Sunday, June 03, 2007

Trinity Sunday C

Isaiah 6:1-8; Canticle 13; Revelation 4:1-11; John 16:[5-11]12-15

“In that direction,” the Cheshire Cat said, “lives a Hatter: and in that direction…lives a March Hare. Visit either you like: they’re both mad.”

“But I don’t want to go among mad people,” Alice remarked.

“Oh, you can’t help that,” said the Cat: “we’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.”

“How do you know I’m mad?” said Alice.

“You must be,” said the Cat, “or you wouldn’t have come here.”

So the preacher feels when she steps up to the pulpit on Trinity Sunday, the bejeweled and lightning-bright air still full of six-winged seraphs singing Holy, Holy, Holy, the words of Jesus still echoing as though across the sea of glass in that heavenly throne room, I have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now…So the preacher feels when she steps up to the pulpit on Trinity Sunday to say something, anything, about God who is Three in One and One in Three…I must be mad, she feels, as she starts in to preach.

It’s not that Episcopalians don’t believe in the Trinity – we proclaim our belief in the ancient doctrine week after week in our saying of the Nicene Creed: I believe in one God, the Father Almighty…I believe in Jesus Christ…I believe in the Holy Spirit…We invoke the Trinity at the end of psalms and prayers: O Father, who with the Son and the Holy Spirit live and reign, one God, for ever and ever…Sermons begin in the name of God who has made us, who loves us and keeps us (or some other Trinitarian formula)…We enter this community of faith when we are baptized in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit…More than 500 Episcopal churches are named Trinity, making it one of the three most common names for our parish communities.

We even have at the back of our prayerbook, in a section titled “Historical Documents,” a proclamation of faith in God the Three in One: We worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity, neither confounding the Persons, nor dividing the Substance. The Father eternal, the Son eternal, and the Holy Ghost eternal. And yet they are not three eternals but one eternal. The Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Ghost is God. And yet they are not three Gods, but one God. The Athanasian Creed, dating back to the 4th century, goes on and on like this. The Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible, and the Holy Ghost incomprehensible. And yet they are not three incomprehensibles, but one incomprehensible…to which Dorothy Sayers added, “The whole thing incomprehensible!”

The Athanasian Creed is just one among many documents and diagrams, metaphors and models, ideas and images by which Christians have tried to explain the Trinity, Creator, Christ and Comforter who are yet one God Almighty, who was and is and is to come. Cloverleaves, triangles, overlapping circles, fish swimming round, fleur-de-lis, abstract formulas, countless combinations of three names – Father, Son, Holy Ghost; Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer; Lover, Beloved, Love – they all point toward who and how God is, but lead us ultimately deeper and deeper down a rabbit hole where none of the usual rules or categories apply. Three and one. Trinity and unity. Separate and undivided. It’s incomprehensible. It’s madness.

While writing his own work on the Trinity, St. Augustine dreamed he was walking along the seashore. He came upon a boy engaged in the curious task of scooping up water from the ocean and pouring it into a small hole he had dug in the sand. The sand soaked up each bucketful, so that the hole was empty every time the boy returned with more water.

When Augustine asked the boy what he was doing, the boy replied, “I am going to pour the entire ocean into that hole.” Augustine laughed. “That’s impossible,” he said. “The ocean is too big, and that hole is too small. You cannot do it.”

Suddenly, the boy became an angel, and said to Augustine, “I have a greater chance of pouring the entire ocean into this hole than you do of understanding the Trinity.”

The beginning of understanding the Trinity, the first drop of the first bucketful of hope, is not in our heads, in finding the right rules and categories, the right images and words. Such an attempt is as incomprehensible, as mad, as trying to pour the ocean into a small hole in the sand. We cannot understand the One who is seated on the throne, whom creatures both earthly and heavenly worship and adore, casting their crowns before the throne, singing, “You are worthy our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created.” We cannot understand the One who is beyond any word or thought or image or name we could ever name.

But we can and do experience in incomprehensibly intimate ways the One who is so far beyond ourselves. God, from whose throne come flashes of lightning, and rumblings and peals of thunder, is also God who breathed life upon an infant creation, who breathed air as one of us, who is the breath that sustains our lives and prays for us with sighs too deep for words.

In the 14th century, Julian of Norwich experienced a vision of this divinely inspired and initiated intimacy, and in this relationship between God and creation, she came to know something of the Trinity. “[God] showed me something small,” Julian writes, “no bigger than a hazelnut, lying in the palm of my hand, as it seemed to me, and it was as round as a ball. I looked at it with the eye of my understanding and thought: What can this be? I was amazed that it could last, for I thought that because of its littleness it would suddenly have fallen into nothing. And I was answered in my understanding: This is everything that exists. It lasts and always will because God loves it; and thus everything has being through the love of God.

“In this little thing I saw three properties: The first is that God made it, the second is that God loves it, and the third is that God keeps and preserves it.”

God has been revealed to us in scripture and tradition as a God who not only acts in loving ways but who is in fact Love. As a God who not only calls us into relationship but who is in fact Relationship. As a God who not only permeates our lives but who is in fact Life.

We don’t have to jump down a rabbit hole to find the wonder and madness and mystery of the Trinity, for we experience love and relationship and life here, now, in this place, among those gathered here, and out there, in the vastness of the world, among friends and family and strangers. We experience something of the connectedness, the community that is the very essence of God who is Three in One and One in Three.

This connectedness extends far beyond those whose hands we can shake at the peace, those we tuck into bed at night, those to whom we can make phone calls when we have news to share. It extends beyond the woman we pass each day walking the same road we drive to work, the child at whom we smile when we wait behind him in the check-out line, the homeless person we see sleeping under the bridge every morning. This connectedness extends beyond the people on the coast who received the toiletries and shoes and notebooks we sent, beyond the people who live in harm’s way for whom we pray each Sunday, beyond the people world-wide who share our way of common prayer but not our way of living out the good news.

This connectedness extends also far deeper than our handshakes, our voices on the phone, our eyes upon the world, deeper than our skin that so easily separates us from others. One preacher marveled at what have learned from particle physics, that the atoms within us, as microscopically small as they are, are made up of particles littler still, and that around them is vast empty space. “Matter is not solid, but open,” she writes. Matter is not static but fluid. Perhaps Julian of Norwich was ahead of her time, a particle physicist when the smallest thing she could imagine was a hazelnut. Matter and energy last always, she might have written, because God made them and loves them and preserves them. And now in our time we have learned that the littlest parts of who we are were once in other places in this vast creation – matter and energy last always, and they dance through life, connecting all things to one another over time and space.

Perhaps because they, too, intuited something of the vastness within and around us, some theologians early in the life of the church began to speak of the Trinity as a dance, Three in One and One in Three going round and weaving through and rejoicing in a divine dance of perfect love, perfect relationship, perfect life. We cannot understand its motion, but we do experience it, for the divine dance does not take place in some far away throne room but all around us. One poet writes, “The universe of space and time did not arise by chance, but as the Three, in love and hope, made room within their dance.”

The beginning of understanding the Trinity is knowing that it is not a thing to be explained but, rather, a vast place in which all of creation is contained. God who made us loves us, and has taught us to love; God who loves us keeps and preserves us, and has taught us to dance. The beginning of understanding the Trinity is understanding that we are intimately connected to one another, to every other, in life and relationship and love. We are called to honor those connections, to nurture them, to keep and preserve them, to be not static but fluid, not solid but open. To the world, in which we separate ourselves, it sounds like madness, an incomprehensible calling. To God, in whom is perfect community, it sounds like a song.

Shall we dance?

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