Trinity Sunday, June 15, 2014

Even Though I Understand It About As Well As Oysters Understand Ballerinas, Here’s A Sermon About The Holy Trinity.

Matthew 28:16-20            
 16Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. 17When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. 18And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

Let us begin with prayer.  Holy God of wind and flame, we ask you to dwell among and within us.  Open our eyes and ears to the moving of your Spirit. On this day and each day of our lives.  In Christ, we pray.  Amen.

The Fountains Abbey in Yorkshire, England was founded in the 12thcentury and it remains a popular tourist destination. The official guide for the abbey reads, “Here the monks gathered every Sunday to hear a sermon from the Abbot, except on Trinity Sunday, owing to the difficulty of the subject.”[1]

In a sermon about the Trinity, Barbara Brown Taylor quotes one of her colleagues who says, “When human beings try to describe God, we are like a bunch of oysters trying to describe a ballerina. We simply do not have the equipment necessary to understand something so utterly beyond us but that has never stopped us from trying.”[2] 

Today, my dear friends, is Trinity Sunday, the day we attempt to celebrate, maybe, the Doctrine of the Trinity.  The Trinity isn’t really explicitly named in Scripture, but was a doctrine developed sometime later by a bunch of oysters.  I mean, theologians.  And some of us keep stubbornly trying, year after year, to understand the un-understandable mystery of One God who is also Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  And despite our best efforts, most of us just can’t pull it off. We are all a bunch of stupid shellfish when it comes to the complicated relationship that is the Holy Trinity.  

And worst of all, Trinity Sunday comes right after the happy celebration of the Easter Season, and the show-offy, fire-breathing Festival of Pentecost.  In comparison, a Sunday devoted to doctrine seems as dry and dusty as a bunch of old theology books in a seminary library.   Who wants to go the library on a sunny Sunday in June?  Maybe the people who put together the church calendar figured most folks would be off on vacation by now.  Might as well stick the Trinity sermon in on a day most people are off to the beach.

But here we are, definitely not at the beach, so I’ll tell you what has always been my real problem with preaching a doctrine rather than scripture.  Nobody outside the rarified air of theological inquiry gives two patooties about the Doctrine of the Trinity. People who have cancer or have chronic unremitting pain do not care about the Doctrine of the Trinity.  People who are homeless or hungry don’t care about the Doctrine of the Trinity. People who have lost a loved one or a job, or are worried about a sick child don’t care about doctrine either.  On our deepest, darkest, most needy days, does it really help us to know that Athanasius and Arius battled out the Doctrine of the Trinity at the Council of Nicaea in the 4th century to determine that God is both One and Three Persons –Father, Son and Holy Spirit?  Do we even care who won that battle?  Do we really want to learn that crazy math that says 1+1+1=1?

Unless you are a sucker for punishment, you probably didn’t come to church to hear dry doctrine.  You came for a little good news in a world that is mostly filled with bad. You probably just want to know that God is God, and that God knows who you are and what you need.   You want to know that Jesus loves you.  You probably want the Holy Spirit to blow you off whatever failure face road you happened to stumble upon this week and onto an easier path. Why should the Doctrine of the Trinity matter at all to people who show up in church with broken hearts and tired bodies?

It would be so much easier for all of us if knowing about God was as easy as learning the Nicene Creed by heart, but God continually defies our human constructions.  God defies our categories, always has, even at the very beginning in our text from Genesis this morning.

God does not say, “Let me make humankind in my own image.”  God says, “Let usmake humankind in our own image, according to our likeness.”  And already, we have a problem.  We have a plural problem.  Because the creator of the universe is not a “me” God, but a “we” God in community, and if we read Genesis carefully, we even begin to catch glimpses of the other two persons of the Trinity.  We see the immense power of the Spirit of God that hovers and broods over darkness. Then we see a piercing light that shines in the darkness and cannot be overcome by it, an image that is echoed in the Gospel of John and the light that becomes human flesh in the person of Jesus Christ.  The God of Genesis looks into a dark and frightening void, and sees something beautiful and hopeful: a creative force, a hovering spirit, and a penetrating light that cannot be overcome.  We see both the one and the three in this extravagant outpouring of love, a love so full that it creates a world, overflows into the world, and pull us into the very heart of the God.

What we see in Genesis is not a dry doctrine, but a story about relationships being created between God and creation, and within creation itself.  That is good news we can let seep into the bones of our dry, daily existence.  Maybe we can consider ourselves part of the creative dance of three in one that existed before time began and will exist forever.  Creator, Word and Wind.  A holy force to which we have been connected through our baptism.    A divine space in which we might live into the fullness of our identity as beloved children of God.

It all sounds good, this relationship stuff, until you realize that it is a far cry from the state of humankind.  At our worst, human beings are hopelessly polarized by race, nationality, religion, culture, class, political beliefs, and sometimes something as innocuous as zip codes.  Even when we are at our best, we are often unwilling to admit that we need one another or need God. Teenagers can’t wait to be old enough to no longer be dependent upon their parents.  As we grow older, we save for our retirement so we won’t have to be dependent upon our children.  I think people often put off marriage because they fear having someone need them, really need them, someone who can’t keep their distance, but even worse, may actually come to depend upon them.   Keeping a safe distance is a more reliable space to occupy.  Independence is something we consider admirable.  Self-reliance is very American.  Even in our supposedly connectional churches, we are often hard-pressed to make connections with our Christian brothers and sisters down the street.

Maybe one of the reasons the Trinity matters is because it shows us that the God we worship is not aloof and distant, but a God who seeks us out for relationship with God and relationship with one another and with the rest of creation.   Unfortunately, we often worship independence, not relationships.  Our craving for separation is, in fact, the root of what we call sin. 
I learned about “Love Wins Ministries” in Raleigh, North Carolina ( through some friends who know the non-profit’s director, Hugh Hallowell.  I began following Hugh’s blog about the ministry that includes a hospitality house which opens its doors five days a week to 70 or so people who need a place to go. On Saturday mornings, Hugh and his staff hand out breakfast biscuits to homeless people living in a local park. 
The staff of Love Wins knows every person they serve by name, making a point to refer to each of them not as a “client,” but as “my friend.” The goal, Hollowell says, is to build relationships because most people who live on the streets are there because they lack one thing that most of us take for granted — a social safety net to call upon.   Love Wins feeds people, but they are not a feeding ministry.Sometimes, they help people get job, but are not a job training program.  Maybe 10-12 times a year, someone leaves homelessness with Love Wins’ help, but they are not a housing ministry.
When I was thinking about why the Doctrine of the Trinity should matter to us even a little, I remembered what Hugh so often says in talking about what they do at Love Wins, “Homelessness is not an economic problem. Homelessness is a relationship problem.”  And I realized that most of what ails all of us are relationship problems.  I realized that the healings Jesus performed were not about curing a person of a particular illness or disability, but about healing broken relationships and restoring people to community.
This is what Jesus is doing in our text this morning from Matthew. Jesus gives us the Great Commission to go out into the world and baptize people in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Which means, really, to go out into the world and invite people into a connection with the source of all life and create space for them to connect to one another.  Because the Holy Trinity is our model of what it means to be beloved community.  The Great Commission sends us out into a world where, as my friend Jenn Frayer-Griggs says about her work on the South Side hosting The Table, “Everyone is hungry for something.”( What unifies us all across race, class, age, and every life situation from the homeless addict on Carson Street to the lady in Sewickley Heights who just received a breast cancer diagnosis is the need to be connected.  We need to be connected to the crazy, unfathomable, un-doctrinated Holy Spark of life that each one of us carry within us.  The same spark constantly fueled by the “ruach,” the breath of life that blew across the dark and formless void at the beginning of time.

We need to open ourselves up to the dance of the Trinity more than we need to understand the doctrine of the Trinity.  We need to experience the Trinity because without it, our faith becomes dried up and useless.  Without the Trinity, we are left with a God who sits in isolated splendor somewhere up in the clouds, useless and irrelevant and passionless.  We need the God who is personally involved, who understands our pain, and who is not somewhere out there, but a presence with us in every breath.   We need the God made known in Jesus — dynamic, involved, always relating, cherishing, shining, revealing, expressing, giving.  We need the God made known in the Spirit to move through us with every breath, whisper in our ear, surprise us, kick us in the rear end, and comfort us in our grief. That’s the kind of God we need when receive the bad diagnosis or when a beloved spouse dies or when the bank comes knocking on our door with a foreclosure notice or when a relationship we depend upon crumbles in our hands.   That’s the God who will slog with us through the terrible days and celebrate with us on the good ones.

So maybe the Holy Trinity is a dusty doctrine that I cannot preach or explain to you.   But the Trinity is a relationship that you and I can experience when we breathe in its love that is constantly poured out for us in this life.  And even unto the end of the age.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] Feasting on the Word. Year A Trinity Sunday

[2] Barbara Brown Taylor, Home Another Way, “Three Hands Clapping.”