Sermon for Trinity Sunday, May 22, 2016, Romans 5:1-5, John 16:12-15
Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing in the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.
[Jesus said:] “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.”
This week I have been thinking about three scenes: a cemetery, a ceiling, and a florescent light. They represent three life situations. Situation one, the cemetery is where you have just laid to rest a person that meant something to you. The cemetery always makes you stop and think. You think about life and death, and about God – what is God like? Is God friend or foe; for us or against us? Our biggest hope or our biggest problem?
Situation two, the ceiling is not just any ceiling, but specifically the one above the bed; the one you look at when you cannot sleep; the dark stage on which you play out the question: why am I here? What is life about? What is the meaning of all of this? That too is a time to ask the God-questions. Is there a God? What does God have to do with my life?
The third life situation is the florescent light. This is what you look up from the hospital bed and see. It is probably one of the last things many of us will see as our lives draw to a close. And then the God questions will not only be real, they will be crucial. Will I meet God? What will God think of me and my life?
The cemetery, the bedroom ceiling and the hospital light are life situations among many others that bring up the God questions we all have. They can bring up our doubts, our uncertainty, and they can call to mind our faith and hope. Or some combination of the two that we oscillate between more than we would like to admit.
Trinity in Story
This is Trinity Sunday – so today we are asking the God questions. In some ways, the idea of a Trinity is supposed to be an answer to the God question: what is God? God is Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Three in One; One in Three.
But to talk this way today is to make most people’s eyes start to glaze over as they begin to yawn. It seems so abstract and theoretical. The bible, thankfully, does not talk about God in those philosophical ways. Mostly the bible tells stories.
The word Trinity does not even show up in the bible. And yet, the Creator God and the Holy Spirit and Jesus do. We just read from Romans. Paul told the church,
“we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, …because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”
The same is true from the Gospel of John, in which Jesus is depicted as saying that the Spirit of Truth will be sent by the Father to guide the community towards the truth.
Matthew’s gospel has a scene at the end in which Jesus tells the disciples to baptize people in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit – so already by around the year 80 we have community that is using a trinitarian baptismal formula.
But as I said, the bible is mostly stories, and those stories are about people who have experiences of God. The vast majority are group stories about how the community experienced God. Some are individual stories, but the big ones, like the stories of God making covenants, or the exodus from slavery, are community stories. Anyway, all the stories of individual experiences of God are in the context of the community’s story of God as well.
Telling our God Story: Awe First
So what is our story of God? How do we experience God today?
I think we have to start with wonder and awe. Going down to the beach and looking out at the vastness of the water and sky does not always give me goose bumps, but when I am mindfully present the vastness still amazes me. The same with the night sky or Friday’s lightening and thunder. The same at the intricacy and nearly infinite variety of plant and animal life that we sampled on the walk through the Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge.
Whatever God is, we experience awe and wonder, and we sense a presence. We sense that we are seen and known. This is not particular to Christians or Jews and Christians. This is a universal experience. That is Paul’s argument in Romans – everyone (give or take) has a nature-based experience of God. And whatever that God is like, God must be utterly awesome!
I know you have had those experiences. You have your stories – your sacred stories of God-awareness moments. And I know you will have more. These are the experiences that come back to you as you are in deep thought in the cemetery, or looking up at the bedroom ceiling, and will be in your heart as you see that hospital light.
When we have these experiences, they feel like presence. It is not just that we are standing there alone being amazed by beauty, we feel that we are not alone. Most people have the intuitive awareness that God must be Spirit. Whatever that amazing force that created all of this is like, it must be spiritual, because it seems to be present, though not physically so.
Israel told their story of the Creator God who even at Creation was the Spirit of God, or Breath, or Wind (all the same word) that hovered over the waters of chaos, bringing order into existence. So, even strict monotheists get it that the story of God must be told as a story of a Creator and of a Spirit. That is how we all experience God; spiritually.
As Jesus says to the woman at the well, in John’s story,
“God is Spirit, and worshipers of God must worship in spirit and in truth.”
But it does get complicated after that initial feeling, doesn’t it? Because as soon as we feel God’s presence, we have this need to name it. To give God a name is also to describe God. And this is where all the human variety starts. We all have different names, different descriptions.
Part of the reason for the variety of our names and understandings for God is that our experiences of life on this amazing planet are complicated. We see beauty, and we want to say “thank you” to a God so wonderful as to make a world of beauty and to give us the capacity to experience beauty.
I feel so blessed, not just that there is a sunset, but that unlike my dog or the horses and cows standing there as the colors in the sky change from orange to pink and then purple, but that I “get it” that it is beautiful. And I feel thankful. I feel grateful. I feel like the recipient of a precious gift. Experiencing beauty, I feel loved.
But it is complicated because then, I hear about a beloved person who gets cancer and dies, leaving behind a young family. I hear about a young woman who was murdered by the guy she was dating. I hear about another plane crash. I experience evil, and that complicates the whole God-story.
If I feel loved by the God who created sunsets, how should I feel about the God who allows evil: both natural evil and the evil that humans cause? What must that God be like?
Being Morally Alive
And this is where it gets really complicated. How do I know about evil? My dog doesn’t. She can be taught to do the things that make me happy and avoid the things I do not want her to do, but that is as far as it goes. She never feels guilty for standing at the window longing to go tear apart the cats next door. In fact she feels total joy at terrorizing the unsuspecting birds that land in the back yard. If she were a human she would be a moral monster, but she is not human. She has no morality.
But we do; so where did this come from? And, on the theory that a stream does not rise higher than its source, it is hard to believe that a purely material universe or a universe made by a Creator God could produce this moral sense about goodness unless there was a God and unless God were Good. So how do you account for the evil that we experience and know as evil?
Well, one way is to imagine that the good God that we experience is angry and punishing us. Just like our human fathers, this God has high expectations and a tricky temper. For a long time, this was the story that our people told abut God. God was capable of blessings, but God was also able to curse. Blessings come when we are obedient to God’s laws, curses follow disobedience.
The Jesus Part of the Story
This is why I am so thankful, on Trinity Sunday, that when we tell the story of God, it includes Jesus. Jesus taught us that we had the story partly correct, but partly incorrect. The part about God being the awesome Creator; that is correct. The understanding that God is present as Spirit; yes, right. But the part about curses, that was a misread, according to Jesus.
The man born blind; whose sin caused it; his or his parents, Jesus was asked. “Neither” was his answer. Does the sun shine or the rain fall on the fields of only the good people? “No,” Jesus said, it does not work that way. How about the people who died when the tower fell; were they killed because they were the worst sinners, they asked Jesus? Again, his answer was “No.”
Whatever this Creator-Spirit is like, it would be best not to think of him as a Father with high expectations and a bad temper, but as a father with high expectations and a broken heart when the prodigal son goes away and gets himself lost. It would be better to think of him as a shepherd who searches for his lost sheep. Or even as a woman – imagine that; God as a woman, searching for a lost coin. Instead of cursing, God goes seeking and finding and saving.
But then what about the business of evil? You would think this kind of God would step in and fix the DNA or the T-cell or wake up the driver just in time, right?
God In Our World With Us
So this is where our story is most profound. The story of God becoming flesh, the incarnation, is the story of God entering into human life. It is a story of God who comes to us and suffers with us. It is God, not at a great distance, but God present to where there are both sunsets and pediatric oncology wards.
It is the God behind that strong sense of right and wrong, that moral sense that understands justice and injustice, that is here, among us, with us, coaxing us and luring us to what is good, what is right, what is kind and compassionate. This is our story; that when God comes to us, he comes as Jesus did, feeding the hungry, sitting at table with outcasts, touching lepers and blessing children.
This God that we see in Jesus is horrified at systems of injustice and the suffering they cause, and so is willing to go right to the source and start upsetting tables. This is the one that came precisely to the peasants in the country side, the poor of the land and told them God’s kingdom was present; God’s love was present, and that they could become a community of equality, support and forgiveness.
This is the Trinity we experience. Not a philosophical idea, but a living God who blows our minds with beauty, whose presence we sense spiritually, and who is as loving and kind as Jesus.
This is the God we call Father, Son and Spirit who we can know as we ponder at the cemetery, and as we lie there awake looking up at the ceiling, and who will be with us when we see that final fluorescent light for the last time.