Saturday, June 2, 2007

Trinity Sunday

Trinity Sunday 2007

The Reverend Kirk Alan Kubicek, Saint Peter’s at Ellicott Mills, Maryland

All Those Shoes

If you ever want to empty a roomful of clergy, try this. Tell them they all have to write a sermon about the doctrine of the Trinity and then watch them head for the doors and jump out the windows! It is truly funny how we shy away from the one church feast day dedicated not to a person or an event but to a doctrine – a doctrine of God no less. Each year we struggle to find something to say, something new, something fresh, something to bring a lump to someone’s throat, or set a bush on fire in their mind’s eye.

The Blessed Augustine remarked concerning the subject of the Trinity that ‘in no other subject is error more dangerous, or inquiry more laborious, or the discovery of truth more rewarding’.

The story is told of St Augustine thinking on the problem of the Holy Trinity while walking on a beach. "How could God be three distinct persons, the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost and somehow all be one unity as the nature of God?" He spotted a little boy who was running to the sea with a sea shell where he would scoop some water and then run back to the sand where he had dug a little hole. He would then empty the shell into the hole and repeat his procedure. Thinking this a bit strange, Augustine stopped the boy and asked him what he was doing. "Sire, I am emptying the sea into the hole." "Child, that is clearly impossible," Augustine retorted. The little boy then said, "Far easier for me to finish my task than for you to find an answer to your problem." And then the little boy vanishes in a poof: little boy? Or, an angel of God? That’s for you to decide.

Which may point us in the right direction. Religion itself can be said to be mystical. Moses tending flocks in Midian, Buddha under a tree, Jesus up to his knees in the waters of the River Jordan – each of them, writes Frederick Buechner [Alphabet of Grace], responds to something “for which words like shalom, oneness, God even, are only pallid, alphabetic souvenirs. I have seen things, Aquinas told a friend, that make all my writings seem like straw. Religion as an institution, as ethics, as dogma, as social action – all of this comes later and in the long run maybe counts for less. Religions start, as Frost said poems do, with a lump in the throat, to put it mildly, or with the bush going up in flames, the rain of flowers, the dove coming down out of the sky.” (p.74)

All talk about the Trinity in the end is the attempt to describe our experiences of God. That is experiences, plural. For they are many, and for the most part they are mundane and not nearly as exciting as burning, talking bushes. Made even more mundane by the simple fact that to describe the most ineffable and transcendent of human experiences our innermost thoughts must be pressed into words beginning with A, B, C and having O, M, N and the rest of the 26 letters as the limit of human expression. To be forced into describing the limitless power, grace and love of God with only 26 letters to draw upon makes emptying the ocean into a hole on the beach look like a walk in the park. Mixed metaphors abound when speaking of God. Just read Paul!

The words Father, Son and Holy Spirit are simply agreed upon words to describe our limitless experiences of God. So they say more about us than they do about God. But it is the best we can do. It is particularly true when indeed many experiences of God come out of silence and solitude. Which can happen at the least silent, least alone times of our lives.

One day, for instance, I was in a bookstore in my hometown of Oak Park, Kroch’s and Brentano’s. I picked up a book by Thomas Merton and opened to a chapter marked Love and Solitude. Merton writes:

No writing on the solitary, meditative dimensions of life can say anything that has not already been said better by the wind in the pine trees. These pages seek nothing more than to echo the silence and peace that is “heard” when the rain wanders freely among the hills and forests. But what can the wind say where there is no hearer? There is then a deeper silence: the silence in which the Hearer is No-Hearer. That deeper silence must be heard before one can speak truly of solitude.

Without ever having heard of the Blessed Augustine I had the strange sensation of no longer being in Kroch’s and Brentano’s, and no longer holding a book, but rather being on the beach as a rather impressive wave was breaking over the top of my head. As the waters pulled back into the sea I can remember the distinct sensation of hearing nothing of the Christmas shoppers all around me, nothing of the cash register ringing up its seasonal sales, but only a still, small voice, or an awareness really, that seemed to say, “You are going to seminary to learn more about all this.” The silence and solitude whispering the presence of God was with me in a crowded, noisy bookstore. I may have been standing there for a few moments, I may have been standing there for half an hour or half a year, I just don’t know.

Around the same time I was singing in a choir at Grace Episcopal Church in Providence, Rhode Island. This was after not having gone to church for a good number of years. Singing in the choir seemed a safe way to re-enter. The Director of Music, Gregg Romatowski, liked to keep the basses in the front row to keep tabs on us. It was chancel-choir seating. During communion we would be singing anthems or hymns while kneeling in the front choir stall. All I could see were people’s feet going to and from the altar – walking steadily in a stream to receive God’s body and blood only to return to the world to be the Body of Christ for others and for the world.

I could see how each person’s shoes wear in different ways – some on the inside, some on the outside of the shoe, some with heels worn down, all different kinds, shapes and colors of shoes, some bulging here others bulging there. Week after week, month after month, year after year, for two thousand years all these shoes represented all the people of God who have walked to and from God’s communion rail – all those shoes, I thought, all those people, I thought, and I mean to be one too, we sang. It was like an extended vision or meditation that stretched over several years looking at all those shoes – those shoes mediating the presence of God and God’s love in my heart. Father, Son and Holy Spirit. I used to lie in the pews late at night and listen to Gregg play Olivier Messiaen and Cesar Franck. I Googled his name last night to see where he is – only to discover his name on several internet sites listing the names of musicians and artists who have died of AIDS. He was 37. He is now and forever as close to God's Love, Grace and Forgiveness as one can be.

You can see how difficult it is to put it all into words with only 26 letters at our disposal to describe the limitless yearning of God for us and us for God. The notes of Messiaen and Franck echoing in the empty church could say more about God, all those shoes could say more about God, Merton’s reflections on solitude and silence can say more about God than any doctrine or Creed. And yet, we need something to say, something to hang our experiences on, some words to describe that which is indescribable. We say them week in and week out knowing the inherent impossibility of the task, but wishing to express our thanks for those moments we have felt the presence of God’s love, grace and forgiveness. Next year we will try again! Amen.

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