Sunday, May 22, 2016

A Field Guide to the Holy Trinity: Sermon for Trinity Sunday 2016

This is the sermon I preached at All Saints, Indianapolis, on Trinity Sunday, 2016 (Year C). Readings: Prov. 8:1-4, 22-31; Ps. 8; Rom. 5:1-5; Jn. 16:12-15. I pretty much ignored the readings but there's a lot of Bible in here anyway.

When I was a kid, our usual family vacation involved going camping somewhere: in the mountains of North Carolina, Montana, Wyoming, one night next to a stagnant lake in the woods of northern Wisconsin.

"It's secluded!" the lady at the tourist office chirped.

Indeed it was - we were the only ones there, and as the sun set we learned that the place had been forsaken by man, and perhaps God as well, and given over to the mosquitoes. It was miserable. The wolves started howling around midnight.

Anyway! These were mostly fun trips, and my M.O. in the pre-Internet, pre-smartphone, pre-Wikipedia era, was to seize the opportunity to be the family fount of knowledge. I would use my allowance money to buy as comprehensive a field guide to the local wildlife as I could find, so that on our hikes, whatever evidence we found of wildlife activity: tracks, nests, droppings, even occasionally the animal itself, whether it was bird, butterfly, moose, or bear, I would be equipped to tell you all about it. Its English name, its Latin name, its dietary preferences, mating habits, migratory patterns - all these fascinating details!

I could be an insufferable child.

It was, I'm afraid, in this same spirit, that after Mother Suzanne offered me the pulpit for Trinity Sunday, I, keenly aware that this Feast Day of the Holy Trinity is known less for celebrating and honoring the fullness of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and more for accidental heresy, incoherent philosophizing, seminarians and assisting priests deploying five-dollar words like "perichoresis" while trying to bring some life to the inevitable observation that "this is the only day the church celebrates a doctrine" - I thought to myself: challenge accepted. I'll show them what a layperson can do!

And I went out and bought myself a field guide. The Oxford Handbook of the Trinity.

One friend of mine suggested that I just read it to you. "Episcopalians love long sermons!" she said.

So, here we go: "As such, they are strictly speaking 'binitarian,' so long as we keep in view that the term is a weak one, meaning only that the Holy Spirit as a person of the Trinity requires extrapolation from within the same conceptual framework..."


Look, friends. When the Creed of St. Athanasius, arguably the finest explanation of the Trinity (you'll find it on page 864 of your prayer book), contains the phrase, "the Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible, the Holy Ghost incomprehensible" and that's supposed to be helpful - well, any hope of me explaining the Trinity is lost.

But- why is it that when Mother Suzanne is censing the altar, when the choir chants "Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit" all motion around the altar ceases, and most of us bow down?

Why is it, that when today, at the offertory, we sing hymn #370 - St. Patrick's Breastplate - an epic 3-page hymn that is nonetheless one of the greatest hits of the Hymnal 1982, we will do so with such enthusiasm?

Why is it, that when at the end of the Mass, the priest blesses us in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, we take that blessing into our bodies as we make the sign of the cross.


Well, for hymn #370, its just straight up a great tune, and maybe it needs no further explanation. Maybe we bow or cross ourselves out of habit, or because everyone else is doing it, and that's ok. Don't worry about it if that's your reason.

But someone started it somewhere. And that's not the sort of thing you do in service of a philosophical construct or lifeless doctrine.

The Trinity matters because it testifies to the statement that is at the very heart of our faith: that "The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us." That in his time on earth, Jesus was God in flesh and blood, living, breathing, eating, working alongside us, and sharing our fate, all the way through the gates of death.

But there are some strange things about that.

If Jesus is God, when, after his baptism, "the Spirit drove him out into the wilderness" - what Spirit?

If Jesus is God, on the night before he died, when Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane, "remove this cup from me, yet not what I want, but what you want" - who was he praying to?

And if Jesus is God, how can he pray, "not what I want, but what you want?" Shouldn't the desire be the same?

And if Jesus is God, how can he describe himself to his disciples at this very moment as "deeply grieved?"

And if Jesus is God, and he planned this whole thing out, why does he cry out on the cross, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"

Now, you don't need the Trinity to make sense of all this; early Christians tried to puzzle this out in various ways.

Some posited that God and Jesus were united in the flesh only temporarily, and that God vacated the premises before the crucifixion, meaning that the man who died on the cross was just some random dude - temporarily possessed by a spirit but returned to himself just in time to have one very bad day. Is that our God?

Some argued that Jesus's suffering and death were a sort of act - that Jesus wasn't even human at all, and only seemed to die - that this whole thing was some kind of weird object lesson in the form of an elaborate game of pretend. Is that our God?

And then there's the Trinity, the curious, confusing assertion of a single God, a single will, and yet three distinct persons. This is a doctrine born, as Derek Olsen puts it, of "the data" the first Christians gathered from their spiritual lives.

And its implication is this: that the incarnate Jesus can be trusted.

You see, this was no act. This was no elaborate ruse.

In the incarnation, the one, holy, and living God was with us. God the Son was fully God, and yet, fully human, was subject to an array of human limitations: the fear and doubt and agony while pleading in the garden, the pain and abandonment while hanging on the cross.

We cannot understand the Trinity, but I hope we can understand this:

When you look at this crucifix over the altar, see God the Son, the one God, dying at the hands of the empire.

When you look at this crucifix over the altar, see God the Father, the one God, whose heart is breaking.

When you look at this crucifix over the altar, see God the Holy Spirit, the one God, lighting a flame in the heart of the Roman centurion, and perhaps yours as well, to see through the death and despair of that moment to say, "Truly this man is God's son."

We may say that this day, the Feast Day of the Holy Trinity, is the day we celebrate a doctrine, but that is not the case.

Today we celebrate the fullness of God, the incomprehensible creator of all things, ruler of the universe, and yet comprehensible as one who knows grief and sorrow, self-sacrifice and death - and is possessed of a love stronger than death, a passion that reaches into the grave, snatching out its own dead self, joined to our mortal bodies - ashes, dust - and breathing into all of us, wounded creatures, wounded God, life anew.

This is our God: Father incomprehensible, Son incomprehensible, Holy Spirit incomprehensible, who is "worthy to be praised by happy voices, and to be glorified through all the worlds." Amen.