Trinity Sunday 2021

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of  St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on May 30, 2021 (Trinity Sunday, Year B)

Today, as you know, is Trinity Sunday. This is kind of a ‘trap day’ for preachers who insist on parsing out the holy mysteries of complex theological doctrine within the confines of a 10-minute sermon. Actually, you could preach a 10-hour sermon and still not get it right. I love the advice an Episcopal theologian at Princeton Seminary named Kara Slade shared on Twitter this week — advice for preachers struggling to write their sermons. “Don’t try to explain the doctrine,” she counseled. “Just preach the ding dang gospel.” Which is actually fantastic advice not just on Trinity Sunday but every Sunday. “Just preach the ding dang gospel.”

That’s what we’re all here for, after all. We come to church to be reminded of God’s presence in our lives; to be inspired by the ways God’s grace is made known in the world; to hear God’s Word as it has been revealed in Scripture; and to be comforted, challenged, and transformed by the good news of Jesus Christ.

Just preaching the “ding dang gospel” points to the fact that for all the clerical hand-wringing, the essence of the Trinity is quite simple: God is love. You don’t need to use messy metaphors or awkward props or inaccessibly long theological words to make this abundantly clear. You don’t have to break into the divine mechanical room and examine the doctrinal hydraulics in order to know and feel God’s love at the very depth of your soul. The point of faith is to experience God’s grace, not to diagram the sentence. Or as another priest I know recently put it — okay it was my ecclesiastical archnemesis Scott Gunn — “To use this day to delve into theological teaching would be a bit like going to your wedding and then offering a scientific explanation of what might be happening in our brains when we experience love.” It may all be true, it’s just not particularly helpful in the moment.

The Trinity — God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit — simply expresses the fullness of God. The doctrine is pretty concisely laid out in the Nicene Creed which we recite every week. And if you ever get really bored during a service, you can always go to the historical documents section of the Prayer Book and read through the much more comprehensive Athanasian Creed. I may regret saying this in the middle of a sermon, but you can find it on page 864. 

But here we are on Trinity Sunday. And I think I should probably just “preach the ding dang gospel.” So, we’ll start with our reading from the prophet Isaiah. It begins, “In the year that King Uzziah died.” That’s an odd way to mark a year. I mean, we sometimes do this in our own lives as we reflect back on a particular time — we link it to a major or life-changing event. So I might say, “In the year that my father died” or “In the year that the Orioles won the World Series” (which, for those keeping score at home, last happened in 1983 — when I was in 8th grade). 

Yet this is how the call story involving the great Hebrew prophet Isaiah begins. “In the year that King Uzziah died.” It begins with death, even as Isaiah will point to new life. It begins with mourning, even as Isaiah will prophecy joy. 

Through Isaiah, we hear some of the most cherished words of our faith. It is to Isaiah that Jesus turns when he returns to his hometown synagogue, opens the scroll, and reads, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” The stunning music of Handel’s Messiah would be nothing without Isaiah: “Comfort ye, my people,” and “Every valley shall be made low.” And what would Christmas Eve — or even the Peanuts Christmas special — be without Isaiah’s prophecy, “Behold, the Virgin will conceive and bear a son, and will name him Emmanuel.”

All of Isaiah’ ministry — all the truth telling, all the calling to repentance, all the visions of hope, all the words of comfort — all of it begins with the announcement of death. “In the year that King Uzziah died.” God’s calling of Isaiah into service is a new thing coming at a time when the people of Israel needed a new thing. King Uzziah ruled the Jewish people for 52 prosperous years, ascending to the throne at the age of 16, some 700 years before the birth of Jesus. So it makes sense that the death of a figure who loomed so large in the eyes of the people, would be noted. 

In some ways, this feels like our own story as we continue to take these first steps towards regathering as a community of faith. This chapter in our common life might begin, “In the year that three and a half million people around the world died.” However you see this past year, whatever you personally experienced, we are regathering amid a backdrop of grief and trauma. And it’s important, I think, to acknowledge this pain rather than to ignore it. Despite the setting aside of mask mandates and our newfound ability to eat inside at our favorite restaurants, this remains a time of great uncertainty and hesitation. 

Here at St. John’s, we are committed to maintaining the guiding principle we’ve been faithful to throughout this time, of loving our neighbor. While many of us are now vaccinated, not everyone in our community is eligible for a vaccine, and indoor singing even while wearing a mask remains risky. So while everything around us is moving quickly, we will continue to take this slowly and methodically and do what is in the best interest of our entire congregation. That’s what we’re committed to, even if it sometimes feels frustrating. Communal health and safety will always come before personal comfort and individual desires. That’s simply the way of love.

All of which is why that first line from Isaiah continues to resonate. “In the year that King Uzziah died.” New life is often born out of tragedy — certainly that’s the way of the Christian faith. Resurrection rises not out of thin air, but out of crucifixion. Death precedes and makes possible new life. As a community of faith, as people who have journeyed nearly all the way through a pandemic, we are walking into something new. Which doesn’t mean that death isn’t painful — it is often heart-wrenchingly so.

This week I learned that the wife of one of my best friends from high school died from the long-haul effects of Covid. At the age of 50 she’s leaving behind a husband and a middle school-aged son. He is experiencing unimaginable grief. 

I assure you, it’s not doctrine itself that gets people through the valley of the shadow of death. But the fullness of God that is made known to us through the Trinity. The good news of the “ding dang gospel,” is that whatever trauma the world throws our way, death and destruction never get the last word. As Isaiah reminds us, “the grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God stands forever.” 

And that, friends, is the essence of hope. Not a hope that necessarily makes everything better in the short term. But a hope that says God is always with you, despite what life may bring; that God will never forsake you, despite what you may encounter in this moment; that God loves you, despite what you may have done or failed to do. And therein lies the freedom of this gospel-driven hope that we proclaim week after week after week. It is only God’s deep and abiding love for us that turns dusty doctrine into living hope.


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