|6:00pm||La Nativité du Seigneur, Messiaen|
Sermon preached at Evensong on Trinity Sunday (11 June 2017) by the Reverend Helen O'Sullivan, Chaplain
On Trinity Sunday, the Chaplain explains that "no more so than now, when our communities are fractured and fractious, can the harmony of the dynamic Triune God encourage and enable us to build relationships between people, to draw others into relationship with us and to allow ourselves to be drawn into relationship with others, particularly those who don’t reflect our familiar world view but challenge us with theirs to broaden and enrich ours."
I have to say that I breathed a sigh of relief when, last Monday, we returned to Ordinary Time for Morning Prayer. And that amuses me because, as my husband will tell you, the one thing I cannot bear in life is routine (dull, dull, dull) it’s the death of me, and yet for all the glory of the seasons of the church’s year, and today we have a glorious beginning to another season, marked by the feast of the Most Holy and Undivided Trinity, it is the day to day round of familiar prayers and canticles which restores my soul, it must be the monk in me.
Perhaps this week in particular when we are thrown once again into unfamiliar and unsettling territory, in the aftermath of the devastating attacks on London Bridge and Borough Market, we need the familiar predictable pattern of worship to hold me in a spiritual space in which perhaps I have a hope of glimpsing God who is, in my experience at least, anything but predictable.
And so we have arrived at Trinity Sunday, Ordinary Time. The language of Trinity has at its heart this intriguing paradox of the familiar and the unpredictable, it has strength and it’s relational and so essentially dynamic, a community of pure transforming love, but that isn’t to say that it’s not both deeply problematic and less than perfect.
Jesus taught his disciples to call God Father, and taught his disciples that God cares for us as a Father cares.
What Father (he said) seeing his Son needs bread would give him and stone, or wanting a fish would give him a snake...well I could name a few, and I am sure you could too.
When I worked for a number of years at the Warneford Hospital in Oxford - acute adult mental healthcare - the chaplain there was Beau Stevenson, an extraordinary guy who then turned up again some years later during my training for ordination as we looked at the psychotherapy and psychopathology of religion.
He recounted an event that had happened at the Warneford some years before, when a deeply disturbed patient had attacked him whilst he said mass. This was serious attack that could have resulted in significant injury.
The man had been screaming at him ‘call yourself a father’.
This man had not had a good experience of their father, often absent, and when present, abusive. Trying to reach that individual with the image of God as a loving father didn’t just make no sense, it was a scandal, an insult, a twisting of the knife in a very deep psychological wound.
We all know what a father should look like, but the reality of our own and others experiences of less than perfect parenting leave many with a distorted image of God the Father. Feminists, both male and female, tried to right that by promoting the motherhood of God, but that is just as imperfect an analogy. If we are trying to draw images from our human experience then I don’t know why Jesus didn’t use Grandmother, as I feel we are on much safer ground here.
Then we have the Son, the doctrine of the Trinity was of course developed to put an end to controversies that raged in the late 2nd and early 3rd centuries about the nature of Jesus. Was Jesus man, or God, or both, and how can he be both, without compromising one or other nature? They still rage today or rather perhaps simmer. You’ll notice when we say the creed that two thirds of it is about the Son. And you’ll also notice that the Spirit gets very little mention.
The notion of three persons of the Trinity became problematic again in the 20th century, and theologians turned to looking at the activity of the Trinity as a way around the problem. So we started to use Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer instead of Father, Son and Spirit.
This seems a very attractive solution at first, giving each credit for their own dynamic.
Creator is both theologically and politically correct. Redeemer, well that’s one way of describing how Jesus healed the division between humankind and God, but it’s not without its own problems, and Sustainer seems to describe the action of the Spirit rather well.
So why didn’t we all start using this formula? Well for one this is a rewrite of an early church heresy, I think the particular heresy was modalism, but the modern objection is that is reduces the first and second persons of the Trinity to ‘retired’ status, job done. The world was created, has been redeemed, and so it’s now over to the Spirit to see it through. It seems to diminish the dynamic nature of the Godhead.
And it is the dynamism of the Godhead that, above all, is important for us to hold on to. The Godhead is a perfect community, not simply complementary, but respondent, sympathetic, an harmonious affinity - I really had to dig deep in the thesaurus!
The Trinity is at heart a mystery which the bounds of our language and experience can only grapple at and I fear our vain attempts to describe it have diminished or at least put limits on our appreciation of it.
Our life and the life of the church should reflect the life of the Trinity; it too should be dynamic.
And no more so than now, when our communities are fractured and fractious, can the harmony of the dynamic Triune God encourage and enable us to build relationships between people, to draw others into relationship with us and to allow ourselves to be drawn into relationship with others, particularly those who don’t reflect our familiar world view but challenge us with theirs to broaden and enrich ours.
In a moment we’ll sing one of my favourite hymns (St Patrick’s Breastplate) although we’re omitting some of the verses (which if you’re interested you’ll find on cyberhymnal) and one line in particular reflects for me this paradox of immutable dynamism in the very nature and essence of God.
I bind unto myself today
The power of God to hold and lead
To hold and to lead.
God is and was and always will be with us, holding us and at the same time leading us step by often painful step towards a unity of purpose in worshipping God with our whole selves or whole lives, which most of the time seems frankly impossible because of the frailty of our humanity. And yet it is this to which we have been called and so in this Trinity season, Ordinary Time, let’s use what is familiar, that which gives us a sense of stability, to urge us on, aiming high, in fact to the highest heavens to join the heavenly host in the worship of the great I Am.
Let us pray
Christ be with us, Christ within us,
Christ behind us, Christ before us,
Christ beside us, Christ to win us,
Christ to comfort and restore us.
Christ beneath us, Christ above us,
Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,
Christ in hearts of all that love us,
Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.