This sermon was preached on May 22, 2016 at Dayspring Baptist Church, St. Louis, MO on Psalm 8. You may have seen bits of this sermon from other sermons.
I have a confession to make. I like to doodle. I doodle during sermons. My PhD supervisor, who doesn’t allow electronics of any kind in the classroom, will allow doodling, because it gets the brain thinking in different ways. In Sunday School, when I was teaching on the mystic Hildegard last week, we learned how artwork causes us to think about God in different ways. I’m not a very good artist, so maybe I’ll pick out a word that I connect to the sermon and write it in different ways. Or, like last week during Pentecost, I drew images of the Holy Spirit: flames, a dove, etc. So, if you feel comfortable, whether you are young, or old, feel free to doodle in your worship guide as we explore with the Psalmist who God is, and who we are, through thinking about the Trinity.
What is the Trinity, anyway?
Maybe, a different way to ask the question is “who is the Trinity?” The seasons of the church year make sure we think about the Trinity at least once annually. If we look in the church calendar, we realize we’re in a different season of the church year. We’re in the Season of Pentecost, which is sometimes called “ordinary time,” which I don’t think is a very fair term. The first Sunday in “ordinary time” is called Trinity Sunday. I guess whoever made the church calendar figured out the Trinity Sunday would fit well after Pentecost, since we just finished talking about the Holy Spirit, why not talk about all Three persons of the Trinity?
The Trinity is one thing about God that most churches agree on, though we don’t really talk about it a lot. Mainline protestant, Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, evangelical, charismatic churches all affirm the Trinity. If we were boiling down the Trinity in a couple of sentences, it would be this: We believe in three persons: The Father (or Mother), the Son, and the Holy Spirit. But, though they are three persons, they are one God.
People throughout the centuries have struggled to describe the Trinity. We attempt to draw pictures of intersecting circles and triangles, like the one on the front of our worship guide. Our friend the early church theologian Augustine, used the analogy of the mind, understanding, and will to describe the Three Persons, but one God. Some use the clover, each leaf represents a different person, but it is one plant. Others will speak of an egg: the shell, the egg white, and the yolk represent the different persons. If you go on YouTube, and type in “St. Patrick and Trinity heresies”, you’ll learn why all these descriptions are inadequate ways to talk about the Trinity, told to you by a cartoon leprechaun with a bad Irish accent. When teaching about the Trinity with my students, I remember one guy getting frustrated, putting his head in his hands, and asked in exasperation: Why does it even matter?
If I’m honest, like my student, I’ve wondered the same thing a time or two. The Trinity is never mentioned explicitly in the bible, yet we see in passages like Genesis where Yahweh speaks creation into existence, and Yahweh’s breath hovers over the water. Or, in the New Testament, we see Jesus explaining that he will return to his Father, who is God, and will send the Advocate—that is, the Spirit, to dwell in our hearts.
Discerning who God is and what God is like is a lifelong journey. A couple of weeks ago, Hannah gave a great children sermon that explored what God was like. She asked the children “what was God like?” One child said “kind”, another child said “both boy and girl.” Then Hannah showed us pictures of what God created, some cool things, like the Northern lights and the pink lake, and some funny things, like the goats standing on top of the tree so they could eat the leaves. We realized we could know what God was like through some of the things we saw that God created. God is big and majestic, like the northern lights, and God also has a sense of humor, like tree-climbing goats or the duck-billed platypus.
The Psalmist does the same thing when wondering about God. He looks at the world, looks at herself, and is in awe of the God who created it all. In light of all God has created, he sees herself as both small in the face of God, but also beloved.
I can attest to the feelings of smallness when I’ve gazed upon the vast immensity of God’s creation, especially when I think about astronomy. I don’t know how many galaxies have been discovered, but we know there’s more than just the Milky Way, with hundreds of stars in each galaxy, with more than 1 planet circling each star, with perhaps more than 1 moon circling each planet. When Steve and I were in Arizona a few years ago, we went to the Planetarium in Flagstaff at night time. The planetarium was on a mountain away from all of the lights of the town below. We peered into giant telescopes point toward the stars, and got to see Jupiter, which I don’t ever remember seeing before. I saw the marbling of the gases that made Jupiter have an orange tint. It was incredible. I asked myself, how big is God, that there are millions of stars and billions of miles away, and we occupy a speck of a speck in this great universe.
And in the midst of all these stars, I also wondered, like the Psalmist: who am I, God, in this great and vast universe! And then—who are you, God, who creates and sustains this wonderful galaxy?
If we could some up the questions about our faith, those would be it, right? Who are you, God, that you think about us? Who am I, Lord, that you consider me? I had a professor who would ask these questions in a different way to help us think with, or through, whatever doctrine we were talking about:
- What does it say about God?
- What does it say about us?
- What does it say about our relationship with God?
So, we can apply these three questions to the Trinity. What does the Trinity say about God? What does the Trinity say about us? What does the Trinity say about our relationship with God?
- So what does the Trinity say about God?
God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, means that God is both nearer to us, in our hearts, and knows our inmost thoughts—but the Trinity also reminds us that God is beyond our grasp, a step ahead of our imagination. There’s always something more to God that we can never quite touch, and there’s always questions about God that will stump us.
These questions can come from the most random places. In Kansas City, I volunteered as a tutor in the nearby elementary school. I was in the first grade classroom, and I was helping a student with science homework. We were learning about matter. We wondered: What is matter? We learned that we were made of matter. The student turns to me, looks up at me, unprompted, and asks: “Is God matter?”
At that moment, I didn’t know how to answer.
How would you have answered that question?
I don’t remember how I responded in that moment. But if he asked me again, I would say yes, and no. Yes, God is matter: Jesus was a real person, with flesh and bones, who told jokes and grew tired and bumped his elbow. And no, God is not matter. The Spirit, though present in our hearts, is not something tangible. The Spirit is described as breath, fire, wind—something we can feel, but can’t touch.
The cool thing about the Trinity is it reminds us that as we continue on our spiritual journeys, we continue to learn new things about God. So the Trinity becomes a way we think about who God is, who we are, and how we relate to God, in this particular time and place.
The Trinity also reminds us that relationships are essential in the life of God, and that we only know the Triune God through participating in such relationships. Chris mentioned participating in the life of God as a way of knowing who God is a few weeks ago. The British Baptist theologian Paul Fiddes likes to think about the Trinity this way. After all, we can really know who we are in relation to other people. I am Maggie and James’ older sister, and Pat and Penny’s daughter. But these roles aren’t just assigned to me. As Paul Fiddes reminds me, I participate in them. I form my identity, and my identity is formed, through the relationships and friendships I make, with both God and fellow humans. The Trinitarian persons—Father, Son, Holy Spirit, aren’t just persons, but they are in relationship with one another. And the Trinity makes room for us to enter into these relationships.
Julian of Norwich is one person who looks at God through the lens of relationships. She is a 14th century British theologian, and is the first woman to write a book in English. She writes during a time where the whole world is turning upside down. There was this ongoing war with France, which meant the citizens were constantly being taxed to support it, or sent over as soldiers to fight in it. When Julian was a child, the plague, known as the Black Death, ripped through Europe. This killed anywhere from 1/3 to ½ of Europe. Whole towns were wiped out. The priests didn’t have enough time to offer last rites or do funerals. Family members may have been afraid to bury their dead because they could catch the plague. The plague was no respecter of persons, killing the wealthy and poor, young and old, men and women alike. The priests and hierarchy were telling the peasants that it was God’s anger that brought this all on. The people had sinned, so God sent the plague as a judgment for their sins.
Julian didn’t buy it, though, and presented a different picture of God to the weary Norwich community. When thinking about God, she affirms God is Trinity: Father, Son, and Spirit. But she goes beyond that. Relying upon the book of Isaiah, she describes God as mother, who tenderly loves us and cares for us. God as our mother looks at us with pity and compassion. Like a mother who embraces her child when the child falls, the Trinity as mother embraces us when we slip or wonder. She also speaks about Christ as a friend, and we understand that just like we share our joys and sorrows with our friend, we share them with God, too. She speaks of the Spirit as the overwhelming love that binds us together. So when we think about how much we love our family, our community, the church—and how much they love us—we are reminded of the Holy Spirit. These relationships she sees in God would have been a source of spiritual comfort for those who grieved the loss of their families and friends in the plague.
Which connects to the second question–
- What does the Trinity say about us?
If the Trinity is 3 Persons, yet one God. What does this say about us? We kind of already answered this earlier, when we explored how the Triune Persons as relationships affects our own understanding of relationships. We can also find points of connection here about the church: the church is one body, with many members, with different gifts. The church is able to worship God at its best when we can live fully into our gifts, and encourage others to do likewise. We don’t have to be competent at everything, we don’t have to know everything, because we as a group, as a church community, reflect the image of the Trinity.
We also realize the Trinity can break down the hierarchies we may set up or others impose upon us. In the Trinity, the Father is not the most important, or the Son, or the Holy Spirit. They work together, for the good of “those who love God” to quote Paul.
This is good news, right?
Where might we see hierarchy continuing to rear its ugly head, even if it’s described in other ways?
Where might we suffer from hierarchies imposed on us? Though we know our constitution, declares “all persons are created equal,” we’ve realized that some persons are treated more equal than others.
The Trinitarian God challenges this assumption, and we as a Baptist church—a free church tradition which rejects hierarchy, can join in with the Triune God’s challenge when we practice peace.
Which brings us to our third question:
- What does the Trinity say about God’s relationship to humanity?
We’ve been answering this question all along, right? We learn just as the Trinitarian persons are in relationship with one another, so we are encouraged to participate in the life of the Triune God, and with each other.
And as confusing as the doctrine of the Trinity is, we get back to the Psalmist’s concern, and perhaps, whole point:
God is mystery. When we look at everything God has created, we are filled with wonder.
The Trinity may be the best way to describe how we experience God, but we’re still left with unanswered questions. Though, as the psalmist says, we’re “a little lower than angels” we still can’t fully grasp how God moves in the world, how the Father, Son, and Spirit, work together in our salvation.
Sojourner Truth captures this mystery in her narrative. A nineteenth century African American abolitionist and women’s rights advocate, she perceives the mystery of God as saving her—not just eternally, but in the present moment. Echoing the psalmist’s wonder at God, she realizes in a vision, that God pervaded over the whole universe, and that there was no place where God was not. In response, she said “Oh God, I did not know you were so big!”
May we, like Sojourner Truth, and like the Psalmist, always respond with such awe and gratitude.
Let us pray, with this prayer from Martha Spong[i]:
Dear One-in-Three, Father, Son, Spirit,
Sometimes we know you best in the wonders of what You have created. Sometimes we know You best in the assurance of your forgiveness. Sometimes we know You best in the whispers inspiring and provoking us to deeper understanding.
- To serve with the gifts You have given us
- To love with the kind of love You show us
- To forgive with generous hearts as You have forgiven us
- To grow in faith, remembering that there is always a next stage to reach
We thank You for all the ways You make Yourself manifest among us:
- In the beauty of this spring morning
- In Your comfort in the clouds of life
- In the witness of Jesus’ life death, and resurrection,
- In the life-giving breath of the Spirit,
The Great Cloud of Witnesses (aka resources)
Truth, Sojourner and Olive Gilbert. Narrative of Sojourner Truth.
Fiddes, Paul. Participating in God.
Julian of Norwich. Showings.
It was my second year in a row preaching on Trinity Sunday! As such, I had the voices of my advisor and mentors in my head as I was writing this sermon.