June 16, 2019
The Family of God – June 16, 2019
Sermon for Trinity Sunday, June 16, 2019
Proverbs 8:1-4,22-31; John 16:12-15
As we celebrate Father’s Day today, the Church calendar tells us something different – that it’s Trinity Sunday. Trinity Sunday is the only principal feast of the Church year that marks not an event (like Easter) or the example of holy people (like All Saints’ Day) but a doctrine – or, maybe I should say, the doctrine.
On Trinity Sunday, we honor nothing less than the nature of God – and as soon as we do, we start stumbling all over ourselves to make sense of it without being heretical. Because, of course, the nature of God is ultimately impossible for us to grasp. Just listen to this snippet from the Creed of St. Athanasius, in the Historical Documents section of the prayer book: “[W]e worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity, neither confounding the Persons nor dividing the Substance. For there is one Person of the Father, another of the Son, and another of the Holy Ghost. But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost is all one, the Glory equal, the Majesty co-eternal.” (BCP 864). Well, that clears it up, right?
So, why does the doctrine of the Trinity matter? For me, there are two basic reasons, one theological and the other more practical. First, theologically, this idea of one God in three persons sets us apart as Christians. Despite all we share with other religions, especially the other Abrahamic faiths of Judaism and Islam, no other religion sees God as this delicate dance of unity in diversity. Second, more practically, I think the doctrine of the Trinity is important because of this: We follow the God we come to know. How we see God’s nature determines what we understand about our nature and how we are to live, given that we’re made in the “image and likeness” of God (Genesis 1:26). As God is, and as God acts, so we should be and so we should act as we relate to ourselves, and each other, and our world.
So, what does the doctrine of the Trinity tell us about God’s most fundamental attributes? And what divine attributes might not take the spotlight? Well, we could continue down the rocky road of abstract theology, but I think I caught some glimpses of God’s nature last week, in the house where I grew up.
My mother is getting ready to move out of her house after living there almost 54 years. I was there on Monday helping her clear out closets and pack things up, and I want to share with you two things I found there.
First was a photo of my father and me playing catch in the backyard when I was about 10. In this photo, the sun is setting, and the shadows have grown long. I’m in the shade, with my back to the camera; and my father is in the bright evening sunlight with his glove open, his eyes tracking the baseball that’s about to hit the pocket. He’s wearing slacks and a white button-up shirt, so I know he’s just come home from work. And I wondered, as I looked at that photo – what had he been thinking just before we went outside? My father was an academic dean at what’s now Missouri State University, and God only knows what stupid drama he’d been dealing with that day, administering the College of Arts and Humanities. What burdens was he carrying as we put on our gloves and went out the back door?
Now, my father wasn’t great at hiding his frustration. You knew when he was stuck somewhere he didn’t want to be or stuck doing something he didn’t want to do. But I never remember that look on his face when we went out to play catch. He may have been completely worn out, and worried about budgets, and stressed out by prima-donna professors, and behind on projects around the house. But there he was, playing catch in the backyard, putting me first. And I kind of think he loved it.
Now, that’s a great memory for a Father’s Day sermon. But the truth is, this could just as easily be a Mother’s Day sermon. As we heard in the reading from Proverbs, God is represented as a female figure in our Scripture and tradition, too, along with the Father from today’s Gospel reading and the Creed. And cleaning out closets with my mother last week, I found something else to take home with me – a red mixing bowl.
This was the go-to mixing bowl in my mother’s kitchen as we kids grew up. It seemed to me she used it making every dinner we had. But it was also the bowl she and I would use to make chocolate-chip cookies. It won’t surprise you to know that the pudgy little boy playing baseball in the backyard loved chocolate-chip cookies. Even when I was small enough that I needed to stand on a chair, she would let me stir the flour and sugar and baking soda, and add the eggs and vanilla and butter, and combine it all with the electric hand mixer, a wondrous toy with which I sprayed cookie dough all over the counter. We’d eat maybe half the dough raw and bake the rest, filling the house with the scent of heaven.
Now, my mother had a home to manage. She had three other kids to worry about, too. She worked toward a master’s degree, and taught, and for a time served as the Episcopal chaplain at Missouri State. And patience is not exactly my mother’s greatest gift. When my family would be walking somewhere, what we kids and my father saw was my mother’s back, 20 feet in front of us, because we never could walk fast enough for her. But there she was, in the kitchen when she didn’t have to be, helping me make cookies, putting me first. And I kind of think she loved it.
So, all that sounds perfect. Based on what I’ve told you, my childhood was a Norman Rockwell painting. Of course, it wasn’t. There was a lot of dysfunction, too; and like all of us, the baggage I carry is filled mostly with the sadnesses and failures of childhood.
But here’s why I’m sharing all this with you on Trinity Sunday. I think in our best times – when we’re most fully alive, when we know joy that leaves us aching for more – in our best times, that’s when we most closely reflect the image and likeness of the God who creates us, and redeems us, and sustains us. Because those best times are our times of relationship.
“God is love,” Scripture tells us (1 John 4:8). And love, by definition, means sharing in relationship. You can’t love without there being someone tolove. And people in a deep relationship create something greater than either of them, a power of nurture and creativity and joy that changes the world they touch. Centuries ago, St. Augustine saw this, describing the Triune God as being like one who loves, and that person’s beloved, and the love that flows between and beyond them. We stumble around with words to try to capture this loving reality, describing God as Father and Son and Holy Spirit; or as Creator and Redeemer and Sustainer; or maybe as two dancers and the dance that together they create. Well, maybe a family is a good model, too – a family of any size or configuration or location; a family of biology or a family of choice. Even a church family, on its best days. Maybe God is family. At least that’s one way to see it.
It matters how we see God because, like I said, we follow the God we come to know. For many people, unfortunately, the God they grew up knowing was a God of rules. God was the lawgiver who made the rules. God was the sheriff who enforced the rules, and who deputized special people to help him knock heads theologically. Now, this God of rules could be gracious if he desired, a judge dismissing our well-deserved sentence and sending us out on parole. And, in the fullness of time, this God of rules even took our place as the prisoner in the cell, standing in for us when we violated our parole and taking the punishment we deserved. And now, this God of rules runs the halfway house, continuing to monitor us and asking us to teach good behavior to other offenders, while we wait for him to impose law and order over all creation. I was blessed because that’s not the God I grew up knowing. Though I didn’t have words for it, the God I grew up knowing wasn’t the God of rules but the God of relationship.
Of course, it’s not that God has no rules. All families, all households, all relationships have rules. It’s just that the rules aren’t the point. Instead, the rules are love’s operating manual, the steps that make the dance of relationship work without us tripping over each other’s feet.
I think the God of relationship is what Trinity Sunday is asking us to see. If the Holy Trinity is, first and foremost, a relationship, then we who are made in God’s image and likeness ought to put our energy into living that way. Because, it turns out, not only is relationship God’s M.O., it’s also the source of our joy. As C.S. Lewis said, joy is “unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any … satisfaction.”1 It’s connection with God and others that makes us long for deeper connection, a virtuous cycle of giving and receiving and giving again, an embrace that always draws you closer in. The gift of the God who is relationship is not just the love you’ve known but love you keep yearning for – the batch of cookies or game of catch that never has to end.
- Lewis, C.S. Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life. 1955. Posted Oct. 4, 2015. Available at: https://gutenberg.ca/ebooks/lewiscs-surprisedbyjoy/lewiscs-surprisedbyjoy-01-h.html. Accessed June 13, 2019.