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The Relational God: Sermon for Trinity Sunday, May 26, 2024




Readings:


-- The Rev. Leslie Scoopmire

 

This is a glorious day that God has made, even with the thunder and the rain, which will temporarily silence the billions of cicadas screaming their lung out—and their bodies are mostly lung—at each other.

 

It’s Trinity Sunday. A day that strikes a note of wariness in the heart of the preacher. Trinity Sunday is the only major feast of the Church that is dedicated to a doctrine. And not just any doctrine, but the doctrine of the Trinity—a doctrine that took over 400 years to flesh out from the hints and allusions in scripture and experience. A doctrine so slippery that, it is widely acknowledged, it is far easier to fall into heresy when trying to explain it than do a credible job.

 

So this year, I am setting myself a more modest goal: I am going to try to avoid heresy, and talk about something easier to start with. Let’s talk about astrophysics and cosmology! Sound good?

 

See, in the ancient world especially, there was both an attraction and a fear of sacred spaces, or thin places, as the Celts call them—places where the divine sphere and the human spheres touch, even intersect. The ancient Hebrews knew about many of these places, because the Mediterranean world was positively brimming over with them. They were often mountains: the ancient Greeks favored Mount Olympus as the home of the gods. The ancient Canaanites, the Israelites’ enemies, believed that Mount Hermon, mentioned in our Psalm, was the holy gate where the sons of God descended to Earth. The Hebrews themselves believed the foundation of the Law, the Ten Commandments, was handed down on Mount Sinai, and later they named the Temple Mount in Jerusalem as the location of the earthly throne of God. Their relatives and rivals the Samaritans believed one could only worship on Mount Gerazim. And in our Psalm, what we see is some braggadocio going on—the Psalmist claims that HIS capital-G God is so powerful that even the sound of God’s voice can make the Canaanites’ Mount Hermon “skip like a calf,” coming loose from its foundations at merely a word for Yahweh.

 

There’s something interesting about naming all these mountains as places where the sacred dwells and the supernatural is encountered. Mountains are landmarks, visible for miles around—but they are also places you don’t just stumble upon. The space of a mountain is sharply divided from the space of the plains and valleys below. If you’ve ever tried to climb a mountain, or even a very large hill, you know what I mean. It takes dedication, planning, and effort. So once a holy place was identified, the decision to enter into that liminal space became very much a conscious decision. After all, what you encounter in a sacred place could completely change your life. Or even end it, since the Hebrews believed one could not look on God and live to tell the tale. Meeting God would, at the very least, remind you of how humble and very human you are, if you didn’t actually fry your circuits encountering the Divine presence. Never forget that one of the attractions of making these holy places huge landforms was also keeping the supernatural kind of bottled up there, leaving humanity to go on about its business for the most part—unless we needed some help, or especially some smiting of folks we don’t like. Hmm… 2,000 years later, it seems we have more in common with these ancients than we might believe. Hold that thought for a moment.

 

I am going to suggest that each of our readings today is about the idea of encounter with God. We see that fear of the power of sacred spaces in our very first reading from Isaiah. First we hear the story of Isaiah being called to be not only priest but prophet. This call comes at a particularly low point for the Israelites, whose faithlessness toward God was described for six chapters before we hear of God calling Isaiah to accept being God’s messenger. The vision described here makes it clear that, in his work as a priest, Isaiah is in a very holy place in the Temple, a place one only entered in humility and with much purification beforehand.

 

We see the concept of “distance” as a pivot to this reading. God sits “high and lofty,” so enormous that the hem of God’s robe fills the entire Temple; Isaiah watches in awe, fear, and trembling, feeling so humbled and so small that he seems to be beyond notice. God and the heavenly hosts are on one side—humanity on the other. A hymn of praise is sung with voices so powerful that we see a connection with the psalm for this proper, which also speaks of voices that cause smoke and shaking. Given that Isaiah was a priest as well as prophet, there are hints here that Isaiah had this vision while attending in the throne room of the temple, where there would be a throne, pivots, and glowing coals for the incense.

 

It is clear that after this encounter, Isaiah viscerally recognizes the vast distance and difference between the human and the divine. Once he acknowledges that difference and that danger to himself, the seraph touches a burning coal to his lips, an act of purification. Interesting that there is no mention of pain. Only once he recognizes the vast gulf between himself, and yet accepts the truth of his purification, does Isaiah accept that it is possible for him to truly serve God and be sent on a mission of his own.

 

Likewise, our Psalm, probably one of the oldest ones ever composed and possibly an appropriation of a Canaanite song praising their storm god, emphasizes the same overwhelming power Isaiah experienced in the throne room of the Temple: cataclysms and earthquakes unleashed, overwhelmed senses, fire, smoke, trembling—all just through the power of the voice of God. In this case, the power of God is particularly aimed at Israel’s neighbors-- the Canaanites, the Phoenicians, and the Mesopotamians-- and their lower-case-g gods, putting them to shame with a display that is meant to humble them, to put them in their place. God is amazing, and awe-inspiring, and so much tougher than YOUR gods, the author of Psalm 29 taunts Israel’s oppressors. God is also, conveniently, not a presence one would encounter in the street.

 

Enter Jesus, who tears down all our attempts to keep our distance from God. Jesus is God’s most powerful insistence that we can’t just keep God locked up on a mountain or a temple mount or a holy of holies or an altar. In our readings from the New Testament, we move from the cosmological to the personal. We move from God being encountered only by specialists to God being encountered among us, abiding with us as God had insisted all along, ever since King Solomon had built God a temple despite God’s protests because the Israelites wanted to have a fancy “God-palace” just like all the other kids around them.

 

Here we begin to see the central truth of Trinitarian thinking: God is relational, and must always be relational. We make this important move in our understanding of God due to the incarnation of Christ. The revolutionary thing about Jesus is, with his birth, God is no longer safely confined to a mountaintop of a throne room in the Temple. God comes and abides among us, living as a human in order to show us how to live with God at the center of our beings, as we were made to be. The members of the church in Rome whom Paul is addressing kept trying to keep God at arms’ length. Oh, no, says Paul. When we try to hold the Spirit of God at a nice safe distance, we reject being children of God. Likewise, with our return to the story of Nicodemus in John’s gospel, Jesus insists that God cannot be managed through religious customs or rules. If one wishes to enter the kingdom of God, the state of being of living by God’s values and virtues, one has to embrace the indwelling of God’s spirit as God calls us into relationship with God and with each other. Because that’s the point of the Great Commandment, right? To love God and love each other, to hold fast to our relationship with God and with each other, with not just our affections but our wills, with not just our words but with our actions and our very lives. To realize that the power of God is not simply something to terrify us into being good little children but to transform us into our very best, most human, selves.

 

The Trinity reminds us that the heart of God is relationship, whatever imperfect metaphors we use to describe it and however many heresies we dance around. If the heart of God is relationship, then the heart of the church and the heart of each of us as disciples is called to be centered in real relationship too. In all we do, not just here on Sunday, but in our choices and our actions. Contrary to what so many claim right now, God is not about dominance or imposing our own will upon others. God, who is at core community, love, and delight in the Beloved, is a mystery to embrace, not an atomic bomb to be used against those we don’t approve of.  Biblical scholar Karoline Lewis notes, “Relationship, you see, is rather inconvenient truth about God, especially when God is simply a vehicle for your own power and the way of Jesus is justification for decisions meant only to keep your own power. “Our faith is personal but never private, meant not only for heaven but for this earth.

 

Once we see God as relational, as Love Embodied, relationship with God moves from being something to fear to something to embrace, and that word was chosen deliberately. God, whether we call God Father Son and Holy Spirit; or Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer; or Earth-maker, Pain-Bearer, Life-Giver; cannot be confined to a set of three words or to a place. Not even—especially not even-- a church building, or a mountain. The church, friends, is NOT a building anyway. The church is us, flawed and fragile as we may be, carrying the light of God into the world, the light that has been planted in us by our embrace of God in all God’s mystery, in all our imperfect ways of trying to explain how the love of God transforms all who ae willing to answer “Send me! Here I am!” when God calls.



Image: Depiction of the Trinity by Brother Mel Meyer, S. M., from the ceiling of the chapel at St. Martin's Episcopal Church, Ellisville.

 

 

 

 

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