Sermon for Sunday, June 12, 2022 || Trinity Sunday C || Romans 5:1-5
This is another sermon about hope. I’ve been preaching about hope a lot lately because hope seems to be in short supply these days. I look inside myself and I see my hope candle guttering. It’s still lit – miraculously – but the small flame is floating in a sea of wax. I want to believe that my hope candle will never actually extinguish, that no matter how much or how little wax is left, the wick will always hold a flame. I want to believe that, and I think I do…which is ironic because it seems like I need hope to believe I will always have hope. And maybe that’s how it works. Perhaps hope reignites itself like a mythical phoenix rising from the ashes.
I want to talk about hope on this Trinity Sunday because the Holy Trinity is both the source of our hope and the culmination of our hope.
Sermon for Sunday, May 30, 2021 || Trinity Sunday B
I did not understand the concept of ambivalence until my kids were about three years old. (That would have put me at 34 years old if you’re counting.) Before then, I had a vaguely negative idea about ambivalence. If I had used the word in a sentence, I might have used “ambivalent” as a synonym for “uncomfortable” or “aggravated.”
But then, I watched an episode of Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood with my kids, and I learned all about ambivalence. Daniel Tiger is the modern day equivalent of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood from when I was a child; many of the animated characters are drawn directly from the old show. And even though Mr Rogers himself is not in it, the new show has the same tone and the same dedication to learning about feelings that the original show had. Each episode of Daniel Tiger includes a short, snappy song – like a jingle – that sums up the theme of the episode. What I learned that day watching with my kids is that the concept of ambivalence is neither negative nor positive, and that’s sort of the point. Ambivalence is feeling multiple emotions at the same time.
“For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” Jesus says this amazing promise at the end of our Gospel reading this morning. We’ve heard this promise every week since we began worshiping together online at the start of the pandemic. At the end of the service of Morning Prayer, we say a prayer written in the early centuries of the Church by St. John Chrysostom:
“Almighty God, you have given us grace at this time with one accord to make our common supplication to you; and you have promised through your well-beloved Son that when two or three are gathered together in his Name you will be in the midst of them…”
I am so thankful that our Gospel reading inspired John Chrysostom to write this prayer, especially in these days when we cannot be in close physical proximity with each other. The prayer reminds us of the singular truth that Christ connects us one to another. But “I am there among them” is a rather anemic translation. I “am in the midst of them” is better. The original language translates most directly to, “I am there in the middle of them.”
Today is the day of Pentecost, the day we celebrate the Holy Spirit empowering Jesus’ first followers to spread his loving, liberating, and life-giving message. If you were listening closely to the readings, you might have noticed we actually read two different versions of the sending of the Holy Spirit. In the first one from the Acts of the Apostles, the Holy Spirit spirals into the house like a rushing wind from heaven and anoints the disciples with tongues like fire. In this story, we sense the glorious upheaval in the lives of the disciples as these elemental forces – wind, fire – disrupt and invigorate them to embrace their new ministry as Jesus’ witnesses.
In the second story from the Gospel of John, Jesus comes to his disciples on the evening of the resurrection. They lean in close as he breathes on them, saying, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” In this intimate story, Jesus delivers the Comforter, the enlivening companion the disciples need to be about their work.
Sermon for Sunday, March 15, 2020 || Lent 3A || John 4:5-42
The Samaritan woman leaves her water jar behind, rushes back to the city, and says to anyone who will listen, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done!” That’s a pretty astounding statement given the conversation she has just had with Jesus by the well. Many biblical scholars chalk it up to her excitement – the exaggeration is forgivable because of the encounter she just had with the Messiah. Others say that, given her station, she needs to exaggerate in order to be taken seriously. I think both of those ideas miss the point of the story entirely because they start from the premise that the woman is not being a reliable witness, is not simply telling the truth.
Sermon for Sunday, June 11, 2017 || Trinity Sunday, Year A
If you look to the back of the church, you’ll notice we have a window missing right now. The good folks at Cathedral Stained Glass in New London are currently restoring our Trinity window, which has deteriorated over the years to the point where it could have shattered during a blustery storm. Today is not the most opportune Sunday of the church year to be lacking the Trinity window. Today is, after all, Trinity Sunday, and in years past I’ve enjoyed directing your attention to the window at the beginning of my sermons on this particular day. I can’t do that today. Instead, I can only direct your attention to the lack of the Trinity window.
But such a lack of the window stirs up some new thoughts; specifically the following question: Who would we be without the mystery and revelation of God as Trinity of Persons and Unity of Being? This question jumps to mind because, in recent years, many faithful Christians have wondered if we really need the encumbrance of the Trinitarian notion of God. Isn’t it just unnecessary baggage weighing down an already weighty topic, they argue. With fewer and fewer people finding God in the Christian church in the United States, wouldn’t it make sense to streamline our beliefs a little bit, make them easier to apprehend?Continue reading “Diversity Without Division, Unity Without Uniformity”→
Sermon for Sunday, May 22, 2016 || Trinity Sunday C || John 16:12-15
There’s a group of folks at St. Mark’s that meets every Thursday morning for Bible study. The class is called “Genesis to Revelation,” and as its name implies, we set ourselves the goal of reading the entire Bible. We started last autumn and should finish sometime around next winter. It’s a daunting task to read the whole thing, but very worthwhile too. A few weeks ago, we were working our way through a particularly thorny section, and one member of the group said something to me that made the whole group double over in laughter. She said, “Well, I thought I understood this until you started explaining it.”
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.
Sermon for Sunday, June 15, 2014 || Trinity Sunday, Year A || Genesis 1:1 – 2:4a
As most of you know, Leah and I are expecting twins in just a couple of weeks. I’ll let you in on a little secret. I am so excited. And terrified. And excited. Whenever I think of the immensity of the change that is about to take place in our lives, I get this “deer in the headlights” look on my face for a minute. But then I remember to breath, and I remember that we’re going to have a lot of help and support, and I remember what Jesus says at the end of today’s Gospel reading: “I am with you always.” And all that helps.
But I’m getting off topic. You all know we’re expecting twins. You know we’re hoping for six more weeks of gestational time, and you know we’re having a boy and a girl. But there’s one thing Leah and I have been keeping to ourselves – one thing we barely whisper even to each other. We’ve been keeping their names a secret.
(Now, before you get all excited, I’m not going to tell you their names today. You’ll have to wait until they’re born.)
As I sat down to ponder this Trinity Sunday sermon, I found myself wondering why we’ve been keeping their names secret. We don’t even use them when we’re alone. We still call them “Baby Girl” and “Baby Boy,” which took over a few months ago from their original codenames “Alpha” and “Bravo.”
All of this was on my mind while reading the creation story from Genesis that we heard a few minutes ago, and something struck me that I’ve never noticed before. Did you catch how many things God names in the first three days of creation? God calls the light “Day” and the darkness “Night.” God calls the dome “Sky,” the dry land “Earth,” and the gathered waters “Seas.” Likewise, in the second creation story, which follows what we read this morning, God invites the first human to name all the living creatures of the earth.
Thus, as Genesis tells the story, one of the things God creates is the act of naming. And God passes this act to the first human and by extension to us. Have you ever stopped to think how important names are? The simple act of naming causes us to value things in new and greater ways.
Think of it like this. I don’t know anything about trees, but you do. We go for a hike in the woods. I see a bunch of trees. But you see an Oak and a Chestnut and a Birch. You appreciate the curves of the boughs and the shape of the leaves. You know which root goes with which tree and which bird prefers to nest on which branch. I still just see a bunch of trees. But then you teach me the name of the Chestnut and how to recognize it. And suddenly, I see Chestnut trees all around me. I appreciate them in a new way because I can see them and name them.
Naming something brings out that something’s intrinsic value: value it always had, but which we don’t necessarily appreciate until we name it.
So what’s all this have to do with the Trinity? I’m glad you asked. Our understanding of God springs directly from our desire to name God. Yes, we have the word “God,” but in our experience those three letters do not do justice to the sublime coherence of grace and love and communion that we feel when we stumble into God’s presence.
So let’s train our imaginations to look back before God said, “Let there be light”; back before there was a creation for God to call God’s own. We believe that “God is love,” as the First Letter of John puts it, but if there was no creation to fill the role of the Beloved, then how could this be? Well, if there was nothing else to love, then God loved God. But we can’t stop there because true love always manifests as a relationship. And so in our futile attempt to find the right word to name God, we latch on to relational language and name God “Father.” We could just as easily use the word, “Mother,” as well. This sets up one side of a loving relationship, that of parent to child.
But the relationship is incomplete without the second person. And so we also name God “Son” to acknowledge the complete relationship between loving parent and beloved child. In the Gospel according to John, Jesus says that God “loved me before the foundation of the world.” This love between parent and child is so palpable that the love itself is the third member of the Trinity, which we name the Holy Spirit. Indeed, Paul tells the church in Rome that “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”
This loving relationship between parent and child existed before anything else. Nothing existed that could substitute for or diminish the relationship. The love was pure, perfect, unsullied by deficiencies such as lust or anger or apathy or dominance. In fact, the perfection of the relationship meant that, while there was a Trinity of persons, a Unity of being was the ultimate reality. This Unity of being was the home in which the three persons dwelt: the Parent, the Child, and the Love between them.
When we name God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, we show our willingness – our desire – to resonate to a deeper degree with God’s movement in our lives. Just like learning the name of the Chestnut tree and suddenly seeing them everywhere, when we name God with the relational words of the Trinity, we set ourselves up to notice God moving in our lives in myriad ways: as the Father, the Son, the Spirit; as the Parent, Child, and Love between them – Love that brings us into the relationship and ushers us back home.
As I contemplate the secret names of our nascent children, as I lift those five syllables daily to the heart of God, I remember the importance of names. Names reveal the intrinsic value of things. Names pulls us deeper and deeper into relationship. Names help us notice things our eyes have never seen before. This is why we have three names for One God. This is why God has given us the gift of revealing God’s personhood as a thrice-named Trinity.
As I pray the names of our unborn children silently to God, I continue to wonder why we are keeping them secret. And I think the reason is this: we are saving their names for the new and joyous relationship that will begin at birth. Right now, they are ultrasound photo and pulsing heartbeat and kick on the belly and empty car seat waiting to be filled. And they are hope. I feel so much love gathering up inside of me – more love than my heart can hold because my heart is too small right now. I think this is a piece of the kind of love God felt in that moment before creation when there was only a Parent, a Child, and the Love between them. This new love is overflowing the banks of my heart, flooding me, waiting for the rapidly approaching day when I will hold my children in my arms, smell the tops of their heads, kiss their tiny fingers, and whisper their names.
And the moment I do, my heart will grow. These two new creations, these two incarnations of the love of God will hear their names. And pieces of my heart will exit my chest, enter theirs, and beat in tandem with their new hearts.
* ART: Detail from “Trinity” by Andrei Rublev (c. 1410)
(Sermon for Sunday, June 3, 2012 || Trinity Sunday B || John 3:1-17)
When I was in seventh grade, my parents bought me a three-quarter sized guitar and procured the services of a guitar expert to teach me the basics. At the first lesson, I learned the names of each of the six strings and how to play notes by plucking them. At the second lesson, I learned how to arrange my fingers on the strings so they made special shapes called chords. At the third lesson, I learned that I would have to practice if I wanted to improve my guitar playing. There was no fourth lesson.
You see, I was a bright kid, to whom pretty much everything came quite easily. I was a good athlete, so baseball and soccer were right up my alley. I really didn’t have to work much to make good grades in school. I had next to no challenges in any of my classes. And so when I was confronted with something that I couldn’t immediately master with no effort, I decided not to try. I put the guitar in the case, and the case sat unopened in my closet for years.
Now, as most of you know, I am a guitar player. So what happened? I picked up the instrument again my senior year of high school, and, being a tiny bit wiser than my seventh grade self, started practicing. I’ve been playing for over eleven years now, and I’m not half bad, but a wistful part of me always wonders how much better I would be at the guitar if I had not quit after three lessons back when I was thirteen years old.
My seventh grade self fell victim to a psychological epidemic that affects the vast majority of the population. Exactly one symptom characterizes this epidemic: people have difficulty agreeing to perform tasks that fall outside of their recognized competencies. This is still true for me: you’ve never seen me do ballet or fix the central heating in the church because these are two things that I don’t do very well. I have no training in either of these areas, and so the likelihood that I will agree to pirouette across a stage or put together an HVAC system is next to zero.
I’d be willing to wager that this fact of life is also true for you. I’m sure each of you could come up with a list of things you are unwilling to try because you know that you aren’t going to be good at them. You know that if you tried, failure would be in your future, and who wants to feel like a failure? And so the psychological epidemic keeps us from attempting new things and keeps us safely ensconced within the borders of our comfort zones.
For us this morning, the trouble comes when the list of things we are unwilling to try includes speaking openly about our faith in God. Why should this be any different from playing the guitar or doing anything else, you might ask? The simple answer is this: becoming an expert in guitar playing is possible. Becoming an expert on God is not.
Today’s Gospel reading teaches us this reality, which is an appropriate lesson on a day when we celebrate the mystery of the Holy Trinity. Nicodemus, a Pharisee and member of the Jewish council, fashions himself such a God expert. He comes to Jesus by night, and at the outset of their conversation, tries to display his knowledge of how God operates. “Rabbi,” says Nicodemus, “We know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”
Nicodemus’s “we know” sets him up as the so-called expert on God. The irony is that his statement is true. But Jesus isn’t interested in whether or not Nicodemus speaks correctly; Jesus is solely interested in moving this so-called expert into the unfathomable depths of God’s interaction with God’s creation. “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above,” says Jesus in response to Nicodemus’s opening remarks. Jesus’ statement is intentionally ambiguous. The words could mean “born from above or born again,” and I think Jesus means both. The very ambiguity of the phrase shows Jesus’ attempt to push Nicodemus out of his comfort zone where “we know” is his default position.
For his part, Nicodemus latches onto the more mundane of the two possibilities: “How can anyone be born after having grown old?” he asks. This response might sound a bit sarcastic, but at least the Pharisee, who has always been the expert answering questions, is now beginning to ask some of his own. The question is the small chink in the armor of Nicodemus’s expertise. Because of Nicodemus’s willingness to ask a question, Jesus sees that there is hope in showing him the expansiveness of all that this so-called expert does not know.
And, boy, does Jesus show him. Jesus opens Nicodemus’s mind and heart to the mystery of how God creates God’s people, and of how God moves in the world like the wind moving through the trees. When Jesus is done, Nicodemus’s opening “we know” now sounds laughably empty in comparison to the mysteries Jesus reveals to him. To begin to walk in and among these mysteries, Nicodemus must change his empty “we know” into an “I don’t know” full of desire and curiosity. And he takes the first tentative steps along this path with the sincerest question in the entire Gospel: “How can these things be?”
In just one conversation, Jesus shows Nicodemus that being an expert on God is not only not possible, but also not the best way to be in relationship with God. Only by acknowledging his lack of understanding can Nicodemus hope to begin to hear the sound of the wind blowing, this wind of the Holy Spirit that breathes life into creation. Nicodemus’s job is no longer to try to explain what makes God tick. Jesus gives him a new job: to bear witness to the mysterious movement of God in his life.
We see Nicodemus twice more over the course of the Gospel. In his next appearance, he puts one tentative foot outside his comfort zone when he reminds the rest of the council about their own rules when they want to put Jesus to death. And in his final appearance, we see that Nicodemus has fully embraced the new life that Jesus revealed to him. In broad daylight on the afternoon of the crucifixion, Nicodemus helps Joseph of Arimethea take Jesus from the cross and bury him in the tomb.
This so-called expert on God had his world turned upside down that night when he went to see Jesus. Jesus showed him that expertise is neither possible nor desired when relationship with God is concerned. There is not a person on this earth who is competent to talk about what makes God tick. While you and I might have difficulty agreeing to perform tasks that fall outside of our recognized competencies, we can take heart in the reality that Jesus released us from needing to be competent in this particular area. We will never be good at talking about God because God is far too glorious, far too mysterious and majestic for our puny words. But that shouldn’t stop us from trying. Releasing us from the need to be competent means that Christ rejoices in even our most halting attempts, in even the simplest expressions of feeling God’s love.
My prayer this morning is that each of us might feel released from the need to be competent when we have the opportunity to speak to someone else about our faith. Don’t be like my seventh grade self who gave up the guitar because he wasn’t an overnight expert. Rather, acknowledge that expertise has no domain where God is concerned. The simple word about how you feel God’s movement, spoken from the heart, is worth more than any treatise on the inner workings of the Holy Trinity. The halting word about not understanding God’s movement is worth more than all the “we knows” like the one Nicodemus speaks when he first encounters Jesus. The good news is that God uses our incompetencies as much, if not more, than our competencies. So I challenge you and I challenge myself: live into our incompetent ability to speak of God’s movement, and perhaps through our witness, someone new might start seeing God’s wind blowing through the trees.