Sunday, May 30, 2010

How Is the Trinity One?

Sheepscott Community Church May 30, 2010

Proverbs 8: 1-4; 22-31

Romans 5: 1-5

John 16: 12-15

How Is the Trinity One?

On this feast of the Holy Trinity, I am already feeling glutted, stuffed full of the rich food of the liturgical feasts we have been partaking of for weeks now––Easter, Ascension, and last week, Pentecost. And here we are at the table again, for one last feast that begins ordinary time. I think we could use some ordinary time to digest and decompress. But before I invite you into consideration of the uncertainty, the ambiguity, the mystery of what the doctrine of Trinity raises up for consideration today, I want to pass on to you a belated gift for Pentecost that was given to me this past week.

Jon and I have observed, as I imagine you too have observed, that the three nights of killing frost we had a few weeks ago––it was 28 in Whitefield on those days––wreaked havoc with a number of plants and trees. On our property, the oak trees, which are plentiful, suffered the greatest insult to their young and vulnerable leaves. Apparently they were at their most vulnerable, having emerged two weeks early at the invitation of the warm spring temperatures. Those frosts blasted the tender young oak leaves, which now are shriveled and brown. When Jon and I were walking the property on Tuesday, he wondered aloud whether there was some sort of regeneration mechanism that could cause new leaves to be made in this kind of traumatic natural situation, which could potentially threaten the life of the tree.

We looked up close at a low branch on a young tree, and wonderful to behold, there were the young pinkish-greenish-brownish leaves, about half an inch long, pressed against the branch like a baby to its mother’s breast, but clearly on their way to leafing out. Praise the generative and generous Lord of all living things.

Where there are the brown, shriveled remains of the tender, new green leaves killed by frost because they were prematurely out and vulnerable, there is now new growth behind them on the branches. What a cause for rejoicing. The immediate parallel I saw was Pentecostally related. The experiences of our lives, perhaps particularly those early experiences that may have wounded us when we were young and tender and most vulnerable, those experiences can be expressed as the brown and shriveled remains at stems’ ends. A shake by the wind of the same Spirit that blew into and through the upper room on the day of Pentecost can drop those dead remains and enable the sprouting of new life. It is never too late. Never––too––late. I have talked and talked about the Holy Spirit of God, as Paul does in this morning’s reading from Romans, where he says that “hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us. I hope that that image of hope that the new leaves represents will be gift and blessing to you as it was to me and that you will call it up when you may be feeling hopeless.

Now, back to the feast at hand: Trinity Sunday.

It’s not unusual to hear the word Trinity and its derivative Trinitarian in a religious context set in opposition to unity and Unitarian. The Unitarian affirms the “uni” or oneness of the Godhead, especially as opposed to the orthodox Trinitarian, who affirms three persons in one God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. For myself, I don’t see opposition. Let me share a few thoughts with you, and you can come to your own conclusions, as I’m sure you will without any encouragement from me.

I’m borrowing a page from St. Patrick here, which page you’ve heard me read before. Here we have the three-leafed clover. Our fields are full of them this time of year, as apparently were the fields of Ireland when St. Patrick legendarily strode those fields and hillsides converting Pagans left and right. St. Patrick used this humble clover or shamrock to illustrate that just as there are three leaves or petals on the clover, and yet it is one clover, one plant, just so there can be three distinct persons in one God, the unity and yet the individuality both uncompromised, all partaking of the same root of the Godhead. Seems to me that we have there Trinitarian––three leaves; on one plant––Unitarian. No division, although I’m sure that theologians would be happy to talk far into the night about the real divisions. My vision rather than di-vision of God is as one from many, many from one. Think about one tree with thousands of leaves on it. Leaves as one manifestation of the tree’s essence, preceded by blossoms as another; roots as another. All are different parts, but they make up the same tree, are part of the same tree.

What about us as part of families? Particularly as Westerners, we would never deny our individuality and would fight to defend it, but what about our DNA? Although we are unique individuals, we are directly related to our parents through our DNA. We are one with them, combined genetic copies of them, try as we may to deny it over time.

Here’s another possible way of thinking about the one and the many simultaneously, about how the three persons in God are yet one. Picture the biological process of mitosis, the means by which a cell reproduces itself. The nucleus of a cell divides by stretching the threads thinner and thinner. Those chromosomes come forward, line up in the middle of the cell, and divide there. They duplicate themselves into two complete sets of chromosomes and go to either side of the cell and the cell forms a barrier between them. Then they separate and form two cells, one identical to the other.

Or how about something as simple as a piece of bread? We slice off a piece from the loaf, and it is identical in nutritional value to the rest of the loaf, no less bread than the rest of the loaf is. Think about the loaf of bread we will have for communion next Sunday. All those pieces of bread we have individually in the communion, which sacrament Jesus had the wisdom and foresight to give us, all those pieces make up one loaf of bread. We are one, we become one in Christ, with Christ, when we partake of that loaf of bread that we name, that he named his body. One loaf, many pieces. One clover, three petals. One tree, many leaves thereon. Doesn’t this make the idea of three persons in one God seem accessible?

A certain measure of wisdom is needed to grasp the idea even as it flies from the hand that is doing the grasping. Last Sunday as part of her personal witness about Pentecost, Cyndi Brinkler mentioned that when she asked God to send the Spirit into her life, she asked for the gift of wisdom. In the reading from Proverbs this morning, Ted read the lines that have Wisdom personified speaking: “The Lord brought me forth as the first of his works, before his deeds of old. I was appointed from eternity, from the beginning, before the world began. I was there when he set the heavens in place ... when he marked out the foundations of the earth.” This is the wisdom available to Cyndi and to all of us. This is the Spirit of God, identified as Sophia or Wisdom, whom Jesus sends as he promised, and whose coming we celebrated last Sunday.

But that same wisdom was with God from the beginning, was the first of God’s works, as the scripture says. We have the Father Creator, the first petal, if you will, of the clover; Jesus, called the Christ, the second petal or leaf; and the Holy Spirit of wisdom that is the third petal of that same clover, that binds all in a relationship of love––the Trinity. Three leaves or petals, one clover, one shamrock. I had a thought about a four leaf clover. Is there any reason we can’t be the fourth leaf, having received the Spirit of God as we have? Don’t we become one with God in our full and complete union with Jesus through his Spirit? That’s how it currently makes sense to me scripturally as well as experientially.

Did you catch the word relationship in there? The fruit of the loving relationship between the Creator and the Spirit––Jesus, called the Christ. Who else was invited into that relationship was Mary, the Mother of Jesus. She was not a bit player in this drama, but a key player, and although there are some who would reduce her significance to her biology, i.e., a human body necessary to bear the would-be divine child, in fact it was her fiat, her,”Let it be done unto me according to thy word,” that enabled the whole drama to go forward. Yes, it was biology, but it was her decision whether to offer her “biology” to God for God’s purposes, which is to say, it was an act of her free will neither forced nor coerced.

According to the story in the birth narrative in Luke, the angel Gabriel told Mary, in response to her question of how she could possibly be a mother when she had never been with a man, the angel told her that the power of the Holy Spirit would overshadow her and thus the child she would bear would be called the Son of God. Whatever you want to do with the birth narrative, go right ahead. Think and believe as you will. What I want to underscore about it is the relationships involved: between God the Father and the Holy Spirit and between that Spirit and Mary, the mother of Jesus, and between Jesus and all of them individually who cooperated in making possible by laying out, by structuring an environment whereby Jesus would be able to respond to the call on his life. I believe that all of our lives are as complicated as Jesus’ life was. It may be his was and is more significant, but we are in the same pattern as he, whose life we have chosen to share, which we do by how we partake of his Spirit, by how we share communion.

Why all this theological, semantic hoo-ha? Why not just let it be, let God be what or who God is? God is ineffable, after all, and can’t finally be captured in language or image. So why do we formulate these theological concepts? What purpose do they serve? I think one purpose of the theologizing behind the doctrine of Trinity is to try to make that ineffable one at least seem somewhat more accessible, to try to filter out some meaning that our human minds can absorb. One way to do that is to think about these aspects of God which we encounter in scripture, as being in relationship, a three-way relationship that we call Trinity, Father, Son and Spirit, parallel to family relationships, which we understand. Mother, father, child. A human trinity.

The point is the relationships that the Trinity represents. How love works in and through human relations, with the question of the interaction vis-à-vis divine and human relations always hanging fire in the background.

Who knows how it all finally works out, what it all finally means. As I promised at the beginning, I invited you into the uncertainty, the ambiguity, the mystery that underlies any consideration of the Trinity. We can get caught in the death grip of a belief in only the words of what we’re taught, which teaching may not be informed by the living Spirit of God who teaches us in our deepest selves who that One is as Creativity, Wisdom, and Love, the three persons of the Holy Trinity, which is One.

If I am going to include a poem in a message, I usually offer it at the beginning, but today I’d like to read this at the end, just to stir the pot of questioning and maybe help you to give yourself permission to always question doctrine and theological construct.

I Asked God

from The Palm of Your Hand, by Kaylin Haught

I asked God if it was okay to be melodramatic

and she said yes

I asked her if it was okay to be short

and she said it sure is

I asked her if I could wear nail polish

or not wear nail polish

and she said honey

she call me that sometimes

she said you can do exactly

what you want to

Thanks God I said

And is it okay if I don’t paragraph

my letters

Sweetcakes God said

who knows where she picked that up

what I am telling you is

Yes Yes Yes

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