Every year, following the week-of-weeks of Easter when we remember the resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ, and after the feast of Pentecost when we celebrate the inbreaking and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, the church acknowledges Trinity Sunday—the unity of God the Creator, God in human flesh Jesus Christ, and God the Holy Spirit.
The Bible never uses the word Trinity, but the Bible references God as creator, God as Jesus Christ, and God as Holy Spirit, so generations ago, we decided to call that the Trinity, the Triune God, meaning three person of God in one. Equal to each other, the Trinity is not a hierarchy. But how do the persons of God relate to one another? We’re not God, so we can’t say for sure, and we’re limited by our human imaginations.
What we can say is that God dwells within Godself as relationship. And as we are invited to follow Jesus Christ, to be baptized in the name of the Father and the name of the Son and the name of the Holy Spirit—you’ll hear these words again later when Finn Radley Gamewell is baptized!—we are invited to participate in God’s healing and saving work in the world.
We are part of the relationship, part of the body of Christ, part of the communion of saints that exists throughout space and time—some of the names of saints we’ve known remain visible under the water of the baptismal font here in the sanctuary, because the saints are always with us, especially when we gather for worship and celebrate the sacraments.
No one goes to baptism alone. Finn, who will be baptized today, definitely can’t go alone because he’s just a few weeks old. He needs his mother and father and big sister Gwen to bring him to the font. And he needs the congregation here to join him in supporting him and supporting their family as he grows in faith.
We’re not alone. The Triune God is with us, the saints who are remembered in the waters of baptism are with us, we are gathered here as a community, and friends—you need to know this—there are more people here than who we can see in this building right now. We have people joining us via livestream—can you turn around and face the camera and wave? We can’t see you exactly but we know you’re there. Hi y’all! Welcome!
And here’s what’s really amazing: the church is even bigger than that. This congregation belongs to the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, which is made up of Lutherans throughout the United States and the Caribbean, and within the entire ELCA are 65 synods organized geographically, and every one of those 65 synods gathers once a year for the purposes of doing the business of the church.
Who can tell me in what synod is our congregation, Gethsemane Lutheran Church in St. Louis, located? Central States Synod. The Central States Synod is the area including the states of Kansas and Missouri. Which is pretty much the geographic center of the United States, but we couldn’t name our synod after the state of Missouri because the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod is a whole other church with a whole different story, and I’m not getting into all that right now, so if you’re curious, ask me later.
But actually, it’s a good point to remember that our Lutheran siblings in the Missouri Synod confess Jesus Christ also, so we’re still connected through Jesus Christ, still connected to God, just as we are connected with Christians of many names and denominations throughout the world. The ELCA is merely one family within that larger Christian family. For better or for worse, we can’t get away from each other, and given the way Jesus is always talking about one-ness, I suspect Jesus wants it this way.
Because we are connected with the ELCA nationally and the Central States Synod more locally, we gather every year with representatives from every congregations around our synod to form the Synod Assembly. The Assembly gathers every year to elect officers and vote on a budget, as well as to connect with each other, celebrate successes and find ways to work together, and learn about how God is calling us in the world.
I just returned yesterday afternoon from this year’s Synod Assembly, held in Kansas City. The location changes yearly so that people don’t have to travel as far a distance to attend, and the synod works to equalize the cost of travel so that no one is financially burdened by the trip.
The theme this year was “All Creation Groans, All Creation Sings”—we talked about care of creation, and I picked up a few stickers with the symbol and the theme. Our keynote speaker was Professor Cynthia Moe-Lobeda, who teaches theological ethics at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary. She spoke about caring for creation and why this is theologically important. She pointed out that in the Genesis story of Noah and the ark, God made a covenant not with Noah but with the earth—humans are entrusted with the care of creation, not just using creation to serve our own needs.
Dr. Moe-Lobeda also spoke about the theology of an ancient church father, Irenaeus of Lyon, who spoke of humans as “mud creatures” because in the Hebrew language, the name of the first human, Adam, comes from the Hebrew adamah, which means “dust creature.” So theologians in the same era of Irenaeus of Lyon, they would speak of humans as dust creatures. But Irenaeus saw the importance of the “dew of the Holy Spirit” dispersed throughout the earth, and as creatures who are baptized, we remain wet with the dew of the Holy Spirit, so that makes us mud creatures. Parents of little children, consider this the next time your child comes to you covered in mud—they’re embracing their identity as children of God, mud creatures! Irenaeus of Lyon would be pleased.
But Dr. Moe-Lobeda also spoke about how our human actions affect creation, in terms of pollution, habitat loss for animals of the earth, climate change and rising temperatures. Someone asked about where to get good information measuring the effects of climate change, and she had some excellent suggestions: the Lutheran World Federation—through which we are connected with Lutherans throughout the whole world—works to communicate the effects of climate change on the most vulnerable populations and people on the margins of society; in the United States, there’s a National Climate Assessment that our government puts together to reference how climate change is affecting our nation, and even our Department of Defense has identified climate change as a matter of national security; and international governmental organizations have worked together as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to produce a report, which is lengthy, and she commends the executive summary.
Why does all this matter? Dr. Moe-Lobeda asked the ethical questions regarding decision making on behalf of creation: who suffers and who benefits? Whose voices are heard and whose voices are not heard? Who has power and who does not? She called these the “reality-revealing” questions that can guide our thinking about how to address care for creation. And she asked the bigger questions that bring this down to our individual level: if we really believe that Jesus’s promise that God lives and works in us, what will we do to help creation? And what’s getting in the way of your doing that?
I took notes as Dr. Moe-Lobeda spoke, because that helps me to concentrate on what’s being taught. I also tore a piece off my paper because I discovered I was sitting next to a pastor whose name I have long known and with whom I’ve been connected on Facebook for many years, but we had never met in person. So I passed her a note to introduce myself. This is another important facet of the Synod Assembly—connecting with other people around the synod. This was the first assembly to meet in person since 2019—in 2020, there was no assembly, and last year in 2021, the assembly was held on Zoom.
Another function of the assembly is voting—here’s my nametag—and the assembly elected some representatives to the Synod Council, which makes decisions on behalf of the Synod in between assemblies, and the leader of the Synod Council is Vice-President Nancy Nagel, elected in 2019, and also Bishop Susan Candea. Bishop Candea is a gifted preacher, as she preached at the opening worship, and a gifted administrator. She led the assembly yesterday morning through a meeting with 258 voting members—made up of 161 lay people and 97 rostered leaders—and she efficiently guided discussion on some resolutions. I can tell you more about these later but one of the resolutions is to recommend congregations participate in a season of global awareness to learn more about our companion synod relationships with Lutheran in other parts of the world, including the Lutheran Church in Papua New Guinea and also the Lutheran church in the Eastern part of Russia. Congregations are also encouraged to learn about how to welcome LGBTQIA+ people through the grassroots ministry of Hearts Across the Heartland, which will provide teaching and resources, and also we’re encouraged to consider how to lessen our environmental impact through greenhouse gas emissions. There’s a lot to learn!
I got to attend a workshop led by Pastor Noni Strand, who works with an organization called Lutherans Restoring Creation, and also Jacob Spilker, executive director of Camp Tomah Shinga, our synod’s camping ministry site. Jacob spoke about the importance of summer camp for teaching children to love and care for creation—he showed a picture of a smiling camper who attended camp for the first time last week and came to him saying “Jacob! This is way better than my tablet!” Which is high praise.
Pastor Strand also led us in a prayer using dirt from her garden, to say a blessing and give thanks for the earth that God has provided. It matters that we put our hands on the soil and on plants sometimes—some of you do this naturally and others of us are still trying to learn. The way we speak about creation in worship and in our prayers can open our minds and our hearts to how God is working.
And Pastor Strand preached in closing worship about how seven years ago, this Central States Synod Assembly voted to acknowledge Lutherans Restoring Creation as a ministry partner, and now here we are with creation as the theme for the assembly. She gave thanks for how Jesus is the vine and we are all connected. She invited us to take home the table decorations—every table in the hotel ballroom had a small plant, so I got this one: a symbol of our connectedness to other congregations and ministries within the Central States Synod. I’ll ask one of our garden volunteers to plant this outside, where I pray it will flourish. But even if this one plant doesn’t make it, there are many many ways we are connected with each other.
Going to Synod Assembly is always a “spiritual high” for me because my soul is fed by community, gathering with others, and worshipping and praying together. It’s not an easy discipline, but it’s worth it to listen to one another, to practice being in community even when we disagree, and to commit to loving one another. If the church—commanded by Jesus Christ!—cannot learn to love one another, then how in the world is that supposed to happen? If Lutherans who tend to be scared of conflict can’t learn to love each other, what kind of witness is that to the rest of the world? We are thus called to practice unity and love in our discussions and in our listening and learning—this is indeed a powerful witness to all that God can do.
As a way of honoring the theme of creation care, our group from Gethsemane rode together in one vehicle to Kansas City: me and Carolyn Schainker, driven by Matthew Christian. They’ll be here in worship sometime soon to report on what stood out to them about Synod Assembly and how it has energized their faith to see themselves among the gathering of the faithful. We’re not in this work alone—thanks be to God!