I absolutely love the church year: the colors on the pulpit and communion table, the rhythm and flow of Advent and Christmastide, Lent and Eastertide. I look forward every year to the changing of seasons in the church year, and the re-telling of the stories of our faith. But, one thing that I especially love about the church year is how the rhythms and patterns form us over time, most of the time without us even realizing it. It is similar to the way I find myself changing to become more like my parents. Having grown up in my parents’ house and having learned things from them (often without realizing I was learning), sometimes I open my mouth and my mother comes out. Have you ever had that experience?
The church year is like that, too. We may not even realize how we are being shaped until we are in a completely different place where things are not how we are used to. Like the young woman who went off to college and felt lonely for the first time. Everything was new in the city where she lived. The people around her were unlike any of the people she knew back home. She told me that when she felt loneliest, she went to a church that was just like her church back home.
“Everything was just like how it was when I was growing up. While I was there, I didn’t feel lonely,” she told me.
But, there’s one thing about the church year that I struggle with. It’s those days in the church year that are decorated with white, or white and gold. These days tend to be more difficult to understand. The white, in western tradition, is used for days when we focus on who God is or on the Lordship of Christ, and the white paraments symbolize the brightness of the day. When I approach these days I feel like I’m squinting and having trouble seeing because of how bright it is.
I almost feel like I need liturgical sunglasses on days like today.
The Sunday after Pentecost is always Trinity Sunday. Throughout the course of the church year we’ve experienced God as Father, Son, and – after Pentecost – Holy Spirit. And so, for a moment, we decide to look directly into the brilliant light and try to make out who God is.
My mom always warned us not to look directly at the sun.
But here we are, trying to look directly at the mystery and majesty of God and make sense of who God is. We’re trying to pull ourselves outside of the water we’ve been swimming in and describe what it’s like. This is one of the hardest Sundays for many preachers because, as Richard Bauckham wisely wrote, “It’s a difficult day for preachers because we find we have to talk about God.” Seems strange, doesn’t it? But, Bauckham says that preachers are good at talking about what God wants from us, and are good at talking about what God has done for us. Talking about who God is? Well, that’s another matter. Bauckham continues, “Talking about God – by which I mean, not just referring to God, but actually trying to say who God is – is one of those points where language fails us.”
We come up with metaphors. We tells memorable stories from our own experiences. But, in the end, language fails to capture the majesty and mystery of the Trinity. Somehow God is both one and three. As the hymn Holy, Holy, Holy says, “God in three persons, blessed Trinity.”
But, how? How can God be both three and one?
This is the question behind Trinity Sunday, but I’ve been wondering if that’s the best question to ask. Instead, I find myself asking another question: “Why do we feel the need to explain the Trinity at all?” Why is it that we so long to explain who God is that we’ve got an entire Sunday of the church year set aside for doing just that?
I think we can catch a little glimpse of the answer to this question in Psalm 8. And we can lean on the Apostles’ Creed to help us understand along the way.
The psalm begins: “O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth! You have set your glory above the heavens.” God is the creator of the universe, sovereign and full of majesty. We may not be able to prove this beyond a shadow of a doubt through complicated formulas and defenses, but I know I’ve experienced the majesty of God when standing on the beach and looking at the vastness of the ocean. I’ve been awed by God’s power and creation when looking out from the top of the Scotts Bluff National Monument. I have been overwhelmed by the sovereignty of God time and again as I’ve needlessly worried about the details only to find things falling into place far better than I ever could have orchestrated on my own.
Our God is the Majestic One, the Sovereign One, the Creator. Or, as the first article of the Apostles’ Creed says it, “I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth.”* This is God the Transcendent One – the Mighty One we stand in awe of.
Yet, the psalm continues in a strange way. “Out of the mouths of babes and infants you have founded a bulwark because of your foes, to silence the enemy and the avenger.” Somehow in some way, though God is a God of majesty, God has made it so that young children and infants can silence the foe and the avenger. Within this verse we have a hint at the grand reversal of the Gospel – that the things of the world that are considered last are made first in the kingdom of God.
God chooses to work through the small, the insignificant, and the overlooked. And it is through these kinds of voices that God’s praises are made known throughout the world.
On Trinity Sunday when we ask “What is God like?” or “How can we understand God?” we need to open our ears to listen to those who are calling out God’s praises from the margins. Psalm 8 teaches us that while God is far beyond our comprehension, God chooses to work through the unexpected places and people in our world to make God’s praises known.
But, back to the question I posed earlier: Why do we feel the need to explain the Trinity on Trinity Sunday? Why is it that attempting to understand what cannot be understood is so important to us that we set aside an entire day for it?
Verse three gets right to the heart of it: “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?”
I wonder if we so desperately want to understand the Trinity because we want to know if we can find belonging in God. In the deepest part of ourselves, we want to be known for who we are and loved beyond what we can ask for. If the only way we have ever experienced God was in God’s majesty, we might be fearful of God, or at the very least uneasy that the whole universe was in the palm of God’s hand. We are like little specks in the grand scheme of things. But, we know that God is not only Father, but also Son. And in the person of Jesus, we have come to know that God so loved the world that God gave everything – even God’s own Son – so that we might become children of God.
What we find in God is true Community, true Relationship, true Love that gives of itself, true Belonging and Grace. When we think about the Trinity, even though we cannot get our minds around it and even though all of our metaphors break down and fail at some point, we see that in God there is a picture of perfect community. And “of this community I am and always will be a living member,” as it says in the Heidelberg Catechism.
Jesus promised his disciples (and us) the gift of the Holy Spirit, and on Pentecost the Spirit came and began to unite this community called out by God to be the church. And that’s why we’re here. That’s why we woke up this morning and came to this place for worship. This is why we’re here: because in some way we belong to God, and we belong to each other. In who God is, we have found belonging, and that belonging includes each person around us.
So, why do we pull out the white paraments and think about things that are too complex for our minds? Why do we look directly into the sun, squinting as we try to catch a glimpse of who God is? Perhaps, as N.T. Wright suggests, the doctrine of the Trinity isn’t so much about our ability to put it into words and understand it, but precisely that we cannot. He writes, “On the contrary: the doctrine of the Trinity is, if you like, a signpost pointing ahead into the dark, saying: ‘Trust me; follow me; my love will keep you safe.’ Or, perhaps better, the doctrine of the Trinity is a signpost pointing into a light which gets brighter and brighter until we are dazzled and blinded, but which says: ‘Come, and I will make you children of light.’”
We seek to understand the mystery of the Trinity because in some way the Trinity gives us the promise of belonging, of community, of life together. We are invited into community because of who God is. As 1 John says, “God is light and in him there is no darkness at all.” We climb up to the mountaintop to experience the light of God – though we can never fully explain it – and then we are sent out into the world as little lights, which when joined together light up the whole world.
I recently came across the story of a little girl who once asked her mother who the saints are. Her mother thought the best place to go to find an answer to such a question would be a church building. The mother and her daughter walked into the church, and as they did so, the little girl gasped in amazement as she looked at a beautifully illuminated stained glass window. “Now I know who the saints are!” the little girl said. “They are the people who let the light shine through.”
And that’s really what it’s all about. On this Trinity Sunday, let’s lay down our need to know and our desire to explain, and let’s find our delight in knowing that somehow, the God who defies all our explanations and metaphors has invited us into a community of people who let the light shine through.
So are we all clear on the Trinity? Clear as mud, perhaps. But, we can hear the unexpected voices from the margins singing God’s praises. And we are invited into community with God and with each other. We may not be able to explain it, but we can delight in it all the same.
May God grant us the courage to sing praise, no matter where we are and no matter how small our voices might seem.
*This sermon is the first sermon in a series on the articles of the Apostles’ Creed. Article one: “I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth.”
 Richard Bauckham, Sermon on Trinity Sunday, http://richardbauckham.co.uk/uploads/Sermons/Trinity.pdf
 N.T. Wright on Trinity Sunday, http://re-worship.blogspot.com/2014/06/nt-wright-on-trinity-sunday.html
 This story seems widely shared with many variations. I’m not sure from where the story first originated.