Updated: Jul 31, 2022
Zoom Worship, St. Aidan’s, San Francisco
Trinity Sunday: Isaiah 6:1-8; Romans 8:12-17; John 3:1-17
The Rev. Cameron Partridge
May 30, 2021
When I was in divinity school a friend and I had a running joke, a nebulous list of books and movies that “contained all things necessary to salvation.” The phrase referenced a key line in the ordination services of the Book of Common Prayer and before that to the sixteenth century Church of England doctrinal statement known as the 39 Articles. Many a seminarian has appreciated the distinction that scripture contains all things necessary rather than that every biblical detail is equally authoritative. But we enjoyed imagining books and movies that also serve as holy containers. Among those at the top of our list was the 1997 movie Contact,starring Jodie Foster, based on Carl Sagan’s 1985 novel. It tells of how our world came to know it was not in fact alone in the universe and how a particular scientist, Foster’s character Dr. Eleanor Arroway came to have that first in-person contact. The twists and turns of the plot are whiplash inducing, and Dr. Arroway is disbelieved and discounted at more turns than I can count, but in the end it is she who persists and is ushered into a breath-takingly mysterious encounter that changed her forever. The moment from the movie that stands out in my mind is when she is strapped into the vehicle that would take her to the otherworldly strangers, poised to launch. The launch sequence had initiated some sort of static, and ground control cannot entirely hear her and is terrified she is not all right. But she keeps calling out to ground control from within the ship: “If you can hear me, I’m okay to go. I’m okay to go. Okay to go.” Like a mantra she keeps repeating it until finally, she is launched. In a real-world scenario, it’s hard to imagine a launch sequence continuing in the fact of such a major communication disconnect. But in the movie Dr. Arroway’s terrified openness to possibility and danger, poised and paused in that threshold, takes her, and so many with her, forward into the unknown.
Our readings this morning invite us into the peculiar process of being launched, transformed and sent forward by the God who is proclaimed to us as mystery. Those readings are appointed for Trinity Sunday, a day in which the church invites us to receive and hold, if not entirely grasp, the doctrinal truth that developed over time that God is one essence in three persons: God the Parent and Creator, God the Son, God the Holy Spirit. This doctrine stems from, but is not spelled out in, Scripture. The Bible contains references to God as Parent – often but not always referenced as Father. It contains references to Jesus the Christ as the Son of God, a Son whose life, ministry, death, resurrection, and ascension came to be understood as expressing a person at once fully human and fully divine. And the Bible contains references to the Spirit of God, or the Holy Spirit. Making sense of this threeness in a tradition fully committed to monotheism, the proclamation that God is one, has long been challenging. But the doctrine of the Trinity is meant to honor, draw out, and make some sense of that biblical witness while ultimately pointing to the mystery of God, the God who always exceeds our understanding, the God who invites us to receive and give thanks for the bedrock truth of the great I AM Who I AM, the ultimately inarticulable, creative, redemptive presence of the divine. This mysterious, triune God we worship offers us blessing, rest, and encouragement. But as the readings assembled in our lectionary this morning underscore, the divine mystery always transforms us, prepares to launch us, and calls us to go out into the mystery of new life.
We might think of our passage from the prophet Isaiah as a classic launch sequence. It is the year that King Uzziah, the monarch of Judah, the Southern Kingdom, died in the eighth century B.C.E. The Northern Kingdom of Israel was facing attack from Assyria and had allied itself with Syria, and had wanted the kingdom of Judah to join them—indeed to force such a joining and to replace Judah’s monarch along the way if necessary. But the precariously placed grandson of Uzziah, Ahaz, would instead ally with Israel’s attackers, and Israel would ultimately fall to defeat and exile by the Assyrians in 722 B.C.E. Judah would experience its own defeat and exile over one hundred years later under Babylonian rule. Isaiah’s vision came in midst of this earlier precarity as Ahaz was navigating the early days of his rule. Isaiah finds himself in the very throne room of God, the hem of God’s anthropomorphized robe filling the Temple as seraphs cry out to one another “holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Hosts, the whole earth is filled with [God’s] glory” (Isaiah 6:3). These are the very words we say or sing together during the Eucharistic Prayer each week, signaling as we speak them that we too are in the presence of the Holy One as we prayerfully, collectively remember our creation, our wanderings, our downfalls, our accompaniment, our salvation. And imagine, too, the seraphs joining us in that call. Never mind the cicadas of last week. If you needed proof that sci-fi is much more than a human invention, look no further than these six-winged creatures who direct the worship of God. (Side note: one season in my previous ministry at Boston University, we ran a little Bible study called “Monsters of the Bible” in which these creatures lovingly had their day.) As Isaiah takes in this heavenly scene, located as he himself was in a politically fraught earthly context, he feels utterly unworthy to be there. “I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips” (Isaiah 6: 5). This is not false modesty. When he says, “woe is me” he is expressing a real sense of danger: too much proximity to the presence of God could overload and possibly fry the circuits of our paltry brains. But that cicada-like seraph buzzed its way to him and touched his mouth with a live coal, cleansing him. No excuses now. He may have been unworthy before, and he was surely not further equipped, but he knew he was ready: “here am I. Send me” (Isaiah 6:8). I’m okay to go.
A sense of mysterious launching also suffuses Paul’s comments in the passage from his letter to the Romans that we heard earlier. The eighth chapter of Romans is especially beautiful, and I recommend reading our passage in the midst of that larger context. A few verses prior to what we heard, Paul explains that his readers— those who would hear this letter read aloud to them – should understand that they are immersed in the Holy Spirit, that they walk in the flow of that Spirit. The mechanisms and dynamics of the world in which they – we – are located – what Paul refers to as “the flesh” -- are real, but they are not the whole story. God has in fact burst the bonds of the world and its rules, indeed death itself. The life of the Spirit allows so much more. Our minds need to be set on that life, not enthralled in trajectories of death (Rom. 8:6). Our passage further emphasizes our invitation to immersion in the life of the Spirit. Paul’s reference to the words “Abba!” cried out, may be a baptismal reference to a cry uttered by the newly baptized in the earliest days of Jesus’ followers, a recognition of being children not simply of their parents, whoever they might be, but of God their ultimate parent. All of us are gifted with what Paul calls “that spirit of adoption” (Rom. 8:14), the recognition that we are, all of us, chosen family—a favorite phrase in the LGBTIQ community. God has chosen us, and we in baptism choose God back. We embrace God’s call to us as children sent out into the world to be ambassadors of God’s good news. We take the plunge, saying, even in the midst of uncertainty and danger, here am I, send me. I’m okay to go.
Our gospel passage speaks further to the mysterious and radical trajectory of our launch. Poor Nicodemus who has come to Jesus by night, is trying to clarify what it is that he and others are seeing in this powerful teacher. He knows that Jesus “is a teacher who has come from God” but mor than that, he can’t quite say (John 3:2). There is a further birth, what Paul refers to as an adoption, that he has not embraced. Jesus, in typical laconic Gospel of John style, speaks of this birth as being born a second time or from above – the Greek word (ἄνωθεν) is deliberately ambiguous, intentionally suggesting both repetition and height. And then Jesus brings in the Spirit. I love this sentence so much: “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (John 3:8). This was the sentence that came to my heart as I discerned a call to come join you here at St. Aidan’s in 2016. Even the knock-down wind of Diamond Heights seemed to affirm it! I love how Jesus does not simply affirm the existence of the Spirit in this passage, but speaks of its movement, how it sends out, and how it is mysterious. The Spirit works this way: we hear its sound, indeed, we feel it against our cheeks. But we do not really know where it comes from or where it goes. No meteorologist can really tell us. And sometimes we think it’s unusually windy when in fact it may not be, as a story in this week’s SF Chronicle happened to recently underscore. The God who created all things, who brought us into being and adopted us as children; the God who came among us in the person of Jesus Christ and re-created us; the God who flows in our midst as Spirit, who binds us and all creation together and sends us out to bear witness to the kingdom of God: this God calls us to revel in the divine mystery, to rest in it, to be nourished by it, and to be launched by it.
There is so much we do not know. Woe is us! We are a people in a world mired in so much horror. God help us in the wake of the San Jose shooting this week. God help us as congress has failed to pass an investigation of the January 6th siege. God help us as people continue to die in India. God help us as we begin to step out again into a world deeply scarred by COVID. God help us to help one another. In the midst of all this, the wind of God continues to move over the waters. The Spirit continues to blow from the unknown corners of our world, indeed the cosmos itself. Here we are before the very throne of God, unprepared to be sure, yet called to be poised, like Dr. Arroway, to say: here we are, send us; we are okay to go; okay to go. We don’t know exactly where we are going, but God is with us. God calls us to go out, to say what needs to be said, to participate in and reveal God’s kingdom in this very world. Thank God in all God’s triune mystery, for the witness of and call to newness of life. Amen.
 The Book of Common Prayer (New York: Church Publishing, 1979), 513, 538, 526; in the Articles of Religion (established by the clergy and laity of the Episcopal Church in 1801, following their 16th century development in the Church of England), in the Historical Documents section of the BCP, p. 868. See also Leonel Mitchell, Praying Shapes Believing: A Theological Commentary on the Book of Common Prayer (Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse Publishing 1985), 242.  Carl Sagan, Contact (Simon Schuster Trade, 1985)  Gerald T. Shepherd, “Isaiah” in The HarperCollins Bible Commentary (San Francisco, CA: HarperCollins, 1988, 2000), 501.  Wayne Meeks, The First Urban Christians: The Social World of the Apostle Paul (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1983), 152.  https://www.sfchronicle.com/local/article/Has-it-really-been-extra-windy-in-the-Bay-Area-16208393.php  https://www.sfchronicle.com/crime/article/Active-shooter-situation-reported-in-downtown-San-16204416.php  https://www.npr.org/2021/05/28/1000524897/senate-republicans-block-plan-for-independent-commission-on-jan-6-capitol-riot  https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2021/05/25/world/asia/india-covid-death-estimates.html