The Trinity as Poetry
I heard on Garrison Keillor’s The Writer’s Almanac
that Saturday, May 29 is the birth day of John Fitzgerald Kennedy,
our 35th President of the United States,
born in 1917.
If he were still alive he would be 93 years old today.
In one of his last major public speeches,
President Kennedy said,
"When power leads man toward arrogance,
poetry reminds him of his limitations."
When power leads man toward arrogance,
poetry reminds him of his limitations.
When we as Christians become spiritually arrogant,
when we think we are the source of power,
that we are the ones in control,
one of the mannerisms we default into
is attempting to keep God in a small box
with a very tight lid.
But almost as soon as we do that--BOOM!
we are reminded of the limitations of that thinking!
That poetic mysterious Trinitarian
everywhere and everything God
blows the top off our box!
The Trinity is very much like a poem.
We can understand it in our bones,
in the very deep place of our spirit—
But to understand it rationally
is difficult and has its limitations.
It would be exceedingly arrogant of me as a preacher
to believe that I can stand here in this pulpit today
and give you a concise clear explanation of exactly
what the Church means by the Trinity.
Theologians have struggled with explaining the Trinity
since the beginning of Christianity
and theologians today still struggle with this.
Yet it is a good struggle,
not a struggle of conflict or violence--
but more like Jacob’s struggle with the angel,
a struggle to try to understand God more fully.
Even our own Episcopal Catechism,
doesn’t deal with the Trinity very well.
The Catechism doesn’t even mention the Trinity
until it comes to the questions WHAT IS THE HOLY SPIRIT?
and then the catechism tells us
the Holy Spirit,the third person of the Trinity,
is God at work in the world today, even now.
And then you have to flip back a few pages and figure out
Oh, I guess God the Father and God the Son
are the other two parts of the Trinity.
with God the Holy Spirit are the Trinity.
We as Episcopalians are Trinitarians.
We believe in God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit.
Yet we believe in only ONE God.
Three in One and One in three, we sometimes say.
Trinity Sunday is a very different type of Sunday in the Church.
Usually our gospel
or at least one of the scripture readings is narrative,
it tells us a story.
That is not so on Trinity Sunday.
We have Proverbs,
sort of the “Dear Abby” advice column
of the Old Testament.
(Maybe we should call it “Dear Abba”!)
We have Psalm 8—
magnificent Psalm 8—
but psalms are rarely narrative.
We have Paul’s letter to the Romans—
Paul is not a notable storyteller—
he falls much more under the category
of bossy older brother--
“Let me tell you what it means to be a follower of Jesus.”
Sometimes we think our bossy older brother is right,
and sometimes we think he is wrong—just bossy!
And there’s John’s gospel today.
Now the gospel is most often where we hear a story—
because the gospels are about the life and work of Jesus.
But there is no story today.
Jesus is just talking—
“I still have many things to say to you…”
he begins as he addresses his disciples.
First of all, a brief history of how we came to have
this doctrine of the Trinity.
From our earliest days,
we as Christians believed in one God.
We were and are monotheistic.
Like our Jewish brothers and sisters
we understand God the Father,
God the Creator.
Then along comes Jesus.
And we as Christians see Jesus as the face of God in the world.
Then Jesus, on the day of Pentecost says,
Don’t worry, I am leaving this world but I am going to send you
an Advocate, the Holy Spirit.
Hmmm…Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
So do we have ONE God or do we have THREE Gods?
So the early theologians got together
and finally in the fourth century officially declared
that God is one essence==that one essence being GOD—
but that essence
is distinguished by three persons or personas --
Father, Son and Holy Spirit—all equal.
We forget that sometimes.
The EQUAL part.
We try to make the God the Father the boss,
The BIG boss,
The head of the God’s family.
But that is not true to our belief or our theology.
God encompasses Father, Son and Holy Spirit—equally.
and that is a difficult concept for us
and why people sometimes use different language—
we keep trying to find better language that
would make these three personas seem more equal--
such as Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer,
to try to better represent the equality
of these three dimensions of our one God--
but in all honesty,
words are generally inadequate for the Trinity.
The early Celtic Christians
tried to approach the Trinity more practically
by using this teaching rhyme:
Three folds of the cloth yet only one napkin is there,
Three joints in the finger, but still only one finger fair,
Three leaves of the shamrock,
yet no more than one shamrock to wear,
Frost, snow-flakes and ice,
all in water their origin share
Three persons in God,
to one God alone we make prayer
The 12th century mystic Hildegard of Bingen
tried to explain the Trinity in poetry and song. She wrote:
Who is the Trinity?
You are music.
You are life.
Source of everything,
Creator of everything.
Angelic hosts sing your praise.
You are alive in everything,
And yet you are unknown to us.
So why be concerned with something we can’t really explain?
Why should we even care about the Trinity?
Why does our church set aside—every year—
to draw our attention to the Trinity?
I will tell you that a number of priests
do not like to preach on the Trinity.
They will say,
How on earth am I supposed to preach
on something that no one completely understands
or can explain?
A friend of mine sent me an email this week and said,
“I’m not preaching on the Trinity this Sunday. I’m telling a fishing story.”
Well, I don’t fish,
so I AM preaching on the Trinity!
Because I think it is an important and powerful image.
The Trinity is the image of God as community,
God as full and total communion.
We are not called to be Christians in solitude or isolation.
We are made in the image of God
and God is not a solitary ruler or a lone ranger.
So why would we ever want to live our lives in isolation?
Now please understand,
There is a big difference between living alone
and living in isolation.
Many of us live alone, for a multitude of reasons,
but to live in isolation is to live in arrogance and disrespect,
of one another—and of God.
To separate ourselves from the community, the communion
of God’s people is saying,
“I don’t need anyone but me.”
We are a people called to community and to communion.
We enact that every single Sunday—
when we share the bread and wine together.
Regardless of our differences,
our theological differences and our personal differences,
when we receive communion
we bind ourselves to the God of the Holy Trinity
and to one another.
One bread, one body.
We say thank you God for making me part of your holy mystery,
Thank you God for this moment in poetic time.
Thank you God for giving me others,
this motley crew of which I am one,
a community to travel with on this journey.
God never stands aloof or arrogant.
God does not stay up on the mountaintop,
God is always moving,
here, there, everywhere.
God is a living God, a changing God,
a seeking God.
God is always on the move.
That may scare the pants off of us,
but it is the Gospel truth.
Think of the Trinity as
Father, Son and Holy Spirit
holding hands and dancing round and round and round--
celebrating all that is possible and hopeful in the world--
always having room in that circle
for us to join in the dance.
God is never still.
The Holy Trinity is the image of the perfect community.
It is the best image for the church—
not a hierarchy of power
but a community of diverse gifts and functions.
If we can learn to better embody the Trinity
we will be a more faithful church,
we will create a better world.
We are not called to be wallflowers
standing silently or even sullenly on the sidelines,
thinking “I sure hope someone notices my gifts
and asks me to dance.”
We are already invited!
Our names have been on God’s dance card
since before we were born.
We are called to offer what we have and who we are
and to be generous and joyful about it.
This isn’t easy for some of us.
The poet John Donne wrote
“Batter my heart, three-personed God.”
Batter my heart, three-personed God.
What a magnificent prayer!
John Donne was inviting God to come after him
and claim him
in every way and any way possible.
Batter our hearts, O Holy Trinity,
and help us remember
God above us and beside us and beneath us ,
God with us.
God continually on the move
Mysteriously binding us together
into a holy community,
into perfect communion.
Holy, Holy, Holy.
We say it three times.
That is no accident.
In the name of the Holy Trinity—
Father, Son and Holy Spirit.