The Rev. Canon Elton O. Smith, Jr.
The central character in an almost-forgotten detective novel once described how he could check out whether a suspect was lying, particularly one who seemed to be overzealous about his sincerity and honesty. He would ask the “unsuspecting” suspect, out of the blue, “Can you explain the doctrine of the Trinity? ” If his answer was yes he could, then the detective concluded, “This man is a liar!”
Today is Trinity Sunday. I cannot “explain” the doctrine of the Trinity, nor do I think that you woke up and came here this morning expecting to have that doctrine explained to you. Nor do I suspect that you even care for such an explanation. That may account for the fact that of all the sermons I’ve read, which were preached on Trinity Sunday, almost none are about the “doctrine of the Trinity.”
But if you woke up and came here this morning sensing something about the incompleteness, the fragmentary, the transitory nature of your life, and yearn to live a life more whole and complete, then this may be a very important day indeed. If you’ve been wondering why you always have to put your life in different boxes—your home and family life, your work life, your desire to be part of a bigger world, then this day speaks to you.
To “explain” the doctrine of the Trinity is, in fact, what we call an oxymoron, something fundamentally contradictory. To explain the Trinity would be to “explain” the inexhaustible mystery of the universe, a mystery that the great scientists of our century have written about, to explain the inexhaustible mystery of human love and relationships, a mystery that is the theme of the novelists, the poets, those who write great music.
Yes, we can say the words “I believe in one God, Father Son and Holy Spirit,” but that expression has so many depths underneath it, meanings you can never “unpack” fully. Because you can never “explain” reality to the nth degree, to give your description of everything that is good and true and beautiful, and then add the chaos from which all creation came and the chaos and ambiguities and confusions of your life, and mine.
Because to bring all that together is to speak of the one God, whom we know in so many ways, a Lord God who keeps marching off all the maps of life and to the outer edges of a mysterious universe we will never know completely.
But we can sing “Holy , Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty.” The word holy can call to mind the mysterious God we will never know completely, and one aspect of its meaning is found in the word wholeness. So a great theologian says, “Holiness is wholeness.” One of the things that gives life its pathos and tragedy is the brokenness and incompleteness of human experience. Like the three blind men trying to describe an elephant by what they each could get their hands on, we, too, much if not most of the time, see only the partial, the fragmentary, the transitory.
As St. Paul says in chapter 13 of 1 Corinthians, his beautiful hymn to Love, “now we see through a glass darkly.” Everything that we experience—truth, beauty, freedom, love and, yes, suffering , chaos and ambiguity—everything that happens in our lives we experience, you might say, through a pair of dark glasses. The sad thing is that we can easily take that dark or fuzzy-glass view of life for granted.
In all that, whether we can or will articulate it, in our brokenness and incompleteness we long not just for personal wholeness but for the experience of the wholeness of God.
The psalmist is right when he prayed to God saying, “show the light of your countenance and I shall be whole” (Ps. 80:19). The light of your countenance: God above and beyond us as the eternally creating Father; God as the Christ whose risen presence is alive and present even to the depths of our being; and God as the dynamic, energizing power of the Holy Spirit.
Is this just “church talk”? Can this be the way people can really live? Maybe you saw the long article by Michael Novak on the op-ed page of the Sunday New York Times exactly two weeks ago. The gist of the feature was that at the brink of a new millennium thoughtful people realize that secular humanism—solving our problems by reason alone, or by the political and economic systems that promised so much and gave so little—all these have shown their limits in this last bloodiest century of history. And so the Times writer notes: “In brief, some of the leading spirits of our age have begun to sense that humans are bumping into their own finitude—and their infinite hunger, and that the essential cry of the human spirit is that “There must be more than this!” These changemakers are beginning to sense, Novak observes, that humans are naturally religious, that their very nature sings to them of God and that something new is stirring everywhere.
You can find great reinforcement for that new way of looking at the world from some very old sources: the Scripture lessons today. Think through what all of these writers say about the mysterious truth that all reality is shot through with the presence and glory of God.
In the dramatic passage from Isaiah this morning we learn that in our personal experience we respond to a God who calls us even at a time of immense change (symbols uprooted and flying), instability (shaking), lostness (smoke). In that vortex, our instincts cry with Isaiah, “No, I can’t!” In response God offers us an inner fire that enables vocation to be accepted in spite of everything. In the passage from Revelation St. John encounters the spirit of God and realizes he is part of a vast community and has a vision of what God means salvation to be: personal, communal, creational. Ego, community, cosmos: in heavenly worship we see the worthiness of everything: worth working for and living for. Finally, in the Gospel from another, probably younger John, we read that Jesus calls you and me, where we are, as we are, and asks our response. But then his spirit impels us further and deeper. What begins as personal religious experience (when the Spirit comes to us) reaches out and infiltrates all our experience (guide you into all truth). And Jesus’ promise is that soon we will realize that there will always be more “things that are to come.” God will always have more to “declare” to you and me. We have become involved in an endlessly enriching relationship.
“An endlessly enriching relationship.” Can you “explain” the Trinity? Can you “explain” God? The great dancer Pavlova was once asked if she could “explain” her dances. To this she replied, “If I could ‘explain’ my dances, I wouldn’t have to dance.” Can you “exclaim” the marvelous ways that God creates, that God’s living presence revealed in Jesus is still alive in the world through the power of the Holy Spirit?
No, what we have is the melody for the dance of life. And the dance goes on! Amen.