Trinity Sunday: "Seeing Where We Stand" - St. James, Florence, Italy
Key Passage: Psalms 8:4
Speaker: The Rt Rev Mark D.W. Edington
Seeing Where We Stand
Trinity Sunday | June 16, 2018 | St. James’s Church, Florence
Text: Psalm 8:5 — “What is man, that you are mindful of him?”
I was ordained in the Episcopal Church, but my first job in ordained ministry was not in an Episcopal Church. It was in a church that was outside any denomination at all; it was simply a Christian church of the Protestant family. It was the university church at Harvard, a place known as The Memorial Church.
Working there forced me to admit that it was possible for there to be churches that were not Episcopal churches. And it also gave me an opportunity to learn a lot about the history of that place—not a place old by Tuscan standards, but even so the oldest university in America.
One of my favorite stories had to do with the building of Emerson Hall, the place where the philosophy department has its home. When the plans were made about a hundred years ago to build this new building, the president of Harvard, Mr. Lowell, wrote to the Philosophy Department to ask what inscription they would like to see placed on the building.
Of course the department took some time to consider this question, but eventually they wrote back to Mr. Lowell with their answer. They asked that a quote from the ancient philosopher Protagoras be carved above the main door: “Man is the measure of all things.”
Mr. Lowell thanked them for their helpful suggestion, and went on building the building.
And when all of the work was done, and the scaffolding came down, and the Philosophy Department assembled in front of the building to see their grand new home, this is what Mr. Lowell had caused to be written over the door of Emerson Hall: “What is Man, that Thou Art Mindful of Him?”
Today is Trinity Sunday, the only feast in the entire calendar of Holy Mother Church that is dedicated not to an event in the life of Christ but to an idea—and what is even more complicated, a theological idea; the uniquely Christian claim that the one God whom we confess is revealed in three distinct persons, or identities, or functions.
By long tradition, in churches where there were at least a few ordained clergy, the task of preaching on Trinity Sunday was given to the youngest preacher, usually someone right out of seminary. In part this was probably because Trinity Sunday falls right at the beginning of the summer, right when clergy have just received their degrees and have been newly ordained.
We put them in the pulpit with all their new knowledge and we hand them the most difficult preaching task of all—the doctrine of the Trinity. Usually it does not go well. It is generally a humbling experience.
Yet here it is, this idea that is so central to our understanding of God and yet so difficult to explain. Maybe that is as it should be; after all, God should not be all that easy to explain.
Some of the greatest theologians in the long history of the church have devoted immense effort to unfolding the mystery of the Trinity. Saint Augustine wrote an entire book, fourteen chapters, trying to explain the Trinity in fourteen different ways; at the end of the book he sort of throws up his hands and admits that the mystery of God is beyond our understanding.
Yet we are not really very satisfied with that answer. Maybe the generations before us were comfortable living with mystery, with the idea that there were things beyond their understanding. But we are not. We have solveds mysteries. We have explained nature’s riddles. We have figured it all out, or at least most of it.
And that is the problem.
Last week we heard about those people who built that high tower to make a name for themselves. They had accomplished so much, they felt so sure of themselves, that they wanted to rise up and look at God eye to eye. They felt as though they were God’s equal, and they wanted to prove it.
It didn’t end well. They had forgotten their place.
We live in that same danger. We are so much more accomplished than those people marching across the plain, baking bricks and building their tower. We really do feel we are the equal of God, and we think we have the evidence to back up that idea. We have unraveled the genetic code, reached the outermost limit of the solar system, measured the heavens, and explained the fabric of the universe. We have conquered diseases and put the forces of nature at our service.
Or have we?
If we forget the place where we actually stand with respect to God, then nothing about what we say or do here makes any sense. If part of the challenge we face today being the church in this world is that the world around us imagines we are no longer relevant, one of the reasons for that is that our whole culture has imagined that we are God—that we are the measure of all things.
But if we look just a little closer, that proud claim of ours begins to fall apart.
We are destroying the planet God has given us in creation. Our victories against infectious diseases are turning into ashes in our mouths, as the tiniest of all creatures adapt to defeat our antibiotics. The powers we have harnessed with our minds are turned to violent purposes and destructive ends by our flawed hearts.
If we have set ourselves up as God, then it is little wonder people have a hard time believing in God anymore.
The idea of the Trinity makes no sense to us unless we begin from the position that God is God, and we are not. But if we begin there, then this seemingly complicated idea becomes a lot more sensible. In fact, it becomes essential.
Because if we are not God, then there is a God who desires to be in relationship us. That God is the source of love; that God demonstrates and makes real a love for us in the person of Jesus; and that God makes real this love for us today through the abiding presence of the Holy Spirit, this gift of grace in our lives.
None of that makes sense if we forget where we stand in this relationship. All of it makes sense if we remember where we stand; if we remember that in fact our standing at all depends on God being love, God showing love, and God loving us even today, this moment, through the working of the Holy Spirit in the lives of these people around us.
It is an odd gift, maybe, the gift of this feast day; it is the gift of gently reminding us of the place we are meant to have. When we put it that way, it sounds as though we have been reduced, somehow—made smaller than we think we should be.
But if we consider it prayerfully, if we consider the possibility that lies within it, very quickly the idea of the Trinity reveals itself as an idea about God that has a place for us in it. Not God’s place, but the place God has made for us; the reason for, the focus of, and the means of experiencing the love that is the very presence of God among us. Thank God for this place we have; thank God for keeping us in mind. Amen.