St. Thomas Evangelical Lutheran Church

3800 East Third Street

Bloomington, Indiana 47401

(812) 332-5252


Sermon for the Holy Trinity (May 31, 2015)

Liturgical Color: White

Reverend Doctor Lyle E. McKee


Holiness

Grace to you and peace from our loving God, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

[Reverence the altar and then the people at the beginning of worship.]

[At sermon, move to behind the altar and reverence the peopleóby each section, bowing low.]

What is the liturgical name for what I just did? Anyone know?

Reverencing. A bow toward the holy in order to indicate deference, honor, and worship.

Why do you think we did this altered form of reverencing at the beginning of worship and then again just now by myself? What does it mean? What might it signify?

Yes. That I am offering to all of you an act of deference, honor, and worship

But why? Isn't it somewhat heretical to imply something holy about all of you? Isn't that sort of honor due solely to our one Lord, our one God, represented by the cross and by the altar which stand as two of the primary symbols of our monotheistic and Trinitarian faith?

[Back to the pulpit]

Many of you know that I completed my undergraduate studies at Earlham College in Richmond, Indiana. Earlham was started by Quakers, also known as the Society of Friends; and the institution is permeated with the values and practices of Quakers. I don't want to get into all of those details, but I do want to note an important one that hit me with the force of a revelation.

Just after completing my studies, I worked at Earlham in the Admissions Office for a couple of years. One of my colleagues in that office was Max Carter. He had been my Resident Advisor at Bundy Hall where I lived for a couple of years. But I came to know him much better during our time as colleagues.

Max and his wife were committed Quakers. Max later attended, as did I, the Earlham School of Religion; and he became a Quaker minister. He's retiring this year after 25 years as campus pastor and professor of religious studies at Guilford College.

What struck me especially was how Max and his family lived out Quaker teachings. They recovered intentionally the language of "thee" and "thou" in speaking with one another. I noticed that in his work, his speech was indistinguishable from the language of others. But in speaking with his wife, and I noted in particular, with his children, he would always address them as "thee" and "thou."

Now at first this seemed exceedingly odd to me. It rang weirdly in my Midwestern and modern cultural ears. But the more I thought about it, the more I liked it.

By addressing Maya, who I came to know in her early childhood, and his other children later in this fashion, I believe he was offering not only a unique holdover from older language and culture. He was affirming the holiness of their personhood, their creatureliness, their exalted status before the God who had created them. It seemed a laudable and deeply touching way both to distinguish from other relationships the special nature of the parent-child bond and to offer a public affirmation of respect, honor, sanctity, and holiness. It was, as I experienced it, a reverencing, a deep physical and audible, vocal bow by Max to Maya.

"How are thou this morning?" "I love thee, little one."

Isn't this what is called for by a Trinitarian God who displays the holiness of community within Godself? Isn't this a practice that, if not something we may be comfortable doing fully, might at least imbue the ways that we behave towards one another and all of God's creatures?

For God and community are inseparable. God and all creatures are inseparable. The way Quakers speak of this is to say that everything is sacred. It's why they don't observe the sacraments as do most Christians. They argue that lifting up a few substances, such as water or wine, above all that is holy may lead us to lessen our reverence for everything else. It's a stand about which I have often reflected. And given the widespread disregard for the holiness of so much of God's good creation, it is a matter well worth contemplation by all of us.

How marvelous it would be if we all treated at least each other in this way. Bowing in behavior if not in speech or at the waist. It would reflect the "I and Thou" relationship that is written about by Martin Buber in a book by that name. It is a marvelous little book about our relationship with God that reflects on this matter of respect, honor, awe, and holiness. He suggests that we are defined by the interpersonal, by the relational, by the communal. And treating other persons or things as mere "its" is wrong. Not "I-It" but "I-Thou." He would even say that we can't talk about God but only about our relationships with God.

Why not make all of our relationships reflective of ours with God and shape them around an "I-Thou" and all that implies—not objectifying others or things but treating them fully as subjects, and holy ones?

Quakers also hold that there is that of God in every creature, a phrase first formulated by George Fox. As we affirm a very similar thing when we speak of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, Quakers also hold that there is literally a little bit of God dwelling inside everybody. For many Quakers this underpins their conviction of pacifism, because to kill a person is to kill a piece of God. And, a thing for which I give thanks, increasingly Quakers who have a particular environmental concern extend talk of "That of God in Everyone" to being "That of God in All Creation," considering it equally important to take care of the planet upon which we live and the natural world as it is to take care of ourselves.

Martin Luther spoke of such things in a slightly different way, but the message is similar. For example, one of his fundamental ideas was that it is never wise to go against the Christian conscience. We are, rather, to honor the workings of God within each person, talk issues through in community, and seek the truth together. It is the basis for the practice we have of gathering when possible on the first Sunday of the month during the school year to talk openly together about whatever is on our hearts. We call it by the name that is a hope—"Culture of Conversation."

[Pause.]

To pick up on the connection that Pastor Colleen made last Sunday, today's reading from Isaiah extends her liturgical metaphor. She noted the arc of the last two seasons of our liturgical year, tying us from the ashes of the beginning of Lent on Ash Wednesday to the dazzling white robes of the resurrection (Yes, I added that one because Matthew says that Jesus' appearance was like lightning and his clothing was as white as snow) on to the orange and red fire of Pentecost. Today we add the concentrated carbon fuel of coal, used as a burning symbol of God's touch upon the lips of Isaiah as he seeks to speak the Word of the Lord, and providing an apt image and precursor of the tongues of fire which at Pentecost rested upon those who were present—signs of the Holy Spirit resident in each.

Let me also suggest another metaphor for the first half of the liturgical year just passed: the Trinity. We encounter the loving God of the universe in the season of Advent, who makes promises to be with us. We read in scripture how God was present and active in the history of the people of Israel. We hear of the promised Messiah, whose coming we await, hope for, and anticipate.

With Christmas, we recognize this Messiah, the manifestation of God in human flesh, God taking on the holy matter of creation to redeem creation. And we follow the story of this particular Holy One of God walking among us, suffering with us, calling and teaching, healing and challenging. Until this Jesus, a living offense to all who would presume the authority and power that belong to God alone, is no longer tolerable. His words cut too deep. His actions are far too helpful, his motives too pure. And he is put to death, is resurrected, and ascends.

Only then, as Jesus announces in the reading we heard last Sunday, could Jesus send to us the Advocate, the Spirit, the abiding presence of God yet among us but no longer standing beside. The Holy Spirit dwells within.

Or maybe for those with a more aesthetic sense, our God might be imagined in various shades of red. God the explosive deep magenta of the Big Bang. God the bright crimson or scarlet red of flowing blood from extremities and side. God the blazing cool red of flame tongues resting on gathered people giving public witness to the holiness of all.

And so perhaps you see that it is only now, on this first Sunday after Pentecost, that we can begin to grasp the full nature of God. This One God has been known as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, manifested in differing times in differing ways to complete the works of revelation that were needed.

And, just so you know, I'm not particularly fond of the patriarchally-defined names for what we call our Trinitarian God. There are far more helpful ways to speak about God that don't tend to exclude more than half of the population. Elizabeth Johnson in "She Who Is" (Crossroads, 2002) provides some help. She offers more inclusive images: God as love, lover, and beloved; God as thought, written, and read; God as creator, liberator, and advocate: God as being, logos, and love; God as brightness, a flashing forth, a fire (That's more like what Colleen and I are going for with our metaphors); God as Mother, child of peace, spirit of love (there's an image smasher for you); God, the triple-helix; God, mutuality at the center of the universe; God, not monarchy, but community; God, not tyrant, but koinonia; God, dancing the merengue.

What glorious images!

And that leads us to a beginning answer to the question on many minds today: Why do we have this doctrine of the Trinity that many experience as confusing and contradictory. Why do we speak of God as One and yet as Three, the One-in-Three and the Three-in-One? It is because the church as it has reflected on scripture has come to see that God is above and beyond human categories, that God shatters any and all categories that we would seek to apply to God. Oneness and unity are important affirmations about God, and we believe in only one God. But it is also essential to know that God is more than our language can express or our understanding can grasp.

Something of that "more" strikes me as very important, and something I noted earlier. It is this: that there is community within God, that community is integral to who God is, and that community is at the essence of the life and the universe that God has created. God, not as monarchy, but as community. Reality not as contentious and hierarchical, but reality as communal and inter-related. Love, lover, beloved. Mutuality. Relativity. Koinonia (Greek for fellowship, if you're not familiar).

Today, we use a linguistic and theological metaphor for an abiding relational reality. The Trinity is a way we speak about a God who loves, who relates, who is and who fosters and who shapes community. This God loves us into being at creation, becomes our lover in the fleshly Jesus, and is the beloved presence of the Holy Spirit within.

So, we now see the whole story of the Trinity and of creation. May this liturgical place where we stand today help us to see fully the holiness that this implies for every person and every thing. And may we bow both before the magnificence of our God and the holiness of all.

Amen.

May the peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep our hearts and minds through faith in Christ Jesus our Lord unto eternal life. Amen.

 

 

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