Isaiah 6. 1-8
Some years ago I found a quote from a medieval professor of theology that I thought was worth remembering. Unfortunately, I can’t remember now who he was and I can’t find the quote anymore; but I remember his words. He stood before a class of budding theologians one day and said. “Nothing I can tell you about God is true”.
That sentiment lurks in the back of my mind pretty much every time I sit down to write the sermon for the week. It serves to remind me of the vastness and depth the story I have to tell; even while it also reminds me of the narrow shallowness of my own understanding is. This is, truly, an inconvenient truth.
And like I said, this thought is never far from my mind when I prepare to stand up here. I’ve never said it out loud before, though. But this is Trinity Sunday, and if anything, it is more true today most Sundays.
So this is where we begin: Nothing I can tell you about God is true.
Now I’m hoping that by the time I’m done you’ll understand why I’m saying this. But if you don’t, feel free to talk to me later.
1st Reading: Isaiah 6. 1-8 (Margy)
Within our Christian tradition, we have three high holy days, each celebrating an act of God on our behalf.
Christmas celebrates God’s willingness to become one of us—in the baby born in Bethlehem. Easter celebrates God’s willingness to suffer with us and the Divine power that overcomes even death. And Pentecost celebrates God’s willingness to stay with us; to be always as close as our next breath.
You might say we have a “trinity” of high holy days in our tradition—three holy days, each celebrating an aspect of how we experience God. I wonder if maybe that is why Pope Gregory IX, way back in the year 828, declared this Sunday, the Sunday after Pentecost, to be Trinity Sunday.
Anyway, he did; and so here we are almost 1200 years later on a perfectly good Sunday morning, still puzzling over this decidedly odd, yet surpassingly beautiful notion of who, and what, and how, and why God is.
According to Christian theology, we experience God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit—as 3; only they aren’t 3, they are 1; but sometimes they look like 3. You can’t see the 1 unless you see the 3; but if you only see the 3, or only 1 of the 3, you will never see the 1.
Why isn’t that perfectly clear?
To the best of my memory, which isn’t all that great even on a good day, I have never preached a sermon on the Trinity. This is partly because I don’t like preaching sermons on doctrines—and the Trinity is a doctrine; but mostly, I think, it’s because I’ve always felt too ignorant to say much of anything about it.
But I’ve been preaching for almost 20 years now. I’ve grown accustomed to my ignorance, so I don’t let that keep me from talking anymore. You may have noticed that from time to time. And besides, I’ve already told you that nothing I’m going to say this morning is true, so I thought I’d try to write something.
You can probably guess what happened.
Almost as soon as I started, I was in the middle Isaiah’s vision that Margy read a moment ago. Maybe you’ve been there, too. You know, when something happens—you catch a passing glimpse of the glory and grace of God—and you are undone; speechless. You’re like one of those angels—flying blind because your face is covered by your wings and you can’t get your footing because you feet are also covered with wings.
And then, suspended in the vision, helpless in mid-air, you realize all around you is the Holy, Holy, filling-the-whole-earth Holy Presence of God. “Woe is me!” indeed; for I am a man of unclean lips; and we are a people of unclean lips waiting—waiting for that hot coal from the altar to touch us and make us clean.
This is why I stay away from topics like the Trinity. In stead, I just read poetry, like the Psalm Phil is going to read for us now.
2nd Scripture: Psalm 29
The word “Trinity” is not meant to be descriptive of God in any physical way. We say that God is 3 and at the same time is only and ever 1. And we say the only way to know the 1 is to experience the 3. But we aren’t, in any of this, saying anything about what God is. This isn’t the language of common sense and engineering schematics, after all.
Trinity belongs to the language of poetry and metaphor and mystery; the language spiritual seekers have always used to express the inexpressible. Poetry is how we see what can’t be seen with common eyes or touched with flesh and bone hands. This is David’s language in the psalm—
The voice of the Lord is power
The voice of the Lord is majesty
The voice of the Lord kindles flames of fire
Perhaps the very tongues of fire we saw at Pentecost last Sunday.
Two different people this week sent me the Tuesday edition of Richard Rohr’s blog where he talks about the language of mystery and metaphor. I want to share part of this with you because I think he offers a very useful guide to the language of Trinity—the mysterious language of the mystery that God is, an will always remain.
“Before 500 BCE, religion and poetry were largely the same thing. People did not presume to be able to define the Mystery. They looked for words that could describe the Mystery. (And that’s an important distinction. Definitions are concrete and certain. Defining God is what bad theology does. Describing the mystery of God is what inspired poets do).
“Poetry doesn’t claim to be a perfect description… It is a “hint half guessed,” to use T. S. Eliot’s phrase. (P)oetry seduces and entices you into being a searcher for the Mystery yourself…inspiring you to go further and deeper…Poetry does this by speaking in metaphors.”
And then he comes to the point: “All religious language is metaphor”. It can’t be anything else, you see. You can’t speak with hard certainty about the Divine.
Rohr says he has to teach this lesson to every new class of students—especially to the Protestants, who often want to read the Bible literally. Expecting to see God literally is, for many of us, the religious problem.
Good religion, he says, points you to a truth you can’t know until you experience it. You can’t tell the literal truth about God, you see. You can only speak about the mystery. And you can only speak about mystery through poetry.
The language of Trinity is a case where the words begin to make some kind of sense when you hear them as metaphor. Then, Rohr says, “the language resounds inside of you… (Then) it has the power to transform.”
I started out a few minutes ago by saying, “Nothing I can tell you about God is true.” Well, that maybe wasn’t entirely true. The poetry of Trinity—the metaphor of Trinity, that is, makes it possible to say something that at least points in the direction of what is true.
For me that starts here, with our 3rd Scripture reading. This is from the 4th chapter of John’s 1st letter:
“Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love…
“God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. Love has been perfected among us in this: that we (will) have boldness on the day of judgement, because as God is, so are we in this world.
“There is no fear in love; (this) complete love (the love that God is) drives out fear”. (Prayer)
This is as close to the truth as I can get:
God is love — one thing; just love.
For love to be one thing, though, it has to be, at the same time, three things—a trinity of things, if you will. Love needs a Lover. Love needs a loved One. And Love needs a means of conveying Love. Love can’t happen—love can’t be, without this simple trinity. And with these three, love becomes the one thing that it already is.
God is Love; the Lover, the Loved One and the Love expressed. In the language of Christian orthodoxy, we say there is a Father giving, a Son receiving and a Spirit conveying love—the 3 are 1 Love. To be more inclusive we might say there is a Parent giving, a Child receiving and something like a Mother’s love flowing between them.
Love is the flow — what Richard Rohr elsewhere calls the dance, occurring eternally among the Three. To have the One you need the Three, and when you see the Three—when you dance with the 3, you know the One.
This is poetry, remember. Don’t get mad at the poet. Don’t stumble over the metaphor or turn it into concrete. Live with it. Dance with it. Let this Love have its transforming way with you.
Our faith says there is God, there is Creation and there is feeling surging between God and the Creation. Faith says there is me, there is you and there is the relationship between me and you. And faith says there is us — the church, the Body of Christ, there is the world — our neighbors, friends and enemies, and there is the care, compassion and kindness that can and ought to flow among us; “Justice rolling down like waters”, the prophet Amos said, “righteousness like an everlasting stream”.
The best things in life, you see, are Trinity—this Love that is God. This Love that heals and repairs the world.
The One lives in Three and the Three express the One.
Trinity is the unity of care and concern for Creation; Trinity is the unity of health and wholeness for all people. Trinity is the promise that flows through Scripture from Genesis to Revelation.
And there you have pretty much everything I have to say about the Trinity on this Trinity Sunday.
I’ll leave you with this:
Don’t worry if this doesn’t make sense to you. I’m not sure it’s supposed to make sense. You’ve been invited to a dance; this isn’t a final exam for a college chemistry class.
So—dance. Let the music carry you away. Receive what God has to give and give it back.
Or give it away.
You can do this. There is no worry or fear in this Trinity love—this love that God is. This love drives out all our fear. Amen.
for God is love… I John 4.8
a Loved One
on summer hiatus