Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31
If I were to hazard a wild guess, I would bet that you did not wake up this morning thinking about the Trinity. (Maybe, just maybe, as the old gospel song says, you woke up with your mind stayed on Jesus—and wouldn’t that be fine?) But the Trinity? Probably not.
Now I’m going to really go out on a limb and guess that it’s not just sleepiness that keeps you from thinking about the Trinity. I’m going to guess that you almost never explicitly think about the Trinity.
Because, let’s face it, this concept of a God who is three in one and one in three is hard to grasp. This doctrine of the church that tells us that, at least when it comes to the Holy, one plus one plus one equals One, is a head-scratcher.
But that’s okay.
I don’t know about you, but on this Trinity Sunday, I am less interested in a hard-to-understand doctrine than in an awesome, mysterious, and utterly-impossible-to-grasp God. I am less interested in figuring it all out so that I can pin God down and put God safely in a me-shaped box, than in acknowledging and surrendering to the sacred mystery.
I am less interested in explaining, or even defending, the inexplicable, than in celebrating a divinity that seems at its essence to be all about community and relationship, and in considering what that means for our faith and how we live our lives.
I want to invite us all to embrace what author Barbara Brown Taylor calls “sacred unknowing” 1—not because thinking about and honoring God is not important, not because we’re too dumb to understand what it means to be born of the Spirit and any other number of the mystical ways of Jesus, but because, as Taylor imagines Jesus telling Nicodemus, we “are not God. So relax if you can, because you are not doing anything wrong. This is what it means to be human.”
Now, I want to be clear: This invitation to sacred unknowing is not an invitation to turn away from the Holy. It is not a license to make God in our own image. It is not an excuse to, as one church member asked me early in my time here, “stop talking about God so much.”
It is, instead, a call to open wide both our hearts and our minds. It is, instead, a summons to let God out of the little boxes we have put her in, and to expand both our language for God and how much we let the Sacred Mystery transform us and our lives. Instead, it is a tender challenge to more fully realize God as all in all, to embrace all the ways that Spirit is with us, and to more deeply dwell in the heart of God.
The Trinity—the doctrine that God is not only Creator and Sovereign, but also Suffering Servant and Empowering Spirit, not only greater than we can imagine but also just like us, not only out there, but also in here—is a radical notion, I will admit.
On the somewhat rare occasions that I think about the Trinity in those terms, I can’t help but remember the tall Muslim man who confronted me not one, not two, but—get this—three different times when I was offering Blessings to Go in the Old City of Jerusalem. My actions offended him—something he told me with great fervor as he towered over me. Only God could offer blessing, he said. “You are wasting your time,” he told me again and again. But he seemed most deeply offended by what he presumed was my concept of God.
“God is One,” he insisted. I did not argue, and I am happy to say I had many wonderful encounters and some tender moments with Muslims in Jerusalem, but the multiple lectures I received from this man gave me a new awareness of the somewhat bizarre notion of the Trinity. Before, I had been too disrespectful of the church fathers who had come up with it, considering it both a little too crazy and fabricated as a concept, and a lot too constraining as a doctrine.
But my time in Jerusalem opened my eyes to how unsettling and dangerous the notion of the Trinity can be. It gave me a new respect for our ancestors in faith, who promoted a radically expansive and somewhat illogical notion of the Divine, knowing full well how controversial it would be, knowing too that it might get them killed.
I began to feel that the concept of the Trinity was, if anything, not too large and encompassing, but too small and neat. My only “problem” with the Trinity, I decided, was a doctrine that seemed to suggest we had God all figured out. I felt more at home with the Trinitarian image of God as a circle dance, a circle wider than anything my small mind could grasp, a circle that includes everyone and everything, a Relational Community with a capital R and a capital C.
Barbara Brown Taylor speaks of the Trinity as the powerful “idea that one God can answer to more than one name and assume more than one form. Even if Christians will not go higher than three, the case is made: unity expresses itself in diversity. The One who comes to us in more than one way is free to surprise us in all kinds of ways. … Within the community of the Trinity, the one and the many do not cancel each other out. They lean toward one another in eternally circling, mutually inclusive love. That is the image in which the rest of us are made.”
She goes on to say what is printed in your bulletin this morning, that “to walk the way of sacred unknowing is to remember that our best ways of thinking and speaking about God are provisional. They are always in process . . . even as they flow toward the God who remains free to act in ways that confound us. If our ways of thinking and speaking about God are not at least that fluid, then they are not really theologies but theolatries—things we worship instead [emphasis mine] of God, because we cannot get God to hold still long enough to pin God down.”
And so it is that we speak of God as, among other things, Father-Mother, Son, and Holy Spirit. So it is that even the three members of the Trinity each have different names: Jehovah and Lord, Jesus and Prince of Peace and Suffering Servant, Holy Spirit and Wisdom and Sophia. So it is that we sometimes speak of the Trinity in terms of function: Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer—realizing, I hope, how incomplete those descriptions are. Should we also include Liberator, Healer, and Empowerer? Parent, Sibling, and Guide? Lover, Disruptor, and Comforter? Sovereign, Human One, and Breath of Life?
So it is that we have already called God by many names this morning. In our hymns we have praised Almighty God, Incarnate Word, Holy Comforter, and the Ground and Source of All That Is, the One in Whom We Live and Move and Have Our Being. And we will bring many more holy names—at least six—in our closing hymn.
A few months ago, a church member approached the deacons with a request about worship. She had come to believe that it is wrong to “anthropomorphize” God—that is, to think of God in human terms—and so she wanted us to stop beginning the Lord’s Prayer with the salutation “Our Father-Mother God.”
We discussed her request, and I want you to know why I was opposed to it. For me it boils down to this: I believe we should always be expanding our concept of God, not limiting it. While we may all have our preferred ways of thinking about God, I don’t believe anyone should get to tell someone else what they may not call God. Thinking of God as nothing more or less than the Cosmic Universe may work for you, but it doesn’t really cut it for me—because I try to follow Jesus, who regularly referred to God in personal, anthropomorphic ways—despite catching holy hell for doing so. And because my experience of God is relational, a multi-lane highway that flows in many directions—a living, breathing all-inclusive community of beings.
But I hope I also know God well enough to know that I don’t know God at all. That God is bigger and greater than any concept or term or pronoun or image I or anyone else can come up with.
Barbara Brown Taylor credits a friend of hers with defining spirituality as “the active pursuit of a God you didn’t make up.” And, like Barbara, “I am starved for the God I did not make up.”
May the Sacred Mystery that is God, in whose image we are made, continue to confound and deliver, transform and surprise us. May we see Jesus in the stranger and every person we encounter. May we experience the Spirit in everything from our sighs that are too deep for words to the life force in our cells to our awesome, ever-expanding universe.
May we continue to live in God and with God and by God’s grace. May we walk joyfully the way of sacred unknowing, and may our lives and our world be shaped and healed and made new and holy by the God of many names we did not make up.