- Parish House
Sermon for Trinity Sunday
The Rev. Scott Walters
Our annual invitation to the Walters Family Reunion in Grantville, Pennsylvania recently arrived in the mail. The event always takes place at the farm of Faber Walters, Jr., my first cousin, once removed. I’ll admit that I had to pull up a Wikipedia entry on cousins to reassure myself that Fabe and I are indeed first cousins, once removed. Extended relations confuse me.
Anyway, the reunion always happens at Fabe’s farm which really is a lovely place. He made a small fortune building a business up from just a few honey wagons. “Honey wagon,” in case you don’t know, is the disconcertingly appropriate nickname for a truck that pumps the contents out of septic tanks. Fabe owned one, then a fleet, and then he expanded into the lucrative porta-potty business. My brother, who has attended a Walters reunion, tells me that ultra deluxe mobile restrooms are parked on site for the event, long trailers furnished with oak cabinetry, brass fixtures and sound systems that play the music of Kenny G softly in the background.
Fabe isn’t really even one of the more colorful characters that will be present at the reunion. He just does colorful — or maybe pungent is the adjective — work. I have a sweet, but nervous mother hen of an aunt named Rose, who, believe it or not, manages an actual chicken farm. Her husband Dick is a short, stocky, forever bald backhoe operator who never left off the practice of rubbing noogies onto the tops of our heads with his knuckles. Not even after we grew up and had kids of our own. There’s my dad’s brother Fred, whose favorite uncle status was helped greatly by the fact that he worked for Hershey’s Chocolate until retirement, after which he bought a big Mercedes and moved to South Carolina with Aunt Jolene. My kids recently learned that he loves both NASCAR and pedicures now, making him a much more complex character than I ever gave him credit for. My dad was the brother who got away, met a girl in Dallas, and then for years rode a three speed bicycle with an orange safety flag flapping on the back to his job as a college professor in Arkansas of all places.
Many more characters make up the family: a Methodist preacher, a highway engineer who married a field hockey coach, and some now grown cousins whom I still remember mostly for their dune buggies and mini bikes and one for the terrifying Alice Cooper posters that hung on his bedroom walls. But maybe that’s enough detail to remind you of even one curious branch of your own family. I hope it is.
Trinity Sunday is the one day of the Christian year set aside to consider the peculiar way that Christians talk about God. And since it also happens to be Father’s Day — which is not a religious holiday, I should add — it may be worth noting that there’s no such thing as God the Father Day. Trinity Sunday is what we observe. Whatever in the world, or whatever in the great beyond, a Trinity is, right?
And there is a reason why I wanted to lodge a few family reunion pictures in your head before we start imagining what it means and why it might matter to think about God as Trinity. Fathers are part of every extended family, and a pretty darned important part, if I do say so myself. But a family reunion made up entirely of dads is… well it’s a weird idea. Unfair as it may be, one thinks of too much Old Spice, undercooked red meat and gripping conversations about gas mileage. So let’s not go there when we talk about God. Trinity Sunday reminds us that God the Father is an inadequate name for God.
But consider something else. It’s true that you may be able to hold a perfectly accurate but generic Webster’s Dictionary definition of “family reunion” in your head. But you won’t get very close to the magic, the strangeness, the dysfunction, the hilarity, the spirit, we might say, of any particular reunion until you start fleshing out a few of the characters, will you? You can even tack on a bunch of adjectives like loud or tense or tacky or sweet or interminable, but we’re not much further into the experience than Webster’s took us, are we?
But one colorful description of one particular father or cousin or aunt might provide a better taste of the reunion than any genealogy or family tree. In fact, why is it that just telling you that my first cousin, once removed is named Faber, and that his dad was a Faber too who had a brother named Hen seems to take us so directly into something of the spirit of whatever the Walters family actually is?
Why is that? Well, I’m glad you asked. I think it’s because we are a story formed people and stories need characters.
In the first moments of Genesis, the first moments of the whole Bible as we read it, we don’t get a definition of the Trinity or an argument for the existence of God. We get a character whom we know nothing about who just starts creating.
“In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void.” Or Robert Alter translates it, “When God began to create heaven and earth, and the earth then was welter and waste…” Formless, void, welter, waste. In other words, the story begins with the creation of the stuff necessary for story. For story we need difference and distinctions between light and dark, water and land, morning and evening. We need to know trees from shrubs from living creatures that fly or swim or walk or creep. We need characters in order to have a story. And God, the creator of all this, begins to take on character along the way. God, whom we’ve barely met by the end of Genesis 1, says that all this difference is good.
Now, there were no trinitarian Christians in the world when Genesis 1 was written down. We’ve got to be careful and clear about that. But if we remember that the doctrine of the Trinity — the description of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, three persons but one substance, and all that — if we remember that the Trinity should function less like a settled scientific proof than as a light we shine around in a darkened world to see what gets illuminated, well if we do that, Genesis 1 becomes even richer.
Genesis 1 tells us that God loves difference. Genesis 1 shows us God creating distinctions between things and therefore creating relationship among everything in the created order. Creation comes ever more fully to life as more difference emerges. Creation needs difference to be whole. And guess what? Within the one God of all that is, there is difference and relationship too. That’s what Christian tradition tells us.
Now, if your head is throbbing right about now, that’s ok. That’s what Trinity Sunday is for. It’s the brain cramp feast, the day we set aside for counting angels on pin heads. But the way we talk about God can make a difference in the way we live. It can make all the difference at times.
For instance, we carry around some strange and destructive ideas of perfection, don’t we? We carry the sense that there’s some perfect combination of body type, intelligence quotient, facial structure, moral character, financial savvy, charm, hair line and more that we’re all meant to live up to. We measure ourselves against an imaginary pure form of ourselves and fall forever short. In our weaker moments maybe we wish that our family reunions weren’t full of so many weirdos and messed up lives, so many failures, bores, and gasbags. Our imperfections must be their fault in a way, after all. But the truth is that we can’t know ourselves apart from the stories of other people in all their glory, grace, sins, and quirks. We are different. Each one of us. But God, from the very beginning, is into difference. There is difference, in fact, within God’s very self.
So if your contemplation of the Trinity is of a vague form of perfection that tends toward sameness, well that sounds more like welter and waste. Maybe Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as a small but eclectic family reunion is a better inadequate image to entertain. Vague and perfect sameness is the formless void God had had enough of as Genesis begins. It’s the power of difference that God is into. Difference is part of who God is. And that is very good news. At least it’s good news for you and me and Aunt Rose and Uncle Fred and everybody else who lives on this side of perfection.