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Sunday, May 18, 2008

" . . . but some doubted."

A Sermon on Matthew 28: 16-20
Trinity Sunday – May 18, 2008
The Episcopal Church of St. Paul, Chatham
(the Rev’d Dr.) Elizabeth Kaeton, rector and pastor

Today’s scripture carries, for me, some of the most comforting words of Holy Scripture. St Matthew’s gospel reports these words about the disciples, “When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted.” (Mt 28:17)

Today is Trinity Sunday, the day I want to rename as ‘Mystery Sunday’. The whole concept of The Trinity is, perhaps, of all the mysteries of our faith, the most mysterious – and one of the most essential.

The Virgin Birth? The Atonement? Well, after all these years I’m still working that out in my journey of faith.

The Incarnation? The Resurrection? Like the Trinity, I’m standing on a cloud of unknowing and mysteriously not falling through. As John McNeil once said, "I'm standing with both feet firmly planted in midair."

However, with the Incarnation and the Resurrection, I’m able to explain some things to my brain that may not necessarily embrace logic, it most certainly is something I can get into some focus in the eyes of heart.

The Trinity? How to understand The Trinity, much less explain it? It is a mystery wrapped inside of puzzle, buried beneath a conundrum.

It’s interesting that if you do a word search in the bible, looking for the word ‘trinity’, you won’t find it. The disciples and the epistles talked about the incarnation and the resurrection, but they never talk about the God of our creation, the God of our redemption and the God of our inspiration as “The Trinity,’ per se.

Of course, scripture talks about all three, and even describes the nature of all three, but it never labels them “The Trinity.”

And yet, I believe, even as convinced a doubter that I am, that, like the Incarnation and Resurrection, the Trinity is one of the top three essentials of our faith. I’m not as concerned about your Marion Theology – whether or not Mary was a virgin when she conceived, or whether or not she was ‘assumed into heaven when she died’- or what you believe about why Jesus was crucified.

But if you can’t believe in the mysterious divinity and humanity of Jesus, and that through his life and death we are made heirs of the gift of life eternal, and that the greatest mystery of God is that God is one in three persons, well, I think we would have some long conversations about these three essential building blocks of the Christian faith and life.

As one person said to me just before the service began, "I don't believe this stuff in the first reading. How can you read this in church? It's flat out wrong. This is insulting to our intelligence. Worse than that, it perpetuates the ignorance of fundamentalism which believes this stuff is true. That is was actually written by Moses. It ignores CENTURIES of scientific fact!"

Yes, yes, I know.

Understand, please, that I would never pull your credentials as a Christian if you were to say, “You know, I don’t believe any of those things, I just come to church because of the community.”

I say, “Hurray! Good for you. If you believe in the community of faith, you already believe in more than those who are able to recite the Creeds without crossing their fingers behind their backs."

Belief in the Community of the Resurrection of our Lord is a good place to start your journey in faith. I have learned, from over 20 years of experience, that we all end up where we begin: in community - with community - as the strongest statement of our faith in Christ Jesus.

I say that because believing in the community of faith is really what Jesus was all about. His relationship with the God who created him is important to him, yes of course, but only because it models for him the relationship he wants us to have with God.

And, the Holy Spirit is clearly one that he delights to tell us about – “the Advocate, who will lead us to all truth and believing” – which he leaves to us as the gift of his Resurrection.

But, it is his place among the other two and our relationship with him, and God and each other that is the sacred heart and soul of who Jesus is and why he came among us. South African theologians give us one of the most helpful notions about this.

It is called ubuntu, a word from the Nguni language in Africa which Desmond Tutu (in “No Future Without Forgiveness”) describes as meaning that "my humanity is caught up, is inextricably bound, in yours ... a person is a person through other persons."

"A person with ubuntu," Tutu says, "is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, for he or she has a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole."

Ubuntu is not just an abstraction -- it's an idea that has been and can be incredibly powerful in helping communities heal and reconcile. In South Africa in the aftermath of apartheid, ubuntu inspired the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, put an end to the spiral of violence that had enveloped so much of the nation.

The tortured could look in the eye the very people who had tortured them and say, "What you did to me was a crime because I am a human being and not an animal. And you are responsible for it because you are a human being and not an animal. My humanity is tied up in yours. My humanity is affirmed by my choice today to treat you as a human being, who even now can make the choice not to behave hurtfully. Wounding you and punishing you will not heal me. I forgive you."

The mystery of that kind of deep forgiveness is what lies at the heart of the Trinity. Deep within the mystery forgiveness lies the gift of the unconditional love of God who created everything and proclaimed it ‘good’.

Oh, but wait. There’s more. Here’s the really important mystery of the Trinity: We need the Trinity to mirror our role in the communion of saints – those here present, those yet to come and those who have gone before, but God needs us, too.

Martin Buber (in I and Thou) puts it this way:

“You know always in your heart that you need God more than everything; but do you not know that God needs you -- in the fullness of His eternity needs you? How would humanity be, how would you be, if God did not need humanity, did not need you? You need God, in order to be -- and God needs you, for the very meaning of your life. ... There is divine meaning in the life of the world, of human persons, of you and me.”

God needs us – needs our humanity – as much as we need God’s divinity. Think about that for just a moment. How would the creatures and creation of Mother Earth be tended to if God did not, from before the beginning of time, entrust this sacred task to us? How would we care for each other, if God did not give us the gift of free will – to mess things up and set them right again. Of all the mysteries of our faith, this is the one that most boggles my mind: That God loves us so much that God has given us ultimate freedom. We are free to make mistakes in order to learn the things we need to learn. We are free to make mistakes in order to choose our freedom to help correct the mistakes of others.

One of our little ones ran smack dab into this just the other night. While watching one of her favorite televisions programs, there was a fundraiser to help little children in Africa who have lost both parents to the AIDS epidemic. Upset by what she saw, she asked her mother, “Why would God do that? Why would God allow little children to grow up without their mommies and daddies?” Her mother, ever the wise woman, took this small child into her arms and said, “Honey, let’s ask Reverend Elizabeth.”

My answer to this child’s ancient question about the presence of evil in the world and the absolute divine power of God can be found in the mystery of The Trinity. It’s because God needs us as much as we need God. It’s about relationships – about the mystery of forgiveness and unconditional love. It’s about how the entire human enterprise is dignified and God glorified in acts of justice and mercy.

There is divine meaning in the life of the world which surpasses all human understanding, all human logic, even all human belief. Our faith is built on a mystery, which is wrapped up in the puzzle of our lives, which is buried deep in the conundrum of relationships. I believe that Church, the community of faith, the Body of Christ, is at its best when it allows us to come to the well of this mystery and drink deeply of the Holy Water of our Baptism in Christ.

Logical answers will never satisfy our yearning, our thirst for God. Pure reason will not save the world or us from ourselves. Only the mystery of God’s love can do that. In the mystery of God’s love, we belong to a greater whole.

In the mystery of God’s love, I am a person because you are a person and forgiveness is promised because we are in relationship through our baptism in Christ Jesus. In the mystery of God’s love, death has lost its sting and even in the face of death, there is hope for new life – life eternal – life beyond the here and the now, because of the abiding presence of the Holy Spirit.

So let us, this day, rejoice in one of the great mysteries of our faith – the Trinity as made manifest in the church, where doubters and believers alike are welcome, for we are all pilgrims traveling deep within a mystery, come to drink deep at the Well of Unknowing.



ROBERTA said...

beautiful...i love the concept of ubuntu that you described...i can surely learn much from pondering this holy movement towards reconciliation that our brothers and sisters in South Africa chose to not just talk about but actually live into.

Thank you!

Kirkepiscatoid said...

Every Trinity Sunday, I always think, "why stop at three?" There are something like 70some ways in Hebrew to refer to an aspect of God. Kind of like all those words the Inuit use for "snow."

I just always figure we ended up with three because it was decided by committee. Committee work is always a compromise. First, they ignored all the female sides of God like "shekinah", the glory of the lord that resides in holy objects like the Ark of the Covenant, and "ruach", the divine wind (ruach Eloheim). After all, everyone on the synods that came up with the Trinity were guys.

But, as with all classification schemes, you always make a classification that covers all the bases by making a "wastebasket" category. I figure the Holy Spirit became the "catch-all" for "all those faces of God that don't fit under Father and Son."

So really, we're probably shorting God by only having three!

David@Montreal said...

Elizabeth+ wrote
'In the mystery of God’s love, I am a person because you are a person and forgiveness is promised because we are in relationship through our baptism in Christ Jesus. In the mystery of God’s love, death has lost its sting and even in the face of death, there is hope for new life – life eternal – life beyond the here and the now, because of the abiding presence of the Holy Spirit.'

Wow Elizabeth+, of the many fine sermons you've blessed us with, this has got to be one of your finest- I might even say one of your most sublime.
Thank-you, you living blessing


Muthah+ said...

Awesome, dear sister. I would like to steal parts of it, but you have crafted this sermon so well that to take one means that I would have to steal it all. Can't do that but I will share this with all my folks!

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

I have to chuckle when someone says something about "crafting" a sermon. I really don't do that consciously. I sort of bang away on the kee board and then at some point, I look up and lo and behold, someone has written a sermon on my computer screen.

It undoes me every time.