Trinity Sunday B, 2021: A Fool’s Errand

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Texts: ”Change” by Ellen Bass and John 3:1-17\
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If you are a liturgical church sort,
you know this is “Trinity Sunday” —
the week after Pentecost
earmarked to celebrate the so-called Trinity.
You know I can’t do that, right?

The idea of the Trinity,
as good of an idea about God as any,
is a product similar to Peter’s idea
of building three booths
when standing beneath the image of the transfiguration —
you know, when Moses, Elijah, and Jesus
hang out and talk with God on the clouds.
Poor old Peter sees that and immediately
his thoughts go to building a shrine
to hold the supernatural mysticality
of something beyond any form or idea.

The church built the idea of the Trinity
to hold something it didn’t understand
and couldn’t really describe.

So the Trinity is an attempt
to hold and codify awe — which is a fool’s errand.

This sermon is about awe
but it starts by noticing the relationship
between the ability to enter change
and our openness to awe.

I love that poem by Ellen Bass.

“This is where I yank the old roots
from my chest, like tomatoes
we let grow until December, stalks
thick as saplings…”

And then, as she writes about
the arduousness of it all,
the last line that bangs it home:
”I change.”

This is where I yank the old roots
from my chest…I change.

When the angels of our better nature
are guiding us, we manage to change
as change ushers us forward
— an army of unseen specters forming the chute
down which we trod.
We stumble and resist
and whine and yell
but we are able to walk forward
one step at a time, until
we enter the change and adjust — finally acknowledging
it wasn’t that big of a deal after all.

But often, if you are like me,
change is fearsome
and full of angst
and so a process fraught with pain and struggle
mostly of our own making.
Like Nicodemus,
I so often wander life’s hallways
in search of solid railings to hold onto,
and definitive answers to guide me,
and clear manifestos to frame the uncertain edges.
But God knocks me silly,
concusses my penchant for orderliness
and planning,
and creates shock and awe
like Isaiah stunned
and cauterized
by spiritual hallucinations crowding his dreams.
It can also be like the proverbial farmer
who scatters seed everywhere —
in the soil,
on the path,
and in the weeds —
God’s zealous abundance and sloppy love
weeping beyond
and through any sense of boundaries.

We want it tidy and precise,
and measured out
to those who deserve it
but inevitably God slaps our frugality in the face
with total abundance.

We think we are well and balanced
and open to the spirit and love of God,
but we all have a Nicodemus living inside,
and sometimes he or she gets control.
You see, our inner-Nicodemus is smart,
probably pretty well read, and nobody’s fool.
He or she is the successful one,
maybe a little grandiose and a good steward
of his or her own reputation.
You know, always concerned about
what others will think and say about us.

The Nicodemus inside is quite concerned
about staying within the lines
and operating by the right beliefs
sanctioned by the right people.
Nicodemus is always shocked to discover
that he or she has been following
the wrong person,
or believing the wrong things,
and that even though he or she
has oodles of information,
critical pieces of data are still missing.

In short,
our inner-Nicodemus
is cautious
with what he or she has,
with what he or she is willing to let go of,
and about surrendering
to mystery or awe.

Nicodemus lives in our head
with a slight-to-severe disconnect
from our body,
and a little too awkward toward
the stunning sensual splendor
of the world all around us.

We all have a Nicodemus inside
and sometimes
he or she gets control.
When that happens
we have great difficulty
encountering God –
difficulty actually experiencing God
in our world of small things.
The bigger Nicodemus gets inside of us
the smaller our sense of God’s presence
among us becomes.

The reason, of course,
is that Nicodemus
wants and needs control,
and God will not be controlled.

All of us, every single one of us,
seeks to control God.
An undomesticated God
is simply too unpredictable
and too dangerous
for our comfort.
And so we do things
like bargain
and define
and pigeonhole
and become overly scrupulous.
It is a universal human tendency
so there is no reason to deny it
or feel badly about it.
It is who we are and what we do.

So the task is
to shrink our inner-Nicodemus
to a manageable size –
so that we oversee him or her
instead of Nicodemus managing us.

On Trinity Sunday
it is good for us to return to the beginning
and remind ourselves
of the first principle
of our religion
because it is also how we manage Nicodemus.
It can also be an example of when
Nicodemus manages us.
The first principle of our religion –
of our spiritual wisdom –
is revealed in Exodus:
the first story and first book of the Bible,
at least if we go by history instead of editing.

It is where Moses encounters the burning bush.
I think I have drawn upon this biblical moment
three times just since Lent.

That should serve to underscore
how fundamental it is.

It is not unlike Nicodemus
encountering Jesus’ strange mysticism
when what Nicodemus really wanted
was a few simple, concrete answers;
or Isaiah encountering the six-winged creature
waving a hot coal
when all he wanted was to worship
in the temple.
That first encounter between God and Moses
sets the pattern for all future encounters
and establishes the protocol
between God and humankind.
It is stunning in its simplicity and spectacularity.

Moses is told in no uncertain terms
that he is encountering
THE god
who WAS
and IS
and WILL be.
It is, he is told, the God named,
“I will be who I will be.”

In short,
God will not be defined
by any doctrine,
dogma, or pronouncement.
That is the first principle
revealed on a secluded mountain
in the presence of a burning bush:

God is not manageable,
not knowable in any human sense,
not definable
or measurable or predictable.
“Go on,” God says to Moses,
“you don’t get to know who I am
other than what little I give you from time to time.
Deal with it.”

But of course, the history of Israel and Christianity,
is the history of trying to put God into a box
and domesticate God for our own purposes.
The Nicodemus inside religion,
and the Nicodemus inside all of us,
sure doesn’t want to hear
that God will be who God will be.
It wants to define,
and explain God.

We know that is not how it works.

So if WE want to manage our inner-Nicodemus
or the really big one inside religion itself,
what we need to do
is find ways to feast on awe.

Feast on awe.
Feast on awe.

Our daily, spiritual diet
if we can do it,
needs to include stuttering
over God’s wasteful abundance.
It needs to include starring into confounding mystery.
It needs to ponder over grace
that seems too good to be true.

We need to ingest awe over the big things
and little things too.
Awe over simple ordinary things
we usually take for granted, like memory —
the very fact that we have memory.
Awe over big stuff too,
like the moon — 239,000 miles away —
pulls on the oceans so hard
the tides roll in and out.

Stuttering over amazing things
like humming birds;
and over mundane things
like the planet Saturn
blazing low in the night sky.

Awe over outrageously wasteful abundance
like the existence of
wombats and Shetland ponies;
and over every day things
like two-hundred and thirty-seven shades of green
in the pastures, vineyards, and hills.

If we can ingest a steady diet of awe
over things big and small,
then we can shrink the Nicodemus inside
and grow our heart a size bigger.

We do that
and our hands will unclench,
our minds will roll open,
the door to our heart will creak ajar,
and that will lead to an encounter with God —
the one that is actually present
in our midst
even here, even now.

There’s something awesome to chew on.