A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on June 15, 2014 (Trinity Sunday)
A priest friend of mine from Lexington, Kentucky, came to Boston this week and I spent Wednesday with her doing “Boston stuff.” Granted with two priests involved there were a lot of churchy things on the list — some of which were planned and some of which were serendipitous. One of the best parts was calling in a favor and having the rector of Old North Church take us to the top of the tower on one of the clearest days of the year.
Wow is that high up — and definitely not part of the regular or even “behind-the-scenes” tour. Climbing up a bunch of increasingly narrow wooden ladders, past the oldest bells in the United States, I could almost see the headline in the Globe about the three Episcopal priests who plunged to their deaths trying to warn the city about the arrival of the Redcoats 239 years too late. You may recall that in last week’s sermon I mentioned that I’m not a big fan of heights.
Laurie and I also happened to stumble into the Church of the Advent on Beacon Hill just in time for Evening Prayer which was a great precursor to a dozen oysters at the Union Oyster House. In between, we hit Paul Revere’s House, talked our way into Trinity Church in Copley Square, without paying the $7 entrance fee which I think is unconscionable, walked through the Public Library, went to the diocesan offices where we ran into retired bishop Barbara Harris — the first woman to ever be consecrated a bishop — and took a selfie, walked to the MFA, and a bunch of other stuff before getting back on the ferry. It was a full day, an awesome day, and my feet still hurt.
But along the Freedom Trail we also poked into some of the churches on the route. Kings Chapel, Old South Meeting House, Park Street; and got into a conversation about Christian Scientists as we passed but didn’t go into that massive center on Mass Ave. All of these different faith traditions are self-described as “non-creedal” which simply means they don’t have a creed to anchor their beliefs.
I’ve been reflecting on this ever since as this morning we celebrate Trinity Sunday, the theology of which is outlined in the words we recite every week in the Nicene Creed. We are decidedly a “creedal” faith. We use the Nicene Creed on Sundays, we say the Apostles Creed every day during Morning and Evening Prayer and at baptisms and funerals. There’s even the Athanasian Creed in the Historical Documents section of the Prayer Book which, while liturgically unwieldy, is great to check out during boring sermons about the Trinity.
But what does it mean to be a creedal faith? Do we have to sign on the dotted line? What if we have some doubts? Does it then become disingenuous to say the Creed every week? Does it make us less of a Christian or a lousy Episcopalian? Should we just lip synch the parts we struggle with like a spiritual Milli Vanilli?
Here’s the thing about creeds — it’s important to put a stake in the ground as a church and say this is what we believe. And if you strip everything else away we need to believe that God exists, that Jesus is the Son of God, that the Holy Spirit breathes life and renewal into everything we do, and that we come together as a community to worship and then be sent out into the world to live out this faith. That’s the heart of it; that’s what makes us Christians.
But let me give you permission right here, right now, to have some doubts. People of faith have a long tradition of doubt and in a lot of ways I see doubt as the flip side of an authentic faith. Unless you have doubts, unless you test your faith and question it, it sits on the surface of your heart rather than truly getting into the bloodstream and becoming that which allows you to live and move and have your being.
This reading from Matthew’s gospel includes the very last sentences of his account of Jesus’ foray among us. And we hear, “When they saw Jesus, they worshipped him; but some doubted.” And you know what? Jesus doesn’t care. He doesn’t say, “Okay, all you true believers, go over here and all you doubters, go away.” Guess what? If we banished those who ever had doubts about their faith, the church wouldn’t exist. There would literally be no one left. No parishioners, no clergy, no one would be stirring, not even a church mouse.
But Jesus doesn’t even address this issue, he simply says “go.” Go out and share this faith that you have been given. Go baptize people in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Don’t sit around navel-gazing and wallowing in your doubts, get out and live your lives and all will be revealed in time.
And his very last word to the disciples is this: “Remember that I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” In other words, you may not do things perfectly, heck you may even make a royal mess of things, but I will be there. I will never forsake or forget you. I will be present with you in times of joy and in times of sorrow. Being faithful doesn’t mean things will always be rosy — in fact I guarantee you’ll end up in some pretty painful and uncomfortable situations. But I will be there offering relationship and solace, hope and comfort.
And that’s why a creedal faith matters; that’s why reveling in the fullness of God that is the Holy Trinity matters. Ultimately, it’s not about theories or formulas or theology but about relationship with God and one another. That’s why we’re here — both in the cosmic sense of “why do I exist” (which is why we heard the Creation story this morning) and in the literal sense of “this is why I go to church” (which is why we heard about those disciples, some of whom continued to have some serious doubts).
Last week on Pentecost we had a few baptisms — five to be precise, but who’s counting? One of the things I love about baptisms is that you can get all your theology lined up and talk about why we do this and what it means when we call something a sacrament and why we baptize in the name of the Trinity but then a baby squirms or screams and some water gets splashed around and we realize that relationship with God isn’t always neat and tidy. It can be messy and disjointed and imprecise. We may not always understand or subscribe to the right formula. But it’s all okay; we can color outside the lines and God still loves us. And Jesus will indeed be with us through it all, even to the end of the age.
© The Rev. Tim Schenck