[Sermon preached on Sunday, May 27, 2018 (Trinity Sunday) at Saint Paul’s Church on Lake of the Isles – Minneapolis, Minnesota]
[You can find the audio of this sermon and more by checking out the latest episode of the Word Made FRESH Podcast].
Focus Verse – John 3:16
‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
There is a story told of a new bishop who was visiting parishes in her diocese. Whenever she would go into a parish, she would visit with the parish clergy and lay leadership, preach and preside over the Eucharist, and then, after shaking hands at coffee hour, she would disappear into the rector’s office to examine the parish register.
On one such Sunday, the bishop was visiting Saint Athanasius Episcopal Church and looking through the parish register when her curiosity led her to search back a few decades where she happened upon Trinity Sunday in the year 1960. It used to be the tradition to haze seminarians who were soon to be ordained by having them preach on Trinity Sunday and then to watch them squirm as they tried to impress their congregations with how well they thought they could make sense of the Holy Trinity.
On this particular Sunday, the rector noted that the seminarian had in fact preached, and, in the memo line, he wrote “many heresies professed.” The following Sunday, the rector noted that he preached, with the note, “heresies debunked, orthodoxy reclaimed.”
Doctrines get a bad rap, particularly in the age of a growing demographic who identify as “spiritual but not religious.” There are many reasons why people don’t attend church anymore – growing secularism, busy lives, dissatisfaction with the partisan politics too often preached from too many pulpits, and abuse of power at the hands of clergy to name just a few. Another reason people don’t attend church anymore is because they have a challenging time coming to grips with Church doctrine which too often feels inane and pointless.
Let’s be honest: Christian belief asserts some pretty wild stuff. A virgin birth. A dead guy rising from the grave and then being taken in heaven like some ancient version of Star Trek’s “beam me up, Scottie.” We even have weird math that says 1 + 1 + 1 = 1, not 3. It doesn’t make much sense and yet we shape our lives around these teachings. It can be hard to reconcile these teachings with modern thought, science, and what we have come to know about the universe.
It might also be true that we too often use doctrines the wrong way. Too often we, the Church, have used these doctrines to decide who is in and who is out instead of offering them as an invitation to a shared language of belief. The doctrines of the church, the core teachings that support our communal life of faith, are not weapons to be wielded against thought, doubt, and spiritual exploration; rather, doctrines form the map of our theological world. They give us a shared language and perspective. They enable us to make sense of our wonderings and our wanderings. In this vein Trinity Sunday, the only Sunday of the Christian year dedicated to a Christian doctrine, not an event or person, helps us make sense of God and how we are to relate to God and one another.
As with any doctrine, there are multiple ways we might enter it. But for today, I want to focus on one aspect of the Holy Trinity from which we might draw spiritual nourishment. The doctrine of the Holy Trinity reveals to us that we were created in the context of, out of, and for relationship. In the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, we see that it is God’s nature to be relational, that even before time first ticked on the distant shelf of eternity, God existed in relationship to God’s eternal self.
“In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the Earth…” God poured out God’s love into the container of creation in order to extend God’s will to relate. We were created to be loved. Rabbi Zvi Shapiro who taught a class in seminary called “Jewish Interpretations of the Hebrew Bible” suggested that the Book of Genesis might be best understood as a series of relationships initiated by God, relationships we failed to live into over and over again. Adam and Eve, Cain and Able, Abraham and Sarah – time and time again, God reached out to build relationship and time and time again we rejected God’s love and chose abuse, power, and domination.
Take a look around. The same is true today. Instead of relationships characterized by love, affirmation, selflessness, and equality, our world is plagued by relationships that deny human dignity. This is true at every level, from individual to global. The temptation to dominate, to insist on one’s own way, to insist on one perspective and one realty; the easiness with which we ignore one another, or silence one another, or dishonor one another; the times we forget to engage in deep, empathic listening and the times we refuse to allow ourselves to be taught by the wisdom of another – those are just a few examples of all the ways we are seduced away from the loving, mutually-affirming, selfless, non-abusive, non-dominating relationships for which we were created.
And yet, if we allow ourselves to be held still before the mystery of Holy Trinity, we can see how the Father, Son, and Spirit relate to one another. The relationships between the persons of the Holy Trinity can be understood using one word – hospitality, or space created for another. To be hospitable, to create space for another to be” requires movement, selflessness, and love. Saint Gregory of Nazianzus called this movement within the Trinity a “rotation.” I like to think of it as a dance, divine waltz of love out of which flows all of Creation including you and I. Whatever you call it or however it makes sense, when we hold ourselves still before this mystery, we see the perfect icon of loving relationship in its purest, most intimate, most power form. The Doctrine of the Holy Trinity is not a rigid system of incomprehensible prose. It is a poetic road map that describes God as the perfection of relationships and all of Creation, you and I, as the loving creations of the creatively-generative relationship.
What if all our relationships were characterized this way, by selflessness, hospitality, mutual-affirmation, honesty, equality, and love? What if this were true for every relationship, whether between two individuals like parents and children, coworkers, or colleagues or between communities that look different one another, believe or speak differently, or see the world differently? In the words of our Presiding Bishop last weekend, what if love, this way of life authored by God and shown by Jesus, were the way we each chose to follow?
Can you imagine that world?
I don’t know about you, but I’d sure like to. I’d love to imagine a world where each of our lives is filled with whole, healthy, non-abusive, non-dominating, non-possessive, mutually-affirming, self-sacrificing, creatively-generative, loving relationships. I’d love to imagine a world in which we are loved so well by one another that we cannot help but to love others just as well because if “hurt people hurt people,” then loved people can sho’nuff love people. And in case we needed help to start this love train, God already beat us to it. “For God so loved the world that God gave God’s only Son…”
The Doctrine of the Holy Trinity is, at its core, a doctrine of dynamic love. It holds us still before the reality each of us would do well to recover – deep, abiding, loving relationships. We are wont to squirm away, to assume that relationships are something – anything – else. Something easier. Something less demanding. But each time we refer to God who is Father, Son, and Spirit, we are affirming our belief that in healthy, whole, non-abusive, non-coercive, non-dominating, non-possessive, mutually-affirming, self-giving, creatively-generative relationships.
Those kinds of relationships are our duty and our destiny. Every person we meet is loved by God in equal measure. Because God can’t help but love. If only the same were true of us.