Texts: Matthew 28:16-20, 2 Corinthians 13:11-13
Phyllis Schrag will be preaching next Sunday, and we then two Sundays from today I will start a sermon series based on questions and suggestions that come from the congregation.
And so today, I thought we might look at something that probably nobody would request.
On the liturgical calendar, the Sunday following Pentecost – that would be today - is celebrated as Trinity Sunday. Although most years we kind of skip over it other than to maybe see it at the top of the bulletin, or possibly sing Holy, Holy, Holy.
In certain circles, if you asked about the Holy Trinity, they would tell you that it is onions, celery, and green pepper. These are the basic ingredients of a lot of Cajun cooking, although if you want to make chicken soup you should swap out the bell pepper for carrots.
And then I think of an old Kudzu cartoon – does anybody remember the comic strip Kudzu? Rev. Will B. Dunn is yelling “Holy Trinity! Go for the Holy Trinity!” Then he smiles and kind of looks at the reader and says, “In church league, the holy trinity is a 3 point shot!)
The trinity is not a hot topic of discussion for most of us, and it is possible that we might actually talk more about the Holy Trinity in terms of Cajun cooking or basketball, but this morning we are going to think about the trinity as a way of describing God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
It is difficult to understand the idea that God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; or Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer, and yet at the same time God is one. And to be honest, this mystery is not really spelled out for us in scripture.
Our reading from Matthew is a very familiar one – we actually looked at this passage a few weeks ago. “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit...” This formula “in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” is about as close as the Bible gets to any kind of developed doctrine of the Trinity – and it’s not much. It is more understood or maybe implied.
Despite the difficulties in it and despite the fact that the Trinity is really not a central concern of the scriptures, we’re going to go ahead and think about it this morning because since we gather and worship God week after week, since we offer prayers and raise our voices in praise to God each Sunday morning, it is worth considering just who this God is. And as a church that likes to say that faith is a matter of both heart and mind and that you don’t have to check your brain at the door here, it is important for us to think and reflect on the nature of the God we worship.
Who is God? What is God like? Does God care for me? What is my place in relationship to God? We naturally have a need and desire to describe the Almighty.
In the book of Exodus, God spoke to Moses in the burning bush and told Moses that he was to lead the people out of Egypt. Moses said to God, “When I go and tell Pharaoh to let my people go, who should I say sent me?” God simply said, “I am who I am.” Not, “I am the eternal three-in-one Godhead,” but “I am who I am.”
When you get right down to it, God is a mystery, a reality that we cannot fully fathom or explain. Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, was interviewed in Christian Century. He said, “The doctrine of the Trinity is… not a tidy description; it’s just the “least worst” way we’ve found of talking about something very disturbing and inexhaustible. And I suppose that’s why I’ve been trying for many years to write a book on the Trinity.”
The hymn we sang says, “God in three persons, blessed Trinity.” What does this mean?
Among other things, the word “persons” trips us up. The Greek word is persona, and it referred to masks that actors wore in Greek drama – they might play different parts, but it was the same actor.
The doctrine of the Trinity says something about the way we experience God. It says that the God who created us, the God who saves us, and the God who gives us power and strength each day is the same God. As Frederick Buechner puts it, “the mystery beyond us, the mystery among us, and the mystery within us are all the same mystery.”
A lot of things might be said about the Trinity, but what speaks to me most is that the doctrine of the Trinity says that at the heart of God’s being is relationship. Even God needs community, and within the heart of God is community.
To be created in God’s image means that we are created for community. Our own identity is found in relationships. I might describe myself as a husband, a father, a son, a brother, a friend, a pastor, a teacher, a learner. I am a follower of Jesus and a child of God. Each of these ways of defining myself, each of these parts of my identity has to do with relationships. I understand myself in relationship to others. God’s own self involves relationship, and created in God’s image, we are created for relationships, created for community.
Part of being created in God’s image is this need to be in community. But the trends around community are not looking so good. About 20 years ago, Robert Putnam wrote the book, Bowling Alone, describing the decline of social capital in America – the decline of networks of connection and community. Compared to previous years, he found that fewer American were involved in civic groups like Rotary or the Lions or Kiwanis, fewer young people are in Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, fewer are involved in PTA, fewer participate in community organizations of all sorts.
And not only that, people get together less with friends to play cards or share a meal. While there had been an overall increase in bowling, there has been a big decrease in bowling leagues, hence the title of the book – Bowling Alone.
Beyond that, people report fewer close friends or confidants than they did in the past and less trust of others in general.
Putnam found that this trend also held true for churches and about 10 years ago wrote a book focused more specifically on religion. The number of active church members has decreased, and those who participate in congregations spend less time involved in church activities. Today number of Americans with no religious affiliation is at an all-time high.
The dramatic downturn in community participation in recent years has had an effect. There are fewer people to turn to for help in a crisis, fewer watchdogs to deter neighborhood crime, fewer visitors for hospital patients, fewer participants in community groups.
Researchers have attributed such findings to things like the mobility of society, in which people move often and don’t establish deep friendships; to an increase in TV watching and video games and especially computer and smartphone use, which keep people occupied without relating to others; and to the increasing number of people who work long hours, sometimes even 2 or 3 jobs, and simply don’t have the time to build meaningful relationships.
The problem is, we are not created for TV or the internet, or work without rest, or living in isolation. We are created for community – community with God and with others.
Johann Christoph Arnold related a Hasidic parable. A rabbi asked his students, “When is it at dawn that one can tell the light from the darkness?”
One student replied, “When I can tell a goat from a donkey.” “No,” answered the rabbi. Another said, “When I can tell a palm tree from a fig.” “No,” answered the rabbi again. “Well, then, what is the answer?” his students pressed him.
“Only when you look into the face of every man and every woman and see your brother and your sister,” said the rabbi. “Only then have you seen the light. All else is still darkness.”
In the end, God is a mystery. We cannot fully know God. And yet God has revealed God’s own self to us as Creator - the maker of all that exists, the one who brought this beautiful world and this whole universe into being and gave the care of this world to us. God has been revealed to us in Jesus Christ, who showed us that God is a God of grace and love and justice and forgiveness and peace, a God who will go to any length to be reconciled with us. And we have experienced God as Spirit, a power ever present to us that strengthens and energizes and convicts and leads and sustains us right here and now.
As an academic venture, I have to admit that the doctrine of the Trinity leaves me kind of cold. But in a more down-to-earth way, the Trinity is helpful for me as a way of thinking about God because it says that God is a mystery, that we experience God in different ways, and that God is about community. We worship a God who seeks us, who wants a relationship with us, and we come together as a community in relationship with one another and with God. When we are truly living this way, living in community, we look in the face of every man and woman, every boy and girl, and we see the face of a brother or sister.
We speak of God in various ways, all of which are attempts to describe a mystery greater than we are. We may describe God as Father, Friend, Rock, Protector, Judge, Help, Mother, Lord, Savior, Shield, the Ground of our being, and this is just a start. All of these various ways of thinking about God have to do with God’s relationship to us. One of the simplest descriptions of God we find is in 1 John, “God is love.” And we experience that love in community with one another.
For me, the doctrine of the Trinity is an attempt, however imperfect, to draw us closer to the truth that God is Love. Not a hypothesis, not a research project, not a theological puzzle, but Love.
When we say that God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, or that God is Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer, we are trying to express something of what God is like. But any of the words we use to describe God are inadequate. Even all of these thoughts and metaphors about God, all taken together, fall far short of describing the fullness of God.
A few moments ago we sang Brian Wren’s hymn, “Bring Many Names.” It shares a variety of ways of thinking about God. For me, the last verse is especially powerful: “Great living God, never fully known, joyful darkness far beyond our seeing, closer yet than breathing, everlasting home, hail and hosanna, great, living God.”
Our God is a great, living God. And while God is never fully known, God is closer than our breathing. That is relationship. At the heart of God is relationship, even within God there is community, and we are invited into relationship with God and with each other.
Our second reading was Paul’s closing words to the Corinthian Christians. This was a church that had its problems, to say the least. There was fighting, back-biting, people taken in by the latest scam-apostle showing up in town, and generally exasperating behavior. Paul had sent two different letters filled with teaching and encouragement and admonishments. These final words read like a parent dropping off a kid at summer camp. Remember what we talked about! Make good choices! Remember that I love you!
And then he concludes with a benediction that I have frequently used here in our church: “May the love of God and the grace of our Lord and Savior Jesus Crist, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you and abide with you, now and always.”
To a community facing all kinds of problems, Paul offers the Corinthian church – and us - this trifecta: Filled with love, God created us; Filled with grace, God saves us; and longing for community, God dwells with us.
To be a community of faith means that we are a family, that we look into each face and see a brother or sister. And it means that the God whose very nature is community is here in our midst. Amen.
Saturday, June 3, 2023
“God in Community” - June 4, 2023
Texts: Matthew 28:16-20, 2 Corinthians 13:11-13