Chances are good the prayer book in your pew has never – and I mean EVER – been opened to page #864. If you pick it up right now, open to that page, and listen very closely you will hear the sound of the binding breaking in a brand new place. What you will find on the page – printed in very small type – is an ancient 6th century document known as the Athanasian Creed. Written to combat one heresy or another, it is the first Christian creed to state explicitly the equality of the Three Persons of the Trinity. Here is some of what it says:
The catholic faith is this: That we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity;
Neither confounding the persons nor dividing the substance.
For there is one person of the Father, another of the Son, and another of the Holy Spirit.
But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit is all one, the glory equal, the majesty coeternal.
Such as the Father is, such is the Son, and such is the Holy Spirit.
The Father uncreated, the Son uncreated, and the Holy Spirit uncreated.
The Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible, and the Holy Spirit incomprehensible.
The Father eternal, the Son eternal, and the Holy Spirit eternal.
And yet they are not three eternals but one eternal.
As also there are not three uncreated nor three incomprehensible, but one uncreated and one incomprehensible.
Perhaps you will find yourself in agreement with the English writer Dorothy Sayers who said of this creed, “The whole darn thing is incomprehensible.”
Today is Trinity Sunday – the one day during the church year when the preacher is charged with the task of confounding the congregation with an esoteric presentation of a doctrine beyond comprehension. Or not! Today I choose not to describe who God is, but to ponder how God works; how God interacts with all that God has made, especially with us curious and (at times) contemptuous human beings.
I grew up in a tradition that held to one degree or another God predestines all things. That word is used in the bible several times and Scripture is clear that the end God chooses will come to pass. How else can this be true, some reason, if God does not control – or preordain – all that happens? For some time now I have rejected such thinking in favor of free will – the notion that we can and do make free choices all of the time. But how can God’s end be assured if there is no guarantee you or I will play our parts?
For years I have resolved this dilemma with the analogy of a chess match. If you sit me down opposite a grand master and give me the first move, clearly I am free to move whichever piece I choose. The grand master will respond. I am free to make whatever second move I want. We don’t know exactly how the game will play out, but one thing is sure… the grand master is going to win.
God, in relating to us, is like the grand chess master. We are free to move as we will, but God will counter and in the end the outcome is certain. I am now beginning to ponder if this is the right analogy. It still seems a little too mechanical; too cold and calculated; a pointless exercise. It lacks playfulness and finesse. It doesn’t mirror how I experience life.
Recently I came across another analogy that has opened up new possibilities. It is put forward by the comedian Tina Fey who, in her book Bossypants, articulates four basic rules of improvisational acting – the art form where two or more actors play out a scene with no predetermined script or plot.
According to Fey the first rule of improv is “Agree. Always agree and say yes.” You are required to agree with whatever your partner is saying. For example, if your partner says, “Freeze, I have a gun,” do not respond, “That is not a gun. You are pointing your finger at me.” A better response, she says, would be, “The gun I brought you for Christmas! How dare you!” Rule #1: Agree. Respect what your partner has created. Be open-minded. Say yes and see where it will take you.
Fey’s second rule is “don’t only say yes, but yes, and.” Don’t just agree, contribute. If your partner starts a scene by saying “I can’t believe how hot it is here,” and you respond by saying, “Yeah” there is nowhere to go. But if you say, “What did you expect? After all, we are in hell!” the scene is off and running. Yes, and requires the actor or actress not to be afraid to add something to the discussion. It requires them to believe their initiatives are valuable.
The third rule is “make statements”. If you continually ask questions – Who are you? Why are we here? What is in the box? – you put all the pressure on your partner to come up with answers. Fey suggests instead of asking “Where are we?”, you make a statement like, “Here we are in Spain, Dracula.”
Which may not sound all that great, but it leads to Fey’s fourth rule of improv: “there are no mistakes”, only opportunities. Fey says that if she starts out a scene trying to be a police officer riding a bicycle, but her partner thinks she is a hamster in a hamster wheel, she becomes a hamster in a hamster wheel. In improv, she says, there are no mistakes, only beautifully happy accidents.
Is it possible that God relates to us in a way similar to how improv actors engage one another: “yes”, “yes and”, “statement”, and “there are no mistakes, only opportunities”?
Think about the story of Jonah. Doesn’t it read like an improv scene? God starts the scene by telling Jonah to go to Nineveh and proclaim God’s judgment on the city. Jonah’s “yes”, and is actually a move to get on a boat and sail away in the opposite direction. God brings about a storm and the vessel is in peril. The ship’s crew and passengers enter the scene. What will they do? They toss Jonah overboard. This might seem like a mistake, but God uses it as an opportunity. God sends a whale to swallow Jonah. Now that is a statement! Three days later the whale vomits Jonah on to shore and he proceeds to Ninevah. Once there, Jonah makes the statement God told him to make: repent or be destroyed. The people of the corrupt city provide a surprising “yes, and”, and actually repent. The story ends in a fascinating place with Jonah sulking because the city is not destroyed and God defending God’s right to forgive.
It is a story that feels wide open. It could go in any number of different directions. God, far from controlling everything in a predetermined fashion, participates in a dynamic give-and-take with each of the partners in the scene. It is as if God is truly curious to see where all of it will go.
Let’s look at today’s first reading from the Old Testament book of Isaiah. The scene is set very quickly. The text tells us it takes place “in the year that King Uzziah died”, creating a milieu similar to how we might react to the opening “In the months following 9/11…” Isaiah makes his opening statement: “I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty.” God makes the opening “yes” by appearing to Isaiah in radiance and splendor. Heavenly beings add the “yes, and” with their worship and words of praise. Isaiah’s first statement in the scene is a good one: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of Hosts.”
How will God respond? If God says, “What was I thinking? Of course you are completely unworthy of me,” the scene will come to a screeching halt.
There are plenty of other rules to improvisation Tina Fey doesn’t touch on. One of them is this: if you see your partner in trouble, rescue him. Don’t let him suffer. Come to his aid. A seraph comes to Isaiah’s aid. It flies over to the altar and picks up a hot coal using a pair of tongs. This is an interesting act in and of itself, but what happens next is improvisational genius. The seraph touches the coal to Isaiah’s mouth and makes a statement. Consider the possibilities: “Keep your mouth shut in the presence of the Lord God,” or “Burn for your unclean words,” or “Human words pale in comparison to the ‘Holy, Holy, Holy’ of heavenly creatures.” Again, every one of these derails the scene. What the seraph says is a classic “yes, and”: “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.”
God pushes the scene forward by asking, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” A likely answer would have been a seraph. They are impressive and know how to get the job done. But the scene draws to a close with a surprising twist. Isaiah has the final “yes, and”: “Here I am; send me!”
This is much how I experience God in my own life and particularly in and through the ministry of this church. God engages us more and more as we are willing to engage God. Every development leads to new possibilities. The church feels alive when we view every new thing as an opportunity even as we treasure all that has stood the test of time. We are not cogs in some mechanistic game preset and determined by God. Rather, we are active participants whose contributions either further the cause or end the discussion. We either advance the work of the kingdom in our own interesting ways or we put it on hold by disengaging from the improvisation God has started.
On this day that we celebrate the incomprehensible Trinity let me put forward a simple question: What will you add to the scene?