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Trinity Sunday

Isaiah 6:1-8; Psalm 29; Romans 8:12-17; John 3:1-17

The Rev. Cameron Partridge

May 26, 2024

Good Morning, St. Aidan’s.

What a journey we’ve been on. This Church year we’ve made our way through our longer seven weeks of Advent to Christmas, to Epiphany, then pivoting to Lent and Eastertide. Last Sunday Eastertide came to its completion at the Feast of Pentecost. Today we celebrate Trinity Sunday, a Feast introduced to the Western Church calendar in the medieval period.[1] I haven’t typically thought of this day as what I like to call “hinge days” – days that are thresholds between or pivots within seasons of the liturgical year, days that call us to greater awareness and responsiveness to borders in our own lives and the world around us.[2] I have tended to think of Pentecost functioning that way, celebrating the close of Eastertide with the descent of the Holy Spirit, and moving us into a time often known as “ordinary” or ordinal time where we locate ourselves by the number of Sundays after Pentecost. But I was intrigued this week to discover a liturgical scholar who places this day among several of what he calls “transitional Sundays.”[3] As I thought about it more, today truly does have a liminal quality. The Spirit has been unleashed and we stand poised in the midst of this wonder, invited to soak in the mystery of the Triune God – three in person, one in essence – preparing to be sent out into the world.

Our first reading brings us directly into this posture of awe and preparation. I can remember clearly the first time I truly took this reading into my heart. No doubt I had heard it before, but when I was about eighteen years old, an early June in 1990 or 1991, it was the first reading at an ordination I attended at Grace Cathedral—the first ordination I had ever attended. The space itself had already brought me into a posture of awe. We had also sung St. Patrick’s Breastplate as the long procession unfolded, and I was wondering about what it might look like to “bind unto” ourselves the strong name of the Trinity – three in one and one in three. Then the Isaiah reading introduced its striking scene (Isaiah 6:1-8). The edges of God’s glorious visibility were conveyed with imagery of robes, or more specifically hems, borders of those robes, filling the Temple. So too did smoke – evoking for me the incense I could smell as I sat in my pew. The seraphs in the scene intrigued me. Such strange creatures! Not only did they have multiple wings but they used them both to fly and to cover themselves, their feet in modesty and their faces, their eyes, in order to avert their gaze from the Holy One, the Lord of Hosts. They sang to one another, these seraphim, in words we join each time we sing the Sanctus: holy, holy, holy. Heaven and earth are full of God’s glory. The pivots of the thresholds shake at these voices joined in holy intersection. This is an awe that Communion invites us to steep ourselves in, to be strengthened by each time we celebrate it together.

But Isaiah’s response in this moment also calls to our attention how overwhelming all of this is. He has a reaction that strikes me as a combination of wonder and an acute sense of unworthiness, almost an imposter syndrome. He knew that anyone who sees God is in dangerous territory— think of God’s words to Moses in Exodus (33:20): “no one can see me and live.” Isaiah moaned, “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!” (6:5) He seems to feel caught. He has seen God – or at least enough of God to know in whose presence he is standing – and he knows that God will only allow so much of the divine countenance to be perceived. He feels completely unprepared and unworthy – lost and out of place, terrified that now he will be subject to judgment. God will lower the divine boom. But instead, a seraph flies to him with a live coal, the cause of all that holy smoke. With that coal he touches Isaiah’s lips. It is as if he has had a prophetic baptism. Now Isaiah has no excuses: he can stop fretting about his unworthiness, and be present, hearing the call God is issuing in the form of a question. “Whom shall I send? Who will go for us?” Grounded and clear, uncluttered of mind and heart, steeped in the wonder of this scene, Isaiah can rise up and respond in the strength of his own growing voice, “here am I. Send me” (Isaiah 6:8).

Here am I. Send me. When I heard that, sitting there in Grace Cathedral some thirty plus years ago, it resounded in my heart. Not simply for myself, as I was in the early years of consciously discerning a call to ordained ministry. But for all of us gathered in that place, gathered in holy extension far beyond that place. All of us were invited together to steep ourselves in the majesty of God, to worship God in the beauty of holiness, to let the whole earth stand in awe of God (96:9, as well as Psalm 29:2 from this morning). And as this morning’s Psalm further summons: to hear the mysterious rush of a divine voice powerful enough to crash over us in waves of water, to shake the earth, to break massive cedars, as in a holy thunder storm. All of us were called to join the heavenly host, shouting glory (Psalm 29:9)!

And in that response, as we open ourselves in wonder to the mystery of God, we are prepared to be changed and sent out. Our gospel passage from John suggests this in its description of the Spirit. Jesus is in a back and forth with Nicodemus— one we have heard recently, as part of this text came up during Lent (Lent 4). Nicodemus, God bless him, is confused about what Jesus can possibly mean by being born again, or anew, or from above – the Greek is ambiguous. This is too mysterious for me, Nicodemus is basically saying: speak plainly! But Jesus invites him through astonishment into openness. “Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ 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). The breath of God blows everywhere. No one can predict it. But we can detect it. We can tune our ears together. We can know that God who is Spirit, Son, and Parent, transforms us and calls us to be ambassadors of God’s Good News. We can know that the Spirit who hovered over creation speaks us into newness of life and invites us to speak that spark in our own unique ways, sharing that beauty in a world full of disorientation and fear.

And if we too are disoriented at this invitation, we are in good company. With Isaiah, with Nicodemus. With Paul.[4] With Kateri’s and my friend, the Rev. Dr. Beth Stroud, a United Methodist Minister whose ordination credentials were revoked twenty years ago when she came out in a sermon, and were restord this week. Together with a supportive congregation and family, Beth had intentionally challenged the anti-queer policy of the United Methodist Church in 2004. A church trial followed, and she was no longer allowed to function as an ordained elder. Now, twenty years later, the UMC has finally officially changed its policy, and Beth was willing to apply for reinstatement. In an interview with WBUR this week she described this process.[5] She waited outside the closed session waiting to hear the results along with candidates for ordination. When one of those candidates said, “I feel like I’m in time out,” Beth replied, “I’ve been in time out for twenty years.” Suddenly, the doors opened and a friend led Beth into the room—the vote had happened. “People were clapping and cheering and standing up and singing, and I just didn't know which way was up. I couldn't even tell where I was or where the front of the room was. Just complete disorientation,” she said. She was astonished to learn how overwhelming positive the vote had been as well—this was a room with a range of people, a number of whom she imagined did not agree with her politically or theologically. But the policy had changed, they had been changed together, and they recognized her gifts. They were willing to be sent forth anew into a new chapter together with her. Together with her leadership. They embraced her and she was willing to be embraced.

“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.” So it is with all of us who are collectively born anew, day by day, sent forth by God who is Mystery, the Triune God whose Holy Spirit breathes out upon us, recreating us, inviting us to worship in awe and wonder. We do not know how it will change us, where it will send us. But we do know this: it will strengthen us for the journey together. God be praised.

[1] Dom Gregory Dix calls Trinity Sunday “a purely medieval invention,” emerging in the tenth century at Liége and 1334 at Rome. The Shape of the Liturgy (London: Dacre Press, Adam and Charles Black, 1945), 362, 358.

[2] “Preaching on the Hinges of the Holy” in eds. Guiliano and Partridge, Preaching and the Theological Imagination (New York: Peter Lang, 2015), 63.

[3] Laurence Hull Stookey, Calendar: Christ’s Time for the Church (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996), 135.

[4] E.g. Paul’s Damascus road encounter – Acts 9:1-19.

[5] Jonathan Chang and Meghna Chakrabarti, “The Splintering of the United Methodist Church,” May 23, 2024.

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