Monday, May 19, 2008

A Trinity Sermon

Yesterday, I gave my first "sermon" at church, more or less as follows:

How many of you have heard a Trinity Sunday sermon that began, “This is a Sunday about a doctrine”? Well, you can relax a little, for I'm not going to attempt to explain the doctrine of the trinity to you. That's rather the point, after all: the trinity is a mystery, and in the end, beyond our understanding. So I will leave aside the visual aids and analogies: no shamrocks, no diagrams, no icons. This Sunday, the mystery will remain a mystery.

The other Sundays of the year, we largely look at Jesus. In Advent, we look to his coming; at Christmas, his birth; during Epiphany, his manifestation of God in his life, and so on up to Ascension Day. The Holy Spirit gets a Sunday at Pentecost, and then starting the Sunday after this, we spend the rest of the church year considering Jesus' teachings. But today, we look at God Himself, and not in time, but for all time.

Now of late, denunciads against religion have been running off the presses again. I personally was cured of reading these things back when I had to read Bertrand Russell's Why I Am Not a Christian for a philosophy of religion course. I found it unbearably sophomoric, and the latest examples seem more of the same. A lot of them seem to get really no further than the observation that people do evil in the name of religion, and I think that for a Christian, this is not a remarkable observation. But to stay on the subject, the picture of God that appears in these books is hardly better than a caricature of the image of an angry old tyrant on a throne. Their “god” is too small.

In today's lesson from Genesis, by contrast, we see God as he is very, very large: the creator of the universe. This morning I read that there are thought to be 100 billion stars in our galaxy, and 100 billion galaxies in the universe. That's big-- unimaginably big. And yet the old medieval image of God holding the universe in one hand and measuring it with the other is closer to the truth. “The heavens declare the glory of God”, it says in Psalm 19, and considering how big we believe the heavens to be, that's a lot of glory. We do not fully appreciate the scope of the divine architecture. And yet, the image of the great tyrant architect troubles some. The theologian Paul Tillich preferred the image of God as the “ground of being”, an image I have never found adequate, being too close to the pantheistic belief that God is simply the sum of all existence. For all that, it is better than the deistic image of the divine watchmaker, who simply starts things going and then steps away from creation; but it neglects the divine transcendence, reducing God to the foundation of the building, not the builder himself.

And it solves a problem which I think we no longer find very pressing. Yes, we believe that God is immanent in this place. He made himself manifest in the person of Jesus, and he manifests himself in the church and in the sacraments Her ministers perform. After two thousand years, we are comfortable with talking to God wherever we are and believing that he is there, and we accept that He may take up a seat in our hearts and minds and souls. The notion that God underlies all existence is comfortable to modern minds, but a transcendent God who is not only down here, but out there-- that has become difficult. The Anglican theologian Robert Farrar Capon, whom I first came upon talking about the revelation of God in cooking, also wrote that the Old Testament images of God reacting in wrath and raining down special effects on the world at least have the advantage of showing God as something active and involved in the universe. But often, it seems, men prefer their special effects in the movies. God parts the Red Sea, but it is only trick photography. God sends down fire upon the Nazis who have defiled his ark, but it is only model work. God raises Jesus from the dead, but of course the actor never died. The world looks at the screen, and knows that such things only happen in the movies.

And is it not so? These days, we do not see the special effects God, the God who, it is said in the Revelation, will pour out the seven bowls of wrath upon the earth. If God is acting in our lives, for the most part it is subtle, secret, and often in silence. Often we can only tell after the fact that He has touched us. Remember some weeks back how the disciples in Emmaus did not recognize Jesus until after he had broken bread with them? That is how, most of the time, it is with us. Vague spirituality and frank unbelief come easily to modern people; but belief in a God of power and divine will do not. Saying that a hurricane or earthquake is like the wrath of God has become an archaicism. The god of the world has become small to the point of vanishing in mist; there are very many who believe that god is present, but that he doesn't doing anything more than make people feel good.

And who should worship such a triviality? It would be like worshipping the comforter on one's bed, or a teddy bear. We are moved to worship the awesome, the God whose full presence is terrifyingly unbearable. In Isaiah, the angels hide their faces from His presence; in Exodus, God will show only his back to Moses, but not His face. When the temple in Jerusalem is consecrated, the glory of the Lord settles on it, and the priests cannot enter it to minister; and on the mountain, when Jesus is transfigured, the three disciples are confounded. We, gathered here, have not seen these things; but if we remember them, if we listen to scripture and commit these things to our hearts, we can keep the taste of the God in our mouths and the fear of God in our hearts.

So I'm almost to the end, and I've hardly mentioned the Trinity. And yet it too is a scandal, because the complexity it hints at in God is also offensive to many. The picture of the perfect, all-sufficient God affords to many no room for three persons unified in one God. Judaism could not accept it; Islam rejects it. In our history the Unitarians turned away from the doctrine. And yet, for today, I point to it as the sign of God's transcendence. It is not something we could work out for ourselves, save that scripture testifies to it. Monotheism: that we can grasp; a pagan pantheon of gods and spirits for this and that principle: that we can see devised in myriad places and manners. But a god who is both unified and divided: that we had to be taught, and that we have to remember-- just as we remember the titanic acts of God, and his creation of this universe whose wonders we never seem to reach the end of. So today we are taught by Jesus himself, that we baptize not just in the name of God, or of Christ, but in the Threefold Name.

The mighty God of history is a God whose story must be retold to each generation. Indeed, remembrance is the central act of our worship. In a short time, the priest will take up the bread and wine, and will recall Jesus' words at the Last Supper: “Do this in remembrance of me.” The church is assembled in recollection not only of the divine promises, but of the divine's mighty acts. So let us remember our faith, and remember to worship the immanent and transcendent, triune God— Father, Son, and Holy Spirit— forever and unto ages of ages. Amen.