Dancing with Your Hair on Fire: a sermon for Trinity Sunday

This sermon, preached on Trinity Sunday 2014 at Saint Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Madison Wisconsin is built around the Gospel Reading For Trinity Sunday in the Revised Common Lectionary,

You can find that reading here.

Here is an audio file of the sermon as preached at the 9:30 service on June 15th        Dancing With Your Hair on Fire


Happy Father’s Day! To all of you who are fathers or father figures, happy Father’s Day as we remember the who have nurtured and raised and sustained us.

So I have this Father’s Day story that I need to share. And I am guessing that if the exact details don’t match your experience it will at least sound familiar to you.

Father’s Day is approaching and this is the year to get a new gas grill. But you can’t leave a decision like that up to chance. So you go on line. You check the stores, and you make sure that you’ve got the right one picked out and everyone knows which one it is. You get home from church on Sunday and there it is, in the box, and its so exciting. You carry it out back onto the patio and you rip the cardboard apart. You look at the picture on the box a couple of times, look at the parts, and dive right in; putting things together, assembling stuff. You’ve got it going right and left… yeah there’s a couple of places where it doesn’t work quite right and you have to pull things back apart, hoping you don’t break them. and put them back together the right way. You’re getting closer and closer. And then you get to the part where there are these… gas connections. And you think “Well… I’m not so sure about this. I really hate to do it but maybe… I’ll look at the instructions. And then you get the instructions out and you discover, much to your chagrin, that they are clearly written by someone who has assembled this grill so many times that it is patently obvious to them how it should be done. Their minimal descriptions and instructions don’t work very well and you are pretty convinced that these instructions have been written by someone whose native language is not English.

This is a risky place to be! It’s scary because you are playing with fire here! There’s gas! And there’s a big tank of it sitting right there… Fire!

Ok so have you figured it out? That’s right where we are today right? It’s clear, patently obvious why I have told you this story today.

We went through the drama and passion of Holy Week, Jesus was arrested and taken from us, tried, and crucified. Three days later he rose from the dead. It was beyond our wildest expectations. He appeared to his Disciples for forty days and then ascended into heaven, back to his Father. Then last Sunday we celebrated the coming of the Holy Spirit, the birth of the church, flames of fire appearing above the disciple’s heads. We the church have been set on fire to go out and to change the world… Fire! Holy cow where’s the instruction book?

So we turn back in the manual. We go back to a post resurrection appearance of Jesus, an appearance before he ascended to the Father, before the coming of the Holy Spirit, looking for a little guidance. And what we find today in Matthew’s Gospel, the very last words of Matthew’s Gospel is The Great Commission.

“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:19-20).

Ok… clearly Jesus has done this so many times that it’s patently obvious to him how this works and his description makes sense to him but not to us… And to make matters worse we have this commandment and instruction in English when originally they weren’t written in English at all. So maybe in order to figure out, now that we are on fire, how to follow these instructions and to go out and change the world we should look at a different language. Greek is where we are going.

The early church had a word that they used to unpack the code language that we have just heard: Father, Son and Holy Spirit, the three in one, the Holy Trinity, Three persons yet one… “perichoresis.” That word means to rotate, to move forward, to move together, beautiful imagery describing the inner life of God that we have lost, mostly I think, because of our geometric obsession with the triangle…

You’ve seen those pictures, those diagrams. God the Father at the top, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit at the bottom corners of a triangle.   It does make some sense… The triangle is a weight bearing shape. You use a triangle to build buildings and bridges because it is strong, it is rigid, it distributes the weight evenly over its base. When you want something to last for a long time you use triangles.

But there is a problem, I think, with that triangle. It doesn’t really describe perichoresis, rotation, moving forward, moving together. So I am going to suggest that just for a second we all set our triangles aside in favor of another shape that “breathes” a little better: a circle.

Imagine if you will three persons standing in a circle with their arms loosely linked. Dancing together around and around, rotating, moving forward, moving together. One of those dancers dips and the other two, on either side, move and flow with them. One of those dancers stumbles or struggles and the other two lift and support. After a while, moving together in that way, those three seem to be one living, breathing, organism; together moving seamlessly, around and around, flowing into and from one another, without effort, without thought. “Perichoresis,” what a beautiful image…

Go and baptize in the name of… the Perichoresis. Ok, maybe we’ll stick with The Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It does sort of have a rhythm and a flow, and its familiar… And there is another good reason for using that formula to describe God. Father, Son and Holy Spirit… We have those three persons dancing in a circle moving as one, but this description and image leaves us in danger of believing that the unity was created when the three separate beings, persons, came together to dance. And that’s not really quite accurate.

The way that we understand God is that the three persons of the Trinity give and receive their identity, one to another, in this eternal dance. A person needs a child in order to be a father. So the Father’s identity as the father is given, made possible by the Son. The Son can’t be progeny or a child without the existence of a parent and so that identity as the “Son” is both given and received in relationship the Father. The Holy Spirit is that relationship that binds them all together as one. All three persons of the Trinity are established, or have their identity in their relationship one to another.

So as if it weren’t difficult enough to imagine this swirling, breathing, moving unified dance, now we have to picture it as identity being given and received, created and defined, lover, beloved, and love all moving together.

If we had gone back to the instructions today with our hair on fire from the coming of the Holy Spirit, looking for some guidance and help and we had found a description of this swirling, moving, breathing mass… I’m just not sure that would have been especially helpful. It’s a very long description and after all we are in a hurry to start cooking our hamburgers and brats on this brand new grill… We need to get to work.

But I think that having this deep understanding of what we mean when we talk about the Holy Trinity; the Three in One; Father, Son and Holy Spirit, will allow us to invite people to join us in a way that isn’t possible unless we have this picture in our minds. Baptize in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It is our baptism that creates the church, that creates this body of which we are all members. And so when we baptize someone in the name Father, Son and Holy Spirit the Three in One, we are inviting them to join us in that eternal dance that is happening in the heart of God.

As we pour water over the head of the next person to be baptized here and we say “I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” imagine the three persons in that dance loosing their arms and inviting that person to join with them, to dance, to move, to receive and give their identity in that relationship, to know and to be known, to love and to be loved.

Suddenly it doesn’t seem like such a bad thing to have your hair on fire. Suddenly we have a clearer sense and a more joyful appreciation, a deeper understanding of what it is we have been called to do as the church. The Day of Pentecost has come and gone and we move now into what is often called “Ordinary Time” but these are no ordinary times. We are called to model and to create a world that is bound together by God’s love, dancing in the circle, adjusting, compensating, lifting supporting, loving, upholding, nourishing, feeding, and all the while being fed.

Trinity Sunday is often a day when Rectors abandon the pulpit in favor of other folks whom they can assign the task of preaching on a theological construct rather than a passage of scripture. But I look forward to this Sunday and I hope that you will too, to this expression of who we are, and as Mother Dorota will say later in her blessing “whose we are.” We are defined by our communion with one another and with God, we are given and receive our identity in relationship with the Holy Trinity and in knowing who we are and whose we are as together we dance for all eternity.

Thanks be to God.







2 thoughts on “Dancing with Your Hair on Fire: a sermon for Trinity Sunday

  1. Amen. Lovely imagery and a much better instruction (albeit the hamburgers might wait) for moving forward with our hair on fire. Thank you.

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