Mary E. Hunt, Ph.D.: “The Mystery of Holy Ground”
Good morning. I am honored and delighted to share this Eucharist with all of you on Trinity Sunday and to join you on Father’s Day in appreciating our dads. It is also Alaska’s day here at the Cathedral so we add a special welcome to people from that beautiful state.
I want to thank in absentia the Very Reverend Nathan Baxter, outgoing dean of this cathedral, for inviting me to step into his pulpit on this festive occasion. I add my congratulations and best wishes to Nathan as he completes his distinguished tenure here and embarks on his next steps. We are deeply in his debt.
On behalf of all of us, I wish all of the fathers and father-like people here present (uncles, cousins, grandfathers, boy friends, companeros, all who act lovingly and responsibly toward children) a happy Father’s Day. You will note that those who appointed the lessons for today were sure to include Romans 8 where the Spirit is connected to that sweet nickname, “Abba,” roughly translated “Daddy,” a term of endearment that children use to describe an important relationship. So today, dads and dad-like friends, when you receive the necktie you know you will never wear or the barbecue grill your family gives you with obvious ulterior motives, be of good cheer knowing that you, like “Abba,” are as dear as dear can be.
While the malls are full of Father’s Day gifts and cards, and restaurants offer special meals for families that wish to celebrate with their dads, the Christian Church calls this day, the first Sunday after Pentecost, Trinity Sunday. I daresay more of us have worried about Father’s Day—our cards and phone calls, our gifts and special niceties—than have given two thoughts to Trinity Sunday. I respectfully suggest that our priorities have been in order.
I propose now that we think together for a few minutes about this unique feast as it sheds light on our daily struggles to cope with life’s mysterious ways that are often very concrete, you might say right under our feet. Hence I have entitled my sermon, “The Mystery of Holy Ground.”
P.D. James and Patricia Cornwell need not worry about competition. I am not a mystery writer, but for me the Trinity is like a good mystery novel. The clues are always right in front of our noses. The task is to notice them, put them together, and reach what is often the most obvious of conclusions.
God/de seems to work the same way: very much in evidence if we simply notice, inviting us to participate in this divine-human project we call creation, and then, or so our Christian faith teaches, accompanying us well for all eternity. Like the last chapter of a good mystery story, it all seems so obvious “to those who have eyes to see.” Yet we spend the better part of long lives missing the clues, rejecting the invitation and worrying about our own and other people’s salvation. Life need not be that way if we take the time to enter into the mystery that is, ironically, right beneath our feet.
Trinity Sunday is an unlikely time to get back to basics because it has the theological reputation of being one of the most difficult Sundays for preachers to make sense of the readings. It is a Sunday given over to an abstraction—the concept of threeness—not a Sunday when a story like last week’s Pentecost tale is read. It wasn’t until I had graciously accepted Nathan’s invitation that I realized the date for which he had so cleverly invited me!
Trinity Sunday began in medieval England and came into widespread practice in the Western Church in the 14th century under Pope John XXII. It was the fruit of some liturgists’ concern that the Trinity had no special day in our liturgical calendar, probably because it had no biblical story like those of Christmas, Easter and Pentecost. So one of the so-called vacant Sundays (a Dominica vacans) was assigned and we have been celebrating this feast ever since.
Now to the mystery story. The Trinity is not a thing, but a way of talking. Listen up, Sherlock. “Trinity” is a shorthand way of saying that when we pray, when we talk about the Divine, about God, we are saying that we believe that the reality is so rich and full as to be beyond our usual one-to-one correspondence between things and their names. That’s a clue.
While you and I can be called by our names—”Mary Hunt” and “Eugene Sutton” suffice to say something about us—the Holy One, Sophia Spirit, God our Life is beyond all names. This is the main plot of the mystery story—what is at once part of all of us and all that is, is at the same time part of history and beckoning us into the future. Complicated plot here. One name for the Divine, for God will never suffice; one dimension for understanding how this complex reality that we call our world works will never be adequate. There is always more to the dynamism we call life in God. Trinity is a clue not a conclusion.
A classical way to express such complexity was to claim that something had three parts, not just the one we were used to, or even two to show its power, but three to signal that we simply can’t comprehend it all. For example, we talk about past, present and future; life, death and resurrection. The habit of thinking in threes develops over time and we find ourselves doing it without giving it much thought: Maiden, Mother, Crone; bell, book and candle.
When we choose trinitarian language we are trying to articulate something we are experiencing, something other people tell us they experienced, and what those who come after us, if they are as lucky as we, will also experience. When Christians use trinitarian forms we are articulating our commitment to the Divine expressed in justice-seeking communities. We consciously link ourselves with those who have preceded us in the Jesus-movement living for love. We are at the same time leaving a clue for those who will follow, dropping breadcrumbs on the path to “a discipleship of equals.” In Christian circles trinitarian language is a way to offer broad hints about where we stand—that the values of love and justice guide our way in a war-torn world and an endangered planet.
One way our Christian communities have expressed this trinitarian insight has been to talk of “Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” Some people mistakenly thought that was the only way to express trinitarian faith, a faith in that which goes well beyond what we can see. They missed the clue that that ancient formula points toward something for which the particular words “Father, Son and Holy Spirit” are far less critical than signaling the limitlessness of the Divine. Now we bless in the name of the “Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer,” and we pray in the name of the “Source, Life and Future,” all imperfect yet heartfelt efforts to express what is simply beyond our words but so real in our experience. Such formulas are proof that the mystery did not end in the first century with the death of Jesus, but that it continues to unfold in our time as we enter into it.
Religions get into trouble and at the same time become ever richer when they move beyond stories. Theology is a tricky business because people are easily offended when their way of seeing the world is ignored or rejected. I think of our Unitarian Christian friends today, hopeful that they do not take our celebration of the Trinity as an affront when they choose other ways to express their faith. No one really gets to read the last chapter of this mystery story until after death, so how foolish to be so sure what it means. Such theo-political power plays are the embarrassing chapters of church history. What a waste that people have been divided from one another, excommunicated and declared heretical when they simply choose another way to express that which no one can express adequately.
This religious waste is like the waste that is war when misunderstandings and our inability to keep talking with one another (what we call in this town “diplomacy”) lead to death and destruction. If the Trinity teaches us anything, it is that our best efforts, no matter how noble, are all approximations. And so are everyone else’s. In the face of such mystery, a little humility goes a long way toward assuring that we keep the conversation going instead of dispatching the troops and firing the guns. There is nothing trinitarian about war. War is a clear clue that something is fundamentally wrong with the human part of divine creation.
Moses got what might be considered the all-time big clue in this mystery story. According to the account of Exodus 3, he was minding his own business, in fact tending his father-in-law’s flock. The power of the Divine was made clear to him through a burning bush that on close inspection was not even singed. In all the excitement, Moses failed to perform the most reflexive of ancient practices, forgetting to take off his shoes to acknowledge that he was standing on holy ground. So the story says that God admonished him: “take off the shoes from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground. And God said: I am the God of your ancestor, the God of Abraham (and Sarah), the God of Isaac (and Rebecca), and the God of Jacob (and Leah, Rachel, Zilpha and Bilhah)” (Ex. 3:6).
Trinitarian thinking helps us to see holy ground everywhere. What hallows it is not the presence of some physical thing—like a burning bush, later a temple or even an empty tomb. What makes ground holy is that it is part of creation—given to our ancestors who passed it on to us to enjoy, to be passed on with careful stewardship to our children. Aha, the mystery begins to come into focus. The earth, all of it, is holy ground because it is part of divine creation.
Again, we see the waste when we destroy our fragile ecosystem. There are stunning holes in the ozone layer caused by our choices; whole islands are being eroded by global warming with nowhere for their populations to go. Water that we take for granted now is rapidly becoming a scarce commodity, the stuff of future wars, while we in the United States use far more than our rightful share. Animal species are becoming extinct at record rates. Nature writer Bill McKibben reminds us that there are few if any “acts of God” anymore, just acts of human beings in this alarming “death of nature.”
Suddenly the mystery comes into sharp focus: all ground is holy because it is infused with the Spirit of God/de. And yet, like Moses who forgot to slip off his sandals at the very thought of it, we, too, run roughshod over the earth we are meant to nurture. At the rate we are going there may not be much to pass on to our children and their children. Nuclear war could herald the destruction of the mystery itself, a grim but realistic prospect unless current policies change. Something has to give or the mystery will remain unsolved forever.
Just when all hope is lost, we are generously given one last hint in the text we read this morning from John’s Gospel. Nicodemus seems as clueless as most of us when he wonders how one can possibly be “born anew.” Like those who misunderstand the Trinity as literally “Father, Son and Holy Spirit,” Nicodemus erred on the side of literalism and missed the whole point of the message he received.
We are not literally born again like children—don’t be silly! The point is that we embrace the mystery of creation on its own symbolic terms, and acknowledge that it is of God/de. Then any thought of war or any misuse of this precious earth is simply unthinkable. That is what the giving of the Spirit in last week’s Pentecost story means: the Spirit whose presence we give thanks for in the Eucharist we are about to share, the Spirit that prevails when we act with justice-love, the Spirit that hovers over and through the holy ground we call this sacred earth. There it is—the Spirit did it!
At last the mystery of holy ground is solved, at least for now. Close the book, live the message and hope it becomes a best seller.
Amen, blessed be, let it be so.
Mary E. Hunt is a Catholic feminist theologian. She is the co-director of WATER, the Women’s Alliance for Theology, Ethics and Ritual in Silver Spring, Maryland ([email protected]).