Trinity Sunday Sermon
At a confirmation we naturally think of the people around us and behind us, what Hebrews calls the ‘cloud of witnesses,’ who by God’s provision helped us on our way. This is worthwhile for all of us to do, at any time, but takes on a certain poignancy when we get older and look back. One such person for me was the bishop who ordained me, Alex Stewart. He talked fast, had lots of ideas and papers sticking out of his pocket, when you talked with him in his office he’d pace around and occasionally toss a book at you he thought you should read. He was also a fanatical Red Sox fan, which of course endeared him to me. He was there when you needed him. So, in my forties, when I learned he was dying of cancer, I went to visit him, in his hospital gown and with an IV drip. I tried to express my sympathy, but he was more interested in my recent assignment to Toronto as the dean of the seminary. How was I going to go at it? whom would I visit first? As an aside, he mentioned his illness, but only to note with aggravation that he only had strength to preach once a month. When it was time to leave, I got up to pray, but he beat me to it, let loose the blessing of Aaron complete with outstretched patriarchal arms, and told me to get out of here, I had things to do, and he had to take his medicine….
Why do I cite him? Bishop Alex’s role was to send me on my way with a blessing. He did what we are meant to do, as parents, mentors, teachers: educate, challenge, support, and then let go. We and those we help to launch are permitted a look back in gratitude, but not in need. This is what it means, as the parlance goes nowadays, to ‘empower.’
Fair enough, but we are here this morning for more than life-coaching. So let me bring as my second witness a very different figure, Soren Kierkega,ard. He lived in Denmark two hundred years ago, a loner largely forgotten after his death, only to be rediscovered a hundred years later. He became perhaps the greatest influence on theology in the modern era. He took the Gospel on its own terms. He believed that everything in life depended on what we made of faith. But what I want to focus on this morning was a short book he wrote called Philosophical Fragments. The one thing I want you to remember of him was the book’s main point, the difference between a teacher and a savior. Once you learn what the teacher has to teach you, you don’t need him or her any more. They fall away like a booster rocket on a space ship. Like Bishop Alex, they do well to shout ‘salud, ’ hooray, and disappear. You have what they meant to give you. But it is not so with a savior. They never stop saving you. If they fall away, so does all your hope. You are always treading over 10,000 leagues of water, in need of your life vest. When it comes to faith, learning is realizing the depth and the need. You are never on your own. This may seem obvious, but it is easy to start thinking that religion gives us something like the lesson of the teacher, strength or knowledge we can have and use for ourselves. It is good to receive these, to be sure, but that is not really what religion is. For when we are up against death or guilt or shame or loss, our own strength and knowledge don’t get us far. Realizing that there is another kind of help, from a different source, is the greatest moment of all- but with it goes the insight that we as human beings never outgrow it. Thank you is fitting for a teacher, but only worship befits a savior.
No matter one’s age or situation, humans want to be free. We are wired like that. Free is part of what the book of Genesis meant by saying we are made in the image of God, as we heard in our first lesson from Genesis; wanting to be free in the wrong way, especially free of God, is what that same book meant by the fall, our sin, our brokenness. We get free of teachers, but mustn’t from God. But we get that wrong sometimes. The first Christians were no different; they too wanted to be free, especially in a world they felt to be fated, determined. Saint Paul says ‘where the Spirit is, there is freedom.’ What he meant is that real freedom is not being bound by anything but God. This is because being bound to him, being in his service, is in fact perfect freedom. It is what we were meant for, which is another way to say the same thing. We search all our lives for freedom, often in all the wrong places, until we find, or rather are found by it. The promises of confirmation, taken seriously, as with all the sacraments, are one form that freedom takes.
This is also Trinity Sunday, and I mean slowly to row the boat of this homily in that harbor. We may want freedom, but to be human is to feel all kinds of necessities. Our emotions run off in their own direction, things happen over which we have no control, and later on our bodies betray us. By contrast God is under no necessity. If he were, he would not be God. Voltaire, the great French atheist and philosopher, was asked if his sins would be forgiven, since he lived a life completely disregarding faith. He replied ‘the divine will forgive…it is his job.’ He can’t help but forgive me. This is so wrong as to verge on blasphemy. For if it is God we speak of, then we realize that he had no necessity to make a world, with us in it. Likewise, freely, out of his love and freedom, has he forgiven us, and gathered us as a mother hen with her chicks. He was complete and perfect peace, love, and beauty in himself and before the world (hard though this is to fathom), and he chose to create and redeem us solely from these same peace, love, and beauty. In that he is utterly different from us, which is what the doctrine of the Holy Trinity means to remind us.
All of this brings us round, finally, to the Gospel, and a message especially for our confirmands. The word of the risen Jesus is a commissioning. You are sent out to go across the street, across the world. You are to make disciples, which includes being a teacher or mentor or friend to someone else. Do it in a way that sets them free, as Bishop Alex did for me. Make it about their growth and not your grip. But the word of the risen Jesus is also a reminder. You set forth every day of your life in the name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. He is free in a way we are not. And we are intended never to be free of our need for our Savior. Yet this morning’s gospel concludes: ‘I am with you always, even to the uttermost end.’ Most mysteriously, Jesus Christ in his freedom has bound himself out of love to us, forever and without condition. And this thought is the deepest and most comforting you and I can possibly hear. Amen.