A holy mystery

This is the sermon I preached this week, Trinity Sunday, though perhaps I should say, “This is more or less the sermon I preached last week,” because I preach from the aisle without a manuscript or notes.  You can find the lectionary here.

Today is Trinity Sunday. As I was preparing to preach this week about a basic and foundational aspect of our Christian faith: God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, I realized that I have never identified quite as closely with Nicodemus as I do this week.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus is trying to explain a Truth to Nicodemus, who just is not getting it.  Nicodemus, who truly wants to understand, asks another question, to which Jesus gives essentially the same answer.  Still Nicodemus doesn’t quite get it and on it goes.  You can almost hear the pleading tone in Nicodemus’ voice and the frustration in Jesus’. You might wonder why it is that Jesus can’t say any plainer what he is saying, and why Nicodemus can’t understand what is being said. Because, like Nicodemus, we desperately want to understand what Jesus tells us because we know how important it is, it can be hard – really hard- to simply accept what Jesus is saying without really understanding it.

That is, my friends, a bit like I feel as I try to understand and then preach about the Trinity.  No matter how much I read, no matter how much I wrack my brains trying to remember all those discussions in seminary, no matter how much I pray, the Trinity is a bit elusive.  So, like any good Episcopalian, I head to The Book of Common Prayer to see what it might say…

In the “Historical Documents” section, beginning on page 867, there are the “Articles of Religion,” written in 1801 at our General Convention.  The very first item in the Articles is about the Trinity, which gives us a pretty good idea of how important it is:

I. Of Faith in the Holy Trinity.

There is but one living and true God, everlasting, without body, parts, or passions; of
infinite power, wisdom, and goodness; the Maker, and Preserver of all things both visible and invisible. And in the unity of this Godhead there be three Persons, of one substance, power, and eternity; the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.

And on page 864, in the ancient Creed of Saint Athanasius, it says, among other things:

“…we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity, neither confounding the Persons nor dividing the Substance…But the whole three Persons are co-eternal together and co-equal. So that in all things, as is foresaid, the Unity in Trinity and the Trinity in Unity is to be worshipped.”

Little wonder, then, that Trinity Sunday is a Sunday in which we preachers often try to come up with some pithy, easy-to-understand explanation of the nature of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  You’ve probably heard some of these:

  • there is the egg: the whites, the yolk, the shell
  • there is water: liquid, ice, vapor
  • another favorite is the shamrock: three leaves all part of the same plant.

While there is no denying these provide images intended to ease our understanding, there is also no denying that these do nothing, really, to explain the Trinitarian God.  In fact, they do lots to detract from our understanding because they are limited by our imaginations and language.  We humans tend to forget that the God we know and try so hard to define defies our human understanding because, quite frankly, God is God and beyond our full comprehension.

So I am going to forego the temptation to provide an image of the Trinity. I am going to acknowledge as I stand here as your priest and pastor that the best explanation I can offer, the most helpful to you and me and us in our faith formation, our lives as Christians, is to say, “The essence of the Trinity is a mystery, a holy mystery, but a mystery nonetheless.”

You see, as interesting as it may be, as important as it is, for most of us the question isn’t whether or not we can explain the Trinity. The questions that matter most to us as we live our lives is:

  • How does our faith in God always present prepare us and shape us each and every day?
  • How are we motivated and challenged?
  • How are we assured, comforted, and consoled?
  • Are we able to accept the invitation to move deeper into the heart of God?
  • Are we willing to let go of our human need for intellectual understanding to allow ourselves to be transformed?

The essence of the Trinity is a mystery, a holy mystery, but a mystery nonetheless.

One of the ways I understand God, the one Substance in three Persons, the Trinity in Unity, co-eternal and co-equal, is that God is transcendent, incarnate, and immanent.

God transcendent is beyond all human experience. This is God unfathomable within the confines of human understanding and imagination.  God who created us in the divine image and likeness, God who created us for no reason other than perfect Love, because God is God, who understands what is in our hearts and minds more deeply than we do, and recognizes our need for the incarnate and immanent to support our understanding.

Without changing the Trinitarian Godhead at all, the transcendent God became incarnate in the form of Jesus. Jesus lived with us, as one of us. Jesus showed us how to live as God would have us live. Jesus told us and showed us what it means to truly love one another, to be willing to risk some or all of what we think is important to live in the ways that are truly important. Jesus lived to invite us into relationship with God in the ways that are truly life-giving, life-affirming. And Jesus died for us, not so that we would idolize or emulate his suffering, but so that we would understand the depth of God’s love for us. Jesus showed us by his human sacrifice that God’s love knows no bounds, no conditions. God loves because God is God.

As God had done since the dawn of time, Jesus promised us that we would never be alone. The Holy Spirit is God immanent, assuring us that God keeps God’s promises, and that we are never alone, God is always with us, working in and through us. We are graced by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. We are continually and constantly invited to move deeper into the heart of God.

God has been, is, and will always be at work in the world at all times for all time. Jesus, the man, lived in a particular time in a particular place with a particular group of people. The Holy Spirit brings past, present, and future together in relationship with the one God.

Today is Trinity Sunday and we are celebrating the mysterious, confounding Trinitarian Godhead, who is known to us through our faith. We are celebrating the promise God has made, makes, and will continue to make to be present in the world, to be present with all people, for all time, in ways known and unknown, obvious and less clear.  And we are celebrating our heart’s desire, our willingness through our faith, to accept the grace that is the Trinity and to honor the gift that is our transformation.



On love

This is the sermon I preached last week, the Sixth Sunday of Easter, though perhaps I should say, “This is more or less the sermon I preached last week,” because I preach from the aisle without a manuscript or notes.  You can find the lectionary here.

A seminary colleague once said, “I hate to use the word ‘love’!”  She said this in response to another colleague who was talking about something, I don’t remember what exactly, and who said, “I just love …!”  To say that the rest of us were surprised is probably an understatement.  Shocked. Astonished. Speechless.  Those are words that begin to describe our initial reaction as we held our collective breath, waiting to see what would come next.

When the first colleague saw our reactions, she explained what she meant, which I will say did help quite a bit.  She went on to say that she thinks the word “love” is overused and so we have lost sense of what it means.

I think about this fairly often.  I am one who tends to use the word to describe my affection for things I like a lot.  You’ve probably heard me use it a time or two, perhaps in connection to something yummy, like hot fudge.  It is an easy word for many of us to use.  It kind of rolls off the tongue, if you’re in a hurry to say what you want to say: “I just love it!” You can savor the moment: “Thank you so much.  I loooove hot fudge.” Folks who are listening understand what you mean.

And yet my colleague was right.  We do run a danger of losing the full meaning, the potential impact, when we use a word too often or without thinking about the fullest of its meanings.

Today’s lectionary is all about love.  The Collect, the Epistle, and the Gospel talk about love.  And not in the way that I stand by my statement about loving hot fudge.  They are talking about love in the greatest sense.  The love God has for all of us.  The love Jesus showed us up close and personal, as it were.  The love that Jesus says we are to share with one another.

This is love in the most unimaginable, indescribable, and unconditional sense.  It is not an easy love, as is my deep enjoyment of hot fudge.  It is a love that often is not easy at all.

I talk to people all the time about their relationship with God.  I often find myself asking if there is any room in their heart or their mind for them to believe that God loves them.  And more times than I can count, the answer is “No” or “I’m not sure.”  When I ask if they can tell me more about that, the answer almost always is some version of “I’m not good enough.” Or “I don’t deserve it.” Or “How could God begin to love someone like me?”

It isn’t easy, sometimes, to believe that God could possibly love you all the time, regardless.  It isn’t easy to wrap your head around the kind of love that is freely given and undeserved.  The kind of love that you can never do anything to earn and never do anything to lose.  The kind of love that is yours for one reason only – that God is God.

I get it.  I’ve been there.  And I think some of why it is hard to believe is that we try to understand it from our human point of view.  There are limits to trying to understand God from our perspective, using our experiences, using our language.  And yet, there are also examples that help to point us in that direction.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus says that we are to love one another the way he loves us.  Now, for those of us who did not live with Jesus the man, we cannot know first-hand exactly what that means, though the Bible gives us some really good, clear clues.  We are to understand love as Jesus meant it, as Jesus shared it with the apostles and disciples, and with all he encountered as he went about his life. This is love that means respecting each other, treating each other with dignity,  paying close attention to each other, taking care of each other.

Love in this way means doing whatever we can to ensure that all God’s people – everyone – whether we know them or not, whether we like them or not, whether we have lots in common or nothing at all, has everything they need to survive and to thrive.  This is the kind of unconditional love that says, “I will do all in my power to see that you have everything you need to live a good life, to flourish.  Through my care of and for you, you will have an inkling of what it is to be beloved of God.”

Now, I can think of a couple of examples that come close to this kind of love from my own life:

  • You probably have heard me say that I have siblings. I am the oldest of four children born within 50 months, which is basically the assurance of some phenomenal sibling rivalry and lots of bickering.  Add to that mix the fact that my parents were foster parents for a number of years.  For a couple of years, from the time I was 10 to about 12, I was the oldest of seven, with the youngest being six years younger than I.  (And, yes, I think my parents must have been saints.)

Now, despite all the ways we very creatively and imaginatively came up with to show each other we did not always like each other, far be it for any of us to stand by  and let someone else say a bad thing, or cause some kind of trouble for one of us.  In those moments, it became crystal clear that the love we shared as a family was far greater and far stronger than any of our child-like and childish squabbles.

  • I’m pretty certain that I am not the only parent or grandparent here at Grace who has said once or twice or a bunch of times to one of our children or grandchildren, “It’s a good thing I love you because I don’t much like you right now.” And this to a child I love so unconditionally, a child I would willingly lay down my life for without question or hesitation.

This is part of what my colleague was reacting to: the conflating of like, even liking a lot, with love.  And nowhere in the Bible does it say that Jesus told us to go out and like each other.   No.  What Jesus says quite simply (and repeatedly) is that we are to love one another as he loves us.  And that, my friends, is not easy.  In fact, it is sometimes one of the hardest things we can be asked to do.

Sure, I can choose to not spend time with someone, for any number of reasons.  I can choose to remove someone as a friend on Facebook or take their phone number out of my phone.  Those are the decisions I get to make based on whether or not I like someone or have enough in common to want to spend my free time hanging out with them.  But what I can’t do, what I must never do, is to ever stop wanting what is best for them, to ever do anything that even begins to suggest I don’t think they are good enough to have a good life or to know that they are beloved of God.  In fact, I am to do all that I can to ensure that no one goes without what they need to survive and to thrive, to have a life that gives them a glimpse of the immense and unconditional love God has for all of us.

This is not always easy.  There are times when it seems so hard that it is easy to wonder if it is possible, hard enough that we throw our hands up or cover our ears or close our eyes to the ways in which we confuse like with unconditional love.  But I’ll tell you, there is no better way for each of us to express our gratitude, for us to thank God for loving us even when we don’t think we are lovable, when we know we’re not likable, than to take seriously Jesus’ call to love one another as he loves us.