Weekly Preaching: Trinity Sunday 2018

May 22nd, 2018

It’s Trinity Sunday. I always think it's best to preach the Word straightforwardly instead of trying to offer up a little lecture explaining why the Trinity is a thing, which will only create classroom banter and intellectual quizzicalness (in my view). I teach sometimes on the Trinity, but in a class setting. Mind you, there are texts that assume God’s Threeness and the lovely, moving interrelatedness that is the heart of God. Romans 8:12-17, our epistle for the day, is one of them. The Spirit leads and speaks in our spirit so we know we are, just as Jesus was, children of the heavenly Father whom we are invited to speak to intimately: Abba!

I'd bet a lot of your people saw Bishop Michael Curry's marvelous sermon at the royal wedding on Saturday. Imagine: the beauty of God's Word outshone even the marvelous royal couple and the splendor of Windsor Castle. He spoke of "the redemptive power of love," which "will make of this old world a new world. There's power in love. Don't underestimate it." He then launched into a cascade of what could be transformed by love. What is the Trinity, but the love that is in — no, the love that is the heart of God?

If you do speak of the Trinity (I will, but hopefully with not too much explaining going on), here's an approach: when I was in seminary we had a talent show each year. A favorite moment came when students would do impersonations of professors, and we'd guess who was being impersonated. My friend Pat walked on stage, spoke a complete sentence or two about the Trinity, then he began incomplete sentences, then took off his glasses and grimaced as he pressed his hand to his brow. We all rightly guessed Tom Langford, theology professor who did what preachers should do more of: embody the fact that we are speaking of something too vast, too complex — perhaps knowable, adorable, but mind-boggling.

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The Gospel, John 3:1-17, works any Sunday of the year, as we see the fleshing out of the heart of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. I’ve commented on John 3:1-17 recently in this blog series (March 11, Lent 4).

To complicate everything, it’s Memorial Day weekend, which creates a kind of pressure you may or may not enjoy. Six years ago, after dodging, coping with and responding to criticism for being… insufficiently patriotic?... I preached a whole sermon I’d commend to you explaining a Christian viewpoint on Memorial Day, which was semi-well-received. If it helped no one else, it helped me to work through what I will do and won’t do on Sunday morning regarding patriotic holidays. How do we own it, honor our people, but not enfranchise an excess of patriotism and a hawkish spirit?

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Isaiah 6 is tabbed for the lectionary surely because the seraph called to the other seraph, not crying “Holy!” but “Holy, Holy, Holy!” I once heard a sermon where the preacher bore in on this for a 3-point sermon on the three aspects of holiness: being set apart, being pure, and then social holiness (a profoundly Wesleyan emphasis! Works of mercy, advocating for peace and justice, visiting the prisons, etc.). It's a tempting and a helpful trellis on which to grow a sermon, but not what the seraph was thinking. The preacher could paint some personal images of what holiness looks like; I’d look for the non-traditional, not-so-pious examples from people I’ve known.

My favorite hymn, which people had better sing at my funeral, is “Holy, Holy, Holy." I fell in love with it as a child because of its repetitive simplicity. Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s line (not Shakespeare's!) — How do I love thee? Let me count the ways — might work with God’s holiness. What about a sermon that simply meditates on the holiness of God? I love the sermons that don’t have obvious “points” or “takeaways,” but that fixate with devoted clarity on the wonder of God. There are implied takeaways (like You be holy too – very biblical!), but leave them as implied.

A marvelous guide to the holiness of God is A.W. Tozer’s less well-known little book, The Knowledge of the Holy: The Attributes of God, Their Meaning in the Christian Life. Chapter by chapter (twenty-three of them in just 117 pages) he explores some holy attribute of God: from God’s mercy to God’s incomprehensibility, from wisdom to justice, from self-existence to omniscience. Like turning a precious diamond in your hand, holding it up to the light, awestruck: we ponder God’s holiness. That alone would make a terrific sermon.

Isaiah resonates in so many ways. The text seems ethereal, metaphysical, this report of being transfixed and transported into the utterly unspeakable presence of God. And yet, it is entirely nailed to a moment in history: “In the year that King Uzziah died.” A time of political uncertainty, confusion, threats within and without. At such a time, God still speaks; God is still God. Do we not suffer from political chaos and instability? What does the Holy God speak to us during such a time?

The heat, the unfathomable mind-blowing experience that is God’s presence in the holy place elicits awe, which we don’t know much about. I admire what Amos Wilder tried to help us see about worship: “Going to church is like approaching an open volcano where the world is molten and hearts are sifted. The altar is like a third rail that spatters sparks. The sanctuary is like the chamber next to the atomic oven: there are invisible rays and you leave your watch outside.”

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Isaiah 6 is yet one more of the Bible’s call narratives that all fit the same pattern: God unexpectedly calls, the one called explains why he or she is insufficient, then God reassures — not that he or she is sufficient, but that God will use whom God will use. In Isaiah’s case, he senses his unholiness, rendering him unfit for holy use. When we interview candidates for ordination, they generally speak of their abilities, education and cool experience; not many speak of their unworthiness, their unholiness — which seems to be what this God is looking for; not ability but availability, and maybe even disability. These thoughts and others led me to write Weak Enough to Lead, which explores the Bible’s thoughts on leadership, which are vastly different from and almost antithetical to ours.

For anyone preaching, the bizarre interaction at the very outset of Isaiah’s ministry should humble us, discourage us, and bequeath to us great company. They won’t understand, their hearts are fat, their ears heavy, their eyes are shut. It will turn out that they won’t get your message — at least not for a very, very long time. So it is with preaching. We preach, not to get results, not to grow the church, not to gauge my worth or their worth, and certainly not to roll up big numbers. We preach because God says preach. We preach, not to see if they like to respond to our preaching, but to please God.

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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: "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." 

Clergy are fond of showing and talking about the lovely Rublev icon. Once I spoke of it and imagined three bridge players very much wanting to play, waiting for a fourth — you, me, the church, maybe the stranger. I wonder about inviting people to imagine a family of four, but one is missing. They aren’t content, like Hey, we got 75%! That’s pretty good. No, you crave the whole family being together, especially if one of the four is never coming. God’s Threeness yearns for the one who’s not yet there, maybe like that shepherd leaving ninety-nine sheep to seek out the one.

"What can we say come May 27? Trinity Sunday" originally appeared on James Howell's Weekly Preaching Notions. Reprinted with permission.

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