Therefore We Worship

A sermon preached by Christopher L. Webber at the Church of the Incarnation, San Francisco, on Trinity Sunday May 22, 2016.

There’s a story that’s often told so you may well have heard it before of the priest who was called to give the last rites to a dying man and so he began as the forms provided by asking for a profession of faith: “Do you believe in the holy Trinity, Three persons and one God?” And the dying man looked up and said, “I’m dying and he’s asking me riddles!”

Years ago, I invited a well-known seminary professor to be the guest preacherglory in the parish I was serving on Trinity Sunday and he preached eloquently about the Trinity. Afterwards a member of the congregation thanked him for his sermon and told him how helpful it had been. “I never could understand the Trinity before,” she said, “but now I do.” The professor looked surprised and said, “I guess I said something wrong.”

But what’s so strange about the Trinity? When you stop to think about it, trinities are everywhere. “Animal, vegetable, mineral.” Ford, Chrysler, General Motors Clinton, Saunders, Trump. Christianity, Judaism, Islam. And it’s not that there aren’t other forces out there, other brands of cars, other political candidates, other religions, but most of the time we seem to come down to three.

You might say, “Well, but don’t we have a two party system in this country?” Technically perhaps we do, but it doesn’t work. We all know it doesn’t work. Through most of our history, the two parties have been loose alliances within each of which you had conservatives and liberals so the borders were very flexible and usually overlapped so there were Democrats more conservative than most Republicans and Republicans more liberal than many Democrats and lots of room for compromises and bargaining and getting things done. But in recent years the parties have become more and more rigid, conservative Democrats have become Republicans and liberal Republicans have been frozen out and we have wound up with gridlock: two narrowly ideological parties offering “my way or the highway” with no room to maneuver or compromise or get anything done. At this very moment we are waiting to see whether an extremist Republican party can hold together or whether a third party will appear. I’m probably not the only one not satisfied with the two choices we seem to be faced with.

Dualism doesn’t work. Contrary to the conventional wisdom, it takes three to tango. We need trinities. And what a difference a trilogy makes. You see, the problem is that when you just have two, it’s a fight two is a battle: one has to win. Three provides alternatives, room for shifting alliances: two weak teams can stand up to one strong team. A world divided between two great powers is a world where there has to be a winner and a loser. With three, it’s a different world with room for maneuver. I have no respect or liking for Nixon or Kissinger but they did one good thing which was to move from the dangerous, bi-polar post-world war II world to a trinitarian world, no longer the US vs Russia but a third party to take into account which made a safer world for everybody.

Most of us grew up in a different Trinitarian world of communism, fascism, and democracy – but communism and fascism took a dualistic view of the world, us vs. them, in which they had to conquer. But democracy won out because it contained room for differences within itself. Two is never a lasting solution. Two thousand years ago there were theologians who argued for a binary world, a world torn between the spiritual and the material, between good and evil: “dualism” is one name for it. There are fancier names for it: Manicaeanism, Gnosticism. You find it in Eastern religions: the Yin and the Yang. Jews and Christians said, “No; there is one God, creator of all things. The spiritual is good, but so is the material: God created it. Evil exists, but evil has no ultimate power. “The devil,” the Bible tells us, “has come down to earth in great wrath, because he knows that his time is short.”

Ultimately there is no room for evil in God’s universe. Evil has no ultimate power. Nor does there need to be a world of binary opposites, of dualism, nor even of shifting human trinities: because the God we worship is a Trinitarian God encompassing our conflicts, resisting simplistic solutions, insisting on the mystery beyond human knowledge and understanding. a mystery at the heartglory of the world. Three in one and one in three. Not a cold monolith but not an incoherent diversity either. Three and yet equally one; one and yet equally three. It’s the richness of three that leads to worship. One is lonely and sterile. Two is dangerous. But three opens up a world too big to control, rich with possibility.

I remember reading somewhere once that there’s an Eskimo counting system that goes, “One – two – many.” My mother used to say that you don’t have a family until you have more than two children. With two children, she pointed out, you can grab one with each hand, but with three there’s always one out of control. That was her definition of family and she knew, because there were four of us. It’s not just our hands, but I think our minds are binary also. A unitarian God is simple and logical. A binary God of good and evil makes sense to our limited minds. But a trinity moves beyond what our minds can fathom into the mystery at the heart of the universe, more than we can grasp and analyze, always more, always beyond us.

I suggested that one of our human Trinities is Judaism, Islam, and Christianity but that trinity like fascism, communism, and democracy, is an unstable Trinity because two of the members are unitarian which is a logical solution but lacks enough room for mystery. A God I can understand is not God. So I’m not here today to explain the Trinity but to explain, if I can, why at the heart of our faith there’s a mystery that leaves us free to respond in love.

There’s a human instinct to want to make things simple, to reduce things to a binary choice: Black or white, A or B, True or False. Choose up sides, win or lose. Life is not that simple. God is not that simple. And I’m glad of it. Can you imagine how boring life would be if we had all the answers, if our human minds could grasp the ultimate nature of God. But a God I can understand is not a God I can worship. and worship is critical.

Way at the back of the Prayer Book is a strange document called the Creed of Saint Athenasius or the Athenasian Creed or the Quicunque Vult. It’s on page 864 but don’t look it up now. It begins this way: “Whosoever will be saved, before all things it is necessary that he hold the Catholic faith and the Catholic faith is this, that we worship one God in Trinity and Trinity in unity.” I had a professor in seminary who liked to say, “It’s simpler than that. The catholic faith is this, that we worship.” And that is the essence of it: a God beyond Trinityunderstanding, a triune God, must be worshiped; there’s no other adequate way to respond. We will not and cannot understand, but we can worship and we must. There are churches where people come together on Sunday to be inspired or lectured or bored; we come to worship, to recognize a God beyond understanding and to fall down in worship.

BUT! BUT! There are lots of things I do not understand that I do not worship: computers head the list. Well, there are, of course, people who do worship computers, center their lives on a silicon box. Or maybe their cell phone. They can’t live without it. But that’s to worship the creation not the Creator. And it’s not that we have a choice between worship and understanding, not an either/or that lets me off the hook of trying to understand, no, we have no business on our knees until we have gone as far as we can with our heads. It’s not either/or but both/and: understanding and worship or as someone once said, I worship in order to understand. It’s not giving up, it’s coming to understand so much that we are awestruck, and go on to the next stage. I might even say that worship is a deeper kind of understanding, beyond logic, beyond what the mind can see. When we have gone that far, as far as our minds and understanding can take us, we can go further when we worship.

I’ve never been in a mosque to worship but I’ve been in more than one mosque and struck by the emptiness of it: no symbols, nothing to represent God – but for the Muslim, the Koran itself becomes a sacred thing, a visible symbol of Allah. Synagogues also are usually rather stark and empty but front and center there will be a bemah and a scroll of the Torah and during the service the Torah will be taken out with great reverence and carried up one aisle and down another and people will reach out to touch it. We want some kind of contact with God, some symbol we can touch and if our religion offers nothing more than a sacred book, we will touch it to try to make contact with the Holy. But a Unitarian God remains remote. The God we worship is not remote: our God “Almighty, invisible, In light inaccessible, hid from our eyes . .” is also the God who was laid in a manger and nailed to a cross, who shared our human life to the full and took our human nature to the throne of the Most High. Therefore we worship, but therefore also we come here today to taste and touch and share the bread and the wine, created substances in which the uncreated God comes to us to unite us also in the mystery we worship.

And that’s what Incarnation is all about. It’s what non-Trinitarian monotheism lacks: God not in a book or a scroll but closer than those could ever be: here, within us, in our own human lives. The First Epistle of John puts it well – chapter one, verse one That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. This we proclaim, the Triune God at the heart of the universe and in the heart of our lives in the risen Christ.

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