A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, May 31, 2015, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Isaiah 6:1-8, Romans 8:12-17, and John 3:1-17
Copyright © 2015 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

A couple days ago, Episcopal Church Memes[1] on Facebook suggested that the best way not to commit heresy on Trinity Sunday is not preaching, but showing pictures of kittens instead.  I expected the next meme to say something like, “The best way not to put your congregation to sleep on Trinity Sunday: say nothing and show pictures of kittens.”

Well, I’m going to risk it today.  I’m going to preach.  I hope you not only stay awake, but stay engaged.

I’m not too worried about the heresy charge.  Since both of our denominations are non-doctrinal, non-creedal churches, there is no doctrine or creed for me to violate today.  Other denominations are not so lucky.  And just to prove my point – a little satire about St. Patrick.

The concept of the Trinity has some value to me.  I appreciate how the doctrine of the Trinity invites me to consider how God was (or is) present in Jesus.  It encourages me to wrestle with that Christian claim that God is incarnate in Jesus.  Of course, my brain starts to hurt if I think about Jesus being God but also the Son of God.  That sort of makes him his own father, which the doctrine of the Trinity tries to avoid by claiming that while the persons of the Trinity are each God, they are not each other and there is only one God.  It makes for a nice diagram, but I don’t know how helpful it is to my spiritual journey.

A pretty diagram, but not really helpful.

I like the concept of the Trinity because my adult experiences of God are so different from my early images of God.  The concept of the Trinity allowed me to hold on to both old images and new images by calling them different persons of the Trinity.  Now I’ve let go of those early images of God, replacing them with images that often aren’t even visual, but still, multiple images, multiple experiences.

This brings me to one of the points I want to make in today’s sermon:  We all have images of God.  In the first commandment (at least as I was taught to number them), God says, “You shall have no other gods before me.”  The second commandment says, “You shall not make for yourself an idol …  You shall not bow down to them or worship them.”  This has been interpreted to mean that we shouldn’t make art, at least not depicting anything in creation.  That’s a little extreme, it seems to me.  I see the admonition to be against worshipping our images, whether they are physical or something we create in our minds.  And even though we’re not supposed to worship our images, we all create images of God.

We are a visual species, and so it is natural to create an image or images of what can’t be seen even though we are in relationship with it.  Images help us explore what we believe.  For instance, the banners along the sides of the sanctuary have invited me to reflect on how modernity has attempted to define God, to put God in a box; but the Spirit of God breaks down barriers, busts open boxes, and asks us to consider how what we think we know about God might be too restrictive, too incomplete, too limited.  I find reflection helpful because the images I hold, especially the primary image of God that I hold at any given time influences, even dictates, how I relate to God.

One of the earliest images I had of God was a combination of the Lincoln Memorial and Santa Claus.  God sat on a throne, a huge throne.  The God who sat there had a very human form.  This God was a huge, male, human – only not human because he was God and so much bigger than humans.  And this God had age, wisdom, and the beard of Santa.  This God knew when I’d been bad or good, so I’d better be good for goodness sake.  I don’t know how much this image emerged from my own mind and how much it was influenced by art.  Michelangelo’s God creating Adam, painted on the Sistine Chapel ceiling, is similar to this early image of God.  Perhaps he and other artists influenced me.

I find this image strikingly similar to the image of God in our passage from Isaiah.  Isaiah describes a vision of God.  God is a “he” who speaks and wears a robe, sitting on a high throne, in a great temple – actually the great Temple.  Seraphs attend him, singing his praises.  Confronted by this majesty, Isaiah is overcome.  He recognizes his sinfulness and experiences guilt.

I know that many people are uncomfortable with the word, “sin.”  Some hear the word and hear judgment not from God but from other people.  Others hear the word and feel condemnation.  I want to reclaim the word “sin.”  Sin is very real.  It also need not carry all the shaming energy it seems to.

“Sin is having our loves out of order.”  The columnist David Brooks said that during a radio interview about a week ago.[2]  I wish I had said it, but credit where credit is due.

Sin is having our loves out of order.

Do you remember what the first commandment says?  “Don’t have any gods before me.”  There is a tacit acknowledgement that there are other claims on our attentions and affections in our lives.  God’s just saying, “Keep those loves in the right order.”

So, confronted by his vision of God, Isaiah said, “Woe is me, for my loves are out of order.  Yet even still, I’m having this vision of God.”  And God responds to Isaiah by “blotting out” his sin.  In acknowledging that his loves are out of order, Isaiah opens himself to forgiveness and reconciliation with God.  And, reconciled, he opens himself up to hearing God’s call.

This moment of forgiveness and reconciliation is a powerful enough moment to have inspired art – a word image inspiring visual images.  Some are as concrete and literalistic as this one.

Others capture a greater sense of mystery, like Marc Chagall’s “The Prophet Isaiah.”  Isaiah and the seraph are there.  There’s another character in white at the top of the painting that might depict God – but I think it’s an angel or another heavenly being.  And in the background, there’s lots going on.  For instance, in the upper right, there are animals and people that make me think of the image of the peaceable kingdom Isaiah will later proclaim.  In the lower right, there is a mother and child; the blue paint makes me think this might be Mary and Jesus.  In the lower left there is a scene that is hard to decipher, but the palm branch makes me wonder if it is of Palm Sunday.  And in the upper left, we see the crucifixion.  What is Chagall saying about Isaiah, sin, redemption, and Jesus?  That question is fodder for another sermon.  If I’m right, that Chagall didn’t include God in this painting, that decision suggests something about his personal image of God.

I think that part of the reason Nicodemus had such a hard time understanding Jesus was that Nicodemus’ personal image of God didn’t align with Jesus’.  Nicodemus was a literalist.  He “was under the influence of a religious tradition that taught a faith that was to be managed, protected, and guarded.  Yet his late-night visit with Jesus revealed some heart longings that had not completely left him.  Perhaps he expected a dialogue in dogmatics, but what he got from Jesus was poetry.”[3]

Of course, the Greek anothen having multiple meanings wasn’t helpful either.  “Very truly, I tell you,” Jesus said, “no one can see the kin-dom of God without being born anothen.”  “What do you mean we need to be born anothen?  No one’s gonna crawl back inside their mother’s womb to be born anothen.”  Jesus was using the word “anothen” to mean “from above,” and Nicodemus was using it to mean “again.”  I think that if Nicodemus could have embraced an image of a God that keeps reaching out to us, that keeps calling us to new life, he might have understood what Jesus was saying.  But I suspect Nicodemus’ God was stuck in the Temple.

As I said earlier, I find the doctrine of the Trinity helpful in only a few ways.  Mostly, I find it to be a headache, and that is especially true when I think about it literally.  On the other hand, when I think about it metaphorically, poetically …  The image of the Trinity is what I have found fruitful.

In attempting to explain the Trinity, that is, in attempting to explain the unexplainable, ancient and more contemporary theologians have actually created words.  One of those ancient words is perichoresis.[4]  The use of perichoresis gets really technical, but at its root, the word is about the relationship of the persons of the Trinity.  The perichoresis of God is that nature of the persons of the Trinity that has them going around and making room for each other.  Play with that image – the persons of the Trinity going around and making room for each other.

God is a dance.  And this dance is done in relationship, the persons of the Trinity weaving between and around each other.  God is a God of relationship.  God is not a static, transcendent, separate, omnipresent being.  God is not the great judge on the great throne with the great beard of my childhood image.  God is in relationship with Godself and desires nothing more than to be in relationship with you and me.

“God is a verb much more than a noun,” writes Richard Rohr.  “God as Trinity invites us into a participatory experience.  Some of our Christian mystics went so far as to say that all of creation is being taken back into this flow of eternal life, almost as if we are a ‘Fourth Person’ of the Eternal Flow of God.”[5]

Paul writes that we’ve been adopted by God.  And not just adopted, but been made heir – co-heirs with Christ.  God has drawn us into relationship at the same level as Christ.  “We talk about the Trinity as God being three-in-one … in order always to add one more – and that’s us, all of us, an infinite ‘plus one’ through which God’s love is made complete in relationship with all of God’s children.”[6]

Or, put another way, we are invited into the dance.  Amen.

[1] https://www.facebook.com/EpiscopalChurchMemes

[2] I don’t remember which radio program on KQED-FM I heard him say this, but I almost immediately tweeted it, and that was at 8:41 p.m., 22 May 2015.

[3] Nancy Hastings Sehested, “Born to be Wild,” Sojourners, http://www.sojo.net/preaching-the-word/born-be-wild (accessed 26 May 2015).

[4] “Perichoresis,” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Perichoresis (accessed 26 May 2015).

[5] Richard Rohr, “Meditations on the Mystery of the Trinity,” quoted by Mike Morrell, mikemorrell.org, http://mikemorrell.org/2012/06/wheel-within-a-wheel-fellowshipping-with-the-trinity-in-the-dance-of-life/ (accessed 26 May 2015).

[6] David Lose, “Three-in-One Plus One!” …In the Meantime, http://www.davidlose.net/2015/05/trinity-b-three-in-one-plus-one/ (posted and accesses on 25 May 2015).