Sunday, June 7, 2009

Trinity Sunday

[abridged from this morning's sermon]

The thing that struck me right off the bat when I looked at the readings for today is that they are full of metaphors. Take the Isaiah reading, first of all: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips,” he says. And an angel comes over with a coal, at which point, I can imagine Isaiah saying, “I meant ‘unclean lips’ metaphorically.” Because I doubt he was saying he had dirt on his lips or his lips were particularly germy (seeing as he lived long before germ theory was developed).

But I particularly love the very literal approach to Jesus’ metaphor in the gospel for today. When Jesus tells Nicodemus “you must be born from above,” Nicodemus, it seems to me, willfully misunderstands and exaggerates the metaphorical aspect of the thing: “Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” And I’m grateful to Nicodemus for the joke, because he makes it clear that this is a metaphor that’s supposed to tell us something about what it’s like to be able to see the kingdom of God.

To be born is to be powerless and helpless, completely dependent upon others. It’s to not know anything and to spend one’s whole being in discovery every day. At least that’s what I get out of the metaphor of being born.

And it finally hit me that the Trinity is also a metaphor. Because it seems to me that there’s no language we can possibly have on earth to describe God. I think that’s one of the things Isaiah is talking about when he is stricken by this vision of God and says, “I am a man of unclean lips” – again, not that his lips are literally unclean, but that he realizes that what he and all of Israel have been saying about God to that point cannot possibly express this grand vision that he is seeing of a God whose hem fills the temple.

Metaphors are important to us because they help keep us organized and describe the relationship between things. It seems obvious, but it’s hard to remember that metaphors are not the thing themselves. When Pluto was demoted from a planet to a dwarf planet, did that object in space that we call Pluto change in any way? Was it affected by our name or designation? No. But there are still people fighting about whether or not Pluto should be called a planet. Because that helps us get organized. It helps us understand who we are and where things fit.

God is not going to be changed at all whether we call God Trinity or not. God will continue to love us even if we get God wrong. And we will. God won’t be contained in our notions, even one as powerful and long-lasting as the Trinity.

We do not worship a metaphor; we worship the living God whom we can never fully comprehend. And yet God invites us to try, using the best language and images we have to offer.

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