Saturday, June 25, 2011

The Three Who Seek My Heart

Sermon preached at the Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene on Trinity Sunday.

Peter Gomes, the great Harvard preacher who died earlier this year, told the story of a little girl in Sunday School. Having some time to do some artwork in response to the Bible story they had just heard, she was clearly at very intense work with some crayons. Her teacher asked, “What are you drawing?”

“I am drawing a picture of God,” said the little girl. Her teacher replied, “But, my dear, nobody knows what God looks like.” To which the girl responded with all confidence, “They will when I am finished.”[1]

Such is every preacher’s dream, particularly on Trinity Sunday. “They will know what God looks like when I am finished.” I can dream, but I know better than that. The Trinity is vexing, even incomprehensible, but that may be the wisest thing about it. No one can say they have God all figured out.

I honestly do not know why, but I have always felt completely comfortable with the notion of the Trinity. Maybe it was because I cut my Episcopal teeth at a parish called “Trinity.” But it was confirmed for me last summer while I was on sabbatical on the Scottish isle of Iona, one the great centers of ancient Celtic Christianity.

If you read much theology or poetry or other meditative writing, or are exposed to much art, from the heirs of the Celtic Way of Christianity, you will find yourself immersed in the Trinity. We have an example of that in the Offertory Hymn this morning, attributed to St. Patrick.

I bind unto myself today

the strong name of the Trinity,

By invocation of the same, the Three in One,

and One in Three.

Scholars have debated for a very long time just why the Trinity was important to the Celts. Maybe it was Patrick himself who instilled it in them. But more likely it was the idea of community, which was so vitally important to their culture. Three persons bound eternally in love represented something to which they aspired in their tribes and in their homes. It also did not hurt that the number three was held in special esteem by their pagan ancestors.

I love some of the poem-prayers from the ancient Celts.

The Three Who are over me,

The Three Who are below me,

The Three Who are above me here,

The Three Who are above me yonder,

The Three Who are in the earth,

The Three Who are in the air,

The Three Who are in heaven,

The Three Who are in the great pouring sea.[2]

And this Irish invocation of the Trinity.

O Father who sought me

O Son who bought me

O Holy Spirit who taught me.[3]

For the Celtic Christians, the Trinity was evident all around them. And I think there is something to that.

Any relationship is a trinity: a father to a child, for instance. In any relationship of any depth, there is not only the two persons in the relationship, but a third being, which is the relationship itself, which is not simply equal to the sum of the two persons. It takes on unique characteristics of its own.

And if you think about it, healthy relationships exist when not only the strong bond of love exists (the unity), but also those who make up the relationship maintain their own distinctiveness, and so also the relationship maintains its distinctiveness (the trinity). That’s one way to think about Trinity: me and you and us. Theologically it’s probably not a perfect analogy, but I think it comes close.

In the Christian vision this relationship is dynamic, not static. Unfortunately “dynamic” may not be the first word that leaps to mind when one hears the word “Trinity.” But the whole perhaps of talking about God as Trinity is to proclaim that there is dynamism in the heart of God, and, therefore, the creation is ongoing, dynamic, as well.

So we are called into relationships that are dynamic, evolving. Again, take the relationship between father and child. It is unfortunately easy for this relationship to get stuck, to be based in the past, or for either or both in the relationship to lose their ability to continue to learn about the other and therefore grow in the relationship. Again this is true of all relationships.

The Trinity places at the heart of creation a dynamic vision of ever growing love and mutuality. That is, in fact, the very source and purpose of creation.

This Trinitarian shape to the creation is what is going on in marriage. An absolute commitment of two persons creates a third being—a relationship, out of which emanate creative power. The Prayer Book gives three of these emanations of marriage: “mutual joy,” “help and comfort” in all circumstances, and, perhaps, “the procreation of children.”[4] My ethics professor in seminary, Tim Sedgewick, that there may be a “perhaps” to procreation, recognizing that all couples will not have children, but there is a broader principle which he calls “generativity.”[5] Out of the commitment of absolute love between two people is born good fruit for the building up of the kingdom of God. The Prayer Book recognizes this in one of the petitions from the Prayers of the People:

Give them such fulfillment of their mutual affection that they may reach out in love and concern for others.

That could just as easily be a description of the dynamic nature of God the Trinity.

And all of that is why we have no theological problem advocating for equal marriage for gay and lesbian persons. “Mutual joy,” “help and comfort” and generativity do not necessarily have anything to do with gender. We are not re-defining marriage; we are clarifying what marriage is really all about. Marriage is one way human beings emulate the dynamic mutuality and creativity of the Trinity.

Now that I am finished, I suppose you know what God looks like. Well, no, of course not. God does not look like the words of prose, no matter how eloquent. God looks like the words of song and poem. So one last look, at least for this sermon, from our Celtic ancestors:

Bless to me, O God,

Each thing mine eye sees;

Bless to me, O God,

Each sound mine ear hears:

Bless to me, O God,

Each odor that goes to my nostrils;

Bless to me, O God,

Each taste that goes to my lips;

Each ray that guides my way,

Each thing that I pursue,

Each lure that tempts my will,

The zeal that seeks my living soul,

The Three that seek my heart,

The zeal that seeks my living soul,

The Three that seek my heart.[6]

[1] From a Trinity Sunday sermon, “the Big Picture,” in Sermons: Biblical Wisdom for Daily Living (William Morrow & Co., 1998), p. 103.

[2] Carmen Gadelica, III, p. 7. The Carman Gadelica is a six-volume collection of songs, prayers and poetry from the oral tradition of the western Highlands and islands of Scotland, collected by Alexander Carmichael first published in 1900.

[3] From a similar collection of Irish oral tradition, collected by David Hyde, Religious Songs of Connacht, first printed in 1906, II, p. 39.

[4] The opening exhortation from “The Celebration and Blessing of a Marriage,” The Book of Common Prayer (1979), 423.

[5] Timothy F. Sedgewick, Sacramental Ethics: Paschal Identity and the Christian Life (Fortress, 1987), pp. 68-69.

[6] Hyde, Religious Songs, II, p. 207.

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