3-in-1 Evergreen Girls Co-Creating our World
A sermon delivered by Emily Nielsen Jones
August 9, 2015 at the Nyamara Girls School, Kenya
Wow, Nyamira Girls School, you sure know how to rock your worship services! I loved walking up and seeing you all sitting under this big beautiful tree. And wow, you know how to sing and dance!
Good morning and a big warm greeting from the United States!!! So I hear you had a wonderful visit here with our president! He couldn’t make it to your school so he sent me instead! Just joking, I got enlisted by Rev. Misolo who got lazy and lined me up instead. Let me admit in advance that I am not a preacher so after i leave he can clean up any damage I create! In all seriousness, a big thank you to Rev. Misolo for asking me to speak today from my heart and to all of you for welcoming me to your school. And happy Trinity Sunday! My church at home also follows the Anglican calendar and I believe is celebrating Trinity Sunday today.
Greetings also from the organization I represent, the Imago Dei Fund, and also from my family. One of the jobs I do is working with people like Rev. and Mrs. Misolo to create a more just world for girls and women to thrive and be all they can be. Another job I do is I am mother of a 13 year old girl named Lexi and her two older brothers, Erik and Luke. Each of them has taught me so much about what it means to be made in God’s image and how God loves each of us beyond measure. I love having boys but being a mother of a girl has changed the way I see God and the world and I guess that is why I am here to talk with you today.
She is incredible as are each of you. The struggles of girls and women in the United States differ somewhat from here, but really are not so different. We are all sisters and we live in a small, interconnected world. The world we live in is beautiful in so many ways—the green cloth we have over the alter today reminds us of God’s wonder-filled creation —but this beautiful world is also broken and harsh and in need of mending… The title of my talk is 3-in-1 Evergreen Girls Co-Creating our World. Thank you to Rev. Misolo and to so many here who are working to create a more beautiful, gender-balanced world where girls can grow up to thrive and flourish and live free of violence and oppression.
Sisters in Christ, Rev. Misolo and any other boys or men here, on this Sunday where we celebrate and observe the mystery of the Trinity—how God could be one yet three—our topic today is how we as girls and women can know, really know, I mean really really know, this 3-in-1 God that we believe in, pray to, and recite over and over again in our creeds… “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit… I don’t know about you but I have heard this formula over and over and over again, so much so that at some point it became just a bunch of words… What the heck, one God yet in three persons? Is this not confusing? I for one cannot fully grasp this, which is ok because God is a vast mystery larger than any language or formula we overlay onto God… And what do you notice about these three persons that have come to dominant how we talk about God? Anyone? At least in the part of the church where I have spent my 40+ years, all three are assigned male pronouns. He, He He. Hmmmm… Because this has become the default way so many people speak of God, we hardly notice it. Names are like word symbols we use and they say a lot about what we value and how we conceive of ourselves and the world. Did you know that there are hundreds of names for God in the Bible?
My hope today is for us to look at the Trinity we are celebrating today through girl eyes and see if we can see past the over-used masculine names for God that we recite over and over and try to catch a larger vision of God, one that we as females can see ourselves included in, and I would argue, a more intimate and yet expansive and transformative vision of our Creator that sees all of us as intimately apart of God’s creativity in the world—each of us a unique creature in God’s amazingly beautiful web of life, each and every one of us also a co-creator with God here to do something only we can do to create the better world we all seek.
This is a tall order so let’s turn to our Creator in prayer. Sometimes prayer can just seem like a bunch of holy sounding words… One thing I love about the Anglican tradition is how it uses colors and symbols to express deep spiritual mysteries and truths… Lets’ begin our prayer by looking at this vibrant green color on the alter… I do believe it conveys more beautifully what the Trinity is all about than any words I can say… I love this color, it makes me feel vibrant inside just looking at it… What do you know that is green around you? Look up at this big tree we are sitting under… Green is a symbol of Life and creativity in the world around us. To use church language, Green is a symbol of God’s natural revelation to us that all of us can know just by being human beings. Close your eyes now and just hold the color green in your mind’s eye…
Continue praying with me now by quieting yourself and really settling within your own body… Take a few deep nourishing breaths… inhale… exhale… We are each made in God’s image so this Trinity see in God we can also see in ourselves.
On each inhale say one word of this simple prayer:
“Here I am,
body, mind, spirit
Dear God, our Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer, the Holy One of creation, conceived of as three yet one, we open our minds and hearts to you now… With our minds alone, we cannot even begin to grasp this idea of the Trinity… But within our hearts, we can know you without needing to define you or have it all figured out. Thank you God for each girl here, for each person here… a trinity of Body, mind, and spirit made in your image. Thank you that that you are creating each one of us to be and become a unique creation here to fulfill a unique purpose in the world. Open our minds and hearts to see and know and participate in your evergreen creative love in our world and grow like branches on your vine.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit,
One God, Mother of us All. Amen1
I have to admit that I wrote this sermon on the long plane ride over here so please forgive me if this is disjointed… When Domnic asked me to do the sermon he mentioned it was Trinity Sunday and a green cloth would be draped over the alter. So while I was drifting in and out of sleep on the plane I found myself noodling over what the heck the color green had to do with the Trinity… I was also thinking of all of you, who I hadn’t yet met and I also began missing my own daughter… I just started thinking about how incredible and strong and resilient the girl spirit is yet how many troublesome obstacles still exist in our world that make life so hard for too many girls. In a prayerful moment, the word “evergreen” popped into my mind…
Evergreen… take a moment to just look at the green on the alter… green is a symbol of new life and God’s creative presence in the natural world and in each of our lives… things die and decay but there is a regenerative and restorative energy in the world that brings new life out of every season and struggle. Hence my title “3-in-1 Evergreen Girls Co-Creating with God” which conveys that we are all meant not just to believe in God but also participate in the loving activity of God in our world… The only way we can even consider this topic is because there is something Godlike and evergreen within each of us as females. One of my favorite verses is John 15:5 where Jesus said “I am the vine and ye are the branches.” Some scholars say in this he was saying “I am that I am”—YHVH—is the Vine and we are the branches. Each of us is a unique creation that is literally, breath by breath, being created, moment by moment by God’s divine presence in the world. Each of us has a “God seed” planted within us that is here to bloom and green and grow into something beautiful and strong.
The name of the organization I am here with means “image of God” as it appears in the Bible. In many places in Scripture we see God as the Holy One of creation—singular yet also as a mysterious creative “we”… Right in Genesis 1we see YHVH Elohim hovering over creation saying “Let us make human beings in our image, to bear our likeness. Let them have dominion over the birds and the fish and the whole earth…” This word “dominion” is often seen to mean ruling or dominating in a king-like top-down sort of way but my understanding of the world means something closer to lovingly caring for and co-creating with God. What more of a gender equality statement do we need than these first verses in the Bible? Yet a lot has happened since Genesis 1… Somewhere along the way male dominion, really male rule came to replace the shared dominion of Eden and girls and women over the centuries came to be seen as possessing a low status which we still trying to recover from today… Yet deep down as girls and as women we still have a need to see ourselves as like God, as possessing honor and worth. We too want to wear a crown, do we not? Why? Where does this come from when society often says otherwise?
Amazingly despite the highly patriarchal culture in which this was written where the social norms treated females as equivalent to property, there is a surprisingly plentiful storehouse of highly dignified female images for God in the Bible. Throughout the Bible, God is revealed through a tapestry of names and images most of them rooted in the natural world which reveal different aspects and qualities of God but the one that stands out in this tapestry is not male or female but rather both: a Creator who is lovingly giving birth to all things. Last I checked in both biology and the natural world, you cannot create with the masculine alone! You need both the masculine and the feminine, don’t you? That is not to say that we are not each whole and complete in and of ourselves, but the creative process needs both the masculine and the feminine to bring life into the world. There is something unique and powerful that you as a girl have to offer the world! This is because we are all made to reflect God’s image in our world. Yet we can call God an inanimate object like a rock or a river but it almost considered heresy to refer to God as a she or as a mother in too many of our churches. That this plural “We” hovering over creation has over the course of Christian history come to defined as three He’s—a divine fraternity—is one of the biggest travesties of the church and has created much harm not only to the human family, but I would also add to how we conceive of God. Without the feminine and maternal side of God, we are left with a God who sits like a king on a throne in heaven and who feels remote and separate from our earthly day-to-day experience.
To honor the fullness of God and to experience this God more intimately, we need to recover the more intimate and nurturing female face of God that lovingly peers out at us throughout the pages of the Bible and throughout the creative vitality of the natural world. In the original Hebrew, God is in fact portrayed creating and redeeming and sustaining the world as both a “he” and a “she” and yet beyond these terms and is often in highly graphic bodily terms like a womb and breasts! I don’t have time to read all the female images of God in the Bible but here are a few:
Deuteronomy 32:18: “Forget not the Rock that bore you; the God who gave you birth.”
Isaiah 66:13 God: “As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you; you shall be comforted in Jerusalem.”
Isaiah 49:15: “Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you.”
Isaiah 42:14: “For a long time I have held my peace, I have kept myself still and restrained myself; now I will cry out like a woman in labor, I will gasp and pant.”
Hosea 11:3-4: “Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk, I who took them up in my arms; but they did not know that I healed them. I led them with cords of human kindness, with bands of love. I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks. I bent down to them and fed them.”
This type of fierce bond of love is just not conveyed through the name father or the male names we use. Is it? Is there not something primal and fierce and yet knowing and intimate about the maternal bond that goes right to the heart of God? Throughout the Bible, God is also portrayed as a mother hen who gathers her chicks in her nest, an eagle who “hovers over its young, and spreads her wings to catch you, and carries you on her pinions” and my favorite in Hosea 13:8: “Like a bear robbed of her cubs, I will attack them and tear them asunder…”
My kids have seen this mother bear come out from time and watch out, she is a force to be reckoned with!
The plurality that we have over the course of Christian history come to conceive of as the Trinity is same God that said “Let us create humankind in our image, male and female alike and who came to be seen by the Hebrew people as both a mother and a father-like creative and restorative force of love in the world. Let me just read two more which beautifully show this more mystical gender-balanced view our Creator:
Psalm 123:2-3: “As the eyes of a servant looks to the hand of their master, as the eyes of a maid to the hand of her mistress, so our eyes look to you, YHWH, until you show us your mercy!”
And from Job 38: How fathered the rain? From whose womb comes the ice?
You don’t have much ice here in your climate but i assure you it is a beautiful creation to behold! We had one of the worst winters this past winter and these big beautiful icicles formed from our windows that looked like massive dangers. But the grass turned green again and the flowers started blooming! In the Spring, you feel a beautiful female presence in the beautiful flowers blooming and the vibrant creation all around. In the Bible too over and over, we see God portrayed in a beautiful balance of both masculine and feminine word-pictures but also totally beyond gender.
God’s “first name” YHVH—I am that I am, I will be what I will be—is so sacred and mysterious that it is above and beyond any image or gender. Yet it is often paired with other names which show God as a plural “Us”—Elohim which appears in the first chapter of Genesis that we read—“let Us create humankind in our image, male and female alike… which right in the beginning of Scripture we see God having both a masculine and feminine energy coming together to create the world… we see this in nature, we see this in our own bodies, God is birthing all things into being through a masculine and feminine creative energy in the world. This is such good news that has been hidden by a massive burqa for way way way too long, the God we worship is not three He’s.. the God we worship who is creating and redeeming and sustaining our world and each of us is mysteriously reflected in our girlies and our bones yet is beyond each of these.
We didn’t have time to read all of the Scripture, but throughout the Bible, God is portrayed as many feminine images: a mother nursing and weaning her baby, a womb birthing creation, “El Shaddai” the “breasted one”, a mother hen gathering her chicks, “Shekinah” glory a feminine radiance hovering over creation, and “Ruah” the “breath of life” breathed into each of us, breath by breath. All these show us the female face of God that is also mirrored in our mothers and ourselves. In fact, there has been a minority tradition in church history that has portrayed the Holy Spirit in the Trinity as female. The father and the mother spirit giving birth to the son…
If you read the Bible in its original language, Hebrew, you see YHVH not as a masculine diety of three He’s but rather as a mysterious yet knowable Creative presence in the universe who is creating the world through both the masculine and the feminine and who is reflected in our very humanity. Really, is this not basic common sense? Let’s check in with our own inner knowing here and our own knowledge of biology and the natural world. How is Life created? It does not just generate on its own, does it? It is not just created by men, is it? Or male animals and plant forms? No! It requires both male and female… Basic creativity 101 says that life comes into being with both masculine and feminine yet over the years men have interpreted and translated the Bible and much of this imagery and the hundreds of names used for God are lost in our English translations. This has done a disservice to girls and women but also to men and boys and I would add to our Creator. All of us deep down need to know that we are like God and God also seeks to be revealed through each of us in our maleness and femaleness and in all of our our uniqueness. God also has a unique call on each of our lives to be co-creators! God is that still small voice nudging and sometimes nagging us to do something in the world. God does not want us to passively just obey what others tell us to do. All of us were created to exercise dominion but in too many churches and cultures we have ruptured this “shared dominion” in place of exclusive “male dominion”. This is not only harming the bodies, minds and spirits of girls and women but also the whole of creation which groans for the gender-balance of Eden.
Now don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that God is a boy or a girl or a man or a woman. Or that it is wrong to pray to God as Father, Son, and other masculine names. We are all made in God’s image so male reveals something about the character of God just as female does. The story of how the feminine was banished from our Christian language of how we pray and talk about God goes hand—in-hand with a long sad and violent story of how a social system called “patriarchy”—which means “rule of fathers” came to prevail in our world. We don’t use feminine imagery for God today in my church on the other side of the world or in yours because at some point long ago, thousands of years ago, an erroneous idea crept into the Christian mindset that female bodies are unclean, female minds are inferior, and female hearts are depraved and source of evil in the world. This is too long a story to tell now… What I am saying is not just some intellectual thing, it actually impacts how we relate with God on a personal level, how we perceive our place in the world, and how we feel about ourselves. There is an intrinsic dignity deep within all of us that already knows that we are in some mysterious way like God… Like a daughter who is the apple of her mother’s eye, we each long to be loved and known in raw form, not because of anything we do or achieve but simply because…
The God we see in the Bible is One, there is only one God no matter what we call this God! Yet this God cannot be contained in any one name or image. God is a mysterious Presence above and beyond our mind’s capacity to name and label yet is revealed through a plurality of images, symbols from nature and human faces. The number three is a sacred number and is a number that reflects something about us as humans and also about God. Body, mind and spirit, three parts to our humanness yet each of us is still just one person. So too God can be conceived of as a plurality yet a oneness. We can conceive of these three parts in different ways. “Father, Son, Holy Spirit” is what we typically say but we can also pray to and name the Trinity how I prayed earlier: “Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer.” God creates, redeems and sustains each of us breath by breath. These terms I believe are more in keeping with the original Hebrew language which we hold to be sacred. I do believe it is idolatry to reduce God to human images and I do believe we have done that by masculinizing God and reducing our Creator to an all-male fraternity. The God of the Bible is way more mysterious and beautifully gender-balanced than this! We need to reclaim the fullness of God form our patriarchal language.
So what really does the color green have to do with the Trinity? And with you and me? And what does being a girl have to do with all of this? I encourage you to ponder this on your own. Real faith, is way more than a pile of beliefs and doctrines. Real faith is okay to ponder and contemplate but not have it all figured out in our minds. Real faith awakens in our real lives as an interior felt knowing, a connection with the mystery of Life, something that cannot be fully explained but is still very real.
For most of my life, I have had beliefs in my head about the Trinity and these beliefs really had nothing to do with me or how i really really really know this Reality we call God. I grew up with a wonderful father and mother who loved me unconditionally but to be honest for much of my life this Father/KIng God I heard about it church seemed up there somewhere in heaven not very present in my life. Being a mother, and in particular, having a daughter, has awakened this more intimate knowing myself as seen and known and loved-in-raw-form by a Divine Presence which feels very maternal to me… The way our mothers love us is different from fathers, isn’t it? My mother always said the closest thing to divine love is a mother’s love… it is true! The crazy love I had for my babies is one where I see myself in them and I love them as myself… when I am loving them I feel myself as a Vine on the Branch of God. Where does this intimate oneness come from? It is with the very heart of God, one which is both motherly and fatherly and beyond both.
But more than what we call God, how can we know this creative, redeeming presence that hovered over creation in the beginning and gives birth to each and every living thing? I would argue that really knowing this God begins with knowing and loving that little seed, aka image, of God that dwells within each of us and yielding ourselves to the evergreen Spirit that flows through all of creation. Like a mother, God lovingly protects and hovers over that which She creates. Our Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer brings new life out of the dead, injured places in our lives. Sometimes we don’t need to do anything all, just open our hearts and receive the understanding love that God has for each of us. We don’t need to be perfect. We just need to settle into God and let God create and redeem and sustain us like a branch on the Vine. How we know God in this intimate, transformative way cannot be taught to us by others but really awakens from within, like a little bud opening on the branch of a tree. When we fall down, like a mother, our God picks us up and nurtures us at her breast. Others can share from their own experience and help point the way to God, but no one is an expert on God. Even the great fathers of the faith made mistakes and one of the biggest is how they viewed females as unclean and inferior and meant for subjugation. is it no wonder with the low view of women they had that they couldn’t conceive of God in female terms?
We all must seek and find ourselves as branches on the Vine of God. As girls growing up in the Christian tradition, I encourage you to listen into your own hearts and life experiences and allow yourself to look with your own eyes for God within the Bible and within God’s revelation in all of life. The Bible is not the only place where we can meet God. The Bible itself is not an encyclopedia or book of answers and rules but rather is a Story of how ordinary people, fallen and imperfect as we all are, are created to awaken and grow to become a unique creation of God here to do our part co-create and restore our broken world to make it more beautiful and good and kind.
Over the years, I have heard so much talk about the Trinity but I have to say this is a sermon I wished I had heard when I was your age. Our church tradition has so much wisdom to offer yet everything you hear from any pulpit you need to check in with your own heart and say “hmmmm, does this ring true with my own heart’s inner knowing?” Does this belief or practice fully honor my femaleness as an image of God created with a high calling to co-create and restore our world back to its original wholeness.
You might have forgotten this somewhere along the way, but you came into the world as a trinity made in God’s image, body mind and spirit, three parts yet one whole… a unique creation of God here with a unique purpose to fulfill… here to be part of God’s evergreen creation… here to keep growing and becoming the true self each of us is meant to be… here to co-create and restore our broken yet beautiful world…
Let’s end where we began: the color green. I honestly believe that this color reveals more about the Trinity than all of the piles of books written over the centuries about the Trinity and more than all of the words i have just shared. When you look at the color green this week, remember that the same creative life force that created and is creating the whole world is also at work growing and restoring you into the creation that God made you to be. And remember that this greening does not happen without the feminine force in our world. The world would not survive with girl power and the world needs each of us as girls and women to do our unique part to create and restore and sustain the good and beautiful world that we all seek.
I do not know your school very well but I have a feeling that this is what it is trying to do: help you all grow up to be strong and resilient and evergreen. Troubles will come, bad things can happen, and injustice is way too normal but can not be blamed on God. We humans have screwed it up and we are harming each other. But nothing is ever separate from this evergreen creative love that fills our world. God is growing and restoring all things, even the most broken and despised. Each of us—body, mind, and spirit—is always connected to the Vine. We just forget at times. That evergreen creative presence that fills our beautiful world is always there inside of you. With this current of love inside of every cell of your body and in every breath you breath, you do need to fear. God is with you through the good and the bad and will keep growing you into an incredible woman of God here to do incredible things, big and small, to co-create the more kind, more just world we all seek.
Let’s close in prayer:
Thank you God our Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer for each girl here. Thank you for your evergreen love in each of their lives that is continuously creating each girl and lovingly redeeming and sustaining her. Be near to each girl here. Like a mother protecting her cubs, surround and protect each from harm. Help each one to be strong in the face of challenges and speak your still small voice into the depths of their fear and their hopes and dreams. Let each one know that she has a high calling to be all she can be and grow and create with you. May they each—body, mind and spirit—know and participate in your evergreen love which is making our world more beautiful and kind.
In the name of the father, the son, and the holy spirit, one God, Mother of us all. Amen.
1 This prayer adaptation attributed to Julian Norwich, 14th c. Catholic mystic, is increasingly being used by churches who seek to gender balance their language while also maintaining the traditional trinitarian language.