Holy Trinity Sunday
“What are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?” Psalm 8:4
As many of you know, my sister Claire is a high school math teacher. She wrapped up her school year a couple of weeks ago, so this is the time of the year when she usually attends a few professional conferences to help her start the preparations for next year. (No rest for the weary, right?) This week I received a text from her while she was attending one of these conferences. Imagine my surprise when it contained a picture of a man – a fully adult man – dressed as a giant squirrel. That’s right. The person who was at that moment addressing this group of educators was dressed as a giant squirrel.
I had some questions. I was tempted to make fun of the whole situation. But as it turns out, Claire reported that his talk was really useful. He spoke about Creativity, Courage, and Change – all important topics – and, believe it or not, he connected those topics to squirrels. Some people will truly go to any lengths to make sure we get the message.
Today is Holy Trinity Sunday. It’s the only Sunday of the church year that somehow got named after a doctrine, but before you go running for the doors, let’s see what we can do with today’s focus on the Trinity.
There are all kinds of ways to do this badly. Countless symbols and analogies, from three-leaf clovers to water/ice/vapor. Putting together an understanding of the Trinity can sometimes feel like assembling a table from Ikea. You take a little bit of one thing that you don’t fully understand with a few other things you don’t fully understand, and you hope you end up with something that can stand on its own three legs without too many parts left over.
What the Trinity is actually about is God’s persistent, creative, loving desire to be in relationship with each of us, to communicate with us what is most important for us to know. God can do much better than a giant squirrel costume. God finds all kinds of ways to get our attention – by creating beauty and diversity, by taking on flesh and blood in the person of Jesus, by stirring up things with the Holy Spirit’s fire or wind. The word “trinity” does not appear in the Bible, but the Bible is filled with the stories that help us see how God grabs us by the shoulders and says: “Look! Don’t miss this! I’m right here!”
Traditionally the Trinity takes on the names of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. But there are many other names for the presence and activity of God. We hear one of them in today’s reading from Proverbs, a passage in which Wisdom is personified as a woman. We hear that this Wisdom has been there from the beginning. “Before the mountains had been shaped, before the hills, I was brought forth,” Wisdom says. “When God established the heavens, I was there.” I think of this Wisdom as one form of the Holy Spirit.
We hear that this Wisdom Spirit is “on the heights, beside the way, at the crossroads…[and] beside the gates in front of the town.” That means that wherever people are doing their best to live in community, the Spirit is there – gathering and teaching and guiding.
God finds us in our daily comings and goings – on the heights, beside the way, at the crossroads. On our commute, at our workplaces, in the carpool line.
Psalm 8 celebrates the wonder of the natural world. Speaking to God the Creator, the psalmist says: “When I look at your heavens, the work of your hands, the moon and the stars that you have established, what are human beings that you are mindful of them?” The psalm goes on to celebrate the beasts of the field and the birds of the air and the fish of the sea.
God finds us in the beauty all around us. The hydrangeas exploding in lavender and blue. The full moon on a summer night. The way your dog or cat or bunny rabbit or guinea pig loves you completely.
Romans 5 reminds us of the grace that we have in Jesus, the grace that we receive not because we deserve it, but because Jesus freely gives it. And more than that, this grace holds us in the midst of suffering; it is a grace that brings us from suffering to endurance to hope.
God finds us in times of pain and grief and fear. And then we often discover that places of heartbreak can also be holy.
Jesus says many things in his long farewell address that he offers the disciples on the night that he dies. We’ve heard several pieces of these parting words in recent weeks. Today we hear him say to his friends: “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.” There will be other times and other ways of speaking, he suggests. Many of them won’t make sense now, but they will later.
I believe the same is true for us. God has so many things to say to us. Many ways of searching us out and talking to us and connecting with us. They don’t always make sense immediately. Sometimes we don’t realize they’ve happened until we look back later.
So ask yourself: Where have you experienced God? How has God tried to get your attention recently?
I thought about these questions after an experience on the subway Wednesday night. Fairly often when I’m riding the subway, there will be a person who will stand up and address the entire car to ask for money. Most of the passengers ignore the person; a few will give a dollar or two. Several folks look away, clearly uncomfortable. Sometimes, I confess, I am among them. I’m not proud of it.
On Wednesday night a woman stood up, announced that she was homeless, and started to give what at first sounded like a plea for money. But then she asked for something much more specific. She asked if any of us had sanitary napkins that we could give her.
I cringed at first, embarrassed that she was shouting out such a personal request, even that she used a rather old-fashioned term to ask for it. Maybe you feel a little uneasy hearing me mention it this morning.
But then I thought about what it would be like to live on the streets without knowing how you were going to take care of those most personal needs. And then I thought about the courage that it took for her to announce that need to a whole subway car full of strangers. And then I thought about Jesus’ words in Matthew 25: “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” When the people are confused about what he means, he adds: “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”
So I dug around in my purse and I gave her what I could. A couple of others did the same. I could refill those supplies as soon as I got home. She could not.
God spoke to me through that woman on the subway and reminded me that my embarrassment or discomfort does not negate the call to care for people in need. I needed that push.
I don’t know where you will experience God. Maybe in the wisdom of a close friend or family member. Maybe in a surprise encounter with a stranger. Maybe in the way your kid notices the world. Maybe in the summer breeze against your face or the ocean tugging at your feet. Maybe in complete silence. Or a dream. Or a song.
We don’t know when or how God might speak to us, and so we pray that we might be open to noticing it when it happens.
In a piece of her poem “Sometimes,” the poet Mary Oliver has four lines that seem to me summarize how we live and share our understanding of a God who has so many ways of reaching us.[i] The lines go like this:
Instructions for living a life:
Tell about it.
Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it. Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ
“Do not be astonished that I said to you, “You must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” John 3:7-8
There are a lot of bad analogies for the Trinity. Whenever people take a stab at explaining how God could be three persons – Father, Son, Spirit – and yet still be one God, it seldom goes well. Here’s a sampling of the attempts: God is like water that exists in three states – solid, liquid, gas. Or like an egg – the shell, the egg white, and the yoke. Three parts, one egg. Or a three-leaf clover. Or a tree – roots, trunk, branches. You get the idea.[i]
This morning I’m not going to get tangled up in knots trying to explain the Holy Trinity. That’s probably more work than one sermon can do anyway. But I’d like to zoom in on one part of the Trinity: the Holy Spirit. Many of us are more comfortable thinking about God as Creator – or perhaps God as Parent. We can maybe wrap our minds around God becoming human in the person of Jesus. But the Holy Spirit? We’re not sure about that one.
The biblical images for the Holy Spirit usually come in three varieties: fire, a dove, or wind (sometimes breath or other kinds of air). At our New Jersey Synod Assembly a couple of weeks ago, we were all set to use several of those images. My friends on the worship planning committee hauled altar candles and a paschal candle to the site. (The paschal candle is that big candle beside the font that we light during baptisms and on other special Sundays.) And on the night of our dinner, someone had filled big balloons in the shape of white doves and tied them to many of the chairs around the room so they were floating in the air over us.
But we ran into some problems. For starters, the hotel wouldn’t allow any open flames. So we couldn’t actually light the candles, and having all those candles up there without flames just seemed too depressing, so we tucked the candles away in a corner. And then, throughout the dinner and the next morning, I watched as, one by one, the white Spirit balloons met a sad fate. A few lost their helium and started to drift drunkenly toward the ground. One was pulled down to a lower level and tied securely to the back of a chair so it couldn’t float any more. Still another balloon was stuffed under a table.
I have no idea why people felt so hostile toward the balloons, but the whole thing felt pretty close to how we usually respond to the Spirit. We don’t want that Spirit roaming wildly around the place. We want to tether it, control it, nail it down. We can’t stand the thought of a Spirit that is moving, a Spirit that is on fire. That kind of Spirit is too dangerous. That kind of Spirit might spread from one place to another without our permission.
Whatever brings Nicodemus to Jesus in the middle of the night, he ends up having some questions about the Spirit. Jesus tells Nicodemus that we must be born from above. Another way to translate that phrase is to be “born again.” Nicodemus is understandably confused and presses the point. You can’t return to your mother’s body and be born again, can you? What Jesus says doesn’t clarify the matter very much: “No one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.” Jesus goes on to say that “the wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
Jesus seems to understand how much we’d like to control the Holy Spirit. He knows we like life to be predictable. He knows we don’t like to take risks, certainly not the risks that come with speaking and living our faith. But Jesus doesn’t really give us an option. “So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” That’s us, born again in baptism. Born of water and Spirit. So it is, Jesus says. So it is. That we are born again to a new life – that part is certain. But where it leads? We do not know. The wind blows where it chooses. We have no idea where and when it might shake us up.
On Thursday night I sat in one of the top rows in the balcony of a church in Washington, DC that was filled to overflowing. We were listening to an impressive line-up of preachers, including Bishop Michael Curry, Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, whom you may have heard recently give the wedding homily for Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. Hanging from the ceiling of the church right in front of me were long red ribbons. I assumed they were left there from the congregation’s celebration of the Pentecost last Sunday.
Bishop Curry was laying it out for us. “Love your neighbor,” he said. “That’s why we’re here.” He went on, getting louder and louder and challenging us with the truth that loving our neighbor is not just a sentimental feeling. He said: “Love the neighbor you like and the neighbor you don’t like. Love the neighbor you agree with and the neighbor you don’t agree with. Love your Democrat neighbor, your Republican neighbor, your black neighbor, your white neighbor, your Anglo neighbor, your Latino, your LGBTQ neighbor. Love your neighbor. That’s why we’re here.”
As Bishop Curry became increasingly impassioned, I watched the air move through those red ribbons. They started swaying more and more. Something is happening, I thought. The Spirit is moving.
And then this happened. A bird appeared out of nowhere and perched on a beam near the ceiling of the church. It startled me at first. I watched it flit around for a while and realized that it, too, embodied the Holy Spirit. We couldn’t control where that bird came from or where it was headed. But there it was, moving freely and surprising all of us.
Think for a moment about what unsettles you right now. It might be something in your own life – an unresolved relationship, a new professional opportunity, a concern for a friend. What might the Spirit be moving you to do in that situation? It might feel risky, but so it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.
What unsettles you about our world right now? What most fires you up when you think about it? More school shootings? People who are hungry in a world with plenty of food? Immigrant children separated from their families? An opioid drug crisis ensnaring people in addiction? What might the Spirit be moving you to do? It might feel daunting, but so it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.
We might very well ask the question that Nicodemus does: “How can these things be?” When we live a life of faith that question is going to come up a lot. How can these things be?
But as people of faith, we don’t just ask “How can these things be?” We ask, “How can we respond?” How can we follow God’s ways of justice and mercy? The Spirit blows in and around us not just to unsettle us but to inspire us. Inspire us to help in the ways that we can. To change systems that keep people hungry and poor and afraid. To pray with our hands and our feet.
May we live and love as the Spirit moves us to do – even when it surprises us. Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ