A sermon for Trinity Sunday, May 31, 2015
Trinity Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York
Woe is me, I am a man of unclean lips and I live among a people of unclean lips.
Today is Trinity Sunday, the feast of the name of this congregation, our patronal festival, if you will. But the Trinity is not a traditional patron saint, the Trinity is the Christian understanding of the nature of God. So what is that? The Trinity is often explained in such confusing ways that we can be left with the impression that it is only to be understood by high flown theologians, and perhaps it is only relevant to them. This could not be further from the truth. The understanding of the Holy Trinity is only for the humble—the confusion comes when we try to control the infinite God by subtle and crafty explanations. There is nothing more relevant to everyday people than the God who creates and rules over all, who is also present among us, suffering with us and guiding us in his love among us.
The foundation of the doctrine of the Trinity is the faith of Israel: “Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one.” There is one God, and only the one true God is worthy of worship. This has always been the Christian affirmation—we worship the one God, the God of truth. It is not a matter of anything goes, whatever opinion anybody has, or whatever godlike thing they want to follow this week. We are all accountable to the one God, the God of truth.
And yet, no one has ever seen God; no one controls God or prescribes to the all-powerful, all-wise, all-loving God what God may or may not do. The God of truth is beyond our self-interested descriptions of God.
So we find Isaiah in the temple, probably quite a young person, about 2,750 years ago. He had a vision: six-winged seraphs and smoke filling the temple. He was afraid, and rightly so: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” The unseen God, the creator of all, has appeared to him—the holiness of God might well destroy him. The holiness of God is not to be trifled with, God is not to be described according what human beings think would be good, for those notions almost always emerge from human selfishness—“I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips.”
Our lesson from this morning comes from the sixth chapter of the book of the prophet Isaiah. One thing to note is that the books of the prophets aren’t presented in a linear fashion. The first five chapters actually happen after the time when the sixth chapter takes place—after Uzziah, the King of Judah had died.
Uzziah was king for a long time, perhaps half a century or so, and during that time there was relative stability in the kingdoms of Judah and Israel. After his death, many things happened—about 20 years later the northern kingdom of Israel was destroyed and a century of wars followed, ending in the destruction of the temple and the Babylonian exile of much of the population of the southern kingdom of Judah. What is described in the first five chapters of Isaiah is the social injustice in Israel following Uzziah’s death, the lack of accountability of its leaders.
There are recurring phrases from the first five chapters: “Everyone loves a bribe and runs after gifts. They do not defend the orphan, and the widow’s cause does not come before them.” Or: “Ah, you who join house to house, who add field to field, until there is room for no one but you…!” The prophet speaks the oracles of God, condemning these abuses of power and wealth. The prophet of truth speaks these words of the true God, the false prophets would do what they could to make the wealthy and powerful more comfortable. Isaiah is aware of himself, his own inclination to participate in the sinful, self-serving speech that is characteristic of human beings: “I live among a people of unclean lips.”
What I am trying to put forward here is a humble doctrine of the Trinity. It’s not that we are somehow better because of the Trinity—that our belief automatically means that we are free from all the inclinations to be unjust that Isaiah is railing against. What it means is that we are humbly, before God, confessing Christ.
There is one God, the God of truth and justice. You shall not bow down to idols or make up other kinds of supernatural justifications for what you want.
How do we know that one God? With Isaiah, there is a pretty striking image: one of the Seraphs takes tongs and picks up a burning coal from the altar. As if Mr. Emmanuel reached into the thurible and pulled out a piece of the charcoal that burns the incense and brought those tongs up to the altar rail where you are kneeling. Fortunately, Malcolm Emmanuel is not a seraph and God does not choose today to call us by touching our lips with the live coal like he did with Isaiah. We receive something else at the altar rail.
Christians have always affirmed that there is one god, the True God, who was from the beginning, before all things. But Christians also know God in the person of Jesus the Christ, who lived among us as the truth. The distinction between Jesus and every other human being is not something magic, but that rather than being a man of unclean lips, seeking to twist the truth to serve himself, Jesus was God’s love for us. This was not just the appearance of God walking on earth, but God whose love made him as close to us and as vulnerable as any human being. He lived in love and healed the sick, and the uncleanness and selfishness of human beings caused him to be killed.
The doctrine of the Trinity is how we Christians try to make sense of our experience of the God of Truth, so distant and so close, so powerful and so vulnerable. It is not that we are smarter, or have philosophically more powerful arguments than non-Christians, it is not that our explanations end all discussion or argument. We teach and we believe that the God of Love has come among us, and that is the reality that we have to talk about. God touched Isaiah with a burning coal, he touches us with the real presence of Jesus Christ. His love is among us is the Holy Spirit. Even among those of us who know that we are people of unclean lips, living among people of unclean lips, the Holy Spirit guides us into all truth, the Truth of the God of Love.
As St. Paul says in today’s lesson from his letter to the church at Rome: “For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.”