Trinity Sunday 2021, by the Reverend Martin Elfert

This is a Billy Collins poem. It is called Introduction to Poetry. And it goes like this.

I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide

or press an ear against its hive.

I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,

or walk inside the poem’s room
and feel the walls for a light switch.

I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.

But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.

They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.

I love that poem for a lot of reasons – one of them being that it works just as well if you swap out the word poem and swap in other words. Like, say, the word Bible.

I ask them to take the Bible
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide

or press an ear against its hive.

I say drop a mouse into the Bible
and watch him probe his way out,

or walk inside the Bible’s room
and feel the walls for a light switch.

I want them to waterski
across the surface of scripture
waving at the authors’ names on the shore.

But all they want to do
is tie the Bible to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.

They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.

We could try out other words, including other words of our faith.

I say drop a mouse into the Creed…

Or walk inside salvation’s room…

or

Hold the resurrection up to the light.

Today is Trinity Sunday. And under the Canons of the Episcopal Church, there is a joke that every preacher is required to make on this day. The preacher is required to look around in exaggerated exasperation and then say: How did I end up preaching today? Or, if they are seminarian or a guest preacher, they are required to offer a variation on the joke and say, Of course, the rector scheduled me for today. Either way, the premise of the joke is the same:

Preaching on this day means that you have drawn the short straw. It is the homiletical equivalent of being ambushed by the child who demands that you explain where babies come from, except that explaining the Trinity is not merely awkward, it is also impossible.

And the premise of that joke is probably right if our plan is to tie the Trinity to a chair and beat it with a hose to find out what it really means, if our plan is to explain it, much as we might explain the operation of lever or a pulley or a non-fungible token. We can get out that famous diagram of the Trinity (do you know the one: Jesus is God; the Holy Spirit is God; the Father is God and Jesus is not the Father; the Father is not the Holy Spirit; the Holy Spirit is not Jesus) and find out that the Holy Trinity makes less sense than it did when we began.

If explaining the Trinity is the assignment, of course folks dread preaching on this Sunday.

But what if that isn’t what this Sunday is about at all? What if, on this Sunday, we are invited instead to waterski on the surface of the Trinity?

Early on in my time as a Christian, maybe a year after I had been baptised, I encountered some arguments against church and against faith more broadly. Maybe you have encountered some of these arguments yourself. The one that I remember in particular went something like this:

The explanation that the Bible offers for the world and its workings made sense to our ancestors because it was the best explanation they had. They didn’t know any better. But we have better explanations, we know better. And so we don’t need those explanations anymore. Much like Paul growing up and putting away childish things, it’s time for us to put aside the childishness of faith. We’ve outgrown it.

I was fascinated by that critique. Because, prior to that moment, friends, it had never, ever occurred to me that I was in church looking for an explanation.

I had always been in church looking for poetry.

I had always been there looking for holy stories, symbols, and practices, proclaimed and enacted within community, that would give me a structure and rhythm within which to respond in wonder to the mystery of this life.

So.

I kind of adore Nicodemus. He is unique to the Gospel of John. And there he is a recurring character. Today we hear about his first appearance. Nicodemus has heard about Jesus, heard about the amazing things that Jesus says and does. And even though Jesus is totally unpopular with both the church and the state, two institutions in which Nicodemus is pretty heavily invested in his role as teacher, theologian, and leader, Nicodemus decides he has to see him anyway.

He’s not reckless though: he sneaks out to see Jesus at night.

And no sooner has he met Jesus, no sooner have the two of them shaken hands, than Jesus drops one of those inspiring and confusing lines for which he is famous. Jesus says:

I’m telling ya, Nick,

No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.

To which Nicodemus’ brow furrows so hard that you could plant potatoes in the creases. He says:

It seems to me, Jesus, that I am quite large. And these days, my mother is fairly small – I’m actually taller than her. I just don’t see how I could get back into her womb, not even with a running start.

And Jesus is like,

Dude, are you seriously a teacher?

Because Nicodemus is trying to tie up Jesus’ words and beat them with a hose. He is trying to reduce Jesus’ words to something explainable and, therefore, something manageable and quantifiable and domesticable.

But Jesus’ words aren’t an explanation. They are holy poetry that points us to God. And like all poetry, his words will not be managed or quantified or domesticated.

Now, I want to stop and throw in a serious caveat here. Because when we realise that scripture itself warns us against reading scripture at a crudely literal level, when we realise that Jesus himself warns us against reading Jesus at a crudely literal level, there can be a tendency – and I reckon this tendency is especially prevalent within the Episcopal church – to replace a crudely literal reading with a crudely metaphorical reading.

And what I mean by “crudely metaphorical” that, is that is that we can succumb to the temptation to announce that everything that happens in scripture which defies our understanding or falls outside of our experience is “just a metaphor.” This is especially true of embarrassing things, like miracles. So, the resurrection is just a metaphor for what happened in the disciples’ hearts after Jesus’ death, Christmas is just a metaphor for how special Jesus later proved to be, the transfiguration is just a metaphor Jesus’ brilliance as a leader.

No!

This crudely metaphorical reading is nothing more than fundamentalism with a mirror held up to it. It is the very same mistake as crude literalism, but in reverse. If the fundamentalist is threatened by the possibility that scripture might be anything other than literally an inerrantly true, the crude metaphoricalist is threatened by the possibility that anything in the Bible actually happened. In this mirror-image mistake, we are still beating the Bible with a hose trying to find out what it really means, still trying to manage and quantify and domesticate Jesus.

And Jesus won’t have that. He way too wild and free and holy.

You can’t explain Jesus. Well, that’s a dangerous thing to say. Let’s try this: You can attempt to explain Jesus – or the Creeds or the Trinity – and the trying matters, the exploring matters, the searching matters. But even as you understand one layer about God, there will always by further layers that are out of your reach. One of my favourite profs put it this way: He thought his search was like climbing a mountain and, when he reached the peak, he would know everything. But as he neared the peak he looked around and realised that there were all these other mountains – range after range – that he had yet to climb.

While you cannot explain God in an intellectual way, you can know Jesus, know him in your gut, in your heart, in the way that you know that a certain piece of music is beautiful and that a certain joke is funny and that someone is telling you the truth when they speak those staggering words, I love you. You can know that Jesus is showing us what God is like. And you can know that, in imitation of Christ, the creeds show us what God is like and the doctrine of the Trinity shows us what God is like.

In the Trinity you know that each of these three persons are one – each of them is God – and you know that they retain their individual identity. Speaking of love, this is what happens in love, isn’t it? You are something together and yet you remain you, you remain yourself, you remain free. And here is another thing that you know in the Trinity.

You know that you are invited to participate.

Listen to Paul: You are children of God. You didn’t receive a spirit of slavery. You received a spirit of adoption. You are a full member of this family.

The Trinity is not something that you can explain that you can manage or quantify or domesticate. It is not something that will ever make any sense if you tie it to a chair and beat with a hose to find out what it really means. But if you waterski across its surface, if you walk inside its room, if you hold it up to the light, you might just find that you get born into something new.

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