1+1+1 = 1
Published by Ronald Steed,
Sermon for Sunday, May 27, 2018 (Trinity Sunday Year B)
St. James Episcopal Church, Poquetanuck, CT
1+1+1 = 1. That’s what Trinity Sunday celebrates; this odd and paradoxical idea that God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit are somehow one and the same being, and yet distinct from one another. Jesus’ resurrection and the revelation he gave humanity about the nature of God made such an impact on those who witnessed it and those who heard about it in the first generations of Christianity, that they were willing to believe that 1+1+1 = 1 made more sense than any alternative. Even then, it took over 300 years for Christianity to find the right words about God, or maybe just good-enough words, to include in the Nicene Creed that we say here every Sunday.
One of the worries I have about dwelling too much on the paradox of the Trinity, is that it tends to put God on a pedestal as a being so wonderful and so impossible to understand, that God certainly would not bother with the likes of us. It can give us the feeling that God is far away on a distant galaxy… too caught up the burdens of Trinitarian matters to really be concerned with our feeble lives. And that idea… that God is distant and remote… is just the thing that our egos, our monkey-minds love to hear. “With God out of the way, there’s no stopping us" our minds might say. Besides, there is no room inside this head for anyone else’s thoughts… this body and this mind are ruled day in and day out by the ego so it’s just fine for God to be far away. Maybe its OK for him to visit Earth every now and then, say for Christmas and Easter, but other than that… happy for him to stay away and let our egos run the show down here. We could send of few folks off to seminary to study God and tell us about it on talk radio or something.
The truth about God is so much simpler, and it is the simplicity of God, once we come to believe it, that enables us to enjoy a direct connection with God every day, throughout the day. God wants nothing more than to be with us… to enjoy our presence as a part of God’s creation… we are deeply loved and lovingly sustained. God is with us… it is that simple. We don’t have to wait for God to come from a far away galaxy once in a lifetime with Holy Angels and laser light shows. We can experience God directly. And I want to suggest one way that each of you can have that experience for yourselves; silent prayer. This is a prayer where you close your eyes and clear your mind, and sink wordlessly into your heart. In silent prayer, you seek God with your heart, not with your mind. The Holy Spirit dwells within you, and is always there… has been from your beginning. There has never been a time, even in the depths of your darkest suffering, when it seemed to you that God was as remote as possible, that God was not with you in this way… closer to you than you are to yourself. That is the great gift of Pentecost that we celebrated last week… the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. But, there can be something that stands in the way of our experience of God in this way, and I need to illustrate what it is with a story.
As many of you know, I served aboard nuclear submarines for a long time, and once, my sub was sortied to sea in order to avoid being damaged in port by an incoming hurricane. It is safer for submarines to be under water beneath a hurricane than it is to be tied up to a pier. So, there we were, 200 feet beneath the surface riding out the hurricane as it passed above. On the surface, it was mayhem… giant waves driven to great heights by the hurricane winds…. flotsam and jetsam… streaming billows of foam everywhere. It’s temping to see such a sight and think to yourself… “what a mighty ocean this is!" But below the waves, you discover something remarkable. At 200 feet, the submarine rocks gently just the tiniest bit… which is extraordinary for submarine sailors to feel at that depth, because in even stormy weather, the sub is steady at 200’… it’s like being in a building like this. That’s when you realize “the ocean is not the waves". The waves above are certainly part of the ocean, but the ocean is much vaster, much greater than the hurricane tossed waves up there. And the vastness of that ocean is like a silent, open space in every direction. The ocean is not the waves.
This insight about the ocean is like ourselves. Our monkey-minds are chattering all day long… great waves of thoughts are heaved up one upon another… the flotsam and jetsam of mental narratives send scudding drifts of foam in every direction. And so many people come to believe that these constant thoughts are who we are… we think we are our thoughts. Here’s the way some of my thoughts typically work. One theme that constantly comes up in my head is conflict with other people. I think of someone I might be in conflict with, which by itself is no great thing. But then, my mind invests in the narrative of that conflict, and before I know it, I’m thinking about all the things I wish I had said the last time we argued, or all the witty things I’m going to say the next time… boy they will be sorry… sorry that they ever picked a fight with me… I’ll have the upper hand on THAT day I tell you! And before I know it, 30 minutes of inner turmoil has passed. Another common theme in my mental catalog is self-criticism. I remember an embarrassing situation. And, before I know it, I’m re-living it… thinking about what I should have said or done… how I need to avoid that person in the future so that I won’t be embarrassed by them again… and then, I’m mapping all the strategies and tactics I will use to keep away from them… and before I know it, 30 minutes of a monkey-mind fantasy narrative has passed again.
The trouble is, none of these stories are real… the narratives are not in the present and are about things that don’t actually exist. If we can just close our eyes… still our minds… allow the thoughts to come (they always will), but refrain from investing in the narrative our monkey-minds want us to have… just accept the thoughts when they come and gently release them… we will discover something profound. Just as the ocean is not the stormy waves, we are not our thoughts. There is a vast ocean of awareness beneath those thoughts that we have access to. And when we discover that vast, silent expanse, then we have a chance for our hearts to rest in God. God’s first language is silence; ours can be too. We cannot know God by the mind… there is not reason or thought or narrative that our monkey-minds can concoct that can reach God. But our hearts can… our hearts can rest in the silence of God… and when our hearts are open in that way, God can fill them with the gifts we need for his mission.
The fruit of silent prayer of the heart is not the prayer itself; it is found in the times that are NOT prayer. The times when we are tempted to anger or self-criticism or frustration… the times when our minds are tempted to invest deeply in hurtful narratives about others or narratives of self-denigration… the times when we remember that “I am not my thoughts"… and when our hearts turn away from those narratives and meet them with silence. When our monkey-mind protests that 1+1+1 = 1 is impossible and ridiculous, and our heart meets that thought with silence. That’s the fruit of silent prayer. That’s when we know that there is a Holy Spirit dwelling within us, who is filling our hearts to overflowing with gifts of kindness, and generosity, and empathy rather than narratives of hate, and self-loathing, and anxiety. It is that simple to experience God; the God who wants to be with us.
This form or prayer, prayer without words, works because the Spirit searches our heart, and already knows what is there. In this prayer, you just rest in the arms of God, let your thoughts come, gently let them go without investing in them, and let God fill your heart with all the gifts God knows you need. The time will fly by because there is no clock on the wall of the heart. When the prayer bells chimes, you will wonder how 30 minutes passed so fast.
Silent prayer is not necessary for your salvation in Jesus; it is just a prayer practice. But if, through a practice like that, you can come to believe in your heart that the Spirit is always there, then you might come to believe that it is also true of everyone. And with that, the most exciting things are possible. You just might begin to see Jesus in other people’s faces everywhere. And that’s when God and Jesus and the Holy Spirit get really exciting… Amen.