A sermon for Trinity Sunday, Year C
Today, the first Sunday after the day of Pentecost, is traditionally known as “Trinity Sunday.” It is on this Sunday that we acknowledge directly the doctrine of the Trinity and preachers and Sunday School teachers alike try their best to get both their minds and their tongues around this rather esoteric concept. Our readings try to shed light on this doctrine, this story we tell over and over that God, “Father, Son and Holy Spirit,” is not one, or three, but three-in-one.
Our hymns celebrate this sacred mystery of the church and our ancient faith. While some preachers and theologians relish the opportunity to make the doctrine somehow clearer or more accessible, my most honest answer to explaining the Trinity comes from our Sequence Hymn this morning. We just heard, “Holy Father, Holy Son, Holy Spirit, Three we name thee/while in essence only One, undivided God we claim thee/then adoring bend the knee and confess the mystery.”
Following my sermon, we will stand as we do everytime we gather here for the Eucharist, and confess our faith in the words of the Nicene Creed, this ancient document from the late fourth century, the days of Constantine. What we don’t hear in that creed is the great argument and debate that led to its crafting. There was indeed much rankorous confusion, at one point literally over one iota, a division that ultimately led to schism in the church. To this day, some wield the creeds as weapons, rightly dividing “true” Christians from heretics, while others, myself among them, embrace the creed as not a flawless utterance from the mouth of God, but as a snapshot taken of our Christian ancestors struggling to define both who they were and what this three-in-one, one-in-three God was truly like.
There are many in the Anglican Communion who continue to define their faith by exclusion – who’s right and who’s wrong, who’s in and who’s out, who’s invited to the party and who isn’t. The Archbishop of Canterbury just this week scolded us American Episcopalians because for the second time in seven years one of our dioceses, the Diocese of Los Angeles, democratically elected an openly gay assistant bishop, Mary Glasspool, who has been in a committed relationship with her partner for 20 years. Archbishop Williams, who was appointed by the Queen, not elected by the people he serves mind you, deems us not as trustworthy as others, though everytime we elect a bishop in the Episcopal Church we demand that it the Holy Spirit speaking through the democratic process, instead of patriarchy and mere traditionalism designed to soothe the establishment.
Oh, there is MUCH more I could say on this topic but I will resfain. Ask me over coffee! But what I would remind you is that we at Christ Church do not define ourselves by compliance and exclusion. Rather we invite dialogue and study over such concepts as the Trinity. If you just can’t seem to wrap your mind around it, if you are left with questions, we aren’t going to show you the door, instead we will invite you in deeper, invite you to conversation. Our community has Christ as our center, the Christ who invites us one and all to communion with God, despite whether we can define what that means. We will continue to recite the creeds as historic connections to our ancestors and ways to enter into a discussion of who God is and who we are in relation to God, but you need not fear these words. In essence they speak of unity and communion, not division and exclusion.
So let us turn to our readings this morning, and try once again to glimpse the mystery that is our God. These readings are ones that on the surface don’t seem to have much to do with the doctrine of the Trinity, at least not without the shedding of some serious, scholarly sweat. When I sat down with these lessons, what really captured my imagination, instead, was the reading from Proverbs.
We don’t get to hear as much from the book of Proverbs as some of us would like. Proverbs is part of the larger section of scripture known as wisdom literature. The wisdom literature of the Hebrew Scriptures was most likely not written to be kept in-house. Scholars believe the writings were intended to be shared with other cultures in the ancient world, in essence bringing the voice of Judaic wisdom to the larger marketplace of collected wisdom writings.
The books of Job, Proverbs and, most notably, Ecclesiastes lack many overt references to the Hebrew God that make other books more distinctly Jewish. These books in particular seem to have been meant for the consumption of a wider audience.
In one of these wisdom books, we encounter a character named Wisdom. Wisdom is one of the few characters in all scripture that is personified as a woman. In the first nine chapters of Proverbs two figures are making a play for human souls — Lady Wisdom and Mistress Folly. Throughout this section their actions and characteristics are compared and contrasted, with Lady Wisdom clearly portrayed as the one any decent and sane person would cling to.
Surely there are many warnings directed at young Jewish men to obey the Law and to keep away from Mistress Folly, but the appeal to Lady Wisdom is bigger than the Jewish Law – it is far more universal.
Wisdom is one place where all world religions intersect. Is Wisdom not the one of the chief goals of our spiritual journeys, no matter what our religious or cultural context? In most cultures isn’t wisdom the consolation prize for getting older, for grey hair? Wisdom is not a thing to be hoarded but rather shared. Wisdom by its very nature implies the interaction between beings. Wisdom is about community. What good is personal self-enlightenment if it cannot help others? Indeed the love of wisdom, phila-sophia in the Greek, gave rise to Western culture as we know it.
But why a reading about Lady Wisdom on Trinity Sunday, and why this particular passage?
Consider the remarkable language placed in Lady Wisdom’s mouth here in Proverbs 8. She is the first act of creation. She was present before the earth was created. Lady Wisdom predates the hills and the seas. She worked along-side God in creation as a master-worker. God delighted in her daily. These are remarkable words. Wisdom was present from the very beginning of creation.
Do these words not sound strikingly familiar? During a discussion of the Trinity we might have read from John 1, “In the Beginning was the Word, and the word was with God, and the word was God. And the word became flesh and dwelt among us.” This is the miracle that the Early Church believed – the ancient wisdom that predated the earth itself – the wisdom that all cultures seek – the object of all spiritual journeys – this wisdom became flesh and blood in Jesus, what we call the incarnation.
By the time John 1 was written, Christianity was quickly losing its Jewish identity. The followers of Jesus were interacting instead with people from the surrounding Greco-Roman world. Hebrew thought had to be translated into a Greek concept, and so Lady Wisdom quickly become Logos, where we get our word, Logic. Dare I say most of the systematic theology written about Jesus ever since has emphasized the Greek concept of Logos, relying on logic, and has lost much of the beauty and poetic art of Lady Wisdom.
But is wisdom something that only Jews and Christians care about? I grew up with a very sectarian understanding of the wisdom found in other faiths – well, it’s just not as good as ours…we have Jesus! Other cultures and religions revere Jesus, not as figure of war and conquest, but as a man of wisdom, a great teacher. They see something in this humble teacher from Galilee. Isn’t this the true nature of wisdom, transcending boundaries? It knows no particular flag or nationality. Try as any particular religious tradition might, universal wisdom can’t be kept in a box with a key. It is to our peril that we convince ourselves that we alone possess wisdom, and thereby deny our interdepence with people of other faiths. This is how wars are started.
When we are at our best, we humans pursue peace and wisdom. When we are at our best, we share that in common. The relationships we share with each other on both a global and local basis, with neighboring countries and with our neighbors next door, these reflect our individual and corporate relationship with God. This connectedness – this is the message of Trinity Sunday.
I would commend to you an article written by our Presiding Bishop, Dr. Katherine Jefferts Schori, who, as both a person of deep faith and as an oceanographer, has written a reflection on this cataclysmic oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. In an article on The Huffington Post, she writes of the far-reaching impact that this oil spill will have to so many species, not just humans. She writes, “There is no place to go ‘away’ from these consequences; there is no ultimate escape on this planet. The effects at a distance may seem minor or tolerable, but the cumulative effect is not. We are all connected, we will all suffer the consequences of this tragic disaster in the Gulf, and we must wake up…Our lives, and the liveliness of the entire planet, depend on it.”
We are all connected. Would we protect the environment from our irresponsible exploitation, then our operating principle must not be our insatiable lust for natural resources. Would we pursue peace between nations, let our love of wisdom and peace bring us together, not our lust for power or wealth or land. Would we in the Anglican Communion seek unity and reconciliation, then we must allow love and wisdom to rule the day, not fear and suspicion. Just as I have tried in a much more convoluted and esoteric way in years past to show you that God’s relational nature reflects our own, I think it may be easier to see, with the help of Lady Wisdom, that the essence of the Trinity, the very essence of God is communion, connectedness.
Yes, the logic of systematic theology has its place, but surely the good news is better news than theologians debating exactly who is saved and who isn’t, who’s in and who’s out. The wisdom of the ages, the shared wisdom of all cultures, brought together, could it be here that we discover Jesus, wisdom, to be a man of peace rather than a figure of division? Amen.