Welcoming the Image of God

The text

In Matthew 10:40-42 we have a continuation of teaching on discipleship. However, the tone shifts dramatically from last week’s gospel verses which focused on the likelihood of having to negotiate serious conflict when we tread the road as disciples of Jesus –read further at Facing up to Matthew https://relationalrealities.com/

Verses 40-42 focus on the action of welcoming and the object – as it were – of welcoming, i.e. prophet, righteous person, and-or little ones. In these three designations we have a full spectrum of persons who might be likely to visit with us. I would suggest that we define these categories of: prophet – a person mature in faith, the righteous – a good person, and little ones –  someone unsure, possibly vulnerable, likely doubting, yet searching for that which they know they are in need of. While we can see in Matthew’s categories an identification of types of person, I would further suggest that we find all three identifications coexisting simultaneously within ourselves.

The context

Matthew weaves together in a particular way what were most probably, a series of remembered sayings of Jesus. In other words, it is unlikely that Matthew is reporting a verbatim of Jesus’ teaching, as in this is what Jesus actually said on one single occasion. He is taking snippets of what his community remembers of the disparate Jesus sayings and weaves them together into a particular message for his community. So we can discern that the dynamics of welcome were as much an issue for the Matthean community as they are for the community of St Martin, on the East Side of Providence.

Yet, Matthew’s context differs from ours in a rather significant aspect. Whereas, we will be thinking of persons who arrive through our doors as individuals,  because we live in a society that constructs identity as something coterminous with each of us as individuals, i.e. I am me, and you are you, and in that lies the difference between us. In Matthew’s community, like that of any community in the Mediterranean world of the 1st century, personal identity is a relational concept denoting a connection with, and representation of a wider group or community. To welcome an individual is to welcome a whole group of persons to which the individual belongs. In this context the welcome of strangers served the interests of fostering wider social ensuring some degree of harmony between different social groups, and disparate communities.

Our context – receiving the text

Translating this text into our own context brings to mind two aphorisms – pithy sayings that carry a generalized truth. The first is the Garrison Keeler comment about the attitude Lutherans towards visitors:

As you leave church don’t bother to introduce yourself. If we want to know who you are we will look in the visitors book.

The second aphorism applies closer to home. Referring to the sign that hangs outside every Episcopal Church,[1]:

The Episcopal Church welcomes you! In our minds this reads: The Episcopal Church welcomes you as long as you are like us!! 

Having enjoyed a good laugh at our own expense, the fact is that it is not helpful to generalize about Churches, and Episcopal Churches, in particular. Because the degree to which any church is, or is not welcoming is a reflection of the internal dynamics within that community.

In my first week in the parish, I met with the Vestry. It is my custom to reverse the normal vestry agenda priorities so that discussion of finance and more routine, recurring matters is placed as the last item on the agenda. I do this because I have learned that to place routine matters that don’t change much from month to month at the top of the agenda priority is the best way to inhibit the vestry’s collective creativity and thoughtfulness.

At the meeting two weeks ago we began with a form of Bible study known as divine reading or lectio divina, through which the Holy Spirit invited us into a more expansive frame of mind. I then invited the Vestry to brainstorm four major priorities to be worked-on over the next 12 months. You will be able to see from posting of the minutes what the Vestry came-up with. However, one priority is especially interesting, and one member coined this priority as inreach.

We came to understand this to mean that the most fruitful way of welcoming others is through reaching into s deep self-examination as a community. We do so in a spirit of appreciative enquiry, and curiosity. As we begin to practice inreach we are going to make important discoveries about who and what we are, and are not. I guess some discoveries will be reassuring, and others disconcerting.

Coming into St Martin’s I continue to reflect long and hard on why the aphorism about the Episcopal Church’s welcome seems to strike a chord of recognition in all of us. My experience of arrival has been characterized by a profuse and generously exuberant welcome.  I arrive, somewhat in the guise of Matthew’s prophet. The expectation attaching to the incoming Rector is that he or she is bringing something of what is needed by the community to continue into the next stage of its journey. Yet, how do we imagine the experience of the visitor or the stranger who comes through our doors?

Episcopal parishes have a general dynamic of reserve. Unlike some other Christian traditions we are not known for falling upon the neck of the visitor [2]. Yet, at St Martin’s I suspect it would be a mistake to interpret such reserve and restraint as a sign of being unwelcoming. St Martin’s, clearly is a missional parish. By this I mean it’s a community that is vitally interested in the state of the world around it. There is a long and strong tradition of outreach and social concern. St Martin’s, well understands that it has responsibilities to the wider Church and society.

Like many Episcopal parishes, St Martin’s is a community where the righteous – in the Matthean sense of good people imbued with a sense of humanitarian concern, readily find a welcome and a home. I also suspect that St Martin’s is a community where prophets – as in the spiritually mature, because they are able to persevere until they pass through the glass wall[3], also find a welcome and a home.

The question in my mind is how do we think the little ones – as in the vulnerable fare? Vulnerability comes in different guises. There are those socially marginalized, whose material needs are their uppermost concern. There are those who are socially ostracized through disturbance in mental and emotional health. There are the lonely and the sorrowful. There are those who experience themselves as the objects of discrimination. There are the skeptical, yet spiritually- seeking.

For the skeptical, yet spiritually-seeking some restraint and reserve may well be appreciated allowing them to find their way, at their own pace, into community relationship. Educational formation is going to be important for these persons. Our polite, middle class, emotionally restrained culture will probably make us an intimidating place for the socially vulnerable, and maybe the lonely. Our theological tolerance and progressive engagement in the service of the expectations of the Kingdom will make us a welcome place for those differently marginalized through discrimination. Our compassion and social concern will help us to embrace those variously disturbed, so long as they are not too disturbing.

Yet, the truth remains that we are a difficult tradition to penetrate. One reason for this is our theological and liturgical complexity. It is a steep learning curve to find your way around the Book of Common Prayer and into the concept of a community defined by its worship and not mutual agreement . Yet for those who can resist the urge for instant gratification, the BCP opens a portal to a world of deep spiritual, liturgical, and emotional tones and resonances that are most longed- for in our modern world. We are not the community for those whose response to the challenges of the modern world is to seek clear, unequivocal, true or false answers. Yet, for those who can tolerate living in the tension of interpreting the rich tradition of our Christian past for the purpose of creatively invigorating our Christian living in a 21st century world, we are exactly the right community.

As your new Rector, I want to invite us all into a process of inreach. Curiosity is one of the primary motivations necessary for the spiritual life. With curiosity and appreciative enquiry, let us explore ourselves as a community, celebrating our strengths, yet not shying away from our weaknesses.

In conclusion

Matthew 10:40-42 leaves me with two abiding insight.

  1. If each one of us can become more aware that in us the spiritual maturity of the prophet, the commitment to right action of the righteous, and the vulnerabilities and uncertainties of the little ones – all require our self-reflection.Recognising that to varying degrees, all three are part of our identity allows us the flexibility to orient ourselves to what is most needed, not only by the visitors that come through our doors, but by our neighbors and co-workers, and the stranger we encounter by chance in the street.  The fruit of our process of inreach will be effective and welcoming outreach. The task is to recognize in others what we know about our own familiar needs, and to let this self-knowledge orient us in relation to them.
  2. Ultimately, we welcome not the individual, but we welcome Christ, through whose image we recognise ourselves made in the image of God. When we recognize ourselves as made in the image of God, then we cannot miss seeing that same God-image in the faces of the visitor and the stranger. I believe it is the cultivation of our own spiritual resources that makes the difference between benign indifference and welcome.

[1] St Martin’s has two at either end of Orchard Avenue

[2] A reference to Acts 20:37 where the brothers and sisters embraced Paul, falling upon his neck and kissed him.

[3] By the glass wall I mean that experience of persevering with a new community until suddenly one day you find you have moved from the outside to the inside.

Facing up to Matthew 10 after a bewildering week

It’s been a somewhat chaotic and bewildering week, this first week in a new parish. I am someone who needs the external environment to be ordered and aesthetically sympathetic. So moving into a new office and trying to order the office space while simultaneously beginning to respond to what seems a myriad of priorities, has taken its toll. However, how can it not be so? I would not have it any other way! For in the midst of the challenges and competing demands, I have also experienced a deep communal empathy and goodwill supporting me.

In a new situation it’s hard to identify what are immediate priorities and what can be left on the back burner for a while. Harder still is to distinguish between the priorities of the external environment and those habitual anxieties that are always a part of who Mark Sutherland is when facing new situations and the yet-to-become-known. Yet, again, I have found a warm and tolerant, if watchful, welcome from others,  both parishioners and particularly my wardens and the small staff team at the nerve centre of the parish’s day-to-day functioning.


So, as I now sit to put my mind to the task of the upcoming sermon for this Sunday I am very conscious of the fact that it takes time to learn the frequency of communication with a new community. The old frequency that worked so well in my last post at Trinity Cathedral, Phoenix, does not seem quite right for St Martin’s, Providence.

My intention was to rise early on this Saturday morning and get to grips with another of those astonishingly provocative gospel passages, which Matthew seems to specialize in. I have setup for myself as small working space, literally under the eaves of our early 1800’s house, which a designer friend of mine back in Phoenix described as rustic colonial. It’s a small room in the attic, which a previous owner had furnished in the style of a grandchildrens overspill play-sleeping space.

So, I sit in my dolls house-like space and my first encounter is not with the profundity of my response to Matthew 10:24-39, but a tussle with the cordless keyboard that won’t sync with my laptop. After calming down a bit, I begin to reflect on the process of synchronizing. And my mind returns to the process so uppermost for us at St Martin’s, i.e. making our way through a time of transition into our new future together.

What is transition? The best definition I can come up with at the moment is an analogy between the cordless keyboard – PC synchronization and our situation of transition at St Martin’s. Transition is an anxious process as we engage in the process of waiting and watching to see if our broadcast frequencies will be mutually recognized, registered and synchronized so to enable us to continue to move forward into the new phase of what God is dreaming us into becoming.


The Evangelist Matthew offers us the most Moses-like image of Jesus. Matthew’s Jesus is authoritatively commanding and exacting – a Jesus who does not beat about the bush and with true Yankee pragmatism just comes out and tells his disciples not to expect a smoother road than the one on which he is travelling.

This is provocative because we tend to fall into a frame of mind that says that because Jesus did the hard stuff then we can expect a smoother, less painful ride.

Matthew’s Moses-like Jesus is no accident. Matthew and his community were in that painful transition following their expulsion from the synagogues. The image I have is of the Jewish followers of Jesus moving to less salubrious premises and opening the first storefront churches, literally across the road from the synagogues. Of-course they don’t cease to be Jewish, and they bring with them their Jewish theology of Jesus as the new Moses who had come not to abolish, but to complete the Law. Locating Matthew and his community within their religio-political context, helps explain Matthew’s Moses-like image of Jesus and his provocative tone, so reminiscent in places of the exacting tone of the Torah’s[1] teaching.

Matthew writes for a community that is struggling against powerful discrimination, if not persecution. In this context there is little expectation of a cushy ride and the Christians of Matthew’s community had their own unique experience of the cost of discipleship. A cost they paid in the day-to-day experience of contesting the centers of power around them, and clearly from today’s gospel text, between them.


Each Sunday, the lections we hear proclaimed comprise the conversation God is seeking to have with us as a community. To better hear this invitation to conversation we have to adjust for context. Matthew’s context is not our context, though the themes governing human societies across the ages are depressingly repetitive.

The purpose of the preacher in the liturgical assembly is to offer a response to God’s invitation to conversation from the community side of the line. This involves a sometimes complex, twofold process. The preacher attempts to translate between the original context in which a piece of scripture arises and the contemporary community setting. Yet, at the same time the preacher, while translating from one historical context to another needs to allow the timelessness of God’s conversation to be heard within his or her own community.

What we are listening for is the original voice of Jesus in the context of his ministry of preaching the expectations of the Kingdom of God around 30AD. Jesus’ voice is communicated to us through the filter of Matthew and his community’s interpretation of that voice around 80AD. Yet, rather than dilute Jesus’ message, Matthew’s witness clarifies it further, making it more accessible to us as we translate it out of his context into ours in 2014AD.


I am attempting to fulfill the purpose of being the preacher while still being new to many aspects of my community’s context and experience. Going-back to my earlier analogy with electronic synchronization, I am feeling my way towards the best frequency that will sync my words with my new community’s experience – a process of hit and miss taking time and requiring patience on both our parts.

I don’ t feel I am able to address the St Martin’s community in anything other than the most generally applicable of terms. I engage with Matthew’s context and the way he witnesses to the earlier context of Jesus. Then i try to translate out of Matthew’s context into that of the community of St Martin in Providence RI, l attempt to identify and translate the core timeless elements of God’s communication with us through the teaching of Jesus recorded in Matthew 10:24-39.

In translation this is what I read :

  • There is a right order in relationships, which is often inverted in the world. We are not better than God. It’s enough for us to be like God, but not to allow our own sense of self to supplant God’s place in our world nor allow our lives to trespass apon the lives of others.
  • Conflict is everywhere and we cannot expect to be insulated from it. Yet, the danger never derives not from the negotiation of conflict. It comes from the fear and consequent avoidance of conflict. This is what makes us retreat and hide.
  • It is fear itself that colors our picture of the world. Our need for courageous engagement in the world no matter how difficult and painful this can be, must not give way to an attitude of hiding and keeping our heads down.
  • We have to continually expose the lies and subterfuges that we rely upon to make a convenient accommodation with abuses of power and systems of injustice. Our easy accommodation with violence masking abuses of power, systems of injustice, and scapegoating only unconsciously reinforces our sense that there is much to be afraid of. Giving-in to fear makes us even more fearful. Examples of the way we do this lie in our inability to get a grip on the abuse of guns for violent ends, in the steady and continued rise in drug addiction at home, fueling the grip of violent criminality and the evils of corruption south of the border in Mexico. Other examples lie in the way we as the most privileged nation on earth maintain our economic advantages.
  • Social systems structure our relationships with one another along the lines of class, race, gender, sexual identity, and family. In each of these spheres there is a hierarchy for the exercise power that gives to some more power and to others, less. The rich have more power than the poor, whites have more power than blacks – and here I stress that black and white are concepts that sometimes have little to do with race or skin color. Class is the real determinant of privilege. Men have more power than women, husbands than wives, parents than children. A patriarchal view of heterosexuality is privileged to the specific disadvantage of homosexual and transgendered persons.

Jesus promises to shine the light of truth into our everyday lives exposing the way we collude with one another in the maintenance of social relations that mask the disparities in privilege and the exercise of power. We should not be lulled by Jesus’ identification of violence with possible death. By lulled I mean, that thinking which says because our lives are not in danger this text does not apply to us. Every moment of every day many people’s lives are in danger of death through myriad forms of violence . Unless we protest we cannot escape being implicated in the maintenance of a society that preserves a sorry status quo.


With time I trust that my incorporation into the life of the St Martin’s community will afford me more insight into the particularities of the conversation God seeks with us.

Jesus tells us that the path of discipleship is not a path that avoids exposure. Exposure leads to division and conflict, sometimes in the spaces where our most intimate human relationship are lived-out

The most significant part of Jesus’ teaching  lies in his exhortation for us to firstly:

  • To live without fear, or more accurately to refuse to let our fear limit our courage for living.

And secondly:

  • To let ourselves become found through the privileging our relationship with God. His means to give up our perpetual assertions of self-interest and potency. We do this best when we are able to let our concern for our neighbor come before our own self-interest.

For those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.

[1] The Torah or the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures comprise the Law and traditionally have been ascribed to the authorship of Moses.

Trinity Sunday and Fathers Day Ponderings

The Problematic Trinity

Jesus said, Whom do men say that I am? And his disciples answered and said, Some say you are John the Baptist returned from the dead; others say Elijah, or other of the old prophets. And Jesus answered and said, But whom do you say that I am? Peter answered and said, “Thou art the Logos, existing in the Father as His rationality and then, by an act of His will, being generated, in consideration of the various functions by which God is related to his creation, but only on the fact that Scripture speaks of a Father, and a Son, and a Holy Spirit, each member of the Trinity being coequal with every other member, and each acting inseparably with and interpenetrating every other member, with only an economic subordination within God, but causing no division which would make the substance no longer simple. “And Jesus answering, said, “What?”

Jesus’ response to Peter is a fair summary of how many people feel about the Trinity. In the Western Church, a term that identifies both Roman Catholic and Protestant traditions of Christianity, our engagement with the deeper meaning of the claim that God is both three, and yet one, has been obscured by the preoccupation with theological definition. For Western Christians, the Trinity is a frightfully abstract, head concept. Despite the profusion of churches, especially in our Anglican-Episcopal Tradition dedicated to the name of the Holy Trinity we tend to ignore the triune nature of God, seeing it as an unnecessary complexity. We abandon the most essential of all Christian understandings of God for some vague unitarianism often summed up by: oh I don’t understand this three in one stuff. For me God is Father, or Jesus is friend, or its’ the power of the Spirit, for me.  This is not the case in the Orthodox traditions of Christianity in Eastern Europe, Asia Minor, and Coptic Africa, where the conception of the Trinity is received and joyfully celebrated with a full and joyful heart that contrasts sharply with our cool response of cerebral assent.

As the joke above captures, many of us regard the Trinity as a thorny theological and philosophical conundrum, best ignored. However, the important and relatively simple thing to remember is that the Trinity emerges out of the ordinary experience of the first Christians beginning to make sense of their tumultuous experience of God.

The experience of Trinity

The first Christians were Jews who knew God as the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of their fathers and the Creator of the world who revealed himself to Moses and to the people through the gift of the Law and the preaching of the Prophets. Yet, they also had to make sense of a direct experience of Jesus as a revelation of God within the intimacy of their human relationship. As if this was not complex enough, they were forced to negotiate the further experience of God as Holy Spirit. This was and experience of God as a force of nature that had completely changed everything about the way they understood themselves and the world around them.

For the Early Christians, the three-fold experience of God was not a theological experience, but a deeply human and relational experience that both empowered and bewildered them by turns.

The Church expresses this threefold experience of God through the chronology of the Calendar placing the celebration of the Trinity as the final act bringing the Easter Drama to its completion.

Rehabilitating the Trinity on Fathers Day

This year the celebration of the Trinity coincides with the secular celebration of fatherhood and fathers. This leads me to ponder the question: so who is God for us? I imagine that this question will usually connect us to an association of God as Father. For some this will be a positive and affirming experience, yet not all have comforting associations to fathers. Yet, we often have found creative and affirming experiences of fatherhood in the most unlikely places and in the most unexpected persons. I will come back to fathers and fatherhood further on. Here, I simply affirm that God as father can be a limiting association for some of us, while the association of God with fatherhood can be more creative. On Fathers Day we celebrate the gift of fatherhood, often expressed through the gifted and broken vessels that are our human fathers.

Another way to answer the question: so who is God for us? – is to go back to the Old Testament lesson taken from the first chapter of Genesis. In this first creation narrative, God finally gets around to creating human beings as the penultimate action in a long day marked by intense creative energy. Paying careful attention to the text we notice something, which at first sight seems rather perplexing. Not only is God displaying the first sign of madness, i.e. having a conversation with Godself, but the conversation indicates God’s sense of having several personalities. In a conversation that sounds alarmingly like that of multiple personality syndrome, God uses the pronouns us and our to refer to actions. God does not say let me create humanity in my own image, but says let us make humanity in our own image, male and female let us make them!

We are relational beings, finding fulfilment in  both nuclear and extended communities. Relationality is what it means to be human because we are made in the image of a God who is within Godself, relational. Our relationality is not something particular to us and our needs. Relationality, it seems from Genesis, is also particular to God and God’s needs. The Trinity is the way we Christians understand and protect the mystery of the relationality within the heart of God.We see in Genesis 1, God revealing relationality and sharing the joy of relationality in the creation of the cosmos.

Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: theology of gender implications

For the first Christians, God as a divine community was powerfully experiential. They identified with the Father-creator – lover, Jesus the Son- communicator – beloved, and Holy Spirit empowering presence, love sharer. For them, the relational God comes to full experience in lives of relationship and community.

I  have italicized nongendered relational terms and associated them with the traditional identities of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Father equates with lover or source of love. Son equates with beloved or the object of love. Holy Spirit equates with love sharer. My point here is that God is neither male nor female, yet the principles of masculine and feminine are present in God’s nature.

Although Jesus as a human being certainly was male – the Word of God (logos) is not male. The Father – creator, and the Son – communicator, can be viewed through masculine imagery without being defined as male. The Holy Spirit, in Hebrew ruach and Greek pneuma, is correspondingly, feminine. The feminine principle is captured in the notion of the Spirit as generative, fecund energy, bringing life to birth and sharing the divine love everywhere. Traditionally the Holy Spirit was referred to as it, because I guess it was difficult for a patriarchal tradition to refer to an element of God as she. As human beings, made in the image of God, we each contain within us an arrangement of masculine and feminine principles which render us the unique individuals we are.

In our human relationships the divine principles of masculine and feminine are located in gender, though not confined by gender.  To pick up on my earlier associations between the celebration of the Trinity and Father’s Day; Fathers are more often male, but not necessarily so, for the function of fatherhood is masculine, not male. In a similar way the function of motherhood is feminine and not simply confined to being female.

God expressed through doctrine

As time passed the first Christians needed to be able to articulate their experience. As the influence of Greek philosophical thought grew among the gentile Christians, it was natural for them to turn to this tradition of learning in search of a way of speaking about their experience. The doctrine of the Trinity is a philosophical theory that gave the growing Christian Church the language to both speak about God and protect the mystery of God.

In Greek thought, the term person could be used to speak about different identities that nevertheless shared one nature. The doctrine of the Trinity, which for us presents God as a conundrum best ignored, like all doctrines functions not to explain or define God, but to protect the essential mystery that is God from being reduced to the simplicities of only that which human beings in each generation can understand!

God expressed through the psychology of relationship

There is a recognized psychological theory for how our individual identities are also the product of our relationships with others. Our individual identity i.e. who I am is constructed out of a complex dynamic of being in relationship with others. Who I think I am is as much a function of how I perceive others viewing me. I catch a glimpse of myself in the face of the other, looking back at me.andrei--rublev-russian-icons--the-trinity_i-S-61-6179-4K11100Z

Rublev’s famous depiction of the Trinity as three identical persons, lovingly gazing upon one another puts into pictorial form the conversation we hear God having in Genesis. We see not three Gods, but three persons in one God, each reflecting back the image of the other.

In conclusion

Each person has a function. The Father –the lover is the creator source of all things. The Son –the beloved is the communicator of all things – the Logos or Word. The Holy Spirit love sharer is God in all things. But the main point is not their functions but the way each function emerges out of being in relationship, one with another.

Please go online to http://www.sacredheartpullman.org/Icon explanation.htm  Here you will find a further explanation that uses Andrei Rublev’s icon of the Trinity to demonstrate how this can be imagined.

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