The Holy Trinity, June 7, 2009
The Rev. Tasha Brubaker Garrison
Trinity Sunday! That most wonderful and wonderfully messy feast day. If you think I am going to be able to explain it to you in the next 5 minutes, prepare to be disappointed. But we can look at it conceptually using two lenses. The first is this God we worship that we call a Trinity. The other is to look at the trinities that permeate and shape our day-to-day reality as beings that are always relating and being related to. So here goes.
The Trinity is a most confusing concept—at least we are trained to believe it to be. All that mumbo jumbo about God being one yet three, three yet one. Are we monotheists or quasi-monotheists? How can it be that God is one yet somehow divided into three persons that are all equal, yet perhaps not quite equal? God is unity but also distinctive parts and on it goes.
Seminarians are used to getting the assignment to preach on this day. The Trinity has become this mysterious zone of theological inquiry that is beyond mere mortals. And most priests don’t want to touch it with a, you guessed it, three-foot pole. Let the seminarian do it; they don’t know any better. And so we hear lots of sermons on economic and immanent Trinity and walk away even more confused and imagining God as one big philosophical argument going on with itself. And in this state of confusion and maybe paralysis at trying to explain this we look for creative ways out. We use metaphors such as ice, vapor and water, which are helpful to a point, or, as one fellow seminarian I knew, stunts from the pulpit: in her case, juggling. I’m not sure how three balls flying in the air is supposed to make me understand the Trinity, but hey, I don’t have any brighter ideas myself.
And perhaps that is the heart of the difficulty. Not the Trinity per se, but our need to make sense of it in forensic terms. To squash it into a systematic, theoretical box. To make mystery make sense, as if it is something we can take apart like an engine, see how it works, and put it back together again. See, I think the Trinity is about experience, our experience of God. There is no limit to the ways we experience God, no way to pin it down or confine it. In our readings today there are three very distinct ways that God is encountered from the overwhelming awe of the transcendent in Isaiah’s meeting to the face-to-face unsettling and life-changing experience of Nicodemus with Jesus. At most we can see common patterns of experience from which emerge the transforming action of God, ever new, ever uncontrollable. The Trinity is that spiritual space in which we discover the presence of the holy and are confronted with our response. It is that place where truths collide and we make decisions about whose we are.
Which reminds me of a classmate of mine in 5th and 6th grade. Her name was Michelle. There is a definite understanding of reality that operates in a classroom and among children of that age. They are one class (as opposed to the other teacher’s class), especially at recess or lunch time, but within they are sorted. Since we were all brainy kids in my class we didn’t sift by the nerd factor, but we did by others. Now what made one cool and what didn’t seemed to be a moving target with no apparent logic to it. Why did playing jump rope one week make you cool, but not the next? Why did having jeans that buttoned up versus zipping up make you hip? By whatever the criteria were for that week or so we were divided into those who were cool, those who were not and those who didn’t register (which was often the best group to be in). I remember this bizarre reality of my own internal life as it bumped up against the reality my classmates created and the world as defined by our teachers. Sound kinda Trinitarian?
I sorted of drifted between the not cool and the didn’t register camp. But Michelle was always and clearly in the not cool camp. She was one of those girls that looked at age 11 like she was 17; she was awkward physically; and she was shy. I often wonder how she found the strength to face us each day. Matters came to a head one day and moved from simply being uncool to center of attention. On this fateful day her pants split in the back. There was one trinity of experience operating for sure: by the rules this was uncool—definition; the response was to laugh and humiliate—the incarnation; the effect was to diminish and hurt a heart because they were of little consequence—the spirit. But that wasn’t the only Trinity. One or two of us didn’t laugh. We saw a different Trinity of definition, incarnation and spirit. The definition was compassion; the response was kindness and assistance; the spirit was dignity and respect. That was a day I did it right. I didn’t laugh, and I went with her to the office to get a safety pin. I said I would be in a certain and different kind of relationship with her in this complex experience of reality and reaction. And a new experience emerged out of all those pieces.
The Trinity is something like this. It is that multi-faceted way we experience God and have God revealed to us. It is in motion and dynamic, taking its place of meaning from the Good News of Jesus about how we are to live in this world. It is the interplay and interconnection of a holy reality as we experience it. One expression is as utterly transcendent and over-arching. Another expression is to experience that holy reality embodied in creation and humanity, the experience of God in other people and most clearly of all Jesus whose life was so fully imbued with the holy that we see the image of God. And yet another expression is to experience that sense deep within of the holy residing inside us and giving us life. God, Incarnated One, Spirit: all interwoven and all interconnecting and yet moving in such a way that we are free to respond and shape the nature of being. That holiness moves us towards truth and love and freedom. It is discovered by our experience, our action and reaction. We believe that this Trinity, this Godly Trinity, expressed in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus reveals the deepest truth about reality and about God and to this we anchor ourselves to live into the trinities of this world.
It is this Trinitarian reality that allows us to be born of the spirit, to be born again and again, to bring out of our relationships the kingdom of God. And it all starts here at this table where we gather, the bread and wine are shared, the spirit moves and we are once again turned into the living expression of God. Perhaps the Trinity is not so hard to understand after all.