“God sat Sunday in her Adirondack deck chair, reading the New York Times and sipping strawberry lemonade, her pink robe flowing down to the ground. The garment hem was fluff and frill, and it spilled holiness down into the sanctuary, into the cup and the nostrils of the singing people. One thread trickled loveliness into a funeral rite, as the mourners looked in the face of death, and heard the story of a life truer than goodness. A torn piece of the robe’s edge flopped onto a war in southern Sudan and caused heartbeats to skip and soldiers looked into themselves deeply. One threadbare strand of the divine belt almost knocked over a polar bear floating on a loose berg in the warming sea. One silky string wove its way through Jesus’ cross, and tied itself to desert-parched immigrants with swollen tongues, and a woman with ovarian cancer and two young sons. You won’t believe this, but a single hair-thin fiber floated onto the yacht of a rich man and he gasped when he saw everything as it really was. The hem fell to and fro across the universe, filling space and time and gaps between the sub-atomic world, with the effervescent presence of the one who is the is. And even in the slight space between lovers in bed, the holiness flows and wakes up the body to feel beyond the feeling and know beyond the knowing…”[i]
I stumbled on Michael Coffey’s poem as I struggled with the idea of how to preach about the Holy Trinity on this Trinity Sunday. And then I realized something: we understand theology much more through experience than through reading some heady fourth-century theologian. The concept of the Trinity is not an easy one to understand. In fact, the concept is so complicated that most of us try not to think about the Trinity at all. We simply know the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit as truth, and do not worry too much about the details. That approach is probably fine most of the time – until you have to explain the concept of the Trinity to a child or non-believer. Trying to explain how God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit are all the same and yet all distinctly separate is not as simple as it sounds. Then try to explain how all three are co-eternal and I promise you, you will get looks of confusion. The questions about how Jesus can be born in a particular time and place and yet be co-eternal with the Holy Spirit and God will make anyone stutter.
I have begun to wonder then if part of why we do not often spend time working through the theology of the Trinity is because we do not necessarily need to think about the Trinity – we simply need to have an experience of the Trinity. That realization became clearest to me this week as I thought about our lesson from Isaiah. Now you may be wondering how I found an experience of the Trinity in the Old Testament. Certainly, we need the fullness of the New Testament to really understand the Trinity. But we have to remember that the Trinity has always been – remember that word “co-eternal”? Now I must admit, this notion makes me uncomfortable too – reading a New Testament theology into the Hebrew Scriptures is what a lot of purists call anachronistic – a chronological inconsistency where we juxtapose two different time periods incorrectly. But given our theological understanding of the Trinity as being co-eternal, many theologians argue that seeing the Trinity in our Isaiah text today is not, in fact, anachronistic.[ii] If you buy that logic, the song the seraphs sing, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts…” reminds us of the old hymn, “Holy, Holy, Holy” which contains the line, “God in three persons, blessed Trinity.” The seraphs’ song hints at the three persons of the Godhead. And when God wonders what prophet God will send to the sinful people, God says, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” That “us,” by many scholars, is considered yet another precursor to the concept of the Trinity.[iii]
But all of that is academic to me. We can certainly debate whether or not the Trinity is hinted at in the Isaiah reading today. But what is more important to me is that we get a better understanding of the experience of the Trinity through the Isaiah story. The story starts with Isaiah seeing the Lord sitting on a throne, with that hem that Michael Coffey describes so vividly in his poem. The text says the hem of God’s robe fills the temple. Imagine, as Coffey does, the hem of that robe filling this entire church. Imagine fabric billowing over the pews, draping over the altar rail, spilling out the front door. Imagine us stumbling over the enormity of that fabric, getting tangled up in the hem’s folds. And all of that fabric swirling around us is only the hem of the robe – not the whole robe, but the hem of the robe. Isaiah’s description is of a God that is larger than life, that is incomprehensible in size and vastness. Just the tip of God’s garment is larger than the greatest Cathedral and certainly overwhelming in a space like our intimate church.
In fact, the experience of God is so overwhelming, that Isaiah is brought down to his knees in fear – not a simple fear of God, but fear because Isaiah realizes he is woefully sinful and unworthy of being in God’s presence. He even shouts among the folds of fabric that entangle him, “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips…” That is the second experiential understanding of the Triune God. First we are overwhelmed by the Trinity’s vast, mysterious incomprehensibility, and second, we are crippled by the shame of our sinfulness in response. But then, another profound realization happens. When Isaiah confesses his sinfulness, the seraph simply touches his mouth with a hot altar coal and Isaiah’s sin is blotted out. That is the third thing we discover about the Trinity. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are quick to forgive a repentant heart. No Hail Mary’s are necessary. No Our Fathers. Forgiveness is swift and full – much unlike human capacity for forgiveness. Finally, we learn yet another interesting thing about the Trinity. God-in-three-persons needs us. The Lord says, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” There is not strategic plan; there is no preordained conception of who should go. God does not say, “Isaiah, you shall go and be my prophet,” which is unusual because in most of the call stories we hear, God does call people by name. But not with Isaiah.[iv] Here, the Trinitarian Godhead is wondering who in the world will go and be the prophet. That is what we finally see about the Trinity. The Trinity openly invites – and according to Isaiah’s response, “Here am I: send me!” we learn that the Trinity inspires people to recklessly volunteer for things they probably shouldn’t.
Of course, when we really think about what we learn about the Trinity in Isaiah: that God is vastly other, inspires repentance, readily gives forgiveness, and causes wanton willingness to serve the Lord, then we begin to see that all of those insights are part and parcel of our own experience of the Trinity every week in worship.[v] Every week, we start our worship in praise. We praise God in word, song, and prayer. We marvel at the vastness of God’s hem as we read and reflect on God’s Word. We profess our Trinitarian faith in the Creed and then we confess. Like Isaiah, all that praise, wonder, and realization of God’s enormity pulls us down to our knees as each one of us confesses our unworthiness aloud. A chorus of voices comes together as we each confess our faults and failings over the past week. And then, just like a snap, the priest delivers God’s forgiveness. We are offered the Eucharistic meal, which, like the coal on Isaiah’s lips, wets our lips with forgiveness.[vi] And when the priest tells us to go out into the world rejoicing in the power of the Spirit, we find ourselves overwhelmed with the words, “Here am I; send me!” We find ourselves jettisoning ourselves into the world, longing to serve the God whose robe knocks us over and whose meal sets us free.
Michael Coffey’s poem brings us full circle to our Trinity Sunday ponderings. About God’s robe, Coffey concludes, “…And even as we monotheize and trinitize, and speculate and doubt even our doubting, the threads of holiness trickle into our lives. And the seraphim keep singing “holy, holy, holy”, and flapping their wings like baby birds, and God says: give it a rest a while. And God takes another sip of her summertime drink, and smiles at the way you are reading this filament now, and hums: It’s a good day to be God.”[vii] Amen.
[i] Michael Coffey, “God’s Bathrobe,” as posted on May 31, 2012 at http://mccoffey.blogspot.com/2012/05/gods-bathrobe.html as found on May 27, 2015. Punctuation and formation changed for ease of preaching. Original structure found on website.
[ii] Donald K. McKim, “Theological Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. B, vol. 3 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 30.
[iii] McKim, 28.
[iv] Patricia Tull, “Commentary on Isaiah 6.1-8,” found at https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2458, May 31, 2015, as found on May 27, 2015.
[v] Kristin Emery Saldine, “Pastoral Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. B, vol. 3 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 28, 30.
[vi] Melinda Quivik, “Commentary on Isaiah 6.1-8,” found at https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1284, June 3, 2012, as found on May 27, 2015.