Sermons & Blogs
Pastor Cheryl Walenta Gorvie
Bethany Lutheran Church
June 3, 2012
Today we celebrate Trinity Sunday, which is a challenge for a few reasons. For one, we aren’t celebrating a historical event, like Easter or Pentecost—we are celebrating a doctrine. Yawn. Trinity Sunday has been celebrated since the tenth century, probably because someone looked at a calendar of the whole liturgical year and thought, well, we need to fit this in somewhere.
The Trinity is challenging to understand, also, because the Bible never mentions the Trinity. The word “Trinity” came along later, to describe the three-in-one and one-in-three of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, or the Creator, the Redeemer, and the Sustainer…who somehow all coexist in the same person, at the same time, yet are each distinct. The Bible references these three, Jesus instructs his disciples in Matthew’s gospel to baptize in the name of all three, and Paul’s letters refer to baptisms in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. But the Bible doesn’t really explain what the Trinity is or how it works.
So theologians have tried to explain the Trinity. From what I can tell, it’s pretty much impossible to try to explain the Trinity without wandering into some kind of heresy. We can’t say the Trinity is like ice, water, and water vapor, essentially the same thing but dependent upon the outside temperature to determine in which state of matter it appears, because we don’t really think that God changes like the weather. We don’t profess faith in the Trinity as a series of rulers over eras of time, as though there was a time when the Creator ruled the universe, then there was the time of Jesus, and after that, there’s the reign of the Spirit…until Jesus comes again, which upsets the progression, but anyway…that system doesn’t really explain what we understand about the Trinity’s co-existent aspect. Sometimes we explain the Trinity without using tangible terms but a movement, like a dance. No hierarchy, no subordination, just three Beings working together, moving in a dance. But this is troubling for those of us who want a clearer, more measurable picture of what we’re talking about.
We can’t really fully explain it, so we call the Trinity a holy mystery. And mystery is annoying at best, and unsettling or upsetting at worst. We’re not really good at living with mystery. We like explanations—I think it helps us deal with reality. When we hear bad news, we don’t always react right away to the news itself before asking, “How did this happen?”
Maybe this is natural—we live in a time where so much can be known, about atoms and quarks and the building blocks of the universe, and so much is known about medicine and ways of healing the human body. But so much remains unknown. Is outer space filled with dark matter, and if so, what in the world is it? Do we live in a universe, or do we live in this particular place in a succession of universes that scientists are now calling the multiverse? Why does the same disease kill some people, but it’s treatable in some other people? Why do bad things happen to people who deserve good things? And why do good things happen to people who deserve much worse?
We trust God to possess the answers to these questions, even though we may never learn the answers as long as we’re here on this side of eternity. And maybe that’s the point—knowledge is power, and as long as we can’t have all the knowledge, we can’t have all the power. Ultimate power belongs alone to God. And we are the shivering, puny creatures who dare to ask such questions of God, forgetting our place, forgetting to mind ourselves or mind our manners in the presence of what is holy—namely, God.
Isaiah’s vision in the throne room is a strange one, but Isaiah speaks to the vastness of God, whose robe alone is so huge that the very hem of it fills the temple. Isaiah is rightly terrified, immediately recognizing his own inadequacy and naming it: “I am a man of unclean lips!” Isaiah knows that humans cannot bear the sight of the Lord and remain alive—it’s too much. He knows he is not perfect. His understanding is not perfect, his actions are not perfect, his words are not perfect. He’s clumsy; he’s afraid; he’s a lot like us. We’re not perfect, either. We can’t perfectly describe the Trinity. We can’t explain our own sinful actions, let alone justify our sinful actions before God. We can’t see God and live.
Instead, God sees us. And rather than waiting around until we can figure out how to approach God, God approaches us, in ways we can understand, in ways that aren’t guaranteed to kill us. We know God through the person of Jesus, who lived on the earth as a human, who died a human death, and rose from death in a new kind of resurrected reality. And Jesus told about the Holy Spirit, another way we know God—the Holy Spirit who intercedes for us, who advocates for us, who inspires and empowers us in various forms, like wind or fire or a dove, which we can imagine, but only sort of. In Isaiah’s vision, God doesn’t directly interact with Isaiah; instead, God sends these messengers, seraphs who were flying around, praising God.
The Bible says a lot of things about angels, mostly about their jobs as messengers or attendants at God’s altar, as these seraphs in Isaiah’s vision. In an article about angels, Reverend Doctor Marguerite Rourk writes that the ancient Hebrews who wrote the scriptures were not the first to talk about angels, but they “were, however, the first to describe angels as created by the Divine to convey to us the message that Divine will actually was to live in relationship with mortals.”
God could have accepted the distance between the human and the divine, but instead God chooses to reach out, with the messages of angels, by sending Jesus Christ as God-With-Us on earth, by sending the Holy Spirit. We are reminded that we don’t have the power to reach out to God and get anywhere. We can’t make ourselves perfect. Rourk confesses to remembering “an ancient rabbinic adage: When thou swellest with pride in thyself, O mortal, remember that the Holy One created the gnat before thee. This saying is particularly applicable to our human condition, given that often it has taken an angelic multitude to impart to us a relatively simple message: God is God, and we are not.” And all the unsettling mysteries are swept up in the vastness of God and the magnitude of God’s power, and even if we were to have the chance to ask God all the questions that keep us awake at night, we might not get any further than our friend Isaiah, saying, “Woe is me! I am lost…”
In the presence of the Almighty, our imperfection, our mortality, is manifest and obvious even to us. To humble ourselves before the Lord is the proper posture, knowing that God has power we do not possess. This is why when Lutherans worship, we begin with a confession that we understand God is God and we are not, or we begin as we did today with the Thanksgiving for Baptism, recalling God’s saving power in the sacrament of baptism, when we receive the spirit of adoption that makes us children of God. And throughout the liturgy on Sundays, whenever we gather for worship, we speak the words of Scripture. The words of the seraphs in Isaiah’s vision become words we take into our own mouths, praising God by saying “Holy, holy holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.” This is what we sing when we prepare to approach the altar for Holy Communion, by praising God in the same way as the seraphs. When we sing the seraphs own song, it is as though we, too, are surrounding the throne of God.
This is what we do, here on this side of eternity. Singing praise to God doesn’t make us more perfect, doesn’t make us better than anyone else. We’re not angels, we’re not seraphs, and Scripture doesn’t tell us that we’ll become angels after we die. As Rourk writes, “What we become is more perfectly who we were created to be—God’s children, who through our Lord Jesus Christ, will live forever to praise and glorify the creating Father, saving Son, and empowering Spirit.”
And what is that going to look like? Well, we’re back to that unsatisfying mystery answer again. But because of Jesus Christ, and because of the Holy Spirit, we know that God refuses to abandon us, refuses to abandon creation, even though God has the power to do so. Martin Luther said that he fears God because God could squash him, but he loves God because God doesn’t do that. God chooses to come to us, to bring messages of peace, to bring salvation through Jesus Christ, to empower us through the Holy Spirit, to prepare us for service in God’s kingdom, to do greater things than we could do on our own. On this side of heaven, we testify to what we see and know. We know that God claims us in baptism. We know that God reconciles us—with one another and with God—in Holy Communion. In the bread and wine, there is forgiveness when it touches our mouths, perhaps not unlike Isaiah’s experience of being transformed and purified when the hot coal from the altar of the Lord was touched to his mouth.
With this knowledge of God’s goodness, our response is to praise God, to glorify God, to worship God, the mysterious Trinity, the three-in-one and one-in-three. We may not be able to explain all the details, but we give thanks for God who loves us even when we are imperfect. Living in grateful response, everything we do is worship.
Musical artist Sara Groves sings a song about her friend who is old and who is afraid of dying. In the song, she confesses that she doesn’t know if there are harps in heaven or a process for earning wings. She asks again and again, “What do I know?” Then at the end of the song, her words echoing Saint Paul, she testifies to what she does know, saying, “But I know to be absent from this body is to be present with the Lord, and from what I know of him, that must be pretty good.”
|Sermon Pentecost 2011||