Sermons That Work

Let’s Begin With an Excerpt…, Trinity Sunday (A) – 2008

May 18, 2008

Let’s begin with an excerpt from The New Yorker magazine, from an article by Malcolm Gladwell. It’s about, of all things, automobile safety – or the lack of it – and one man’s tragic automobile accident, now more than a decade ago.

Quote: “Robert Day’s crash was not the accident of a young man. He was hit from the side, and adolescents and young adults usually have side-impact crashes when their cars slide off the road into a fixed object like a tree, often at reckless speeds. Older people tend to have side-impact crashes at normal speeds, in intersections, and as the result of error, not negligence. In fact, Day’s crash was not merely typical in form; it was the result of a common type of driver error. He didn’t see something he was supposed to see. His mistake is, on one level, difficult to understand. There was a sign, clearly visible from the roadway, telling him of an intersection ahead, and then another, in bright red, telling him to stop. How could he have missed them both?”

You see, even though visibility was perfect and the roadway dry on this bright, clear spring day, he missed a stop sign, and drove 40 miles an hour through an intersection in New Jersey to his death.

Quoting again: “From what we know of perception, though, this kind of human mistake happens all the time. … Intuitively, we believe that we ‘see’ everything in our field of vision – particularly things right in front of us – and that the difference between the things we pay attention to and the things we don’t is simply that the things we focus on are the things we become aware of. But when experiments to test this assumption were conducted recently … a psychologist at the New School found, to her surprise, that a significant portion of her observers didn’t see [a particular] object at all: it was directly in their field of vision, and yet, because their attention was focused [elsewhere], they were oblivious of it. [She] calls this phenomenon ‘inattentional blindness.’”

Now let’s not be frightened into abandoning our automobiles, or cajoled into more rigorous use of seat belts and avoidance of distractions such as cell phones while driving – although these are good habits. No, but there’s a point here that translates into the spiritual realm.

You see, many people today are hearing a sermon about the holy Trinity – understandably, as this is what we call “Trinity Sunday.” A lot of congregations are listening to some theological discourse on the inseparability of the three distinct persons of the Trinity – about the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit being one God. And good priests, pastors, and preachers all over the world are trying desperately to make sense of the creation story – the lengthy creation story – while encouraging us all to go forth and make disciples of all people.

Now, Biblical study, or philosophical discourse, and theological inquiry are all fine things. But when we turn our attention to matters of form, or of doctrine, we miss what lies beyond them: the greater reality to which they point.

For instance, we Christians argue about whether the God we proclaim as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit really must be referred to only as what some jokingly call “two boys and a bird.” We proclaim sometimes-helpful insights, such as the notion of a God who exists in relationship – not alone or apart from everything and everybody else, but in conversation, both serving and being served, accountable. And we come across delights of Trinitarian theology over the ages, like the notion that the three persons of the Trinity loved each other so much that they became one. To Christians who have any sense of tradition, the doctrine of the Trinity is undeniably an integral part of our faith.

One God in three persons: we can debate and discuss and reason, trying to understand more of this mysterious paradox. Yet there is another strand of thought, one that follows from the likes of Justin Martyr, that seeker for the truth who died in about the year 167. Justin tells us that anyone who thinks God even can be named is “hopelessly insane.” And, just so you don’t think he’s hopelessly insane, consider this: no less venerable an authority than St. Augustine of Hippo in his own treatise on the Trinity, cautions against those who “allow themselves to be deceived through an unseasonable and misguided love of reason.”

So, instead of the usual treatise on the foreshadowing of the Trinity in the Old Testament – you know, those three men who appeared to Abraham under the oak at Mambre, and whom Abraham invited in and entertained in the plural, but went on to speak of as one, in the singular – instead of that kind of thing, let’s focus on perception.

When we try to sort out things like the holy Trinity, when we try to establish and fix exactly what it means – we forget that our ruminations are but theories, mere projections of what we would like God to be. “No one has ever seen God,” the blessed Apostle tells us – but that does not stop us from trying, does it? And in our determined search to understand the ineffable, to find out the truth, to know all things – we tend to fall prey to a spiritual kind of inattentional blindness.

We miss seeing that which is right in front of us, just as surely as Robert Day did that fateful day back in 1994. And – in an ironic twist – as a result of Mr. Day’s inattentional blindness, he now knows what we can only speculate about and experience fleetingly: the full presence of God. Do you wonder if Robert Day regrets that he was so focused on his destination that he failed to enjoy the journey? Or if he is glad that, while he lost his life in that crash, his 10-year-old son was spared? Or could he simply be amazed and thankful that he now sees clearly what was right before him all along?

There is not one meaning of the Trinity, or one means of describing that reality – but a great wealth of meaning. That assertion also comes from Augustine. And the doctrine of the Trinity, the very human idea of “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,” and all our language about God – these are but symbols of a greater reality. Augustine reminds us that when we think about the Trinity, “we are aware that our thoughts are quite inadequate to their object, and incapable of grasping him as he is; even by men of the caliber of the apostle Paul, [God] can only be seen … ‘like a puzzling reflection in a mirror.’” Our thoughts and words mean nothing in themselves, if we cannot look through them, beyond them, and because of them – to something else.

That something else is a vision of peace and harmony that Jesus proclaimed is very near us. That something is a place of rest and refreshment the likes of which we have not dared to imagine. That something is a time of joyful reunion with all our departed loved ones – and indeed, all the company of heaven. A house with many mansions, a lamb that was slain and who reigns forever, a death unto eternal life.

This is the meaning of the holy Trinity: that there is a God, who made us and loves us and cares for us, who beckons us all home to live with him for ever, who calls us now to a new life of justice, freedom, truth, peace, and – above all – love. In our human state, we are subject to a chronic bout of inattentional blindness, in which we sometimes focus our attention elsewhere, and miss seeing the vision of heaven that God has placed right in front of us – each of us, and every day.

May God the holy and glorious Trinity grant that the scales may fall from our eyes, that we all may see what lies in front of us with the eyes of faith. Amen.

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Christopher Sikkema


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