A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor – Copyright 2016
Trinity Sunday/C • May 22, 2016
When I was 15, I played the trumpet and my band director was Mr. Tilton. Mr. Tilton was a graduate of the University of Michigan and its marching band, the finest marching band in the world, as he constantly reminded us. We were not the finest marching band but we did try to play and walk at the same time. Eventually we would get out-of-order and Mr. Tilton would stop us, make biting comments about people who wanted to be soloists instead of part of a band, and then gather us again with the words, “All together now.” I imagine that God is a bit like Mr. Tilton, always trying to make the lines straight and the music sweet, occasionally frustrated by our wandering off out of step.
Today is Trinity Sunday and I hope to explore this with you for a few moments, because this is the heart of God’s all together now. I have to admit: the idea of talking about the trinity makes me nervous. The first time I tried, I was asked to leave a church. I was 12 and a member of a confirmation class at a Methodist church. The minister was following some outline and told us God was three in one, a trinity. This didn’t make sense to me and I said so. He said it was a matter of faith. I told him I didn’t understand it; he said it was a mystery. I said, “You don’t understand it either.” My mother was invited not to bring me to confirmation again. That’s part of how I became a Congregationalist.
Now that I’m a minister with grey hair of my own, I’m embarrassed to realize I put that poor man in such a position. What I realize is that I was probably right; he probably didn’t understand it any better than I do. Since then, I’ve learned lots of tricky ways of talking about how something can occur in three states. There’s the ice-water-steam one; there’s the fact that we all have different roles. But all those do is say what we all know, that we have different names for different occasions. How can it be that God is not just differently named but is different? And why would we care?
The Presence of God
When we look at the God of the Bible, there is such passion, such power, that it can be embarrassing. We show up and smile at each other; Jesus shows up and demons bark and groan, people get healed, governors get angry. We show up when there is trouble and say, “I’ll do what I can”; the Father shows up and slaves go free, prophets convict kings, the world is remade. We show up and hope to feel better; the Holy Spirit shows up and people there are tongues of fire and people change in amazing ways.. The trinity is important because it’s what God is doing and what God is doing is always passionate, always restless, always creative.
How should we understand this trinity? It’s common to offer one of those little metaphors I mentioned earlier to suggest all three persons of the trinity, father, son and holy spirit, are really the same thing. But a better idea of the trinity is the church itself. We are a noisy, shuffling lot. We have different opinions, other stuff gets in our way, we move forward at a pace that can seem agonizing. There is an old TV series called Seventh Heaven that centers on a Protestant minister and his family. It always makes our family roll our eyes. The minister on the show hangs around his house a lot and when someone, anyone, has a problem, he says, “We need to talk about that.” He does different things but one thing he almost never does is go to a committee meeting.
We are Congregationalists; we are all about our meetings. There are the Boards, the church council, Congregational meetings—it’s each one with a group of people, sitting around, minutes, agenda, and discussion. But that’s who we are together. And there is a personality to the whole; there is a great and wonderful loving personality to this whole church that is more than any of us together yet without each of us, it is less. God is like that, I think: a constant, eternal conversation, a constant, eternal example of loving engagement.
God Is a Talker
Why should God appear in three different persons? If we search the scriptures, the very first thing we learn is that God is a talker. God speaks: creation results. “And God said…” rolls like thunder through the opening verses of Genesis and the effect flashes like lightning on the roiling waters of chaos, turning it into a world of order where life is possible. God speaks and what was darkness becomes the ordered progression of light and night and time is the result; God speaks and what was slurry of water and dirt turns into places and farms; God speaks and the wilderness becomes a garden. From the very beginning, God is talking and all talkers want an audience. The passionate preaching of the father speaks to the spirit and the son and we overhear the conversation. And conversation takes partners. So God exists in the conversation of father, son and Holy Spirit.
Conversation and Connection
The goal of the conversation is connection. At the heart of the mystery of God is a loving, passionate pursuit of another so that God is only known through the exchange back and forth of persons. Christian faith has never been about a set of principles. Buddhism has its eight-fold path of principles; we have these three persons, father, son, Holy Spirit. Jesus did not come announcing a philosophy and he did not preach a principle: he offered himself, he presented himself. He didn’t say, look, here is a set of directions for finding your way, he said, “I AM the way.” It’s personal: it’s particular. What we have to learn over and over again is that approaching God is approaching a person, knowing a person, being known as persons ourselves.
Like all ongoing relationships, the conversation has some constant themes. One theme is the determination of the father to gather the whole world back into a garden of perfect concord and the way the son demonstrates what this looks like. Jesus is not just the bringer of a message: he is the message, you can’t get the message without living his life. And the means of that life is the invisible power of the Spirit that moves like a wind, invisible yet powerful, filling the sails of all who seek it.
Imagining the Trinity
What does the trinity look like? It looks like communion, I think. When we gather around the communion table, we remember that lives are lived in the drama of bodies and promises. We are not only creatures of spirit; we hurt, we hunger, we hope. We come as individual persons, seeking connection, and in these common elements, we join into one body. We sit silent and alone but we turn to each other and say, “the peace of God be with you, and also with you.” We know we have failures in our past but we lift the cup and promise our future faithfulness.
This is God, in us, with us, and its power is unfathomable. It is a power that breaks slavery; it is a power that does miracles. It is a power profound in its pursuit of a connection so deep, so complete, that indeed the three are one; so deep, so complete, that we ourselves, all of us, become one and in that one the love of God is bursting forth. All together now: God is a community of persons, father, son, spirit calling to us to say: you also—all together now. March!