Sermon, 6/12/22: Do Numbers Always Add Up?

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Trinity Sunday

Psalm 8; Proverbs 8:1 – 4, 22 – 31; Romans 5:1 – 5; John 16:12 – 15

Glory to you, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; we will praise you and highly exalt you for ever. Canticle 136

Ask someone younger than twenty-five what a slide rule is, chances are, you will receive a blank stare.  To ask further what an abacus is might net you the accusation of using vulgar language, as only those preparing for a spelling bee contest will know what an abacus is.  (An ancient Chinese means of calculation!)  In another situation, we are told to listen for a dial tone, even though, in order to make a telephone call, we no longer use a dial.  And multiplication tables, once a staple in basic arithmetic, have gone the way of the dodo bird, since a touch of the smartphone can give the answer equally quickly.  Change is inevitable and the means of arriving at new knowledge will evolve.  Our vocabulary, though, lags often behind.

You and I were taught in school that 2 plus 2 are 4.  But that is not always true—2 parrots and 2 boys are neither 4 parrots, nor 4 boys.  Indeed, they are not of the same species.  Simple numbers and hard and fast rules cannot be always applicable.  Hard and fast rules can be used to achieve nefarious means.  So, how does one explain to believers and non-believers alike, that we Christians believe in one God, as our creeds declare and that that one is really three and that each one of the three is co-equal with the other—all mathematically impossible, unless, of course, one divides the one into three parts?  But then, that would make each a third, or less than a whole god.   It should come, then, as no surprise that most clergy try to avoid preaching on Trinity Sunday.  Yet, our Book of Records records Jesus as saying, “The Father and I are one.”

And then there is a second compelling contemporary reason, to avoid clarifying God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  In an era when some of us are attempting to ground our belief in a God, in whom, according to St. Paul, there is neither male nor female, preaching about the Trinity can lead to uncomfortable exchanges.  Like Thomas the Doubter, my favorite disciple and apostle, we may not doubt the existence of God, but we do question how best to present that image.

How we in our century can even begin to explain the Trinity, is a great challenge.  Behold!  We are not alone.  For those early Christians, understanding and explaining the Trinity was also no easy task.  In fact, the early church leaders took several centuries (325 A.D.) after Christ’s death, resurrection, and ascension, in order to come to some common understandings of the Trinity. As do we in our own time, so wrestled the early Christians with the questions: What is God like?  Is the God of Israel the same God worshiped by Christians?  In what ways is Christ related to that God?  Is the Holy Spirit fully God?  

As we sit here, in the beauty and solemnity of this sanctuary, we may find it difficult to imagine that people cared so passionately how best to describe God, that armed camps arose, fought, and killed each other, in order to establish their image of God as the correct ones.  The Christians of yore composed creeds, the Apostles Creed, the Nicene Creed, and the less familiar Athanasius Creed, and they are all besprinkled with blood.  They are all attempts by devout men to describe, in shorthand form, their faith.  I announce a spoiler alert: If the Bible, our Book of Records, be correct, God has tried to make our understanding of the Divine quite simple.  We are the ones who complicate things. 

Following Eucharist, a former student said once to me, ‘those people—meaning the writers of our creeds—those people made honest and sincere attempts, using the vocabulary and their understanding of the world around them of their time, to describe God for themselves and for successive generations, in the hope that they might secure a community, a more perfect union.’  And this latter, according to my young student friend, is what religion is all about.  That is what the Trinity is all about, about forming, out of love, a more perfect union. 

As you may recall, I traveled several weeks ago again to the Finger Lakes of New York, in order to deliver the eulogy of a dear deceased friend.  As I drove on I-90 West, I would occasionally allow my eyes move from the interior rear-view mirror, to the side mirrors, or turn my head from side to side, in order to gauge traffic and my position in that moving column of rushing automobiles.  I tried to imagine how traffic was moving at that very moment on the Autobahn in and around Frankfurt, Berlin, Wiesbaden, Munich, places in Germany, among others, where I have driven, and then in Hong Kong, London, Galway, Aberdeen, places where I have been driven.  Then, I would try to imagine how the traffic was moving in Mumbai, India, in Kathmandu, Nepal, in Mexico City, Mexico—all places which I have yet to visit.

I failed, utterly. My imagination failed me even in those places familiar to me because I, being only human, lacked a real visual presence.  I became like Thomas of biblical fame. I could not put my finger in the nail print or in the side.  I could imagine that there were automobiles in all those places.  However, I then realized that for many of the locales in my imagination there should have been little or no major traffic, as the majority of the population should have been in bed.  And my attempts at a true image in foreign localities were rendered all the more impossible, when I conceded, that I did not know even the drivers who were sharing I-90W with me. Yet, they were there, people just like me, sharing a common space, but remaining uniquely different.

I failed miserably because the vocabulary of my imagination was insufficient, in so many ways.  I lacked the make and nomenclature and colors of the automobiles which would make real what I tried to imagine.  I had no definite knowledge of the terrain or of the condition of the roads.   I knew not whether the operators of those vehicles were female or male.  I could not imagine, as I was limited by my humanity.  But would I be justified, if I were to deny the existence of those lands and peoples? 

And what was the conclusion of my personal reflection that I was having with myself at 73 miles per hour?  The conclusion was not as profound as you may think.  My former student was correct.  We often make our understanding of things more complicated than it ought to be.  We know what we know, and we express what we know using the vocabulary at hand, a vocabulary, a language, that has emerged from the experiences that we have had. 

You may ask, quite correctly actually, what my mental exercise on I– 90 has to do with understanding the Trinity?  For me, everything!  You see, I believe, we have allowed ourselves, through our esoteric theological debates, to be distracted from what Jesus attempted then, and through his recorded words attempt still today describe that Divine Being that we call God.  To know God, is to live in the present.  We debate.  We dissect.  We analyze, until we believe that we have come up with the perfect explanation, and those explanations become our Golden Calf.  As one of my Roman Catholic priest-friends with whom I spoke recently, said, we can never fully know or define God, except as we see in each other what is true and good and beautiful.

Jesus knew and understood, that to reach people, he had to use a vocabulary, not just words, but images, mental pictures which his audience would understand.  That is why his most powerful sermons come to us in the form of simple parables.  Jesus understood that God, if God were not to be located in the golden calf, i.e. confined in a graven image, had to be made real. Keeping faith with the Scriptures of his day, Jesus explained that he himself, Jesus of Nazareth, was the manifestation of what God stated in Creation, namely that we are all made in the image of God.  And that is for me the beauty of Christianity.  We are reminded that we have within us something that urges us to seek community, which God has sought from the very beginning.  What Jesus does, is to relocate our center of creational gravity.  He put the divine back into human form. 

This brings me directly back to the Trinity.  While on I–90 West, it was that inner urge, the spirit of God that creates community, which made me aware of my own actions, right there, not in some distant location, which made me aware of not placing others by my actions in harm’s way, of being prepared to alert others, by slowing down when a construction crew was making repairs for our mutual safety.  We need less a theological language regarding the Trinity, than the simple understanding that the Holy Trinity is about community, expressed in a language of several generations, millennia removed from us. 

Imagine this, if you will: Today, in seeking to bring about community, on earth as in heaven, you and I are participating in the very life of God.  It means that what you do in love, has an eternal and everlasting quality, because it is grounded in the very being of God.  For people of faith, God, and by whatever nomenclature we use to describe God, is about a shared being, a being that shares.  Limited by vocabulary, we call that expansive sharing LOVE.   Amen