A pilot and a priest have died and are waiting in line outside the gates of Heaven for entry. When they reach the front of the line, St. Peter beckons the pilot forth. "Who are you, so I may know whether or not to admit you to the Kingdom of Heaven?" he asks. "I am Steven Armstrong of Houston, Texas." St. Peter consults his list. "Ah, Captain Armstrong! You were an airline pilot for Southwest Airlines for 32 years. Take these silk robes and this staff of gold; you may enter the Kingdom." St. Peter then beckons the next person in line forth—the priest. He repeats the same question again: "Who are you, so I may know whether or not to admit you to the Kingdom of Heaven?" The priest straightens out. "I am the Reverend Denise Ford of Stanford, Connecticut," she replies. "Episcopal priest for the past 32 years." "Reverend Ford," St. Peter says as he flips through his list. "Pastor of the Trinity Church for the last 12 years, honest, supportive, kind, diligent in study and always willing to help. Ah, yes. Take these wool robes and this wooden staff and enter the Kingdom," St. Peter says. The priest shrugs and accepts them before entering. Later, she finds St. Peter out fishing by a crystalline stream. "Sir, I'm just curious, but the man who stood in front of me outside the gates of Heaven was just a pilot, but he got silk robes and a gold staff. I preached and spoke the word of the Lord for most of my life, but I received these wool robes and this wooden staff. What gives?” St. Peter turns to the priest. "Well, Mother, up here, we go by results. While you preached and gave your sermons, people slept. "While he flew, and especially during landings, people prayed and called out to Jesus unceasingly."
Welcome to Trinity Sunday. It’s a day so dreaded for preaching that the Rev. Shug and I flipped a coin and I lost. I am hoping that I will neither bore you, put you to sleep, nor make you scream in terror over the next few minutes. It’s a pretty low bar, you might think. But Trinity Sunday is a day dedicated to a concept that is so famously difficult to preach about that seminarians are warned that no matter what they do, they might either bore their audience, put them to sleep, or commit heresy. All choices one normally would like to avoid.
So why do it? Even better, why have to do it every single year????
This is a question I also ask myself every year.
We start with understanding that the basic definition of the Trinity is that there are three “persons” within, but one God, and all three persons as equal.
But just putting it into words, which are finite in meaning on their surface means there are many ways we end up limiting God when we try to talk about God. For instance, I made a distinct choice there not to use the pronoun “him” just there, because God is beyond gender. God has no need for gender. Our *language* does, though, but if we constantly default to speaking of God as male, or female, we prioritize certain expectations about how God operates over others.
Some people claim that the Trinity doesn't even show up in the Hebrew scriptures. Untrue. But sometimes subtle. For instance, where was the Trinity in our creation story? You might discern it right there where God referred to "us" making God in "our" image. Some claim that the story in Genesis about three visitors who came to Abraham under the oaks of Mamre were actually the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. That's the basis for the painting on the cover of our bulletin at this service, by the way. When Jesus is baptized, the Son goes down into the water, the Father's voice rings out, and the Holy Spirit descends on Jesus like a dove.
But even artists struggle with to depict the Trinity. They often show the Holy Spirit as fire, or a dove.
When I was younger I saw a medieval painting that showed one figure with three faces overlapping-- there were four eyes because the faces overlapped and three noses.
It was truly the stuff of nightmares. (2)
Thank God a pope declared that one a heresy itself. Yuck.
Last night at the 505 I used two different artistic representations in the bulletin for the 505. The first one depicted God as three male figures.
The Holy Spirit was shown as a young African man in the foreground. The Son was depicted as an 8-year-old Middle-eastern boy. And the Father was depicted as an elderly Australian Aboriginal man. It’s a beautiful painting. (3)
Then elsewhere in the bulletin I used an icon by Kelly Lattimore that updates the famous 14th century Russian icon of the Trinity as three angels sitting around a table that is on the cover of our bulletin today. Many people today love the original icon because it is actually ambiguous as to whether the characters are male or female—as it should be but is pretty much impossible to do, especially in art. Mr. Lattimore goes one step further and, like the painting I just mentioned, has his figures be recognizably from different continents—one is possibly Latin American, one is Asian, and one is African. He also depicts them as more obviously feminine. (4)
As time has gone on, I have become persuaded that those of us in Lectionary-based churches are challenged each year on the Sunday after Pentecost to address the Trinity because it keeps us humble. It reminds us of the limitations of our ability to express great mysteries, whether in words or image or music. It reminds us that God is a great mystery—the greatest mystery of all—and yet also a mystery that at various times reveals Godself to us in our times of greatest need and greatest wonders and joys.
Language, for instance, contains notions of gender. In French and Spanish and German, nouns can be male, female, or neuter. English makes the neutral option kind of “less-than” and privileges a binary way of thinking about gender--one that is frankly not helpful to reflect the realist of gender expression in all of life. And that limitation has fueled the culture wars over people’s personal pronouns right now. Even though no one is aiming their pronouns, or living their lives, for God’s sake, *at” anyone else.
Especially as we enter Pride Month, that understanding right there might go a long way to cooling down the hatred we have been seeing lately directed at our LGBTQ kindred.
What I find fascinating is that people who resist giving people the dignity of being the final arbiter of who they are also espouse a Christianity that does not see God as Trinity—as three persons but one God, and all three persons as equal. They often privilege Jesus, since he was born a human male, or God, since God was often referred to as “Father.” The Holy Spirit is often waaaaaay too squishy to deal with for these folks, usually. I mean, hey, even artists usually depict the Holy Spirit as a bird or as fire rather than in a figural way. Language-wise, however, the words used 99% of the time for the Holy Spirit in both Greek and Hebrew are female. The words for “breath” and “spirit” are female in those original Biblical languages. So then, we are called to consider that the Trinity, mystery that it is, is also a powerful reminder to us that God is NOT gendered, either.
Further, by extension, we are being shown that God’s image is fully present in ALL people-- regardless of what gender—or no gender-- they claim. Thinking about the Trinity as containing a variety of genders or none at all also has deep implications for how we understand human beings. So NOW we might be getting an idea of why this yearly discussion might be useful, after all, for the world in which we live.
And so, we are stuck with using analogies to describe God. Even “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit”—or, if you are old school “Holy Ghost—are imperfect analogies. So we use that formula, but also perhaps consider others, acknowledging all are imperfect. Alternatives include:
There’s “Abba, Christ, Paraclete,” for the Greek-minded.
Source, Word, and Spirit.
Earth-maker, Pain-bearer, Life-Giver, from the New Zealand Prayer Book.
Wisdom of God, Love of God, Grace of God, from a common blessing.
Majesty, Word, Spirit.
Creator, Redeemer, Sanctifier
The Lover, the Beloved, and Love Overflowing (from St. Augustine)
We struggle as we use a variety of ways to talk about what God is “like.” That’s fine—except analogical thinking is in short supply nowadays. It’s not being encouraged in our schools or in a public sphere. Too many people believe that things have to be black or white, up or down, right or wrong. And it’s okay to think that way—if you are a child. As we get older, though, most of us begin to observe that life doesn’t come at us in two options, just like ice cream doesn’t come in just two flavors. As long as we remember that whatever we think God is “like”—whether that’s a three leaf clover or a raindrop or three heavenly beings seated around a table, that God is still MORE yet, besides. God is like…. And off we go, metaphors and similes coming fast and furious. And yet God is so much more besides.
As I mentioned last week, we returned the Creed to our liturgy last week, after the Great Fifty Day Feast of Easter ended. This was a deliberate choice. The Creed came about to try to describe the Trinity, and how it worked, so it’s good to hear it again with new ears. I hope you do. Because if you DO hear it anew, and actually examine what is in the Creed. You will notice that there are a BUNCH of analogies in it to try to describe the three Persons of the Trinity and yet maintain their full equality. God from God, light from light, true God from true God, begotten not made…. Think of that again: to recognize the differences among each person of the Trinity, and yet to honor them as equal. Perhaps practicing this with God would help us practice this with each other.
Wouldn’t that be great?
To recognize that despite all the diversity of the way God touches our lives, that ultimately that diversity is still all part of ONE God. That diversity in unity is a strength. A blessing. A gift for living our own lives with each other.
Just as the Trinity is intimately bound up in each other to ultimately be One, so were we created by God. As we begin Pride month, Trinity Sunday calls us to remember that love is the most powerful force in the universe, and we should always stand for MORE love, not less. Or consider that the Rev. Shug and I are wearing our orange stoles to symbolize our hope to work to end gun violence. If we truly took seriously our invitation into the Trinity’s divine dance of love as children of God, would this madness even be possible?
Sure, some might scoff. Not everybody will do it. But how would it change the world if those of us here and those all around who profess to follow Christ would take the power of that Trinitarian love and mutual support seriously?
What would that be like? Isn’t it worth it to try?
St. Patrick was a missionary to the Irish, and we will hear part of one of his poems to the Trinity in one of our songs today. One of the ways he is depicted in icons is holding a shamrock, which he used to try to explain the Holy Trinity to the Celts in Ireland (which is also a heresy if you stop there, but hey, you have to start somewhere….) He was so good at this that the Celts place the idea of the Trinity at the center of their spirituality. And so perhaps we can learn something from them.
In Celtic Christianity, the concept of the Trinity reminds us that the heart of God is about relationship. It’s not about like—it’s about love. It’s about friendship. It’s about community. It’s about those three persons in the Trinity bound together in love, dancing around each other, taking turns stepping forward or stepping back so that different aspects are revealed about God as is right or necessary. That the heart of God is love, and that we, as God’s children, are drawn into that love. That, if we are made in God’s image, just as the three persons in the Trinity depend upon each other and rely upon each, so too we are called to give up our ridiculous notions of isolation and stubborn pride and realize and even celebrate how much we are made for each other. To love each other. To affirm each other. To see our differences as strengths, not as something that separates us, or worse, calls us to attack each other. The Trinity models for us what it is like to love and understand each other at the deepest level. As the great proponent of Celtic spirituality John O’Donohue wrote about the love at the center of the Trinity, and our relationship with that One God:
In this love, you are understood as you are without mask or pretension. The superficial and functional lies and half-truths of social acquaintance fall away, you can be as you really are. Love allows understanding to dawn, and understanding is precious. Where you are understood, you are at home. Understanding nourishes belonging. When you really feel understood, you feel free to release yourself into the trust and shelter of the other person’s soul. This recognition is described in a beautiful line from Pablo Neruda: “You are like nobody since I love you.” This art of love discloses the special and sacred identity of the other person. Love is the only light that can truly read the secret signature of the other person’s individuality and soul. Love alone is literate in the world of origin; it can decipher identity and destiny.
…The Christian concept of God as Trinity is the most sublime articulation of otherness and intimacy, an eternal interflow of friendship. This perspective discloses the beautiful fulfillment of our immortal longing in the words of Jesus, who said, Behold, I call you friends. Jesus, as the son of God, is the first Other in the universe; he is the prism of all difference. He is the secret [soul friend] of every individual. In friendship with him, we enter the tender beauty and affection of the Trinity. In the embrace of this eternal friendship, we dare to be free. (5)
Remembering that we are all beloved of God, all marvelously and wonderfully made by God, made for love in all its true, generous expressions, may we give thanks for being invited into the beautiful mystery of the Trinity, who invites us into the dance of life, or creation, and of celebrating difference and diversity.
1) First Icon: The Hospitality of Abraham (also known as the Trinity), icon by Andrei Rublev, Russian, ca. 1425 CE.
2) Trifacial Trinity, anonymous artist, 17th century, from the Palace of Folklore in Salzburg.
3) Trinity Redemption, by James Keay Bright, Welsh.
4)Trinity, by Kelly Latimore, used by permission-- all rights reserved.
5) John O'Donohue, Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom, pp. 14-15, kindle version.