Chaplain Mel Baars
June 3, 2012
I was feeling a little stumped about how to begin this Trinity Sunday sermon. I have only had to preach this particular Sunday one other time, a few years ago, and it seemed a little daunting then, too. Throughout the week, when I mentioned it was Trinity Sunday, I got a few very quizzical looks. I would say a good portion of regular church goers, myself included, at least until seminary training, take a very laissez-faire posture toward the Trinity. We know it’s important, but we really don’t want to dig too deeply or find ourselves in the position of having to explain it.
Three in one; Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer-- These all sound like nice theological words. If you grew up Catholic or even Episcopalian, like me, you would have encountered the Trinity every single Sunday in one of our churches oldest and most important Affirmations of Faith, the Nicene Creed written in 325 C.E. Being a very driven worshiper, I took pride in the fact that I could say the Creed without even looking at my prayer book, as if it was some kind of church contest. Of course, the best part of this Creed, in my opinion, was the part when Jesus went to hell. The fact that it was permissible to say such a word, and in church of all places, was just plain thrilling to me. Although, I did run into a slight problem when I went with friends to other churches where they said different versions of the Creed. Once, at the Methodist church, I prayed the “descended into hell” part pretty loudly, so impressed with my memorization that I didn’t realize everyone else was praying something completely different. Not one of my finer moments of piety. But, throughout all the years of saying the Creed, even as a young adult in college, I think I mostly took the Trinity for granted. I believed it, sure. I had been professing it for my entire life, but I really couldn’t explain what my belief amounted to.
Being tasked to preach about the subject or just trying to explain it to persons of other faith backgrounds who have not grown up with some implicit Trinitarian understanding has made me realize just how difficult the Trinity is to wrap one’s brain around. Some of the poorest, yet most comical, attempts to describe the Trinity will happen during children’s sermon this Sunday morning. For the “older” youth, God’s threefold nature may be likened to H2O, solid, liquid, and gas. This example is helpful, at least vaguely. We understand ice, running water, and steam, three distinct elements being strangely one in the same. These are palpable examples which we can grasp. But, this example is also limiting. It doesn’t explain is God’s characteristics, who these three persons are and what is significant about them? Why does it matter that God is three-in-one? What does this mean for us and for our faith?
Another favorite, yet heretical, example used is an egg. Surprisingly, this is a heated debate on certain theological websites. There are quite a few people that get worked up when the Trinity is likened to an egg: shell, white, and yoke. One of the problems with this example is that when you take away the shell, what is left is still “egg.” But, if you take away a person of the Trinity, then God would be incomplete. Interestingly enough, the egg example was first used by clergy in the Church of England. This further proves that even those who are trained in these subjects struggle with how to teach and articulate them. It seems that our examples and even to an extent, our language, is inadequate to explain God fully.
Human inadequacy is the overarching theme for the day, especially as we encounter our Old Testament text. The prophet’s first words are incredibly telling when he says, “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” This is why I love the Old Testament so much. The prophets always keep things real, which is refreshing to say the very least. But, think about it, what would any if of us say or do if we were in Isaiah’s shoes. A vision of God on a throne, with seraphs in attendance saying ‘Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord of Hosts, the whole earth is full of his glory,’ with such power that the foundation of the whole place shudders and smoke billows to the ceiling.
This scene is otherworldly, not at all what Isaiah is expecting. But then again, encountering the holy always seems to have an element of surprise and mystery. Whether God shows up in a burning bush, as an infant child in a lowly manger, or anything and everything between, when we are tuned in enough to notice a glimpse of holiness, feelings of inadequacy, of insignificance, are almost always in order. Most of us can relate in some way—holding our newborn child for the first time, hovering silently over a hospital bed as a loved one takes her final breath, beholding the majesty of mountains lit up by the first rays of sunlight—in these holy moments, there are few, if any, words to say. It’s no wonder that the prophet finds himself on his knees, confessing what he has known all along, but what has suddenly become clear in God’s presence. But by the grace of God am I.
What comes next in the story is telling, too. Once the prophet has uttered his confession aloud, once he has voiced the inadequacy that he feels, one of the seraphs intervenes. With a flutter of its wings, this creature picks up a hot coal from the altar and takes it over to the prophet, touching his lips and saying, “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.” Just acknowledging his smallness, his loss of direction, his need for divine healing, is enough for an intervention. It’s enough for him to be wiped clean of his faults and sin. In this moment he is recreated into something new, and all because of his confession, his willingness to respond to God’s presence with a sense of awe and reverence.
When we worship, we gather together to remember God’s enormity, we are reminded that despite all the ways we convince ourselves that we are in control, or wield significant power, have many of the answers, or continue with our advancement, ever on the cutting edge of technology or medicine… Despite all that we are capable of, what we have been able to create and achieve, there are many things that we cannot command. We are still very small. There are still times when we find ourselves on our knees, in grief or despair, with a sense of loss or wonder in the face of life’s mystery. No matter how big we get, we never outgrow God.
As Isaiah’s story goes, it’s only after he is made new that he is able to hear God calling out this question: “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?”And in one of the most well known “Call” stories in the whole Bible, the prophet answers, “Here I am; Send me!” Just like that. I don’t know about you, but it feels like all of this is happening so fast. Out of nowhere, Isaiah has a holy encounter. He confesses his inadequacy. He is made new, and the next thing we know, he is raising his hand, ready to go out and be God’s voice to the people. It takes place in a matter of moments. And, we are left reeling, wondering even, if Isaiah really knows what he is getting himself into. Does he really know what he is saying yes to when he answers so boldly, “Here I am; Send me!”
Anyone who has ever answered “the call,” no matter what the call happens to be-- marriage, parenting, ministry, military service, or any other vocation-- has no real clue what he or she is saying, “Yes” to. Our scripture for this morning doesn’t tell us the rest of Isaiah’s story, about the heartache, about the dark days, about all the trials and difficulties that he encounters because of his affirmative answer. All we know today is that he says, “Yes.” He says “Yes,” despite what doesn’t fully know or understand. He says, “Yes,” even though he knows he is small and inadequate, even though he can’t articulate God’s fullness. He simply says, “Yes.”
On one hand we have the unknowability of God and on the other hand we have God’s call, despite all that we don’t know and can’t predict, to go out into the world, ready to do holy work. Now, I realize that I have pretty much skirted the whole issue of explaining the Trinity. But, it’s more than an analogy about an egg or even solid, liquid, and gas. It is so much more than any of these vain attempts. The Trinity, God who is three in one, is so much more a mystery than concrete, so much more unknown than known. And somehow, standing with the saints and hosts of witnesses from every age, past, present, and to come, despite this uncertainty or inadequacy on our part, we find courage to profess our faith in God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
We don’t say yes to God because what God offers us is fact. We say “Yes,” because what God offers us is true, because somewhere inside of us, we know that saying “Yes” is the only way to answer. Despite the mystery or perhaps even because of it, we are filled with the awe and majesty of a God who is never fully knowable. When we are in the presence of God, when we confess all that we are not and in turn give honor and praise to all that God is, we are in a position for God to make us new again, ready, despite any doubts or fears, and even our human limits, to bear Good News, loving and serving the Lord along the way. Amen.