Odd Math

The Festival of the Holy Trinity, Year A
unpreached sermon written for May 2008 Approval for Ordination decision
Genesis 1, Psalm 8, 2 Corinthians 13:11-13, Matthew 28:16-20

Grace to you and peace, from God who is Three in One: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

The Kingdom of God is like . . .
Jesus begins so many of his parables or anecdotes with these words.
The Kingdom of God is like . . .
    a banquet table, a woman and her coin, a mustard seed,
a father and his lost son, treasure hidden in a field, and so on.
The Kingdom of God is like . . .
    Jesus uses these analogies to give life and meaning and relation and perspective
        to the nature of God’s grace and the Kingdom in which we’re called to live.
Analogy.  It puts flesh on the bare bones of challenging concepts,
        it breathes a fresh perspective,
        it recreates an idea in vibrant visualizations.
My uncle, a noted psychiatrist in the Boston area,
is able to translate any concept –
    from mental health to politics to parenting to cooking –
    into a sports analogy.
The world just makes more sense to him if it is described in sporting terms:
    when he’s not feeling well, he’s “on the Disabled List;”
    when someone is feeling defeated, they’re “dropping back to punt.”
    when he’s cooking and happens to burn the beef,
        he’s likely to say that he’s “made an error,” as in baseball,
        or to gesture like a football referee
and announce in a faux microphoned voice:
            “delay of game – too much time on the grill.
            Please reset the dinner clock to 15 minutes!”
He’s a dramatic and fun guy for whom sports provides a language,
a language that for him makes sense of the world.

Analogy.
I had a professor at seminary who, in a preaching class,
challenged us think creatively not just about the Kingdom of God,
    as Jesus does in the Gospels,
but about God’s own self.
“What is God like?” she’d ask us.  How would you describe God in creative, rich, vivid detail?
God is like . . . what?
One of my classmates had an incredibly difficult time with this assignment.
“What do you mean, ‘What is God like’?” he would ask.
“God is . . . God!  There is no “like” in it.  It’s just God.  God is God.
    Everybody knows what God is.”
Do we really?
The Bible is choc full of analogies for God.
The Lord is my shepherd, Psalm 23 proclaims.
In 2 Samuel David declares that “The Lord is my rock, my fortress . . . my shield.”
God is a consuming fire, in Hebrews 12:29.
God is described as a laboring mother in Isaiah,
and a nursing mother in the book of Numbers.
Yet these, and so many more,
    are analogies for God,
tools for understanding what God is like.
For God is not literally a shepherd, a rock, fortress, shield, consuming fire, laboring mother . . .
But God is like these things:
    watchful like the shepherd, solid and unwavering like the rock,
    strong and protective like the fortress and  shield,
    powerful like the consuming fire,
    self-giving and nurturing, as laboring and nursing mothers.
Analogy.  It helps us conceive of God in ways that theological tomes and treatises cannot.

On this Sunday, Trinity Sunday,
    what analogies can we use to describe the Holy Trinity,
    that uniquely Christian way of understanding God as Three-in-One?
Trinitarian math might seem confusing – Three is one.
    Three persons of God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – yet one God.

One children’s book describes the Holy Trinity like an apple:
    the apple has three parts:
the apple’s skin, fruity part, and core.
    Each is an indispensable part of the apple,
        without which the apple wouldn’t be an apple.
The skin protects, the fruit feeds, the core carries the seeds of new life
    Just as you can’t have an apple without the skin, fruit, or core,
        so too can’t you have God without father, son, or holy spirit.
This analogy is not bad, for it describes the unity of God as an apple,
    even as it simply describes the different attributes of each “person” of God.
    This apple analogy helps us to understand, in some way, the mystery of the Holy Trinity.
I have also heard the Trinity explained as the three forms of water –
solid ice, liquid water, vapor steam.
    Each type of water is still water, but simply in a different form.
    So too with God – God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit
are different forms of the same God.
Again, not a bad analogy, for it helps us see that each person in the Trinity is,
    to use traditional language, “of the same substance,”
    but comes to us in different ways.

But . . . as much as these concrete analogies are helpful,
    they are limited by that same simplicity that makes them helpful.
Just as God is not truly a consuming fire, rock, shield, fortress or shepherd,
    as I quoted earlier,
    neither is God an apple or an H20 formation.
And if we hold too firmly onto these analogies we will get stuck,
    stuck on peeling a holy fruit that is best consumed whole,
    stuck on teasing apart a substance that quenches thirst and sustains life in any form.
So what else, what other analogy, what approach to the Holy Trinity can we take?

When I was growing up in Havertown, Pennsylvania,
it had the highest proportion of Irish surnames per capita of any town in the country.
Havertown is an overwhelmingly Irish town.
And all over town – in the pubs and on car bumpers –
a confusing math was proudly displayed
alongside a map of Ireland:
        26 + 6 = ONE.
As someone with no Irish ancestry, and not yet attuned to the arena of international affairs,
I had no clue what this math meant.
    But I came to learn that this formula of 26 + 6 = ONE
refers to the 26 counties of Ireland
        plus the six counties claimed and administered by England in Northern Ireland,
        which together make up the One Ireland
that Irish on both sides of the Atlantic hope for.
    26 + 6 = ONE.  Odd math, yes, but a math that is calculated with hope,
not with calculators.

Odd math.
Odd math is at the heart of the doctrine of the Trinity.
Odd math calculated with faith and hope,
odd math worked out in the long hand of holy encounter and faithful witness
in the generations after
    Christ’s ministry, death, resurrection, and ascension.
An odd Trinitarian math tells us about God being
three persons, yet one nature . . . God as three, yet one.
Odd math.

Odd math is inherent to God’s nature.  Just take a look at Scripture.
    It is odd math that
        that for God eternity is like a single day;
        that from an old man and old woman God would create a nation
more numerous than there are stars in the sky;
        that an enemy general could be healed by washing in the River Jordan
seven times;
        that seven loaves and two fishes could feed over 5,000 people;
        that Jesus’ chosen rock, Peter, could deny him three times,
        that in three days death would be turned into life.
How does any of this calculate?
Only with God’s odd math.
It is odd math that our God who is a blessed Unity, a Holy One,
is also Three, a Holy Community, divine relationship.
This doctrine of the Holy Trinity was not created by academics in ivory towers
    or by church bureaucrats negotiating in smoke-filled back rooms,
        though there has been a little bit of both in our church’s history.
No.  At the origin of this doctrine of the Trinity
is the multi-layered experience of the early church,
whose God was revealed to them in the ancient Jewish scriptures,
    but also in the radical encounter with Jesus of Nazareth,
    and in the gift of a sustaining and holy Spirit.
This odd math is an attempt to reconcile the faith and witness of the Old Testament
        to which our ancestors in the early church clung,
    with the new revelation of God’s mercy in Christ Jesus and the Holy Spirit.
Yes, those first believers were on one heck of a journey,
    from the witness of God in the Hebrew Scriptures and tradition,
    to the experience of Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit . . .

We here at St John’s By the Gas Station
    have been on a journey mirroring that of the earliest Christians,
    a journey on which we have newly encountered Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit,
        a kind of Trinitarian journey from Easter, to Pentecost, to today.
Just eight weeks ago we were gathered here for Easter,
    the Feast of the Resurrection,
    the quintessential Jesus moment
    to celebrate the raising of our Lord Jesus to new life,
        a new life that promises for us hope  in the face of sin,
death and all that would entomb us.
    Because Jesus rose from the dead,
        so too will we rise to new life on the last day,
so too do we rise to new life each and every day.
And then just last week,
last week this space was – and many of us were –decked out in red,
    celebrating the outpouring of the Holy Spirit in the Pentecost,
        an outpouring that simultaneously gathers and sends the people of God –
        gathers us to be the church in community,
            where the Word is proclaimed,
            the sacraments are shared,
            the poor are lifted up.
        and sends us to be the church in the world,
            proclaiming the Word of God,
            being God’s real presence in the world,
            and lifting up the poor.

And so on this Sunday – Trinity Sunday – the resurrected Son of Easter
    and the Holy Spirit of Pentecost are celebrated in their blessed unity
        with God the Father,
        our maker, whose creative work is so wondrously articulated
        in our readings from Genesis and the Psalms.

We have been on a Trinitarian journey, friends, over these past few weeks,
    encountering God’s divine diversity in the words spoken and joy celebrated here,
    and shared by the whole church, in all time and in places.
But where has this Trinitarian journey led us?
This journey has taken us from the font to the altar,
    places of holy encounter with the Triune God,
        where God’s gifts of grace are explicitly given and generously shared.
And now this Trinitarian journey leads us out there, into the world.
For this doctrine,
which boggles the minds of Christians and non-Christians alike with its odd math
    this doctrine tells us about a God who is for us
        not only when we are in this holy place doing holy things,
        but also – and especially – when we leave this place.
A Divine Father who lovingly makes us in the divine image
and gives the world all it needs in the bounty of creation – God for us.
A Holy Savior who “for us and for our salvation” comes to be with us,
    to free us from sin and all that denies the goodness of God’s work – God for us.
An Abiding Spirit who gives life, sustains the church,
and nurtures us in our daily callings – God for us.
This God for us is a blessed Trinity, three yet one.
Blessed be the God who is for us: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Amen.

About Chris Duckworth

Spouse. Parent. Lutheran Pastor. National Guardsman. Political Junkie. Baseball Fan.
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