In a world in which everyone from shoe manufacturers to politicians are trying to find ways to get our attention and money, we are being surveyed more and more because businesses want to know all they can about us up front, before they invest their advertising dollars. Every time I stay overnight at a chain hotel, I later get the chance to complete and on-line survey. Corporate officials want some assurance as they spend their money trying to get ours.
In several types of surveys, I frequently get asked to list my profession, and I have been struck wondering just how professional a bishop is. The word profession implies licensing and skills and mastery of a subject, knowing up front all that is needed to do the job. For example, if you want to be an architect, there is a licensing exam to take, and the same is true for lawyers and CPAs and countless other professions.
But William Willimon, one of America’s better known religious writers, states that he has come to understand why Karl Barth said that there can be no professional Christians. Instead, we always have the spirit of the amateur. We never arrive in our faith; we can never act as if there is no more growing and converting for us to do, as if we have passed the exam and are qualified to practice our faith.
He is right. Most of the people in this room were baptized as infants, and even for those of us baptized as adolescents or adults, we did not really know what we were getting into. The baptismal covenant was something to which we did not totally accede, nor did we understand it. And the words of the Creed, with its talk of Father and Son and Holy Spirit, and how they are related, might as well have been a foreign language.
I know that a good number of you come to church as adults with lots of questions. From having prepared and taught any number of classes for people with religious questions, I know that everyone goes away with more questions than answers. Going to seminary did not make me wise enough to answer them. Three years there, and over twenty years in ordained ministry, have simply made me more aware of what I don’t know. Given such a history, our hope can be nothing other than that we will continue to increase in the knowledge and love of God, as one of our prayers in the Burial Office states it.
In today’s gospel Jesus tells his disciples that he has many things to say, but they can’t bear it, and thus the Spirit will come along to guide them, or perhaps in a better translation of the original, the Spirit will come along to re-proclaim the things that Jesus has shown through his life and teaching. And the Spirit keeps coming generation after generation. And we preachers keep preaching decade after decade. And we worshipers keep hearing the stories of the life of Jesus year after year. Why? Because we can never figure out God, never capture the entirety of God’s presence among us. It remains a future hope.
When people hear that I will be preaching on Trinity Sunday, they almost invariably ask what the Trinity really means. I usually have a pitiful answer because I am yet not able to capture the entirety of God’s presence among us and have no delusion that I will ever be so able. On this day I don’t look at Trinitarian language as a stumbling block to my being unable to capture God, but rather that language of, for example, the son “eternally begotten from the Father” and the Spirit “proceeding from the Father and the Son” as an example of my predicament. We speak that way precisely because it is a reminder that we don’t have God figured out. God can’t be boxed in. Just when we think we have God defined, God comes along in a different way.
We say, for instance, that God is fully known in Jesus Christ, but remember that even Jesus tells his disciples that they won’t get it all. They will need to be told again and again and again, and his presence in a different way will do so. And so will we need to be told repeatedly. What the language of the Trinity assures us is that, yes, Goodness is transcendent; yes, Goodness can indeed show up in human form; yes, Goodness can move among us unseen and as yet unrealized.
It was only within the last 900 years that the church inaugurated this feast we call Trinity Sunday, relatively recent by church standards. But we Christians have stated that God in the persons of the Trinity has eternally been fundamentally a part of the God we know. But at the same time we have seen from our earliest experiences as human beings that God is more than we can know. Our story of the fall of humankind in the Garden of Eden revolved not around sex or disobedience, but on the mistaken assumption that humans could know everything and thus be like God. It simply is not so. Ultimate knowledge of good and evil is a bit more complicated than our ancestors, or we, would like to imagine. We do not have the final answer on what universal goodness looks like. There is a divide between the world as created and the world as lived. Such a discovery was the initial acknowledgement of a God larger than we can imagine. When we made that concession, we fell into grace and began our trip back toward God.
All of us marked with the sign of the cross have vocations, not professions. We are called forward, which is what a vocation is, rather than called to be proficient, which is what a profession is. People who have all the answers up front often make disastrous decisions that lead us away from goodness. Look at the so-called final solution of the German state of the 1930s, or our own recent absolute religious certainty of God’s approval of segregation or of the place of women or other people long left in the margins. This Trinity reminds us that we are not quite as smart as we think we are. Trinitarian language and its complexity remind us that God can still work in and among us, surprising us as we learn more and more what it is like to be given over to the mystery of unconditional love played out in a real world. Such humility will take us much closer to God than will hubris.
The good news of Trinitarian language is that it is okay to be a follower of God and not know everything. We don’t need to start our Christian journey by understanding all there is to know about God and goodness. There is no exam that we must pass in order to be declared good Christians. What we get instead is the invitation to continue on the journey, to continue in our vocation, to expose ourselves again and again to God’s presence in our lives in ways as tangible as a person or as uncapturable as the wind or as transcendent as what happens when we stand in a holy place. This church is a place of beginnings, not of endings, a place for amateurs, not professionals, a place where we don’t stay where we are, but where we journey forth in full confidence that some day we, and the world, will come to know more what the kingdom of God looks like.
But we are not there yet. That is the truth of which this day and this feast remind us. Amen.