Trinity Sunday is a celebration of the mystery of God. We proclaim that God is three in one and one in three, which is great until someone asks us what that means and then we talk about three-leaf clovers and apples (skin, fruit and seed) and the three states of matter. Then very smart people will say, “But it’s not exactly like a clover or an apple or water.” And then they will tell you what kind of heretic you are. We can try to define the Trinity but at some point we have to step back and say, “We don’t understand. “ As soon as you try to define it, make it something concrete, it ceases to be the Trinity. Most often you will put too great a focus on the One or too great a focus on each of the Three.
We are not a society that cares for mystery these days. We want simple categories, true or false, real news or fake news, the mainstream media or a healthy helping of “covfefe.” We want religion to have the same certainty that science seems to hold. We want our faith to be the product of rational thought that leads to rational conclusions. And the Father, Son and Holy Spirit stand in our midst and outside of our midst and deep at center of who we are and say, “Catch us/me if you can (which you can’t).”
Trying to define God, catch God, label God is something that human beings have done from the beginning of time, perhaps with the idea that to define the deity is to own it. One of the ideas that has come out of our study of other religions is that the religions that have survived over the centuries seem to be those whose deities refuse to be defined: the endless and contradictory avatars of Lord Shiva in Hinduism; the 99 names of God in Islam that include Allah, the Loving One and Allah, the Distresser and Allah, the Bringer of Life and Allah, the Bringer of Death; the interconnectivity of all things in Buddhism; the God who is named “I will be who I will be” in Judaism; the God who is three in one and one in three of Christianity.
There was a time in the early church when there were great debates about the Trinity and the nature of God. The three creeds that we say represent the true faith (Apostles’, Nicene and Athanasian) are the product of these discussions. They were the church trying to reach consensus so they could move on from the debate. Today it is very rare to hear anyone discuss the Trinity beyond a clover or apple-type explanation. Again, we have one Sunday where we say, “Here it is” and then we lay deep reflection aside and are content to use Trinitarian blessings or recite the Creed.
I don’t think this is a bad thing. I think it is a reflection of the changing nature of faith. Within Christianity, for much of its history, the concern has been about right belief. Do you believe the right things about God and about Jesus? Most of the conflict of the Reformation had to do with believing the right things about the nature of Jesus and the Church. Most of the conflicts that then led to the growth of other Protestant denominations had to do with believing the right things about the Sacraments. Today the division seems most often to be about believing the right things about the Bible especially on social issues like sexuality. There are litmus questions to see what camp you are in. One of my professors in seminary, Ralph Klein, was part of the Concordia Seminary shake up in the 1970s when the
Missouri Synod clampdown on non-literalist professors led to the formation of Seminex (or the Seminary in Exile). The running joke was that they brought you into a room and asked you a question like, “If you could go back in time, could you take a picture of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden?” The joke answer, “Yes, but you can’t get it developed anywhere.” (I recognize that joke is totally irrelevant in our current context of digital pictures, but I still like the story.)
But over time, as we have focused on believing the right things or figuring out which church is the right church, we have missed the fact that people are no longer asking that question. Because in general fewer people are participating in religious communities, when people look at religion, they are much more concerned with what kind of life the belief system produces. This is exactly how most Americans are judging Islam these days. No one is really asking about the tenants of Islam, but what sort of lives does Islam produce. And we are much more focused on Muslims who do violence than Muslims who do charity work or social work or medical work or scientific work or are disciplined athletes and creative artists, because we hear much more about Muslims who do violence.
I think that people are looking at Christianity in the same way. Who cares what you believe about the Trinity if that belief doesn’t inspire the love that is supposed to shape Christians? Who cares what you believe about the Bible if that belief seems to inspire judgmental and hateful attitudes? Who cares what you believe about the resurrection of the body or the real presence of Christ in the sacrament if you are kind of a jerk or if doesn’t make any difference how you go about in the world?
It is great to talk about theology, but for the church, for theology to be meaningful it has to lead to mission. A number of you have participated in our mission statement discussions over the past few months. We have looked at scripture. We have looked at our Lutheran heritage. We looked at our own unique context in Falmouth. Last Sunday we crafted a new statement together and it goes like this: Serving through Faith, Centered in Christ, Guided by the Word.
This will need to be formally adopted by the congregation because the council and congregation will use it a tool for determining our priorities, but I wanted to talk today a little bit about how we got here especially why “Serving through faith” is the first line. One of the things about our congregation that goes unrecognized is the number of people who volunteer and serve in our community. We’ve talked a good deal about the things we do or have done through the church: the pillow ministry, the stress kit ministry, overnights for hospitality. I also know that sometimes I wish we had more people volunteering to help with things on Sunday morning (and I’m going to put another plug in for Communion bread), but I also know that many of you are out serving in the community. We have a good number of people who volunteer regularly at the Falmouth Service Center; people volunteering at the hospital (even a volunteer of the month). We’ve had volunteers at the Children’s Museum and in the school system. We have had folks volunteering in different capacities to support people at the military base. We have a family that at this moment is out walking to support Boston Children’s Hospital. We have volunteers to support the road race, elections and other community events. Belonging to Each Other, No Place for Hate, and probably a number organizations that I don’t know have someone from Christ Lutheran involved.
And that doesn’t even begin to look at how you simply care for one another, especially our folks who can’t be in worship or who need help getting around. How many conversations have I had where someone says, “I was taking Polly to the doctor…” or “Pastor, have you been by Joyce’s apartment because I was over there and…” This doesn’t happen in every church.
And we may not always acknowledge that this is our faith at work. This is the life that our faith inspires, maybe because we don’t talk about faith while we are serving. Every Wednesday I go to Teaticket Elementary School and mentor a third-grade boy for about 45 minutes. We hang out, play games, talk when he is in a chatty mood. We’ve been reading through a kids’ version of 20000 Leagues Under the Sea. I can’t say too much about him but he is a young person who needs some extra support (and there are a lot of kids like him, so I would recommend it you if you like working with kids). And even though I may not be there to preach or praise God, it is my faith that has brought me into that interaction and so God is there. I am witnessing to the good news even in a place where I may not publicly preach the good news. As you go out, and feed the hungry or comfort the sick or accompany the lonely, you all are doing the same. I think our challenge, and this may be something we work on together, is seeing how we make the connection that these are acts of discipleship. I also think that we need to consider our answer when someone asks, “Why are you doing this?” so that we don’t just give a humble, Lutheran answer like, “Because it’s nice.” We need to be prepared to say that, “I serve because Jesus loves me and I want to share that love.” Or “I serve in response to God’s gift of life.” Or simply, “I serve as part of the my faith.”
The Trinity is what draws us together and, in the Lutheran tradition, is what brings us to faith. God the Father who creates us to be in relationship and God the Son who reminds us and renews us in that relationship and God the Holy Spirit who stirs that relationship that is faith within us. But none of it matters if it only about the talk of faith or the feeling of faith and never about the walk of faith. From the beginning of the story of the church, the talk is always partnered with the walk. We may share our faith through our words and our worship, but we live the Trinity out in the world through lovingkindness and loving action. I encourage you to go and keep sharing this good news.