All Saints’ Church
May 31, 2015
In the name of One God, a holy & undivided trinity. Amen.
Way back in the 1300s in England, there was a Christian mystic who we call Julian of Norwich. She was what we call an anchoress–which basically means she stayed in her room all day and wrote about God. In 1395, she wrote a book called Revelations of Divine Love, and it is the first book in the English language known to have been written by a woman. 1395! In it, she wrote about the Trinity. She said:
The almighty truth of the Trinity is our Father, for he made us and keeps us in him. And the deep wisdom of the Trinity is our Mother, in whom we are enclosed. And the high goodness of the Trinity is our Lord, and in him we are enclosed and he in us. We are enclosed in the Father, and we are enclosed in the Son, and we are enclosed in the Holy Spirit. And the Father is enclosed in us, the Son is enclosed in us, and the Holy Spirit is enclosed in us, almighty, all wisdom and all goodness, one God, one Lord.
A little while ago, I did an exercise with the youth group here at All Saints’. I asked them: what does God look like?
If you know the youth of All Saints’, you will know, I got some amazing answers to this question–thoughtful and provoking. Someone said: God is just a blinding light. Someone said: a cloud. And then someone said: a guy in sandals and a robe with a beard.
You know the picture we’re talking about: Jesus–a white guy, usually with blue eyes and soft brown hair, in a white robe with a brown sash and Birkenstock sandals. Sometimes he’ll be carrying a sheep over his shoulders. Whatever he’s carrying, he always looks a bit glassy-eyed, a bit weary, but very loving.
This is a very familiar image of God.
And then I asked the Youth Group: what does God sound like?
Someone said: He has a booming voice. Someone said: He has a lot of authority. Someone said: He is a good listener.
But one thing that all the youth agreed on, across the board, is that God is a he. And that Jesus is “white.”
So I said to them, did you ever think God might be a woman? Or did you ever think God might sound like a woman? Did you ever think Jesus might not be white? Did you ever think Jesus might be black?
And one incredibly smart member of our Youth Group said, “I haven’t seen a God like that in any of those stained glass windows.”
It’s true, isn’t it? Not just here in this church–but in so many churches, and also in movies and on TV and in political speeches, and in so much writing about God–God is a man. God is a white man.
Now, I want to be very clear before I go on here. There is nothing wrong with being a white man. My dad is a white man and I love him very much! My question is just: why is this the ONLY image we seem to return to again and again to talk about God?
Why is it so absurd for our children to think of God any other way?
Today is Trinity Sunday–a day that comes around every year right after Pentecost where we celebrate a core of our faith: that there is one God, that this one God is the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
Everyone of us who has been baptized in the church has been baptized in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. And each week, we repeat this trinity again and again–after the collect, in the Nicene Creed, during the communion prayer. You might have noticed that a lot of people like to cross themselves whenever we say it during the service: In the name of the father, the son, and the holy spirit. Amen.
So we talk about the Trinity a lot: but what is it really?
A friend of mine who is a brilliant Church historian posted on Facebook yesterday some advice to all of us preachers who were writing a sermon for today. She said: “In your sermons, If you have managed to explain the Trinity in a way that relates it easily to life and leaves everyone basically comfortable, you have committed a heresy of some sort. ”
I think some preachers find that notion pretty scary. There is a kind of tired old joke that the assistant always has to preach on Trinity Sunday because it’s the trickiest Sunday to tackle. No one wants to preach on Trinity Sunday because the Trinity is too hard to explain.
But I actually find it extremely liberating. There’s really nothing I can say to you that will make any sense! Goodness knows, I’m not afraid of a little heresy–but I think something really exciting happens when we realize that we don’t understand God. We cannot put God in a comfortable box. God is greater and more inclusive than any of the ways we could try to imagine what God looks like or sounds like.
So today is a great opportunity to reflect on how the ways we talk about God can get a lot bigger and more expansive.
In the Gospel story today, Jesus helps Nicodemus with exactly this–understanding God in a new way.
One more tricky thing to note about the Trinity is that it’s not–as a doctrine–in the bible, per se. You might think on Trinity Sunday, we would get a story about the Trinity–but like with everything else on this day: It’s not that simple.
In the bible, God is talked about as a father–this is the creator of the earth, and this is who Jesus calls out to on the cross. In the bible, God is of course talked about as Jesus, the Son of Man, who dies on the cross and rises again. And in the bible, God is talked about as the spirit, the advocate, the holy wind. But nowhere in the text does anyone say exactly how this works–which is precisely why people have been hemming and hawing about how to explain the Trinity for centuries.
And the only reason we celebrate Trinity Sunday today, just after Pentecost, is because in the 12th Century, Thomas Becket was ordained Archbishop of Canterbury on this Sunday and he decided it should thereafter be a celebration of the Trinity. Presumably to haunt assistant preachers for the rest of time.
But anyway, what we do get in the Gospel story, is Jesus rocking Nicodemus’s understanding of how God works.
Nicodemus is an old and wise man who is a leader in the Jewish community. But he sees that there is something going on with Jesus, and so he seeks him out–in the dark of night, behind closed doors–to see what’s up. And Jesus does a very Jesus-y thing of greeting him cryptically. Jesus says: “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”
Nicodemus asks a very practical question, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?”
And Jesus tells him to forget about these concerns of the body. To know God, we do not need to crawl into our mother’s wombs. But God offers us a new womb, a new way to be born, even as older people, even if we aren’t babies. God gives us the water and the spirit.
Today, I think we can all come to this story and imagine we are Nicodemus. Faithful and curious people who come to Jesus with our questions about God. Sick and tired of the old ways of thinking about God.
And God’s answer to us is new life. God’s answer is for us to be reborn from the spirit.
[I think I wrote some more by hand during the Gospel procession — LOL. Lost to time! Imagine a really thrilling ending that ties it all together.]