Like most children, I LOVED Saturday morning cartoons. My parents loved them because it bought them a few more precious moments of sleep. I loved them because they were colorful. And entertaining. Every generation had different cartoons that it would watch early on that first morning of the weekend. For me, it was Captain Planet. He was our hero. He took pollution down to zero. That’s a joke–those are the first lines of the theme song. Anyway, I LOVED Captain Planet and his lessons about taking care of the earth. But what I loved more than Captain Planet was a little cartoon ditty called School House Rock.
Now, I know I cannot be the only person here who has experienced School House Rock. Y’all. I LOVED these songs. And, if I’m honest, I was a pawn in those crafty educators’ cartoon-drawing hands. I learned something. I’m sure you remember some of the more famous songs. There was Conjunction junction, what’s your function? That was, in case it wasn’t obvious, a song about conjunctions. And then there was the song about how laws are made in this great country of ours, that starts will a scroll of paper sitting of the steps of Capitol Hill singing “I’m just bill. Yes, I’m only a bill. And I’m sittin’ here on Capitol Hill.” And, of course, there was Interplanet Janet, who was, I’m sure you recall, a Galaxy girl.
But one of my favorites was, as it turns out, the very first School House Rock cartoon to be written. It’s a song all about the number three. It starts with this verse:
Three is a magic number
Somewhere in the ancient, mystic trinity
You get three as a magic number
The past and the present and the future
Faith and hope and charity
The heart and the brain and the body
Give you three-That’s a magic number.
Now, I’m not sure that I’d go so far as to say that it’s a magic number, but I think it’s fair to say that it’s a mysterious one. And it’s this mysterious number that’s at the center of the mystery we call the Trinity, the mystic union of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit–the three-in-one.
Nancy Rockwell reminds us that “three-ness permeates our thinking: morning, noon, and night; knife, fork, and spoon; sun, moon, and stars; beginning, middle, end; over, under, through; win, lose, or draw; take, give, share, reading, writing, ‘rithmetic…you can fill pages,” she writes “with things that take their meaning from each other in threes, and describe a fullness, [whether] mundane or holy.” For us, that fullness, that wholeness, that completeness is found in the Trinity.
If it’s not clear yet, today is Trinity Sunday. We’ve talked a lot about the church year in the last couple of weeks with the Season of Easter coming to a close, Ascension Sunday, and Pentecost. But just to remind you, the church year or liturgical calendar is a way that we, as the church, tell time. And we don’t just watch those days go by. We tell time through those days by telling stories–the stories of our faith. Stories that pull us deeper and deeper into the the Story of our faith.
Mostly, we hear the stories of people or events, right? Christmas is about the birth of Christ. Easter is about the Resurrection. Just last week, the story of Pentecost recounted the Spirit’s descent on the disciples. But Trinity Sunday is different. It’s the only day in the church year that commemorates a doctrine. At least, that’s what the textbooks would tell us.
But the Trinity is more than a doctrine, it’s a mystery. And it’s a mystery that’s caused a lot of fights over the years. And here’s why: we are desperate to explain that which is inexplicable. And so, we ponder and think and figure. And still fall short.
The story is told of St Augustine of Hippo, a great philosopher and theologian who wanted so much to understand the Trinity and to be able to explain it logically. One day as he was walking along the sea shore and reflecting on this, he suddenly saw a little child all alone on the shore.
The child made a whole in the sand, ran to the sea with a little cup, filled her cup, came and poured it into the hole she had made in the sand. Back and forth she went to the sea, filled her cup and came and poured it into the hole. Augustine went up to her and said, “Little child, what are doing?” and she replied, “I am trying to empty the sea into this hole.”
“How do you think,” Augustine asked her, “that you can empty this immense sea into this tiny hole and with this tiny cup?” To which she replied, ” And you, how do you suppose that with this your small head you can comprehend the immensity of God?” With that the child disappeared.
But, through the ages, we’ve still tried to comprehend the Trinity–what it means, what it is, what it teaches. And the more we try to comprehend, the less we know. And, it seems, the less we know, the more we fight.
One of Christianity’s most historic statements of faith, the Nicene Creed, is a result of these fights. We’re sixteen centuries from the creation of that particular statement, so what we miss, what we’ve lost to the ages is that each line of this particular creed wasn’t just written. It was crafted. Take the second part of the creed, for instance. It begins, “We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the father, God from God, Light from Light, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father.” It’s grand language. But it’s also political language. Three words in that sentence caused physical fights. Do you know which ones? Begotten, not made–meaning, Jesus was one with God from the beginning (begotten), not a creation of God (made).
You see, those three words are words we’re still trying to figure out. It’s a mystery. There’s a story of a pastor who asked a boy, “What is the Trinity?” The little boy said, in a weak voice, “The Father, the Son and Holy Spirit.” “I’m sorry” said the pastor, “I don’t understand.” The young boy replied “You’re not supposed to. It’s a mystery.”
There’s lots of ways that people have tried to explain the Trinity. And there are lots of ways that they have failed. Some have likened the Trinity to a 3-leaf clover, each leaf representing a person of the Trinity. Another explanation uses the three forms of water: ice, liquid, and vapor as an illustration. A third teaches uses the example of a woman who is at once a wife, a mother, and an employee. They all begin to describe the Trinity and they all fall short. Because…it’s a mystery.
And I think one of the reasons that the Trinity remains such a mystery is that time and again we think of the Trinity in terms of who it describes. But let’s shift the question from “who it describes” to “what it describes.” Rather than trying to paint a portrait of the Trinity, perhaps it would be helpful to look at what the Trinity has to teach us about relationship.
Now, as Christians, we proclaim God (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) to have been in existence from the beginning of time. One of the most beautiful passages in the Gospels points to this. You remember the beginning of the Gospel of John: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”
So, let’s look back. In fact, you can take out your Pew Bible if you want, and flip back to Genesis 1 starting in verse 24. Now my translation reads this way (yours might read a little different):
And God said, ‘Let the earth bring forth living creatures of every kind: cattle and creeping things and wild animals of the earth of every kind.’ And it was so. 25God made the wild animals of the earth of every kind, and the cattle of every kind, and everything that creeps upon the ground of every kind. And God saw that it was good.
26 Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.’
God, from the beginning; God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, decided to create us in God’s image. The text doesn’t read “I shall make humankind in my image.” Or, in the Southern translation, “I’m gonna make y’all like me!” It’s “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness.”
Well, certainly this could bring up a lot of questions for us. But one of the answers it offers, for me at least, is that God created in community.
And God creates us in God’s image. And if our diversity is any indication, what we call the Trinity is far more complex and meaningful than we can grasp.
Pastor and blogger Nadia Bolz-Weber writes “In the Trinitarian nature of God, individuality and communality are related in a beautiful life giving dance of creation. Whatever names we choose to use Father, Son and Holy Ghost; Holy Parent, Holy Child and Holy Spirit; Creator, Redeemer and Advocate, the three aspects remain distinct while the identity remains one through mutual relatedness of giving and receiving. Back and forth together throughout time…This image,” she continues, “of the relational dance of God with God’s self is wide enough to include us the created. Non-relational images of God do not allow room for us, but the mutual indewlling of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit offers us and all creation the divine space in which to live into the fullness of our identity as beloved children of God.”
This is the awe the psalmist tries to describe in this morning’s psalm. “What are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?” It’s Wisdom we hear about from our Proverbs reading. It’s all of these things and us dancing as one.
While I was in Atlanta, I, somehow, found myself not once, not twice, but a handful of times going contra dancing. Now, I’m not sure how many of you are familiar with contra dancing, so for those of you who are not, I’ll give you a brief rundown. Essentially, it’s American partnered folk dancing. Usually, it includes two lines or squares and a caller who calls directions or instructions. Now, there are two types of dancers at these contra dances. There are the people who know what’s going on, what they’ve gotten in to. And then there are the folks like me, who just don’t have clue.
Before the dance really gets going, there’s a walk through, where the caller walks all the dancers through the upcoming dance. And during this time of preparation, the skilled dancers take the newbies by the hand and swing them around and point and pull and start to teach them the steps. Then, it’s time. The music starts up. And the seasoned dancers have this twinkle in their eye and the newcomers all share the same goofy “God-help-me” smile.
To me, that’s the Trinity. The God-head, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are old pros. They know these dances. They created them. And all of us show up, goofy smiles in tow, trying to learn the steps and keep up. And sometimes we mess up. Sometimes we do-si-do when we should promenade, but in the dance, the circle gets wider anyway. And we’re all swept up in that beloved community.
I love that image. The image of the Trinity dancing, at once, three; at once, one. That these three, this one weave together our story, our history. And that as time and space unfold as their creation, this one, these three in love and hope made room within their dance for us.
And in this example of community, of what it means to be in relationship with one another, we find ourselves. We find the reason we do this, the reason we do church. The reason we gather week after week to hear God’s Word proclaimed in our midst, to listen to each other, to hold each other. Because somewhere, somehow we know that we are part of the dance–the dance of creation, the dance of life. We are part of the dance of the Trinity.
And it’s not a dance where we get to awkwardly line the gymnasium walls hoping someone will ask us to dance. We’ve been asked to dance. And as the church, that’s what we’ll do–we’ll dance. And as God’s creation, that’s what we’ll do–we’ll dance.
Is it a mystery?Yes. Is it beyond our understanding? Yes. Is it beyond our belief? No.
So here’s your invitation to come be part of that holy mystery, beyond our understanding, not beyond our belief. Come, be a part of this community whole-heartedly. Come, love whole-heartedly. Or, put another way, would you like to dance?
In the name of the Father, the Son, and and the Holy Spirit,