I entered the chapel at the monastery of the Society of St. John the Evangelist exhausted by the long day of travel from Madison. I’d had only enough time to drop my things in my room before the evening Eucharist. Stressed, tired, distracted, as I entered the space, I was immediately reminded why I had come here. It’s a remarkable space, perfectly, beautifully designed. You’re suddenly thousands of miles and a thousand years away from Harvard Square in Cambridge. Designed by architect Ralph Adams Cram in the Romanesque style, the walls are stone, with roman arches throughout, lovely stained glass windows dominated by deep blues. Continue reading
Trinity Sunday, Year B
May 27, 2018
Today is Trinity Sunday. Although it’s Memorial Day weekend which traditionally marks the beginning of Summer, and our thoughts may be wandering to the plans we have for the weekend, barbecues, or the Bratfest, or more distantly on promised vacations and trips to places old and familiar or new and exotic, the church’s year challenges us to focus instead on one of the central and most perplexing doctrines of our faith—the Trinity.
In my experience, both as an academic and teacher and as a pastor, the doctrine of the Trinity is more stumbling block than crutch, more alienating than inviting. Just as it emerged out of centuries of conflict during which Christians sought to define, or at least set limits around what we might say and believe concerning the relationships among Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, even now the doctrine of the Trinity seems to perplex, confuse, and raise doubts for many Christians and seekers. Most of us, I would suspect, if we are comfortable in our faith, have let such concerns and queries lie undisturbed in the further reaches of our consciousness. The same is true of our spiritual lives—we may have deep connections with Jesus Christ, or with the Holy Spirit, and perhaps, some of us, even with God the Father, but to experience the Trinity is likely somewhat foreign to us.
Indeed, when we think of the Trinity at all, it’s likely we think of it, or they, as divorced from our experience and existence as human beings, so abstract and beyond knowing that we cannot experience it at all, but rather only approach it, attempt to grasp the Trinity intellectually. And when our efforts to grasp the Trinity intellectually fail, we either abandon it, and Christianity altogether, or decide that we will not attempt to understand or contemplate on it.
But to do that, I think, is to miss something profoundly important about the Trinity and about us as human beings. We are created in God’s image. I wonder whether you’ve ever thought about the implications of that. Certainly, that suggests that there is a certain goodness, in us, no matter how stained that goodness might be by our sins. But more than that, as Christians we believe that God is three-in-one, God by God’s nature in relationship, reaching out beyond Godself, loving in Godself. All that implies that being created in God’s image, we are created to be in relationship as well. The creativity and love that God experiences in Godself, in the dance, as it is often called, of the trinity, leaps out and over into all of creation, and into us.
So, the Trinity is not just abstract doctrine, it involves relationship—in Godself, with humanity, and all of creation, and God as Trinity pulls us into relationship with God and with our fellow humans and all of creation.
So there is, or could be, a profound, deeply powerful, spiritual experience that opens to us when we reflect on the Trinity. We see aspects of that spiritual experience in all three lessons today.
The prophet Isaiah has a vision, “In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord, high and lofty.” It is so important to the biblical tradition that the song the seraphim sing has become our song in the Eucharistic liturgy. For many scholars of religion, the vision described by Isaiah and his response to that vision, have become something of a paradigm for understanding religious experience in general, not just Jewish or Christian.
Isaiah describes a vision in such vivid detail that it may seem to us as if we are with him in the temple. He claims to see God, but the vision itself is of God’s throne and a being so vast that the hem of God’s robe filled the temple. Seraphim were in attendance, flying and singing. As Isaiah looked on, he felt the temple shake as if it were in an earthquake and the temple itself filled with smoke. It’s more than a vision, however. It is an experience that engages all of Isaiah’s senses: sight, sound, touch, even taste—for it includes that marvelous and rather frightening image of one of the seraphim bringing a coal to Isaiah’s lips.
Isaiah’s response to that awesome vision was to recognize the vast gulf that divided him from God. He described himself as lost, a man of unclean lips, unable to perform the tasks to which God might be calling him. But nonetheless, Isaiah responds to God’s call like other prophets responded. In spite of their sense of unworthiness, when God asks, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Isaiah responds without hesitation, “Here I am, send me.”
There’s a rather different image and experience of God described by Paul in today’s lesson from the profound 8th chapter of the letter to the Romans. Last week we heard verses from the same chapter, verses which I’ve always found of great consolation when I’m struggling to pray or express myself to God: “the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.”
In today’s reading, Paul is exploring our relationship as followers of Christ with God. He uses two powerful images in these verses. First, the notion of adoption. In Roman society, unwanted children were often abandoned but because such a priority was placed on producing offspring and heirs, children who were legally adopted had the same status and inheritance rights as biological children—just as is the case today. And we all know stories of couples who have gone through extensive struggles to adopt a child. So for Paul to use this image of our relationship to God is to suggest that we are truly God’s children—joint heirs, as he says. It’s a potent image of the intimacy of our relationship with God.
There is perhaps an even more potent image of that relationship when Paul uses the Aramaic word, “Abba” suggesting that Christians in his day prayed to God using this term. It’s in the language Jesus spoke and it’s a word for father that could be compared to our word, “Daddy,” used by children to address their fathers in the home. We know Jesus used it to refer to God—it likely underlies the Greek in the Lord’s Prayer, and Mark has Jesus pray “Abba” in the Garden of Gethsemane.
Don’t misunderstand me. I think the important point here is the intimacy of the relationship implied, not the gender. Scripture uses both male and female imagery for God, both maternal and paternal images. Our focus should be on the intimacy, not the gender. And it may be, that because of our own experiences of those relationships using either paternal or maternal is not intimate or life-giving, but alienating and painful.
Still, it’s worth pointing out that in these two passages, from Isaiah and from Romans, we have two different modes of experiencing God—the transcendent, awe-inspiring, terrifying, humbling of the scene in Isaiah, and the intimate, immanent, connected imagery of Paul.
These two modes are connected in the being of God—through the Trinity. We encounter God both as transcendent and as immanent, sometimes those experiences come at us in both ways, sometimes one is more common or transforming than the other.
It’s also important to recognize that for some of us, any such experiences are rather uncommon. We seek God, or desire God, and God seems to remain distant, or silent. We want the certainty of an experience like Isaiah’s, the certainty of knowing God is there, the certainty of call. Or we desire the certainty of intimacy, the immediate sense of God’s presence in our lives, and our connection with God. We desire these experiences, and they remain elusive, distant. God seems to remain silent.
There is mystery in all this, mystery in the Trinity, mystery in the heart of God. It is a mystery that I cannot solve for you, provide any easy answers. I can only assure that I find consolation, hope, and strength in knowing that whether or not I feel connected with God, God’s love draws me toward Godself, and in the love of God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, I can rest as God’s beloved adopted child. My prayer is that you are able to experience that love and consolation as well.
On Friday evening, Corrie and I attended the gathering at the Alliant Center where the Rev. Alex Gee and others introduced “Our Madison Plan” the culmination of more than a year’s work of conversation, research, and planning in the effort to address the racial disparities in Madison and Dane County. As I stood listening in the packed room, I reflected on the challenges that we face as a community. It’s not just race and class that divide us; it’s not just the wide disparities in opportunity and educational achievement. As Rev. Gee pointed out, there is a deep cultural challenge that we face. Although he was addressing the challenges in the African-American community, his analysis extends to American society in general. Continue reading