Trinity Sunday – May 30, 2021
You may know that I have a habit of listening to podcasts while I take my walks. I just listened to an interview with an astronomer, Jill Tarter, who is one of the pioneers in the field of SETI, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence and she shares how their understanding of what’s out there continues to evolve – “we see the world one way, and then we see something that changes everything we thought we believed” – and she says, “we reserve the right to get smarter”.
I love that statement – “we reserve the right to get smarter”. Nicodemus, in today’s gospel story, reserved the right to get smarter. He came to Jesus by night entering into a conversation with him and asking questions. It’s interesting that Nicodemus (who is not classified as a disciple) shows up several times throughout John’s gospel and he grows in his faith. At first, he brings questions and is confused – today’s story. He later invites others to slow in their judgment. He then finally risks publicly honoring Jesus, the one who was just executed.
Faith, at least in Nicodemus’ case, takes time. His journey with Jesus continues across most of the Gospel of John and, we might assume, beyond. He is reserving the right to “get smarter”, to risk asking questions, to be curious, to grow in grace and faith.
Years ago in San Diego, a ship strayed off course and became stuck in a reef at low tide. Twelve tugboats were brought in to deal with the situation. They attached cables from the tugs to the ship and tried to pull it, but that did not work. Then the tugs moved to one side and tried to push the ship off the reef. Black smoke was belching everywhere. The water around the big vessel had turned to a white foam with the twelve tugs pushing with all their mighty power against the ship, but they could not budge it! Finally, the captain instructed the tugs to back off. He sighed, “I’ll just be patient and wait.” He waited until high tide. Eventually, the ocean began to rise, and what human power could not do, the rising tide of the Pacific Ocean did by lifting the ship and putting it back into the channel. The water was the visible instrument, but the invisible tide provided the power. (stories taken from a sermon by Dr. David Rogne)
It seems that the Holy Spirit is like that tide–not so much seen of itself, but nevertheless a power at work in the world, in us. Today is Trinity Sunday. And the Trinity is the description we came up with to attempt to explain the concept of how God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit are, at the same time, three in one. It is God in relationship, a mysterious relationship. St. Augustine has written of the Trinity as “The Lover, the Beloved, and the Love who binds all together in One.”
Something else that struck me about Jill Tarter’s interview was her explanation about how to search for life on other planets. How does one do that? What constitutes life? What are we searching for? She says, “once we developed the tools for recognizing life, it turns out that anywhere that there’s even the smallest amount of water, we can find life making a living in all kinds of different ways. And it’s amazing to me, there’s bacteria living in the cooling waters of nuclear reactors, in that huge radiation environment. There’s life that’s living in boiling battery acid around volcanos. There’s life living in ice. There’s life living at the bottom of the ocean around hydrothermal vents, and not just microbial life — great, huge tube worms, and a whole ecosystem. So I think that part of the lesson there is, we need to stop projecting what we think onto what we don’t yet know”.
Jesus answers one of Nicodemus’ questions with “no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit”. Both water and Spirit are about life. We know we need water for our human bodies to live, in fact we are mostly water. So, what would it mean for us to understand that we are born of the Spirit?
Most of us think we know who God is, who God calls us to be, what God wants us to do. What if we were to stop telling God what we know, to recognize that God is bigger than our naming of God, and to listen for God’s Word to sweep over us without direction from us. What if we did not hold back but allowed the wind to take us to places not on our agenda? What would happen to us if we listened for God to call forth from us that which we did not recognize as being possible?
Throughout my life I have had people call forth from me gifts which I did not recognize as being mine to give. I am certain my experience is not unique. Someone names a gift in you as if it already existed, and as you live into their expectation, you experience the reality of that gift. God calls into existence things that do not yet exist. God calls forth life which we cannot bring about on our own.
What might God be calling forth from us now, today? Can we allow ourselves to be vulnerable to the untamed wind of God? Can we listen for what we have, until now, been unwilling to hear? Can we see in one another not something to critique or judge but rather the image of the God who has given us birth?
The concept of the Trinity is how God moves, relates, dances, and manifests Godself in the world—always through relationships. In many ways, the Trinity is an entanglement that keeps unfolding back and forth, a sign and metaphor for our own ways of living together, being different and yet being a part of the same life. Everything is a big relation of deep belonging and entanglements. Franciscan priest and theologian Richard Rohr argues that caring about the Trinity requires orienting ourselves in a new way: “Don’t start with the One and try to make it into Three,” he writes in his book, The Divine Dance. “Start with the Three and see that this is the deepest nature of the One.”
Start with the Three and see that this is the deepest nature of the One.
If God exists in three persons, then each person has his (or her) own way of embodying and expressing goodness, beauty, love, and righteousness. As Rohr puts it, the Trinity affirms that there is an intrinsic plurality to goodness. “Goodness isn’t sameness,” he writes in The Divine Dance. “Goodness, to be goodness, needs contrast and tension, not perfect uniformity.” If God can incarnate goodness through contrast and tension, then it’s worth asking why we can’t. Or won’t. Why do we fear difference so much when difference lies at the very heart of God’s nature?
As churches, as communities, and as countries, we will not survive unless we learn how to live gracefully and peaceably with difference.
In the 15th century, Russian iconographer Andrei Rublev created “The Hospitality of Abraham,” also known as “The Trinity,” one of the most well known and beloved icons in Christendom. In it, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit (depicted as the three angels who appeared to Abraham near the great trees of Mamre), sit around a table, sharing food and drink. Their faces are nearly identical, but they’re dressed in different colors. The Father wears gold, the Son blue, and the Spirit green. The Father gazes at the Son. The Son gazes back at the Father, but gestures towards the Spirit. The Spirit gazes at the Father, but points toward the Son with one hand, and opens up the circle with the other, making room for others to join the sacred meal. As a whole, the icon exudes adoration and intimacy — clearly, the three persons around the table respect and enjoy each other. But it also exudes openness. There is space at the table for the viewer of the icon. For me. For you. As if to say, the point of the great Three-in-One is not exclusivity — God is not a middle school clique — but rather, radical hospitality. The point of the Three is always to add one more, to extend the invitation, to make the holy table more expansive and more welcoming. In fact, the deeper the intimacy between the Three grows, the roomier the table becomes. Likewise, the closer we draw to the adoration of the Three, the wider and more hospitable our hearts will grow towards the world.
Like Nicodemus, let’s reserve the right to get smarter. May we be open to new life, abundant life, life lived in the power of the Spirit. Amen.