Weekly Preaching: Trinity Sunday

June 5th, 2017

I am fond of the fact that the texts for Trinity Sunday, year A, are not blatantly Trinitarian. The Baptism of Jesus would have served so well! These texts ask about the action, the life of our Trinitarian God. Even my favorite hymn, “Holy, holy, holy,” isn’t an abstract analysis of threeness in oneness, but praise, adulation, an awe in God’s being and doing. I will ponder these texts with the Rublev Trinity icon as my computer wallpaper; I love this idea that God invites us into the eternal fellowship of love that is the Trinity.

Our first text  obviously and always  is creation, Genesis 1:1-2:4a. Creation happened because the inner relationships of Father, Son and Holy Spirit were so profound, so pregnant with divine love, that an outburst, an overflow made the universe happen; its goodness mirrors the love in God’s eternal triune heart. Verse 26 says “Let us…” but we know the writer of Genesis didn’t intend Trinity. It’s that plural of deliberation, or the heavenly court is being envisioned  or it’s as simple as that the Hebrew word for God is elohim, plural in form! No Trinity in this text  but the Trinity was there; ponder John 1 and Colossians 1.

People still get mired in science questions, although as clergy who’ve settled that way back, we forget. If you never saw it (or if you did), I was riveted by Russell Crowe in the Noah movie portraying Noah telling the creation story to his children (watch here!)  a prehistoric guy accounting for science! I may show this in our contemporary service.

There are defenses of the creation story with respect to Genesis, probably none more eloquent than Francis Collins, renowned director of the Human Genome Project (and former skeptic): “Seeking to populate this otherwise sterile universe with living creatures, God chose the elegant mechanism of evolution to create microbes, plants and animals. Most remarkably, God intentionally chose the same mechanism to give rise to special creatures who would have intelligence, a knowledge of right and wrong, free will, and a desire to seek fellowship with Him.”

Or we have C.S. Lewis: “For long centuries, God perfected the animal form which was to become the vehicle of humanity and the image of Himself. In the fulness of time, God caused to descend upon this organism a new kind of consciousness which could say ‘I’ and ‘me,’ which could look upon itself as an object, which knew God, which could make judgments of truth, beauty and goodness, and which was so far above time that it could perceive time flowing past... Sooner or later, they wanted some corner in the universe of which they could say to God, ‘This is our business, not yours.’ But there is no such corner.”

My personal favorite thought about creation and science dawned on me when Stephen Hawking published The Grand Design, which was hailed as the definitive proof that we can explain the existence of the universe without resorting to God. People asked me to respond, but I agree with him entirely. God would not crush us with a definitive argument; it is not the case that you simply must believe. You really don’t have to. Jesus didn’t implant belief/holiness devices in his followers; they could follow, or not. Love is always like that. 

The preacher’s best theological counsel on Genesis is to advise people to watch Cosmos  or just get outside and let your jaw drop. Annie Dillard’s A Pilgrim at Tinker Creek continues to move me, as she takes us on a guided tour of the amazements out there and asks that we simply pay attention.

I think that’s how we came to have Psalm 8. Someone was dazed at the wonder of creation  without the benefit of all we known about galaxies and parallel universes!  and felt simultaneously tiny and yet enormously important. 

There is a statue of St. Francis in Assisi that I love: Francis lying on his back. Francis extolled God for creation like no one else, and I think he’d ask us to begin our course in praising by joining him on the ground, gazing at things up high.

The image of God is endlessly fascinating, and less than clear... which again is good. You are a mystery to yourself, and so are the other people. This image is what it is to be human, and yet that humanity is somehow an image of the holy Trinity. R.R. Reno, in his fabulous Brazos commentary on Genesis, captures things: “The image of God imprinted on human nature provides the basis for our supernatural vocation, the life in Christ that is greater than any possibility resident in our natural powers, but which is nonetheless a genuine exercise of our natural powers.”

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In our tawdry, misinformation, fake news culture, the preacher needs to be careful with words, and to remind our church families, repeatedly, that words matter. How did God create? God simply spoke. Words call worlds into being – and you know this in your own small existence, and can illustrate this easily. Watch the world turn on its axis when someone says “I love you” or “I’m proud of you” or “I never loved you” or “It’s malignant” or “I’m coming home.”

Parenthetically, there is a powerful word at the heart of the Trinity. In our culture, we are wise to lean into Jürgen Moltmann's perspective in The Trinity & the Kingdom. Some excerpts:

"The triune God reveals himself as love in the fellowship of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. His freedom lies in the friendship which he offers; his freedom is his vulnerable love, his openness, the encountering kindness through which he suffers with those he loves."

If we reduce God to a single, absolute personality, we wind up with "justification for the world's cultivation of the individual"  an individualism God grieves and counters. And there are political/social implications as well:

"It is only when the doctrine of the Trinity vanquishes the monotheistic notion of the great universal monarch in heaven that earthly rulers, dictators and tyrants cease to find any justifying religious archetypes any more."

Back to Genesis: the preacher has too many avenues to walk with Genesis 1. Pick one or two, or try my “dropping” technique. I don’t allow myself, for instance, enough time to talk about “Dominion,” so I just mention it: “Gee, we don’t have time to talk about dominion, but I love the way Walter Brueggemann suggested (in his Interpretation Genesis commentary) that we are asked to take care of God’s world, not take over God’s world.” Done. Sixteen seconds tops, but somebody will pick up that stray idea and ruminate on it.

For me, Genesis 1 exposes this weird ambivalence about the world. It’s good, even “very good,” and yet we find fault with it at every turn, and there is a desperate need, theologically, for sanctification. Thomas Aquinas pointed the way: “Grace perfects rather than destroys nature.” We play a huge role in this perfecting of nature, this spreading grace around in the world, a task articulated in the day’s Gospel lesson. Like Moses on the mountain, Jesus commissions his people to go into the land and teach, and baptize. 

We’ve done this so badly through history: just read Barbara Kingsolver’s Poisonwood Bible, about a fool preacher dragging his family to the Congo, determined to baptize the local heathen in the river  which they won’t go near since there are crocodiles. Tracts don’t work, street preachers are mocked, and old timey evangelism programs have grown mold. The only way has to be the way Jesus showed us in the beginning: to go into the world and love it, to find people and love them, to walk alongside them, to be with them, just as Jesus was with us and promised always to be with us. 

Sam Wells’s A Nazareth Manifesto is indispensable reading for clergy, and maybe even lay people; he shows us how to be with God’s world and people, not fixing them, not even helping them, but sharing in the journey together with them.

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The purpose of creation is the same as what is at the heart of life in creation: Sabbath. The preacher could profitably speak on the importance of Sabbath, so alien to our busy, frantic, connected, gadgety, productive, anxious culture.

Of many stellar books that explore the beauty of the Sabbath, most adore Abraham Heschel; as do I. But two others are rivals. Walter Brueggemann’s Sabbath as Resistence: Saying No to the Culture of Now (which might just be his best book ever) is profound and provocative, deftly moving from sabbath as devotional practice to social, political and economic implications; a short, holy, prophetic wonder. Some nuggets: 

“Multitasking is the drive to be more than we are, to control more than we do, to extend our power and our effectiveness. Such practice yields a divided self.”

“It was the deities of Egypt for whom work was never done.”

“God isn’t a workaholic, God isn’t anxious, creation not dependent upon endless work.”

His verbal and visual capture of Scripture itself can be breathtaking: “It is not accidental that the best graphic portray of this arrangement is a pyramid, the supreme construction of Pharaoh’s system.”

But then who is the most anxious person of all? The one at the top of the pyramid!

If you think he’s making too much about “Keep the Sabbath,” Brueggemann points out that this commandment gets the “longest airtime” of then ten, and does explore property and economics. Claiming the Sabbath as the “linchpin” of all the commandments, he suggests it is no different from the first (“No other gods!”) and the second (“No images,” life is not about objects and commodities). Coining the felicitous, memorable phrase, Brueggemann avers that “YHWH is about restfulness not restlessness.” Sabbath breaks all the interlocking cycles. Parents don’t have to rush their kids into ballet, you don’t have to buy the newest gadget, you aren’t compelled to get prettier.

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I have savored Christopher Ringwald’s riveting A Day Aparta rich, personal exploration of Jewish, Christian and Muslim habits and joys derived from a sacred day: “The Sabbath remains the dessert most people leave on the table.” What are we missing? 

“A God of love invites us into the day. We are admitted by our humanity, not our perfection. The day calls us to a banquet of time, not a prison of gestures and abstinence. An omnipotent God needs not our perfection.”

“We fight for the Sabbath: against ourselves, perhaps against other believers, and certainly against the claims of the world. The day apart pits the believer against all his or her worldly intentions.”

“I now see the unfolding opposites of the day. We do less and are more, we stop earning and grabbing and have more, we cease from making and make more, we let Creation be and in our repose we see it to be more than we ever knew.”

Ringwald’s Jewish friends, the Kligermans, do not drive on the Sabbath, since making a fire was prohibited by God on Mt. Sinai, and an automobile engine requires a spark. So the Kligermans stay home, or they walk, kids gambol, the adults visit. “It’s a joy derived from a restriction.” After listening to the Kligermans describe their Sabbath, Ringwald hung up the phone, and told his wife their observance of Sunday had gone awry; so they turned the TV off, played with the children, and had dinner with neighbors.

His clinching remark? “Thus the Jews save another Gentile family.”

This article originally appeared on the author's blog. Reprinted with permission.

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