Sermon on Isaiah 6:1-8 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania. Audio for this sermon may be found here.

imgresA few weeks ago, George W. Bush offered the commencement address at Southern Methodist University. At one point, he offered these words of encouragement to the graduating class: “For those of you graduating with high honors and distinctions, I say well done. And as I like to tell the ‘C’ students, you too can be president.” With this quip, our former president was employing one of the well worn conventions of the genre. Self deprecating humor is just one of those things people tend to expect from commencement addresses. But the element that everyone expects from a commencement address is an affirmation of the boundless potential of the graduating class. During the months of May and June, countless speakers tell the young women and men gathered before them that if they follow their passions, they can make the world a better place. The cynical among us might say that commencement speakers say this in order to assure people that the time, money, and energy they spent earning their degree was worthwhile. But I suspect that this vote of confidence for the graduating class stems from a genuine hope that by excelling in their chosen field, the members of graduating class can make a difference and change the world.

Isaiah son of Amoz was a man who excelled in his chosen field. Now, when I say “chosen,” I should make it clear that he was chosen by birth to serve God as a priest in the Temple. And when I say that he “excelled,” I should make it clear that Isaiah did exactly what was expected of a priest in the Temple. Isaiah was one of those charged with the responsibility of maintaining the delicate balance between sin and righteousness. He made sacrifices and offerings to God on behalf of his people in order to negate the effects of their sins.

We can assume that this is what Isaiah was doing on that fateful day in the year King Uzziah died. As he went about his priestly business, Isaiah experienced a vision of the LORD. He saw the LORD he had been serving as a priest for many years, the LORD whom he encountered in the exercise of his duties, the LORD he was supposed to know intimately. But Isaiah’s vision is anything but familiar. Instead of sitting in the holy of holies, the LORD is sitting on a high and lofty throne far above the Temple with fiery serpents swirling around him. The smallest part of his robe fills the entire Temple; this place that is supposed to be the dwelling place of God can’t even accommodate the tiniest part of his garment. The angels that attend the LORD sing a seraphic song that calls the LORD “Holy” three separate times, as if to say, “You have no idea who you are dealing with.” To top it all off, an earthquake shakes the very foundations of the Temple as the building fills with smoke. It is a terrifying and majestic vision, and Isaiah could have viewed it as an affirmation of his priestly ministry; Isaiah could have surmised that God was being revealed to him as a reward for his dedication. Instead, Isaiah has the opposite reaction. When faced with a vision of the living God, Isaiah loses confidence in himself, in his vocation, and in his people: “Woe is me,” he cries, “I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips.” Isaiah is bereft and humiliated because he realizes that the God he supposedly has been representing is far more powerful, far more expansive, far more than he had previously imagined. This realization leads Isaiah to change his vocation completely. No longer can he serve God in the Temple that can’t even contain the hem of God’s robe. Isaiah instead understands that his prophetic mission is to proclaim the ultimate sovereignty of God: the fact that God transcends all worldly concerns, the fact that in the end, God will be God. All at once, Isaiah comes to the profound and startling realization that the only thing interesting about religion is God. And so, at the commencement of his prophetic ministry, Isaiah is not told to go follow his passion and change the world like the graduates of today, he is instead reminded of how very small he is, of how very parochial his experience of the world and his experience of God has been, and then he is told to go change the world.

This morning, we observe Trinity Sunday, which is one of the stranger feasts of the church year. Most other observances in our calendar recall events in the life of Jesus or celebrate the lives of the saints. Trinity Sunday, however, is the celebration of the Christian doctrine that the one God is manifest in three distinct persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Only the doctrine of the Trinity has this unusual distinction. There’s no “Doctrine of the Divine and Human Natures of Jesus Christ Sunday” or “Filioque Clause Sunday.” Given it’s unique place in the calendar, it is easy to fall into the trap of using this Sunday as didactic opportunity to square the Trinitarian circle, to explain how 1+1+1 can equal 1. The greatest theologians of the Church, however, have argued persuasively that the Trinity is not meant to be understood in any human terms. The reason we celebrate the Trinity on an annual basis goes much deeper than mere instruction; in fact, it is the same reason that God appeared to Isaiah. Trinity Sunday is meant to remind us of how very small we are, to help us recognize how our understanding of God is limited by our prejudices, and to give us an opportunity to recognize the fact that God will be God.

Ten years ago, the great contemporary philosopher David Foster Wallace gave the commencement address at Kenyon College. Given the context, the most striking thing about his eloquent speech was that he never once told the graduating class to follow their passions. Instead, dfw-thumb-320x238he reminded them of how very small they are. The speech begins with Wallace giving voice to an assumption that the vast majority of people have: “everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute center of the universe; the realest, most vivid and important person in existence.” This selfishness is our default setting as human beings, and Wallace argues that the task of education, the task of becoming part of society, is to deny this self-centered impulse. He suggests that the only way we can truly deny our selfish nature is by worshipping that which is life-giving. Whether we recognize it or not we all worship something. We are free to worship either that which encourages our self-centeredness or that which empowers us to deny our selfish nature and reach out in humility to others. True freedom, Wallace argues, involves making the correct choice and “being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them.” This is the witness of David Foster Wallace, but it is also the witness of Isaiah son of Amoz, it is the witness of Trinity Sunday, and indeed, it is the witness of the gospel. It is only when we are humbled that we can begin to make a difference. It is only when we acknowledge that there is something greater than ourselves that we can truly change the world.


Who We are Meant to Be

Sermon on Genesis 1:1 – 2:4a offered to the people of the Church of the Heavenly Rest in Abilene, TX.

As many of you know, my wife and I are cat people.  We have two adorable kitties that give us an incredible amount of joy, even though they can frustrate us at times.  Neither of us grew up with animals in the house; our foray into pet guardianship began when my wife somewhat arbitrarily decided to adopt a cat from the animal shelter in Wolfeboro, New Hampshire.  Gradually, we became so enamored of Winnie (who is named for Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire) that we decided she needed a feline companion.  This led us to adopt Abby (named for her hometown of Abilene) from a parishioner’s backyard.  We are, to put it mildly, smitten.

imagesNow, when some people find out that we are cat people, they are inclined to explain that cats aren’t nearly as cute and cuddly and innocent as we think they are, that they are, in fact, “evil.”  Now, I’m not particularly disposed to use the word “evil” for human beings, let alone animals that presumably have a limited understanding of morality.  Nevertheless these feline detractors will enumerate the reasons that, in their mind, cats are selfish, duplicitous, and unworthy of our affection.  For instance, they will explain that when cats nuzzle you, they aren’t showing affection, but are actually claiming you as their property.  Being a devoted cat guardian, I am familiar with this behavior and I’m fine with it.  Cats are territorial; they mark the things they want in their lives, whether they are scratching posts, food bowls, doorframes, or their human guardians.  But what really bugs me is what the anti-cat party thinks is the most damning evidence against cats.  They explain that unlike dogs, cats do not do anything useful.  Now, I love dogs, but dogs are bred to do useful things like retrieve and point and follow scents.  Cats weren’t bred to do any of these things.  As a civilization, we decided to keep cats around because they hunted and killed disease-carrying pests.  We developed a symbiotic relationship with these animals, benefiting from their natural instincts.  The anti-cat folks, in other words, tend not to like cats because they are not enough like dogs, and I don’t think that’s fair.  They need to be reminded that cats are not dogs, and that that’s okay.  We can’t fault these creatures for doing what they have evolved to do; we should celebrate cats and dogs and other animals for being what they are meant to be.

imgresToday is Trinity Sunday.  In the words of our Collect, it is the day we are called “to acknowledge the glory of the eternal Trinity, and in the power of God’s divine Majesty to worship the Unity.”  Put another way, it is the day we are reminded that as Christians, we have a truly unique understanding of monotheism.  The doctrine of the Trinity affirms that though God is one and there is but one God, God is made known to us as three distinct persons: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Now, if this sounds wacky to you, you are not alone.  Adherents of other monotheistic traditions like Judaism or Islam smile to themselves whenever they hear us talk about the Trinity and claim to be monotheists.  Skeptics roll their eyes when Christians talk about the Trinity, thinking that we simply cannot count.  Even some traditions that claim Jesus Christ have eschewed the doctrine of the Trinity: Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that Jesus was adopted as God’s son and is not part of the Godhead, while Mormons believe that the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are three distinct godlike figures.  Since its inception, in other words, the doctrine of the Trinity has been one of the more challenging elements of the Christian faith.

One of the reasons the Trinity is so difficult for us to understand is that we have to deal with a substantial language barrier.  The Church fathers who first articulated Trinitarian doctrine used the Latin word personae to describe the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  While “persons” is an accurate translation of this word, personae refers less to individual people and more to the ways that we experience people, kind of like the English derivative “persona.”  In fact, another way to translate personae is “masks.”  The early Church, in other words, was saying that we experience God in three very particular ways: as Father, as Son, and as Holy Spirit.  Now, we are currently bordering on heresy; the Early Church would never say that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit were mere masks of God.  Then again, when you talk about the Trinity for any length of time, you are almost always bordering on heresy.  In any case, this leads us to wonder: what was it that led the Early Church to affirm that we experience God in these very particular ways?  Why didn’t they simply say that God manifests God’s self in a variety of different fashions and leave it at that?  After all, the word “Trinity” never appears in Scripture and the references to “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” are few and far between.  What was it that made the Church fathers reconsider the very nature of monotheism?

Part of the rationale is for this change is made clear in our gospel reading for today.  Matthew tells us that after his resurrection, Jesus gathered his disciples on the mountaintop, where he gives them the Great Commission.  Of course, he tells his followers to make disciples by “baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,” but this is not the most important Trinitarian moment in this passage.  That comes two verses before, when the evangelist tells us that the disciples worshiped Jesus.  To our ears, this does not sound weird; Christians have been worshiping Jesus for almost two thousand years.  For devout first-century Jews, however, this was an astonishing statement.  One of the foundational confessions of the Jewish faith is the Shema, the affirmation that God is one and is the only one worthy of worship.  But for these disciples of Jesus, something had happened to persuade them that Jesus Christ was also worthy of worship, that Jesus Christ manifested the presence of God.  The Early Church saw this trend among the earliest followers of Jesus, saw that they recognized the presence of God in the person of Jesus Christ, and began to wonder how exactly this was possible.  They began to wonder if Jesus Christ was somehow also God.

imgresBut perhaps the most compelling rationale for the doctrine of the Trinity is illustrated in the creation account from Genesis.  We are intimately familiar with this story: God speaks into the empty void and calls creation into existence.  The author of Genesis tells us that a wind from God swept over the waters of chaos prior to God saying “Let there be light.”  In Hebrew, the word for “wind” is ruah, same as the word for “Sprit.”  In other words, even before creation began, the Spirit was present in the chaos.  But this is not the reason the creation account points to the Trinity.  That comes later, six days later according to Genesis, when God looks around and says, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness.”  Theologians have wrestled with what it means to be made in the image of God for generations.  Does this statement in the creation account mean that God looks like a human being or does it mean something else?  Artists throughout history have interpreted this statement somewhat literally: God is depicted in many great works of art as a bearded man (just think of Michelangelo’s ceiling in the Sistine Chapel).  To my mind, however, when the Genesis account tells us that “God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them,” there is something deeper at play, something that I believe the Early Church recognized.  In the second chapter of Genesis, God creates woman from the rib of Adam.  But in the first chapter, God creates woman and man at the same time.  God creates a micro-community of human beings, as if to say, “Human beings are meant to be in relationship with one another.”  I suspect that the Early Church looked at this story and said, “That must be what the image of God is.  If God created human beings to be in community, then community must exist at the very heart of God.”

Ultimately, this is why we take a Sunday every year to remember the doctrine of the Trinity.  It’s not so we can brush up on our fourth century theology.  Trinity Sunday is an opportunity to remember the divine community that grounds our very being, to remember that relationship exists at the very heart of God.  We celebrate the Trinity every year to remember that we are created in the image of that God, to remember that we are meant to be in relationship with one another.  The Trinity, in other words, reminds us who we are meant to be.  And just as cat detractors need to be reminded that it’s okay for cats to be cats, we need to be reminded that we are created in the image of God, because it is so easy to forget.  We live in an age when abusing strangers anonymously behind the keys of a message board has become commonplace.  We live in an age when selfishness seems to be the order of the day.  We live in an age when we are too scared to admit we are vulnerable and so we wallow in loneliness, uncertainty, and despair.  The Trinity is a reminder that we are not meant to go through this life alone.  The divine community is a reminder that we are called to share what we have with others who have been created in God’s image.  The relationship at the heart of God is a reminder that we are called to see ourselves, to see God in those who are different from us.  As we gather in community this Trinity Sunday, I pray that we will reach out to those in our midst and those outside of these walls as we celebrate who we have been created to be.