It is that wonderful time of the year when the assistant clergy get to dazzle congregations with heresies about the Trinity! Those of you expecting to see the altar and me in green might have been shocked to see the white. Before we get into regular season, though, we have one more feast day to celebrate. Trinity Sunday is a unique feast in that it is celebrated as a feast more about a doctrine than as a feast about an event or person. I say “celebrated as” in tribute to how we clergy handle it rather than as the feast should be understood. After all, the Trinity is all about three persons in one unity. But, as a wise old priest named Richard taught me during my aspirancy and early postulancy, it far too often becomes a day when clergy feel compelled to prove to their congregations just how much they learned in seminary. Part of that urgency to wax longwindedly on the subject of the Trinity is due to the fact that, in most churches large enough to have multiple clergy serving, one of the junior clergy gets the job of preaching this day. Understandably, they really want to impress the congregation and the boss, so they tend to give theological papers rather than sermons. The other reason for the urgency, though, is the subject matter. How does one rationally explain a tenet of the faith? We profess as Christians that the Trinity is a revealed truth, a truth revealed through the instruction of the Holy Spirit. It is not a theory that builds upon other theories and postulates and hypothesis. So, how does one explain it? Better still, how does one explain why it is important to our faith, important enough that those who reject it are considered out of step with the orthodox faith?
Naturally, we turn to metaphors and similes to describe the Holy Trinity, as it is impossible for us to wrap our minds around a mystery. Over the years, I have heard some interesting descriptions of the Trinity. I have listened to sermons comparing the Trinity to an apple, to a person on stage (which is actually more faithful to Augstine’s persona than most people realize), to a waltz, to a writhing mass of mating eel-fish under the full moon on a submerged sandbar in lake Michigan (i still don’t understand that one), to Minnesota green stone, to a clover leaf, to fractals, to “Flat World”, and to lots of others. Seeing some of your faces, I can tell you have heard some of those descriptions as well. The problem with all of them, and not just the eel-fish, is that they each, in trying to describe the Trinity, delve into heresy. Sometimes, the teaching devolves into the heresy of modalism (you know, I am Brian the priest, Brian the husband, and Brian the dad); at other times, it may devolve into something else. That’s the problem with trying to wrap our heads around the Trinity. We are trying to describe and to limit the indescribable and the infinite. More often than not, as Fr. Richard warned me now 11 or 12 years ago, the preacher forgets to relate the importance of the doctrine to the life of the Christian. Most of us sitting here today probably don’t expect me nor want me to explain fully the idea of three hyperstases in one ousia. A few of you might want to know why it matters. More of you may be wondering if it should matter.
To make matters a bit worse, this is my seventh Trinity Sunday among you. I am not a fan of repeating sermons, as I think we are all, collectively and individually, in different places in our relationship with God than we were last Trinity Sunday or three years ago or seven years ago. Luckily, time conspired with me to give me a good simile. Today, as you can see by the numbers of visitors in the Curtis clan, is a special day in the life of Ron Curtis. Today, we are celebrating Ron’s 50 years of ministry in the St. Alban’s choir. 50 years! Can you imagine committing to a ministry for 50 years? To put it in perspective, Ron has served in the choir for almost the entirety of the parish’s existence. To really make him feel old, his current music director was not even alive, never mind acolyting, in this very church when he started! 50 years of leading the people of St. Alban’s in song! 50 years of making joyful noises to the Lord! 50 years of singing our Lord’s praise, of singing our Lord’s mercy, of singing our Lord’s grace. It is an amazing example of steadfast service in this day and age. Ron, on behalf of all those whom you have served, thank you.
As I was thinking of perspective surrounding Ron’s service, it dawned on me I had another simile in which to describe the Trinity: The Trinity is like a good church choir. See, now I have your attention, don’t I? Notice I said like. As with any description of the Trinity, my words will fail on some level, but consider:
God the Father. When we speak of our Father in heaven, how many of us think of the boss part of God? How many of us envision a Father Time figure with a beard sitting on some golden throne with angels attendant? How many of confuse images of Zeus in mythology with our Father, who art in heaven? How many of us attribute creation, about which we read today, exclusively to Him. The problem with that image is that we forget the co-eternal nature of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Our very readings today remind us that His Spirit, the Holy Spirit, brooded over the waters. Our readings today remind us that you and I, and all men and women, were created in the image and likeness of the Son. So, put differently, God the Father is like a good music director in a church choir.
Think about the simile for example. It is the Father’s will which drives the Son and the Holy Spirit, just as it is the will of the choir director which selects our music week in and week out. That’s right, in this understanding, Nicole is like the Father (though Jason thinks she is much cuter!). She selects the music we sing. She selects the music the choir sings. In fact, she selects whether we sing at all or just listen in silence. Nicole is responsible for the music prior to the service and after. In short, Nicole determines the role of music in our worship. To do this, Nicole has to weigh our talent and that of the choir, the time available for practice, and familiarity of the music which she thinks should be sung. We might say her will sets the tone for our music in worship.
As a matter of practice, of course, Nicole is always praying over the readings, hymnals, and CCLI trying to discern which music to select. Her ministry is to augment our worship services through music. If she is doing her job in accordance with the Holy Spirit, and if I am doing my job in accordance with the Holy Spirit, the preaching and music lifts us all is worship. If we are doing our jobs, our voices join with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven. You all can collectively discern how well we have done by how well fed you have been during worship. She and I never collaborate on the music or the sermon. Those times when they seem to fit together seamlessly, as some of you are wont to notice, speaks to the fact that we have done a good job discerning God, or we got a lot of help through His mercy! So, in fulfilling her role as our Father in the worship music in this example, Nicole is actually living out one of the promises of God: namely, one day, we will all enjoy unfettered communion with the Trinity.
Just as Nicole fulfills the role of the Father in our example, the members of the choir fulfill the role of the Incarnation. As Ron can no doubt testify to much better than anyone, the choir is responsible for leading our musical worship. When Nicole wants to introduce a new hymn or gloria or other song, who first sings it? The choir. Nicole introduces the new music to the choir and then has them practice it until it is sufficiently known to be revealed in worship. As we hear the tune repeatedly, hopefully, we are able to pick up on the songs and lend our voices to the praise of God.
As a matter of practice, of course, this is really only accomplished through the gift of the Holy Spirit. I tell people from time to time that Bishop Scarfe praised our choir as, perhaps, the second best in the diocese when he and I were discussing St. Alban’s more than eight years ago. The top choir, in his mind, was professional. But St. Alban’s, he remarked, had an incredible choir for its size. Imagine my surprise when, in meeting with Nicole and some of the members of the choir early in my tenure, I learned that some could not even read music! Think of those services in which you have felt transported by the music in your worship of God. Some of those offering their voices in praise could not tell us whether they were singing a note in B-flat or F-sharp! Yet, look at the result. How did they get themselves and us there? Lots and lots of practice, and lots and lots of grace. Some songs required months of practice. Other songs were picked up quickly. In whatever time it took, the choir gathered week after week, under the director and tutelage of Nicole, to produce eventually the music you and I came to love. Obedience. Perseverance. A willingness to put themselves out there. Those characteristics might sound a bit familiar to you. And let’s not forget seeming failure. I am told, though I often find it hard to believe, that the choir has cringed at the sound of some of their practices. I am told that even during rehearsal on Sunday morning, some songs were just not going to work. Yet, in spite of seeming impending failure, they have offered their gifts and talents to lead us in our worship Best of all, the fruit of all their work, of all their dedication, of all their service, of all their leadership, and even of their willingness to fail in front of us, is a result which lifts you and me and all others who join us in worship on any given Sunday to feel that we are participating in that heavenly choir while on earth.
It would not be a simile about the Trinity were I not to include the Holy Spirit of the choir. We have talked this morning how, in practical terms, the Holy Spirit is ever present guiding Nicole and the individuals members of the choir in the selection and singing of hymns. But how would we describe the Trinity in this simile? The songwriters. At some point in the past, someone or several someones have composed the music and set words to those notes. Like authors who tell a tale, these writers and composers intended to worship God. At some point, their songs became their spiritual worship of the Triune God. But, in order for their music to bear the fruit they intended, someone must select it and someone must sing it. Better still, as Anglicans / Episcopalians, we understand that someone may have needed to adapt the music locally in order to capture the music for that community. 4/4 songs can be played at different tempos, from a happy beat to a dirge. The same is true of any other meter. But it is the genius of the songwriters and composers which serve as the foundation of musical worship in every community. They write the songs, they publish the songs, and they pray that God will honor their efforts.
In practical terms, songwriters and composers are not unlike the psalmists. They are trying to capture in verse and music the narrative of salvation history. Those who write songs for the Church will tell of an incredible prayer life or incredible moment of insight which led to a particular song. Better still, few of the good ones ever start out expecting their song to be the next big Christian hit. Most simply write songs or compose because that is their talent, that is their gift. They recognize its source as God, and they do all in their power to honor Him in their work. More amazingly to me, when they offer their music to the wider body of believers, they are giving up a lot of control. How Nicole interprets a song at St. Alban’s may differ drastically from how the music director at Trinity Cathedral interprets it or how the music director of a praise and worship service interprets it. In offering the song to the Body, the writer signals his or her intent; but once offered, there is little he or she can do to affect how the song is used in worship. Are all the verses sung? Is the tempo what he or she imagined?
The end result, of course, testifies as to whether the three parts of the sung worship (director, choir members, and songwriter) were really in unity, were really representing the Trinity among us in our worship. When done well, we are transported, the veil between this world and the next gets torn just that bit more. When done poorly and for the wrong reasons, we suffer, we cringe, we think God is not really that close among us. All of this, of course, leads me back to purpose. Why do we talk about the Trinity? Why is it important enough in our lives that it deserves a feast day? Isn’t it just a foundational doctrine that we have to accept?
As I was thinking of this example of the Trinity among us, I noticed that I could say similar things about a number of our ministries. Many of our ministries at St. Alban’s profess the goal of our faith, that one day you and I and all others who profess Christ as Lord will be drawn into unfettered community with the Triune God. No more will we take the Trinity as a matter of faith. It will become our reality. We will understand how the Trinity functions. We will see the three hypostases in one ousia, and it will make sense. But for now, we live in a world of shadows. You and I and all Christians are called to mirror the reality which we are promised. Marriages are meant to reflect the truth of the Trinity in the three persons (husband and wife under God’s leadership) in one unity, one will. Our efforts to feed the hungry at Community meal is meant to reflect that promise. How so? We prepare food we eat at our own homes certain that, in serving those hungry, we serve our Lord to His glory. As one of our “regulars” shared with one of the newcomers this month, we cook as if they are our family and as if Jesus really might walk through those doors any moment. Our efforts to assist the women and children at Winnie’s Place reflect our understanding of the Trinity. We feed and we give clothes and other items, certain that those ladies and children need them. Better still, we do a pretty good job of sorting through the rummage that some in our community around us might want to dump. We understand that each woman we serve, each child for whom we give a toy, was created in God’s image and loved every bit as much by Him as are we. We are impelled by love to give them hope, to remind them that He loves them in ways completely unlike that “love” which they have experienced to date, that they are never alone.
Our list, brothers and sisters, could go on and on, from the service to members of AA to the Vestry, from the effort to free those enslaved in our midst to reaching those in our neighborhood who do not yet know the love of God. The Trinity is important because it is the end for which we all who call ourselves Christian strive. We know that our Father has called us into relationship with Him. We know that our Lord Christ has made us worthy to stand before our Father in heaven and not cringe at the thought but expect the welcome of the father in the story of the Prodigal Son. And we know that, because of our adoption into this unique relationship between the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost, we will be empowered to accomplish His will on earth. In truth, the Trinity ought to be the center of our understanding about our relationship with God. Just as He is Three Persons in one Unity, He can create in us and those around us, a people of one mind, one will, one purpose. In the end, our grasp of the Trinity, and the relationship it embodies, informs our efforts to minister to others in His name and to His glory, drawing them into that eternal relationship to which He calls all humanity. You see, each of these ministries, just as the example of the choir, exist for that very purpose, leading us and others to the worship of the Triune God.