Sunday, June 11, 2017

Dear Ann Landers

Here's today's homily. The readings are Genesis 1:1-2:4a and Matthew 28:16-20.

* * *

Today is Trinity Sunday, the only Sunday in the lectionary devoted to a doctrine, rather than a story in Scripture.  As a rule, preachers dislike Trinity Sunday. The Trinity isn’t an exciting narrative about loaves and fishes, or miraculous healings, or a tragic trial. The Trinity is a Being:  the three-in-one combination of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Spirit. When we talk about Scripture, we’re interpreting the Word of God, recorded by humans. When we talk about the Trinity, we’re interpreting God Himself, Herself, and/or Itself, a much more difficult proposition.  

Over the centuries, a lot of ink -- and blood -- has been spilled on the subject. Most of these commentaries agree,  appropriately enough,  on three points.  First, the doctrine of the Trinity is a mystery. Second, it’s best approached through metaphor, which explains things we don’t understand by comparing them to things we do. And third, it’s fundamentally about relationship.

The mystery part is reassuring, because it means that our limited human minds can’t expect to understand the infinite nature of God. The Athanasian Creed famously describes the Trinity as “the Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible, and the Holy Ghost incomprehensible.”  Well, all right, then!  We might as well just cheerfully admit that we’re unequal to the task.

But that’s not how people work:  at least, not people who bother to go to church in the first place. We hunger for God. We yearn to draw closer to God. We want to understand God. And so we resort to metaphor, trying to understand the infinite and incomprehensible by comparing it to finite, familiar things we can touch and see. How can God the Father, who created the universe, also be God the Son, the carpenter who lived in first-century Judea, and also be God the Spirit, who descended on the disciples at Pentecost?  How does this three-in-one thing work? Well, think about ice, water, and steam:  the same chemical substance in three different states. Or consider your own, human nature,  a three-fold combination of body, mind, and spirit. Or ponder the example of the little girl who likened God to her grandmother. The old woman was “Grandma” to the child,  but she was also “Mom” to her children and “Margaret” to her husband. She was one person with three different aspects.

That brings us to the third point, that the Trinity is fundamentally about relationship. God the Creator is our Father, who made the galaxies, who shapes us out of star-stuff. That’s the aspect of God we heard about it today’s majestic reading from Genesis. God the Redeemer is our Friend and Teacher, who wears a human body and walks beside us; this is the God who went with the disciples to Galilee and commanded them to baptize and teach. God the Sustainer is our Muse, as close as the wind on our cheeks, the spirit who enables us to do things we never believed possible.  This is the aspect of God who descended at Pentecost, and is with us always, “to the end of the age.” God takes different forms to find different ways to reach us.

That very fact may incline us to dismiss the Trinity. After all, to the extent that we understand this bewildering three-in-one business at all, it means that God’s a package deal. If I pray to Jesus, I’m praying to the Father and the Spirit at the same time, right? So why bother with the Trinity at all? Why does it have to be so mysterious and complicated?

When you think about it, relationships are always a mystery, and they’re usually complicated. We never fully understand other people, even the ones we love the most. We watch them in their different aspects – at home, at work, with friends -- and wonder what they’re thinking that we’ll never know. We marvel at the fact that those we know the best can still surprise us, and that strangers sometimes offer perfect words of comfort. But when we love people, we try to learn as much about them as we can. If we ignore some important part of who they are, they notice.

When I was in college, majoring in creative writing and yearning to be a published author, I dated a guy who claimed to love me but was very dismissive of my writing. It’s true that I wasn’t very good back then, but the fact that he pooh-poohed something I considered the core of my identity hurt, a lot. Needless to say, that relationship didn’t last.

People who have been hurt this way sometimes ask experts for advice. They bring their relationship problems to their therapists, their clergy, and even to newspaper columnists. We’re used to hearing humans do this. But if God baffles us, we must baffle God sometimes, too. At the risk of diminishing God, of recasting God into our own image, what might it sound like if God asked for relationship advice?

“Dear Ann Landers: I have a very big family. I love all of my children, but I can’t seem to make some of them believe it. They think I only want to punish them. They never write or call unless they’re desperate for money, or a meal, or medicine. Once they have what they need,  they shut me out again. They say I live too far away, even though my sunsets and butterflies and other beloved children are right under their noses. They claim I have nothing to do with their everyday lives: but Ann, how can I, when they won’t let me in?”

If that’s a letter that God the Father might write, here’s another, from God the Son.

“Dear Ann Landers:  I have a friend who loves me like a brother. He tells me everything, and every day he thanks me for helping him. But Ann, he acts like I’m his private property; he even calls me his ‘Personal Savior.’ Everything’s about him! He doesn’t want to hear about world politics, or art or music, or the galaxy I made last week. He talks so much about my flesh and blood that sometimes I think he only loves me for my body. Ann, how can I get him to see how much more I am than that?”

And of course there’s a third letter, from God the Spirit.

“Dear Ann Landers: I’m in this really passionate relationship with somebody I love a lot. We talk for hours, in all kinds of different languages, and we sing and dance and heal people and cast out demons. There’s just one problem. Things are wonderful as long as it’s all about rushing winds and tongues of flame, but the minute normal life sets in, she’s out the door. She says our love is on a higher plane, but Ann, I could use a hug sometimes, and I can’t do all the housework by myself.  How can I get her to stick around to do the dishes?”

If Ann Landers is paying attention, she’ll probably notice that these three letters are in the same handwriting. She’ll probably say something like, “You must be a remarkable person, to mean so many things to so many different people. I can tell how much you love all of them. Of course you want all of them to love you fully in return.” And she’ll probably say what therapists and advice columnists always say:  that relationships take work, and that both sides have to be willing to communicate. That means talking honestly, but it also means listening.

Most of us talk to God a lot, and we try to trust that God – in any of God’s guises – will always listen to us.  The doctrine of the Trinity is so important because it teaches us to listen to God, and to do so everywhere. God isn’t just in the awesome immensity of the heavens. God isn’t just in the hungry neighbor whose face shows us Christ, and God isn’t just in the breeze which stirs our hope and imagination. God is in all of these things, waiting and wanting to be found and known. Loving  us fully, even at our most baffling, God seeks to be fully loved. God offers us everything: the vast expanses of interstellar space, the comfort and kinship of a human body, and the mystery and excitement of rushing winds and tongues of flame. But we have to stay open to all of those aspects. We have to be willing to let God in; we have to be willing to let God be God -- even when we can’t comprehend the mystery -- and we have to be willing to do some dishes.


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