God who saw my neighbour… saw those who came before me and those who will come after me… a God who sees you and those who look very different from you and declares the goodness of ALL Creation—not just the parts of Creation that certain people declare to be good. All of it.
And so… “There was evening and there was morning: the sixth day. The heavens and the earth and all who live in them were completed. On the sixth day God completed all the work that God had done, and on the seventh day God rested from all the work that God had done.” May we—the ones who live in the light AND darkness that eighth day—learn what it means to honour our relational God. May we welcome the stranger and continue to dream of wholeness along with God and all creation. Amen.
IMAGE: "Heyoka" by Wandering Pixels
*Roger Nam, Commentary on Genesis 1-2:2, workingpreacher.org © 2014
**Richard Rohr, "The Divine Dance" © 2016 (Whitaker House)
****"Bishop of Stepney blesses BME icons" from: https://www.london.anglican.org/
*****From: theworkofthepeople.com - video featuring Alexander Shaia (Four Gospel Journey)