Mindful of a Mindful God
Category: Bishop's Sermons
Speaker: The Rt Rev Mark D.W. Edington
Tags: love, trinity, relationship, episcopal, mindful
June 12, 2022 • Trinity Sunday
Augsburg, Germany • The Mission Festival
Text: Psalm 8:5: “What is man that you should be mindful of him, the son of man, that you should seek him out?”
Today is something of an annual conundrum in the church calendar, the only feast day in the life of the church that is dedicated, not to an event in the life of Christ, not to a specific saint or holy example, but to an idea—and not just an idea, a doctrine. Today is Trinity Sunday, the day on which we talk about a truth the Christian faith proclaims that is by a long distance the most complicated thing about Christianity to those outside the faith—and even to many inside as well.
It is probably well to begin with a reminder about the difference between an idea and a doctrine. An idea is something that may be true. We have the idea that by bringing all of you together to share this time we can encourage and strengthen you in the ministry you share. There are reasons we have that idea, most of which have to do with the long history of the church, and the teaching of the apostles that we should come together regularly. Our idea may be true; we will see.
A doctrine is something different. A doctrine is an idea that, the more deeply and prayerfully we reflect on what has been revealed to us by scripture and by our reason, we have come to understand must be true. A doctrine is a necessary condition for other truths. It is a way humans try to understand things that are beyond our understanding—a way we try to push back the haze of mystery by condensing it into something solid.
There is a long tradition in the church that on Trinity Sunday you find the youngest ordained person in the church and make them preach. This is a kind of church sport. It’s a bit of a trial by fire, handing someone not long out of seminary a task that has confounded even the great theologians of the Christian faith. Even Saint Augustine, after writing fourteen and a half chapters of his stud of the Trinity, finally concludes by saying, “the wonderful knowledge of God is too great for me, and I cannot attain to it.”
We have been wrestling with this doctrine a long, long time, through mountains of books and hundreds of thousands of scholarly papers. And in the end, we are left with this conundrum: We know that these things must be true, and the more deeply we reflect on what has been revealed to us, the greater that truth seems to be; but we cannot prove this truth. It is, in the end, a doctrine we hold by faith.
This morning I want to offer a very brief way into thinking about the Trinity, not one I ever wrote a paper on in seminary. But to do that, first I have to tell you a story.
My first job in ministry—the place where I was called on, as someone just ordained, to preach on Trinity Sunday—was at a church on a university campus. Not far from the church, just across the campus quad, was the building where the philosophy department has its offices.
It’s a place called Emerson Hall, named for the great American essayist and thinker Ralph Waldo Emerson. Emerson Hall was built in 1905, so about a hundred and fifteen years ago or so.
When the building was being planned, the president of the university wrote to the philosophy department to ask them what legend, what phrase, they thought should be put over the main door of the building. And, of course, the philosophy department formed a committee to consider the question. In those days, William James was a member of that faculty.
Finally, after long discussion, with the building already going up, the committee reported back to the president. They had chosen a phrase attributed to the ancient Greek philosopher Protagoras: “Man is the Measure of All Things.”
The president thanked them for their suggestion.
Then the day came when the building was to be dedicated, and the legend over the door would be unveiled. And this is what it said: “What is man, that thou art mindful of him?”
Now, obviously, these are two pretty different ideas of our place in the universe. In the first idea, we are the measure of all things—and if you think about it, that makes everything pretty small. But in this idea, we are sort of amazed, and a little bit awestruck, at the realization that there is a God, and that God has us in mind. Even more than that—God wants to be in relationship with us.
After all, when you are mindful of someone, you are in relationship with them. Think about who you are praying for these days. They may be people dear to you, people that you know. They may be people you don’t know, but whom you hold in your heart—refugees, or people who are vulnerable and trafficked in modern slavery, or people whose lives have given you an example that has inspired you as a Christian.
And now think about how you are mindful of God, what it means to be prayerful in your relationship with God not for the sake of others, but for God’s sake—what it means to praise God, to give thanks to God, because every day we grow a little bit and a little bit more deeply aware of how much God has done for us. By giving us this life. By giving us these friends. By giving us so many experiences that have formed us. By sustaining us and preserving us when we were in danger, or afraid, or sad. By giving us the joys that make this life so amazing.
All of that—if you think about it—all of that reveals to us the truth that must be, somehow, the Trinity. Because all of that involves the unity of three things, without which there would be nothing.
There is the person we are mindful of, the person we love, the person we hold in our hearts because of their suffering or their danger. There is our own soul, our own mind, reflecting on and praying for them. And there is the love, the intention, the care, that links us together.
Asking us to describe and define the trinity is a little bit like asking us to describe our own nature—because it is one of the deep truths about us that we must be in relationship with others. We must be attentive and intentive toward them. That is how we are made; it is our nature.
And remember: We are made in the image and likeness of God. So there is a clue there. Just maybe we are this way, living constantly in these trinities of ourselves, others, and that binds us and changes us, because God is that way.
We believe by faith that God is not just a static thing, but a living reality. If relationship is what defines us, and gives us this three-part reality of being human, then just maybe God made us this way because that is God’s way of being. The eternal interelationship, the eternal conversation of God is what binds together in one truth the God who creates, restores, and sanctifies; the God who brings all things into being, the God through whom all things are made, the God who sets within all things the possibility of the sacred.
It isn’t true about God because we find it first in ourselves; no, we find it in ourselves because God has made us in the image and likeness of God. God is mindful of us because God is mindful of all that has been created, God saves all that has been created, and God sanctifies all that has been created. And we, in turn, find our highest purpose when we are united to God in love—when we trust in that relationship so much that we stop trying to seal ourselves off from it, stop trying to subsitute our idea of God for the love by which God means to save us, and let God’s mindfulness of us, God’s conversation with us, be what makes us who we are in the world. Amen.