Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Three in One Is Strange Math Indeed

Sermon notes for Trinity Sunday (5/31/2015)
(I rarely write my sermons completely so I don’t have a precise script of what I said during my homily. What I offer here are “Sermon Notes,” recollections of what I said, wanted to say, or should have said, all in retrospect.)

Madeleine L'Engle tells a story in her book Circle of Quiet about a Japanese man who, in discussing the mysterious concept of the Trinity, is puzzled and comments: "Honorable father, very good. Honorable son, very good. Honorable bird I do not understand at all."

L’Engle observes
"Very few of us understand 'Honorable Bird,' except to acknowledge that without his power and grace nothing would be written, painted, or composed at all. To say anything beyond this about the creative process is like pulling all the petals off a flower in order to analyze it, and ending up having destroyed the flower."
We have to be careful, when we talk about the Trinity, to not pull all the petals off the flower. Indeed, the Trinity is the great mystery of the God who is. The mystery of the Holy Trinity is the central mystery of Christian faith and life. It is the mystery of God in God’s very self – the source of all other mystery and the light that enlightens them. The mystery of the Trinity enlightens the mystery of Creation, the mystery of Incarnation, the mystery of re-Creation and Sanctification.

And so it is important to note that the mystery of the Trinity is not just about what we believe but about how we live. The mystery of the Trinity is the revelation of our sacraments and prayer, our worship and our song. The mystery of the Trinity is the root of our being Church and, thus, the source of our mission and ministry.

So we have to be careful about destroying the flower, reminded that some things just have to be believed to be seen.

I can remember rebelling against and rejecting the simplistic version of Christianity which had been handed to me as a boy. In my tween and teen years, I was a bane to the nuns who taught Sunday school and confirmation class. But I didn’t like the simplicity – it didn’t make sense. After all the world that I saw around me wasn’t simple – it was complex, sometimes dark and sometimes light, but usually gray. There was tremendous diversity.

It was, in part, the mystery of the Trinity that brought me hope and created the core around which my more mature (or, rather, maturing) faith would grow. You see, the mystery of the Trinity, the mystery celebrated in this feast today, is a celebration of complexity and diversity. It is a recognition of the many-hued reality of our God and of our lives. It is celebration of complexity over a mono-chromatic simplicity.

The mystery of the Trinity, the central metaphor for God for Christians is a diversity that encapsulated a unity, complete in its numeric simplicity and integrity.

Seen in biological terms, diversity is nature's way of preserving and propagating life but such demands change (granted, on an evolutionary timescale) that that might be threatening to one or another species.

Seen in sociological terms, at least in relation to early American towns, it has be noted that the richest and poorest person in town never lived more than a few hundred yards away from one another. Both would walk by one another's dwellings during the course of a typical day and were part of the same community. They were connected in ways we can now only try to imagine.

Yes, in modern America, diversity still seems devalued. We still live in highly segregated communities – dived by both race and class. Diversity in the workplace is not resected enough to demand equality in pay. And diversity of sexual orientation and gender identity is still not protected in the Sunshine State. Diversity still feels like a threat – to our values, to our lifestyles, and to our profits.

When we don't experience diversity of class or race in our day-to-day existence, we start to lose touch with one another, and the social fabric which binds us together begins to unravel at the seams.

Maybe the mystery of the Trinity – that great metaphor for the Godhead – holds a key for unlocking the door to diversity’s goodness. For Christians, after all, the mystery of Trinity is the primary symbol of community, a substantial unity that contains existential diversity, within God’s self. The Trinity is the Three-in-One and the One-in-Three.

A story is told of the Cappadocian Fathers (Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nazianzus, Gregory of Nyssa) who, in explaining the Trinity, used arithmetic as a model. The number “1” was viewed as no real number at all because it possessed not discernible character or strength – it had no diversity. The number “2” was weak because it was a dualism that was, at best, only two sides of a coin. The number” 3,” though, had innate stability, buttressed by the supporting sides of all three. It was the first “real” number because it had diversity, which made it durable and strong.

The mystery of the Trinity has been explained throughout the centuries with a myriad images, symbols, and metaphors.
  • Saint Patrick explained the Trinity using a shamrock – three individual leaves, yet still one plant.
  • Saint Augustine understood the Trinity as the Lover, the Beloved, and the love which exists between them.
  • Bernard of Clairvaux, in Sermon 8 of his Sermons on the Song of Songs, sees the Father as “he who kisses,” the Son as “he who is kissed,” and the Holy Spirit “in the kiss…the imperturbable peace of the Father and the Son, their unshakable bond, their undivided love, their indivisible unity.”
  • Tertullian explained the Trinity as a plant – the Father as the deep root, the Son as the shoot that breaks forth into the world, and the Spirit as the force which spreads beauty and fragrance on the earth.
  • Leonardo Boff (a contemporary Brazilian theologian) describes the Trinity as the primal or first community. It is "just and equal within the reality that is God,” a model for how we are called to connect with one another, without prejudice, without inequality, without competition, and always with perfect love.
The concept of perichoresis is 
demonstrated by the early
Irish symbol in which a continuous 
line unites three parts but 
without ever ending

My favorite image comes from the early Greek fathers who spoke of the relationship between the persons of the Trinity in terms of perichorasis, a Greek word meaning “rotation.” The word is derived from the preposition, peri, meaning "around," and the verb chorein meaning “to move forward” or “to dance.” Perichoresis, then, is the infinite dance within the Godhead that describes the relationship of one person of the Trinity to another. The three are so inexorably linked that they are one and without all three there is brokenness and no unity.

Perichoresis demonstrates that the mystery of the Trinity is really all about relationships. From the start, it is about the fundamental relationship within the Godhead but it also expresses well our own link with the Godhead in which we all join hands in one great circle, dancing to the center of life where God resides, moving ever closer to one another.

What relevance does the strange math have for our lives? What relevance is their in diversity in unity?

Just imagine what it could mean to your own faith and life to see the possibility of God in the greatest possible diversity.
  • Imagine God present in the diverse places of your life: in the dark and in the light, on the mountaintops and in the valleys, in the broken places and in the wholeness.
  • Imagine God present in the diversity of humankind: in those that look differently, speak differently, love differently; in the abandoned, in the forgotten, and in the marginalized. 
  • Imagine God present in the diversity of creation: in lions and tigers and bears; in the birds of the air and the fish of the sea; in the Amazon Rain Forest that is being cut back and in the oceans filling with all our plastic waste. 
What would it mean for us to discover God in the midst of our mistakes, our pain, our depressions, our illnesses, even our deaths?

Perhaps we would find a God who is close and walking with us instead of a God who feels distant and judgmental.

Augustine once quipped,
Lest you become discouraged, know that when you love, you know more about who God is than you could ever know with your intellect."
I find that comforting. And so may we all come to love a triune God who loves us and saves us in the ways only a complex and diverse God can.

Now that's the kind of math we can all get behind.