Preacher: The Rev. Doyt L. Conn, Jr.
As you know, the retired Bishop of Durham Cathedral in England was here last week… The Rt. Rev. Michael Turnbull. We were having coffee Monday morning and he turned to me and said, sort of out of the blue: “Doyt, you know how Jesus said, ‘the kingdom of God is here?’” And I said, “Yes, Bishop… that’s something we say a lot around Epiphany. The Kingdom of God is here, this near, closer to us than our protons are to our electrons and neutrons. So yes, Bishop, we know that the Kingdom of God is here.”
And he said, “Did you know there’s a better translation for this?” That caught my attention. “It is not just that the kingdom of God here, it is that the kingdom is here in between the things that we perceive as real. The Kingdom of God exists in the space in between.
I’ve been thinking a lot about that lately… the space in between.
I’ll give you an example. You know how we say: “In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit?” Now when most of us are wondering (if we wonder) about what that means, we think about Father and Son and Holy Spirit, and who they are, and what they do, because we are trained to focus on nouns.
But the Bishop’s insight caused me to wonder about the conjunction “and” as the word that exists in the space in between the nouns. And how that little conjunction “and” tells us more about God than the titles Father, or Son, or Holy Spirit. This little word “and” corresponds with what we always say here at Epiphany: “In the Kingdom of God, relationship is primary.” We say this because we believe in a relational God. The God we worship is triune, Trinitarian, three as one: Father AND Son AND Holy Spirit.
Now here is something interesting about this Triune God: Before there was the substance of God, before the nouns of Father, Son or Holy Spirit could be articulated there was the relationship of God. First there was relationship, then there was substance. This is true for humans as well… right? First there is relationship between the parents, and then comes the substance of the child.
We see this point made right at the beginning of the Gospel of John: It says: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him…”
Those words that I just spoke…those words, they exist in that space between you and me; between the substance of my tongue and the substance of your ears. The Word went forth, first defining the space in between, as a conjunction in search of nouns to connect. God gave us nouns: Father, Son, Holy Spirit; not as three job descriptions for God; but as boundary marks between which to see the relational nature of God.
Now why does this matter… where we look for God? Whether God is a conjunction or a noun. It has to do with our design as human. If we believe we have this God shaped space within us; and if we believe we are made in the image and likeness of God; then we believe we are acting our best selves when we are acting like God, or at least as God designed us to act. Doesn’t that make sense?
Now if we have a wrong idea of God, then we are likely, consciously or unconsciously, to mimic the wrong model and thus not act our best selves. It would be like using the wrong tool for a job… like using a shovel to butter toast. A shovel is for digging. A world full of people using shovels to butter toast would be a mess.
Today the world is a mess, and I believe that has something to do with how we think about God. If we believe God is noun, we act one way. If we believe God is conjunction, we act another way. If we believe God is a noun we tend to act transactionally. If we believe God is a conjunction we tend to act relationally.
It is like this: if we perceive God as noun we are likely to imagine God as a man, a white man, an old white man, an old white man with a beard, in a robe, on a throne, in the clouds, way, way out there. That is the big guy God who sits at the top of creations organizational chart.
Now anyone who has worked with an organizational chart knows if you want something done, you go to the big guy to make it happen. And this is where the God as noun metaphor falls apart. This big guy God at the top of the organizational chart sets up a transactional paradigm. We approach this God with a quiver full of negotiating arrows:
The arrow of: I’m a good guy.
or I keep the Commandments.
or I go to church.
or I pay my pledge.
or All of the above.
And then we ask the big guy God for this or that or the other thing.
That is the transactional way of relating with God. And then, ooooh, and then, the thing we request doesn’t happen. The quid pro quo isn’t honored, and we think:
- Did I negotiate incorrectly?
- Is God too far away to hear?
- Doesn’t God care?
- Maybe God doesn’t exist.
And then, well if God isn’t going to do it, if God isn’t around, or not real, then I’ll do it. And then the transactional model becomes the dominant way of doing things in our lives. We seek wins. We set up quid pro quos. We pursue the best deal for me. And when everyone is living like that the world gets more and more messy, like using a shovel to spread butter on your toast.
In the Gospel today, Jesus defangs this transactional model of God, in favor of the God of relationship, the God who is conjunction, the God who we find in the space in between. We find Jesus up in Galilee when he receives a message that his best friend, Lazarus, was very ill. Yet, Jesus doesn’t rush back to Bethany. He delays four days, and in that time Lazarus dies.
Now Lazarus had two sisters, Mary and Martha. And the first thing we hear in this story is a reminder of who they are, particularly Mary. She is the one with the transactional power, because she is the one who anointed Jesus’s feet with an ointment valued at $30,000. Hello quid pro quo. That is why this anointing story is mentioned by the Gospel writer; Mary anointed Jesus, now Jesus had better hustle to Bethany to heal her brother.
But Jesus isn’t bound by a transactional model; he is bound by a relational model. So he finished honoring the relationship he was in in Galilee, before heading to Bethany. Yet, when he arrives he is confronted by Mary: “Had you been here Lazarus would be alive!” She is angry. She is heartbroken. Jesus did not live up to his end of the deal.
And here is the surprise. Here is where Jesus defangs transaction in favor of relationship: He isn’t defensive. He meets her where she is in her anguish. He loves her, and the weeps with her. He connects. He is a conjunction.
Then he goes on to crown conjunction over noun by demonstrating how relationship is stronger than substance. “Lazarus come out!” Relationship is primary to God. Our God is a God who maintains relationship beyond the scope of substance, including death.
That is why Jesus didn’t rush back, because he knew that irrespective of the substance of Larazus, alive in the body or dead in the body, their relationship was eternally secure. If God loves us, God loves us forever; if God is in relationship with us; God is in relationship with us forever. If God made us, God made us to last forever.
Richard Rohr in his book The Divine Dance, says the space in between is made up of love, because that is where God is, and God is love. Our job is to seek that love by looking at the spaces in between, and prioritizing connection over transaction.
My invitation to you as we head into Holy Week a week from today is to consider your perception of God. Wonder about transaction and connection. Consider nouns and conjunction. Look to see what is happening in the space in between.
That is where we’ll find God, right here, this near, holding it all together. And that is where we’ll experience God’s love, not because of what God will do, but because God is the God that loves me and you.
We have a God that is love. First there was relationship, and then there was substance. If anyone ever asks you about the God you worship, don’t struggle to give them a job description for God, rather tell them about the love that exists in the space in between.