Sermon for Sunday, January 15, 2017 || Epiphany 2A || John 1:29-42
A week ago, we began an Epiphany sermon series in which we are imagining our way into God’s eyes and trying to see ourselves as God sees us. What is God’s point of view? What does God see, name, and celebrate about us? And how can we incorporate that divine point of view into how we interact with God’s creation?
Last week we began with Belovedness. God sees and names us as God’s Beloved. When we enter this reality, we see, name, and celebrate that each person we meet is the Beloved of God. Living in this reality means affirming in word and deed the dignity and value of all people. Claiming belovedness is the best way to stoke our own reserves of compassion for those on the margins, who we’d rather ignore to make our own lives a little more pleasant. Being God’s Beloved does not allow for such a heartless option, for they are God’s Beloved, too.
Thus, imagining how God sees us is not an entirely pleasant exercise. Being beloved is at once comforting and conflicting. We rest in God’s love, and we feel the pinch in our souls that so many out there feel no love at all. And so we decide to do something about that. This decision leads us back to God’s point of view. God befriends us, calling us into mission alongside God, not as subjects or employees, but as partners, friends. And this friendship leads us to create strong relationships of our own, often befriending the unlikeliest of people.Continue reading “Befriended (God’s Point of View, part 2 of 8)”→
Sermon for Sunday, November 20, 2016 || Christ the King C || Luke 23:33-46
I was at the Annual Convention for the Episcopal Church in CT this Sunday, so a pair of dedicated parishioners delivered these words for me. Thanks, John and Craig.
Today, on this final Sunday of the church’s year, we celebrate the “kingship” of Christ or (put another way) the “reign of Christ.” The eternal “reign of Christ” stretches out from Christ the King and supplants the lesser things that attempt to reign in this world and in our lives. When we turn our attention away from these lesser (yet louder) things – power, money, fame, and the like – we can see and participate in the greater (yet quieter) reality of Christ’s reign.
The territory over which Christ reigns encompasses the whole of Creation, and yet we tend to cede our personal territory to the lesser things that seek to rule because it seems like the normal and acceptable thing to do. But there’s the rub: Jesus never did the normal or the acceptable thing, so, of course, his reign subverts the expectations of the world. Continue reading “The Words on Jesus’ Lips”→
Sermon for Sunday, August 28, 2016 || Proper 17C || Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16
I hope it hasn’t escaped your notice that the gardens here at St. Mark’s look fantastic right now. Over the course of the summer, a group of dedicated parishioners came together to restore every one of the gardens here at the church — and there are about a dozen. Now that the weeds are plucked and the mulch is poured, the hard work of maintaining the gardens has begun. I don’t know much about gardening myself, but I watched the gardeners work and I listened to them strategize. And I learned a horticultural word unknown to me: deadheading; that is, the process of removing dead flower heads to encourage further growth and blossoming.Continue reading “Spiritual Deadheading”→
Sermon for Sunday, June 12, 2016 || Proper 6C || Luke 7:36–8:3
This is a sermon about seeing. I want you to remember that because for the first little bit, it will sound like it’s about other things. But this sermon is about seeing.
Today’s Gospel lesson tells the story of a Pharisee named Simon who invited Jesus to a dinner party at his house. Perhaps Simon had a custom of bringing all visiting rabbis into his house for a meal. Perhaps he had a soft spot for provincial teachers who, like Jesus, had ventured out their backwater villages to spread their words to the wider world. I can only assume a Pharisee like Simon brought such people into his home to stoke his own ego, to show them that they were hopelessly outmatched by his wealth and knowledge. Continue reading “Willful Seeing”→
Sermon for Sunday, May 8, 2016 || Easter 7C || Revelation 22
You probably didn’t realize it, but a few minutes ago _____ read the very last prayer in the Bible. “Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.” These are the words of John of Patmos as he wakes from his vision, which we know as the Book of Revelation. Come, Lord Jesus. A succinct prayer, to be sure, but powerful. It sounds to me like a breath prayer; that is, a prayer short enough to be said slowly in a single breath. <demonstrating>Come, Lord Jesus. Praying a breath prayer is a wonderful practice that helps us stay immersed in the healing waters of God’s presence. A breath prayer can be anything that you can say with one breath: Continue reading “Come, Lord Jesus”→
Sermon for Good Friday, March 25, 2016 || John 19:25-27
The Passion narrative Stacey just read can be quite overwhelming. It is by far and away the longest reading we listen to all year, and there’s a lot going on. There’s Judas’s betrayal, Jesus’ arrest, Peter’s denial, the trial with the high priest, the interview with Pilate, the frenzy of the crowd, the crucifixion, and the last words from the cross. There’s so much going on, in fact, that we can easily lose sight of the overarching story of the Gospel when we find ourselves overloaded by this painful and heart-breaking narrative. So instead of talking about the entire Passion narrative, each year I like to focus on one little moment of it that speaks to the whole story. On this Good Friday, that moment happens between the soldiers gambling for Jesus’ clothes and Jesus drinking the sour wine.
“Meanwhile,” the Gospel tells us, “standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, ‘Woman, here is your son.’ Then he said to the disciple, ‘Here is your mother.’ And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home.”
Have you ever noticed the beauty of this moment? Have you ever noticed how succinctly these three verses sum up Christ’s mission of reconciliation? I see in my mind’s eye these two people standing apart from each other. One weeps silently for his beloved friend, and his tears wash two clean lines on his dusty, grimy face. The other has no more tears; she has cried her eyes dry, and now she just stands there counting her son’s breaths, treasuring each one in case it’s his last. She always knew this day would come, but not like this. God, not like this.
A few other women comfort Jesus’ mother, but his beloved friend remains several paces away from them, perhaps not wanting to intrude on their stunned grief. He stands there alone, wondering how it all went wrong, wondering if he had been hoodwinked or if he had just gotten caught up in messianic hysteria. No, I believe. He doesn’t mean to, but he says the words out loud. Then he adds, I just don’t understand.
That’s when he looks up at Jesus, and his friend’s lips begin to move. He’s trying to speak, but he can’t catch his breath. After all, the cross kills by suffocation, not by loss of blood. With a monumental force of will, Jesus pulls himself up, using the nails for leverage. He sucks in a ragged breath and looks down first at his friend, then at his mother. His gaze connects them, and they stumble towards each other. With fleeting breath, Jesus manages to say, “Woman, here is your son.” His mother leans her head on his friend’s shoulder. Jesus inclines his head, “Here is your mother.” His friend wraps his arm around her and squeezes.
While dying on the cross, Jesus stitches together this new family. He creates a new relationship built on two people’s own relationships with him. Before Jesus redefined it, the cross was the ultimate symbol of domination and separation. The cross brutally demonstrated who was in charge and who was discarded, the human garbage of the empire. But even before the resurrection – even in this beautiful moment we are discussing here – Jesus is changing the meaning of those two planks of wood. No longer would they be the terrifying symbol of ruthless subjugation. Now the cross would be the symbol of the promise of eternal life, which is really the promise of eternal relationship with God.
By creating this new relationship between his mother and friend, Jesus reminds them and us that his mission is one of reconciling us to each other and all things back to God. Indeed, it’s no accident that the Gospel writer never names these two people. We know his mother’s name is Mary and tradition tells us that his beloved friend is John. But the Gospel steadfastly resists naming them as such, and does so for this purpose: So we can put ourselves in their place. So we can feel ourselves being called “beloved” by Christ. So we can feel in our relationships with Christ the unique closeness that a mother has for her child – the act of cherishing. And in feeling this intimacy with Christ, this belovedness, we might feel the call to create and engage in deep relationships with others, each one fostered by Christ’s love for all people.
This is the story of the Gospel: God came to us to bring us back into relationship with one another and with God. Good Friday marks the cliffhanger in that story, the moment when it all looks bleak. But even in this bleakest moment, even while struggling for breath on the cross, Jesus is still bringing people together, still performing miracles.
Sermon for Sunday, February 21, 2016 || Lent 2C || Philippians 3:17–4:1
Last fall, I had to renew my passport before my trip to Haiti with Tim Evers. I had originally gotten my passport in advance of a choir trip to England back in college in 2003, and that first document was still valid when Leah and I went to South Africa for our honeymoon in 2011. But they’re only good ten years, so in the fall of 2015, I found myself stapling an unsmiling picture to an application I picked up at the post office. I filled in all the information – name, address, social security number. I checked the box marked “U.S. Citizen,” dropped the package in the mail with the processing fee, and a few weeks later, received my new passport.
The trip back and forth to Haiti went swimmingly. The government agents stamped my shiny new document and welcomed me to Port-au-Prince and New York City, respectively. All was well until this week when I read the lessons for today. All was well until I realized that I lied on my passport paperwork. I checked the box marked “U.S. Citizen.” I checked that box because I was born in the great state of Maine, and I have the birth certificate to prove it. But the Apostle Paul claims something else for me: “Our citizenship,” he says, “is in heaven.”
Reading those words this week knocked my socks off. Our citizenship is in heaven. Not some time in the future. Not after we die. Paul doesn’t say, “Our citizenship will be in heaven.” No. Our citizenship is in heaven. Take a few breaths to let that sink in.
If we believe our passports our wrong; if we believe we are citizens of heaven, then we can take this imagery one of two ways. First, we can extend the metaphor and claim to be resident aliens here on earth. We have green cards, but this isn’t really our home. Our home is in heaven, and we’ll get there someday and be reunited with those we love who have gone home before us. This idea of heaven brings comfort and hope and peace, especially when life here on earth lurches towards the intolerable.
This idea of heaven finds expression in so many African-American spirituals, which have their roots in the horror of slavery. “Deep river, my home is over Jordan.” “I’m goin’ home to be with Jesus, since I laid my burden down.” “Swing low, sweet chariot, coming for to carry me home.” What better way to combat the misery of enslavement than to sing about one’s true home, a home that can never be bought or sold or taken away? What a sense of power enslaved people must have felt to be able to claim citizenship in heaven?
This legacy of hope and consolation – this balm in Gilead, so to speak – is the positive side of thinking of heaven as a home we are heading towards. But there is a negative side, as well. During the Industrial Revolution, the notion of heavenly citizenship began meandering down a long path towards environmental apathy. “We don’t really belong here on this planet,” this thinking goes, “so we need not take care of it.” This poor judgment had little effect on the environment until we got really good at polluting. But now the idea of heavenly citizenship is oftentimes weighed down by indifference for the earth and for generations yet to come. This is especially true in the United States where heavenly citizenship and American individualism collide.
Both the positive balm in Gilead and the negative environmental apathy find their roots in the idea of heaven as somewhere else. Somewhere better and new, and often “up.” Along with this idea of heaven as a home over Jordan, we can also think of our heavenly citizenship in another way. Here we must think of heaven not as a place, not as a location, but as the full and all-encompassing presence of God.
Now suddenly heaven is not just somewhere we go when we die; heaven is the kingdom of God breaking into this reality. Heaven is the name for the reality we strive for when we pray the Lord’s prayer, a prayer that is decidedly about now, today. “Thy kingdom come, thy will be down, on earth as it is in heaven.” In other words, “May thy reign, O Lord, be so present and so participatory that we can’t tell the difference between heaven and earth.” This is our prayer, and we pray it everyday to remember where our citizenship lives: in the full and all-encompassing presence of God. That’s our true home.
And that home is here. The full and all-encompassing presence of God is all around us, within us, permeating and sustaining creation. You may have felt this presence in your life. You may have stumbled into it one day when you least expected it and needed it most. You may have encountered this presence and not known what to name it. Its name is heaven, and it happens more than we realize.
When you see someone in need, and your heart trembles, urging you to reach out with open arms, then heaven is close by, the presence of God is calling you home – this home that is not up or away, but deeper in. Deeper in relationship. Deeper in solidarity. Deeper in love.
When you look out at an eagle in flight, and for a moment you are struck by the incredible closeness of your son who has passed away, then heaven is close by. Your loved one is awash in the full and all-encompassing presence of God. And for an elusive minute you realize you are there, too. And so you two are close again, and the barrier of death seems ever so flimsy.
When you fall to your knees in thanksgiving or in fear or in mourning or in joy, and your soul whispers to you that you are not alone and that you are loved beyond measure, then heaven is close by. It’s only our frail and limited perception that keeps us from seeing the home of our true citizenship breaking in all around us.
Living into our heavenly citizenship combines these two understandings of heaven: first our hope of future consummation and bliss in our home across the Jordan, and second our awareness of the immediate presence of God, which through us, continues to bring heaven closer to earth. There will never be true heaven on earth until all people and all things are fully reconciled to God. Put another way, there is no way for some of us to experience true heaven in the here and now. Either everyone does or no one does. If there is even one person living in hell on earth, then heaven is not fully realized this side of the Jordan.
These may seem like abstractions, like pie-in-the-sky theology that will never, ever in a million years become a reality. And yet, as followers of Jesus Christ, we live each day with the willing expectation that heaven on earth will come to fruition. And in so doing, we make it more real. We live our heavenly citizenship. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done. We pray this daily because we are a people of hope.
And if there’s one thing I hope for more than any thing else, it is this. That every person on this planet, when their earthly journeys are done, might swim across the Jordan, back home to the full and all-encompassing presence of God, and have this one thought on their minds: “I think I’ve been here before.”
Sermon for Sunday, January 17, 2016 || Epiphany 2C || John 2:1-11
I love my mother with all my heart. For thirty-three years and five days, she has never wavered in her steadfast love for me, support of me, and delight in me. She delivered me in the middle of a Maine snowstorm; she endured through my advanced childhood self-centeredness; and she never let her own demons keep her from being my nurturer, advocate, mentor, and friend. I get my love of reading from her. I get my precociousness from her. And I get my ability to be quiet and listen from her. When I had my first ever bona fide moment with God, it was my mother who held me and rocked me – her seventeen-year-old baby boy – while I bawled my eyes out, overwhelmed by the immensity and clarity of it all.
As I said, I love my mother with all my heart. I’m saying this aloud today for two reasons. The first is to say “thank you” to my mother, who will be reading this tomorrow, I have no doubt. If she were here right now, I’d give her a big hug, and my chin would rest snugly on top of her head. The second reason is to locate myself on the continuum of relationships between mothers and sons. I am an unabashed “momma’s boy,” and proud of it. I would never think to call my mother by her first name, Edna. It just wouldn’t feel right. And while I now tend to call her “Amma” (her chosen grandmother name), I will always cherish the way my heart feels when I address her as “Mom.”
So when I read the story of the wedding in Cana of Galilee, I tend to focus on the relationship between Jesus and his mother. If you were paying attention, you might have noticed that the Gospel writer does not name her. She is not called “Mary” in this story. She is simply known as “the mother of Jesus.” In her only other appearance in the Gospel of John – at the foot of the cross – she is also only identified as Jesus’ mother. No name, just a relationship. This isn’t a fluke, as another recurring character in the Gospel of John is given the same treatment, someone mysteriously known as “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” Tradition tells us this disciple is “John,” but the story never names him. The relationship to Jesus is what matters.
Identifying people by their relationships to us is commonplace. Who’s that? “Oh, that’s my boss. Oh, that’s my best friend from high school. Oh, that’s my first cousin once removed.” (By the way, if you ever want to confuse my mom, try to explain the difference between first cousins once removed and second cousins. It’s really funny.)
When you were a kid, you more than likely fell victim to this tendency to identify via relationship. You were behaving badly and one of your parents identified you as the child of the other parent, right? “Tell your daughter to pick up her shoes.” “Tell your son to eat his zucchini.” (It’s possible that second example is personal – I do eat zucchini now, as long as it’s in soup.) In our language we stress our relationships. If a stranger asked me who is the vertically challenged woman with the beautiful smile and the heart of gold, I wouldn’t just say, “Edna.” I would surely add, “My mother.”
Yes, in our language we stress our relationships. We use possessive grammatical constructions quite a lot. My mother. Jesus’ mother. “There was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, ‘They have no wine.’” Now, he sasses her here, calling her, “Woman.” I’ve read that in Jesus’ day such an appellation was not considered rude, but I’m not sure I buy that. Jesus seems a mite petulant here; perhaps a bit of childhood regression for the Son of God. I know that I would never get away with it if I called my mother “Woman,” so I’ve never tried.
By calling her “Woman” instead of “Mom,” Jesus plays down the relationship. He doesn’t really want to be bothered. He just wants to keep a low profile and enjoy himself. But his mother is having none of that. She pushes him to help the wedding planners retain their hospitality. She pushes him to be his best, to reveal his glory. Just like a mother, right? – wanting her kid to shine. And, of course, Jesus gets over his momentary petulance and does what she says. So their mother-son relationship remains intact: she coaxes him to be brilliant, to be extraordinary. And he is.
By never calling her by name, the Gospel writer tacitly tells us to focus on this relationship. She is the mother of Jesus. Focusing on this relationship begs the question: Who are we? Yes, we have our names, which later on in the Gospel the Good Shepherd will speak as he leads us out of the sheepfold. Yes, we have our names, but who are we?
Well, to answer that question, we must quote the famous Christian axiom, “It’s not who you are that matters. It’s whose you are.” So whose are we? Last week, we spent the whole sermon answering this question. We are God’s beloved children. If we believe that, we have the starting point for every relationship that matters in our lives.
Who are you? I’m a child of God. Each of us is “child of God.” That’s the beginning. That’s the spark. That’s the soul. Every other meaningful relationship springs from this one. That’s why the marriage vows begin, “In the name of God.” That’s why the solemn, scrunched up faces of our infant children make us fall to our knees in gratitude to the Giver of all life. That’s why every difficult or inconvenient encounter can be transformed by remembering the other person is a child of God, too.
Indeed, the good news of Jesus Christ resounds with the beauty of relationships based in God’s own connective tissue. Today’s story happens at a wedding, after all! Over and over again in the Gospel, Jesus invites people into deep and abiding relationships with him. “I am the vine,” he says, “and you are the branches.” And just to make sure we get the point of all this, when Jesus’ mother appears for the second time, at the foot of the cross, in the moments before Jesus’ death, do you know what he does? With his last few ragged breaths, he stitches together a new family. He gives the two people who have no names into the other’s care: his mother and the disciple whom he loved. “Here is your son. Here is your mother.”
That’s what God’s story is all about: stitching us and all people and all creation more deeply into the fabric of God’s love. So the next time you see someone with whom you have a deep and abiding relationship – perhaps your own mother or your spouse or your child or your friend – give thanks to God for that relationship. And notice how the love of God strengthens that relationship. And notice how that relationship strengthens your love for God.
Image: Groom and Mother of the Groom dancing at mine and Leah’s wedding. A lovely memory, dancing with my mom.
Sermon for Sunday, July 5, 2015 || Proper 9B || 2 Corinthians 12:2-10
The first weekend of June, I was doing some yard work with my father-in-law outside the rectory. While carrying some brush down the stone front steps, I slipped and fell backwards. I caught myself, but my lower back hit the edge of the step with enough force for me to feel it, go inside, and start icing. The ice helped, and I felt much better the next day. The day after that, I played soccer. I didn’t hurt my back during the soccer game, but running around for two hours at my age didn’t do me any favors. (Yes, yes, I know I’m young, but there’s a reason most professional athletes retire in their early thirties.) Put the soccer and slipping on the steps together with sleeping in a soft bed and picking up two babies for ten months, and Wednesday morning I could barely move. I spent the day lying on the floor, in a sizable amount of pain.
The next morning, I arrived at church to prepare for the 7 a.m. service. The pain was less than the day before but still considerable. I did my best to hide it during the first half of the service, but my acting job was unconvincing. After the peace, folks asked what happened, and I told them the story I just told you. When we came together around the altar for communion, I was about to start the prayer when Barbara Barrett asked: “Adam, can we lay our hands on you and say a healing prayer for your back?”
I looked around at the people circling the altar. They seemed eager to assist Barbara in her request. I had never considered asking for such a gift, but when it was presented, there was only one possible answer, a very thankful, “Yes, of course!”
The fifteen or so people present clustered around me and touched my back and arms and shoulders. Barbara prayed aloud. When she was finished, I exhaled and inhaled. As I breathed, I felt my insides expand and the stiffness in my back stretch out just a little bit. The pain remained, but it was lessened because fifteen people were now bearing it with me.
As I reflect back on that morning, two questions spring up for me. First, why had I never considered asking for the laying on of hands? And second, why did I feel it necessary to hide my obvious pain? I could answer each of these questions at length, but in the end, the answer to both questions boils down to a single word: weakness.
Something inside me convinced me not to show my weakness. That something might have been the myth of the tough guy: “Walk it off. Gut it out. No pain, no gain.” Or perhaps the myth of perfection: “You’ll only be loved if you always get straight A’s or fit in those jeans or never strike out.” Or perhaps the myth of individualism: “I can get on very well by myself, thank you. I don’t need help from anyone.”
Whatever it was that convinced me not to show my weakness, it worked; that is, until Barbara spoke up. Her invitation to healing silenced the myths, and in that silence, the words of Paul we heard today bubbled to the surface: “Three times I appealed to the Lord about [my thorn], that it would leave me, but he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.’ So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.”
My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness. There are many countercultural things embedded in the Christian faith, and this is a prime example. In effect, God says, “Don’t look for power where the world looks for power: in the bank account, on the TV screen, at the point of a gun. No, my grace is enough for you to find fulfillment, if you allow my grace to infuse your weakness.”
In his own trials and tribulations, Paul has uncovered something that I personally (and I bet many of you) need to hear over and over again. The power of Christ dwells in us, and it dwells most effectively in the parts of us that the myths tell us to hide. These are the parts of us that need the most help, the parts we don’t want to show other people because we think this or that facet of ourselves is deficient or shameful. The grace of God and the power of Christ enliven our whole selves, but like an antibody targeting a disease, God’s grace heads straight for our weaknesses.
And since God’s grace meets us where we are weakest, we learn to rely on that grace to help us overcome our presumed deficiencies. God uses our weakness to gain a foothold within us. God trains us to rely on God when we think we need to (that is, our weaknesses) in order that we might just start relying on God when we think we don’t need to (that is, our strengths). In that way, we eventually rely on God all the time. If God tried to gain the foothold the other way around, I don’t think we’d ever let God in because our strength, our power, would be telling us we are okay on our own.
When Barbara spoke up about healing prayer, she reminded me that I’m really not okay on my own. I need God. And I need you. Priests can fall into the trap of serving their flock with such single-mindedness that they forget sometimes they need to accept service too. Being unwilling to accept the service of another is a debilitating weakness. I suffer from it. Maybe you do too. Too often I forget what a gift mutuality is. I forget that Christ washed his disciples feet and allowed certain women to wash his. On that Thursday morning, the power of Christ worked through my weakness, and, God met me in the hands of fifteen parishioners, who gave me the gift of healing and helped me bear a burden. My weakness kept me from asking for healing, but perhaps it was that weakness (and not my back), which found healing that day.
My grace is sufficient, for power is made perfect in weakness. I’ve experienced this truth. So did the Apostle Paul. So did the disciples when Jesus sent them out two by two with only a staff in their hands, but with the power of Christ dwelling in their hearts. So my questions for you are these: what weakness of yours might God’s grace be trying to shine forth from? What part of yourself are you hiding because of some myth or other? Pray these questions. Ask God to help you face that weakness, to live into it, to find grace in it, to use it to connect with someone else feeling the same weakness. After all, strength and power are not a universal human constant. But we are all weak in some way, somehow. We’ve all been in pain. We’ve all failed at something. So did Jesus. What else but a weak, painful failure was the cross in those few days before the resurrection?
But the good news is this: the power of God’s grace redeemed the cross when Jesus rose from the dead. And the power of God’s grace redeems our weaknesses when we don’t hide them, but instead use them to connect to each other. Thank you Barbara and the rest of the Thursday morning group for your gift to me: the gift of reminding me its okay to be weak because y’all are there to help bear my burdens and because God’s grace is not just sufficient – God’s grace is abundant, extravagant, more than we could ever ask for or imagine.
Sermon for Sunday, May 31, 2015 || Trinity Sunday B
Have you ever looked closely at the round window high up the wall in the back of the church? Go ahead – turn around and give it a good look. I love this window. I love the vibrant colors. I love that when the sun is shining through it, an afterimage gets imprinted on my eyes, so I see it when I close them. If you’ve never given the window much thought, I don’t blame you. The words on it are in Latin, after all. But let’s keep looking. The window presents a diagram of the Holy Trinity. “Deus” – God – is encircled in the center. Three smaller circles float around it: Patri, Filius, Spiritus Sancti – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Each of the smaller circles is connected to the others with the words “non est” (is not), and each smaller circle is connected to the large central one with the word “est” (is). The diagram is telling us that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are not each other but they are all One God. How does this work? Wisely, the window doesn’t tell us. The window just illustrates the reality, a theological blueprint in stained glass.
Likewise, I’m going to take my cue from the window and stay silent on the “How does this work?” question. Too many sermons over the years have tried to explain the mystery of the Trinity by talking about apples or flames. What those sermons didn’t understand is that you can’t explain a mystery without destroying the very quality that makes it mysterious. When Sherlock Holmes figures out that the bell rope used to call for the maid was replaced with a poisonous snake, which somehow slithered unnoticed out of the room in the ensuing hubbub over discovering the body, the mystery is solved. No more mystery. This Whodunnit? type mystery is the kind we’re used to: Gibbs and the NCIS team solve their mysteries within the length of the 45-minute episode. The light-hearted mystery novels my mother loves to read always wrap up the intrigue by the end of the story.
But here’s the difference between these small, ordinary mysteries we watch or read and the great mystery of the Holy Trinity. The small mysteries have answers to them, like the poisonous snake. But the mystery of the Holy Trinity is the answer – the fundamental answer that rests at the very core of existence. Here’s what I mean.
Before creation came into being, there was God. There was only God. Then God spoke, “Let there be light,” and creation erupted in a rush of dust and energy and far flung fire. And suddenly, there was something known as “not God.” Suddenly, there was an “other” for God to love. And yet, we believe that God’s essence is love, which means that God must have loved before there was a creation to love. Confusing, right? It is confusing until we realize there’s only one possible answer for whom God loved before there was anything else. God loved God. This may sound narcissistic or vain, but it’s not. Narcissism and vanity are distortions of love, but God’s love is perfect and unsullied. God loves God with such perfection that there is still only One God, even though a loving relationship exists.
That’s the keyword: relationship. To try to come close to the mystery of the Holy Trinity, we employ relational words: Father and Son, Parent and Child. We speak of the Holy Spirit as being the love that flows between them. This perfect relationship existed before creation, and thus serves as God’s blueprint for creation. Have you ever noticed that if you drill right down to the core of any subject whatsoever, you end up at relationship? At the most fundamental level, life, the universe, and everything are based on the relationships between things. Elemental particles vibrate next to other elemental particles, weaving the fabric of creation. Atoms repel and attract each other. Ecosystems thrive as complex series of relationships. Celestial bodies dance the precarious waltz of gravitational balance. Not to mention, the most important things in the lives of us humans on this fragile earth is our relationships with one another.
All of this grows from that blueprint God used from God’s own self – the perfect relationship of the Holy Trinity. In the act of creating something that was not God, God knew creation wouldn’t be perfect. And yet, God made it anyway. The reason the Holy Trinity remains a mystery is that our relationships – indeed, all relationships in creation – are not perfect, and thus we cannot fathom perfection.
But while we aren’t perfect, the idea of perfection lingers within us, an echo of our Creator’s own perfect love. We feel this echo as a longing for connection, for relationship with God and with each other. God loves us perfectly, even though we have the capacity to return a mere sliver of that love. But that sliver is more than enough to activate our ability to engage in loving relationships here and now. When we nurture such loving relationships in our lives, we come as close as our imperfection allows to the perfect relationship of the Holy Trinity.
Indeed, the Holy Trinity transcends our imperfection, draws us in, and strengthens our earthly relationships. The echo of God’s perfect love grows louder, more insistent, as we give ourselves over to be born again from above, to be remade closer to the blueprint than we were before. The blueprint calls for less domination and more mutuality, less prejudice and more generosity, less pride and more humility. The blueprint calls for less defending and more welcoming, less grasping and more embracing, less tearing down and more lifting up. And above all, the blueprint calls for love to spill forth in the forms of justice-seeking, mercy-granting, grace-sharing, hope-planting, and joy-singing.
And so you go home and do the dishes even though it was your brother’s turn. Or you tell your wife “thank you” for her poise in the middle of chaos and for putting up with you all these years. Or you introduce yourself to that bedraggled person you always seem to run into on your morning jog and ask if he needs assistance. Or you look those who are oppressed in the eye and say, “I’m sorry for not showing up sooner,” and then turn to stand with them.
Each of these is an expression of the blueprint of the perfect relationship of the Holy Trinity. And each of these will be done imperfectly. And yet, the mystery of the Holy Trinity rests at the core of all existence, of all we do and all we are. And so our imperfection is even now being redeemed by the perfect love of God, which somehow manages to fit all of itself into our mere slivers of love.
If in your life, the Holy Trinity has seemed no more than an abstraction, as clear as the Latin writing on the window back there, then I invite you to take a step back and look again. Reassign every single urge you have ever had to seek justice, to grant mercy, to share grace, to plant hope, to sing joy, and to love. Reassign all of them to the perfect love of the Trinity flowing, however imperfectly, through you. Notice now the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit catching you up in the ever-spinning dance of perfect love, and be thankful.
* The diagram of the Holy Trinity is the window on the back wall of St. Mark’s in Mystic, CT.