Trinity Sunday 2019
The Rev. Dr. Kathy Dunagan
Grace Episcopal Church, Radford, Virginia
I once counseled a man who told me that he was “raised in a very conservative Christian home and church.” I’m not sure what that meant exactly, but it was something he went on to tell me that he wanted to leave in the past, something harmful in some way, something he wanted to “recover from,” as if his faith practice had been like a harmful addiction.
He told me that the fathers of this past church experience told him that the key to faith is to be able to claim, on a personal level of faith the phrase “I know, that I know, that I know.” These elders from his past church then pressured him to speak these words aloud and wouldn’t stop hounding him until he sounded convincing. Then he told me that he left that church and had come to believe, in his nearly thirty years, that he more values the mystery of Grace than a theology of certainty and that he was struggling to learn how not to “know” so much.
Well, I figured I knew all about what he meant by living into a faith built on God’s Grace and mystery. But I was left pondering what it would be like to personally claim the phrase, “I know that I know that I know.”
I imagine for those first followers, who actually witnessed the Resurrected Lord and the Ascension of our Lord, those men and women who were present at that Day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit blew the knowledge of God not them, these who were so blessed, who didn’t have televisions, iPads, laptops, or Google. I imagine for them it was merely a memory they carried for the rest of their journeys. They knew that they knew that they knew because they had stood there and heard Him in person ask God in prayer “That they may be One.”
I wonder if most of the Church feels that we have wandered so far from that sort of certainly that we must at all cost recreate it. Like we have to be certain of what fits inside the box in which we keep God and we must live according to the rules and conventions that hang on that box.
Yesterday, I watched one of those “get a tissue” videos on social media where the whole team cheers on a disabled kid. In this one, a small framed person (gender unknown) clearly makes a hit from Home Plate and begins to run toward First. They don’t exactly run though. They seem to have cerebral palsy or some other cause of weakened legs and so they sort of hobble toward First. All the umpires, and the entire home and away teams run to congratulate them when they make it to First with high fives and hugs. And yes, I had to get a tissue.
I remember a time in my early life when most people around me, well mostly adolescents, ridiculed anyone who was disabled. It was a time when the word retarded was used by boys and girls frequently to indicate anyone who didn’t match whatever the image of the day was for the elite social bracket to which none of us could seem to gain entrance. Like we were all climbing over each other to get to nowhere. And those “other” kids didn’t have a chance to even be themselves. So I’m gratefully thrilled by these feel-good flash mobs.
But, how can anyone do that without a faith community? Without a spiritual discipline based in some sort of prayer and sacrament?
It is something to be celebrated how far we have come if our children and grandchildren now clamor to be a part of lifting up those who are other-abled. And a big-time cheer that the R-word has been eliminated from the vocabulary.
But yesterday when pondering this video, I had questions. I found myself distrusting what I called in my thoughts “another sappy video of care-takers.”
I came to understand, many years ago the difference between merciful acts that are pure and faith based and an altruism in which crowds jump in to help in order to experience an individual (or collective) feel-good.
The line between this divide is very fine. Because, how can the kind of love displayed in watching kids act inclusively and compassionately be criticized? And I do not doubt their sincerity.
My criticism is not of those kids it is of the Church.
Maybe the young leaders among such acts of kindness got the idea from their home church, I hope so. But it seems to me that this has become a new type of church, the church of random-acts-of-kindness and it has become a discipleship of following that feel-good stuff and I think this new church is missing something.
Is it missing Jesus as Lord? Is it missing Common Prayer? Structure? A gathering space? An altar? Sacraments? Do feel-good flash mobs pray and discern God’s call before filming themselves giving alms in the marketplace? (Matthew 6:1-21) Is the discipleship of feel-good missing the Church?
John Philip Newell, who recently spoke in Blacksburg is a Christian scholar who leads spiritual pilgrimages on the Scottish island of Iona. Seekers from all walks of life travel far and wide to visit Iona and pray on her shores and walk the corridors of the ancient Abby there where early church mystics like St. Columba and St. Aiden prayed and wrote.
My prayer group has been studying Newell’s recent book titled, The Rebirthing of God: Christianity’s Struggle for New Beginnings. I highly recommend it.
This week we were working our way through a chapter in which Newell outlines all the ways we can and should reconnect with spiritual practice. This may all sound like new age hype but this Scottish Presbyterian minister is simply suggesting that we all re-learn how to pray.
He tells a story of a volunteer who came to Iona one season. Newell was leading the orientation and training of the volunteers when Julie approached him and told him she wanted to make sure he understood that she was agnostic. She understood that morning and evening prayer were part of their daily rhythm at the Abbey - and that she was expected to participate in this aspect of their community life - but she wanted Newell to know that she had no religious belief. He tells us that he respected her forthrightness and willingness to take on the full range of commitments. He said that he often noticed Julie during her tenure at the Abbey, working hard in the housekeeping department and showing up for prayer. At the end of her seven weeks, Newell met again with her for a review. When he asked her what had been the most memorable aspect of her time on the island, she said it had been communal prayer in the Abbey. “I am still agnostic,” she said, “but I really loved morning prayer.”
Now, that’s a different kind of inclusion.
Newell tells another story of a catechist, a person going through the classes to become a Chrisitian in the Greek Orthodox Church. The catechist got to the part about learning the Nicene Creed and told his teacher, a monk that he just couldn’t say those words because he wasn’t sure he believed them. The monk didn’t threaten to kick him out or force him to participate in the ritual. He simply offered this, he said, “That’s O.K. I’ll say the creed for you."
(Quoting Thomas Merton, Newell goes on) Spiritual practice is not about an idea or concept of God. It is about seeking the experience of presence. What Julie had experienced in morning prayer at Iona was a sense of presence. What was important was not her idea or concept of God. It was her existential accessing of something at the heart of life. Being in touch with that something at the heart of life affected the way she lived her life.
Julie remained in touch with Newell for many years. Newell says that he did not questioned her about her theological beliefs but his guess is that she is still more interested in knowing than knowing about, hat she is more interested in experiencing the Essence of God rather than holding particular beliefs about the Essence of God.
Today is Trinity Sunday, that dreaded day in the church when preachers everywhere are sweating out how to explain the Trinity. It is good to take a Sunday each year to ponder the Holy Trinity, to remember this doctrine in the history of the Church, it is good to struggle to comprehend the Trinity. But it is not a good thing to explain the Trinity.
One of my most valued mentors once explained to me that since the Trinity is technically unfathomable, most people tend to lean toward one person of the Trinity or another as they try to imagine what God looks like and that this changes throughout our lives.
Now, let me distill that down for you a bit. Three Gods in One God. Got it? Well, no. We get it on some level and then again, we can’t fully understand how three-in-one is possible. So, we tend to get an image of God like father, or creator, protector or top down authoritarian; or Jesus like brother, teacher, redeemer, or the Spirit - which I talked about last week as like water, fire, wind, or a dove descending. And we tend to go with that one image when we pray and discern God’s call for us as individuals and as a community. But there are as many images of God as our imaginations can muster and these images change as we grown in faith. And these images all fall short.
Thousands of years of Catechesis classes led by thousands of priests and deacons has included hundreds of awkward descriptions of the Trinity in order to at least get followers to begin to ponder this great mystery of the Church.
These lesson include gems like the fact that water can exist in three different states: liquid, ice and steam. Then there’s folks who call today, instead of Trinity Sunday, “Math Sunday” because, you know, only today one plus one plus one equals one. The Trinity is like an egg; white part, yellow part, shell. There are lots of images of triangles in all of this. And my favorite: the Trinity is like a fidget spinner.
If you ask theologians it gets more confusing because lots of fancy words are used in these descriptions like coeternal, consubstantial, pneumatology, soteriology, Christology and hypostases.
(Also, if you look up Trinity on the Urban Dictionary you’ll find that the word has come to be used by young men solely to indicate a girl named Trinity whom you fall in love with because she has all three of the most desired character traits: Trinity is smart, beautiful, and funny. But in this use of the word, the girl is also a heart breaker so boys hate girls who are Trinitys.)
So, I’m not going there. I’m not going to stand here in this pulpit on this Trinity Sunday and try to explain the Trinity to you.
It reminds me of the cartoon I saw last week. It was a two frame drawing. In the first frame, Jesus is ascending and looking down from about 15 feet up at some disciples who are standing on a hill looking up at him and he says, “So, you’ve got this, right?” and the disciples say back to the Lord, “Sure! Love your neighbor, forgive each other, what could go wrong?” Then in the second frame Jesus has moved on and the disciples look over their shoulders back down the hill at men in academic gowns, bishops’ miters and the like coming up the hill and the disciples say, “Oh no. Here come the theologians.”
Explaining the Trinity is dangerous and maybe even pointless.
Instead, let’s live into the mystery of this God who loves us unconditionally and live out the love as a message discerned through prayer and sacrament. And, yes, it does feel-good to live out this discipleship - sometimes. Other times it is work, and discipline and study and struggle and discernment. And we will never be able to say that we know, that we know, that we know. Rather, as Jesus said in this lesson from St. John, “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.”
So, let’s learn to wait for the Lord and let’s learn to listen to the Spirit and live into the loving mystery of this triune God.