“In the Midst of Mystery”
A Hymnfest for Trinity Sunday, Year B, May 31, 2015; compiled with reflections by the Rev. Matthew Emery, Senior Minister
Good morning, friends! As you can see from your worship bulletins, today we’re taking a pause from our usual order of service to celebrate a “hymnfest” in honor of Trinity Sunday. In the cycle of the Christian year, the church’s “liturgical calendar”, today is observed as something called the “Feast of the Holy Trinity” or, more simply, Trinity Sunday. Having wrapped up the festival cycle of Easter and celebrated the gift of the Holy Spirit last week on Pentecost Sunday, for hundreds of years Christians have taken this pause before moving back into the ordinary time of the year to celebrate the full majesty and mystery of all the ways God is known to us… and, in particular, in our understanding of God as triune, as three-in-one: the God who is One and yet known to us in the three “persons” of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit; the one and holy God who creates and redeems and sustains us all.
The Trinity—this understanding of God as having distinct identities or ‘persons’ while yet remaining only one God—to be honest, it’s something better experienced than explained. When it gets right down to it, even with some 2,000 years of Christian history to work on it, no one yet has adequately explained what exactly the Trinity is, or how it works. It is paradox. It is mystery.
And yet it is a good and gracious gift of God. The truth is that we do experience God in different ways, and in different “persons”, if you will. We marvel in the beauty and majesty of God’s creation, and ground ourselves in the purpose for which God made us. We remember that this same transcendent, immortal, invisible, almighty God came to be one of us, walking beside us in Jesus our brother, giving us here on earth a true and clear window into God. And we celebrate that God has not left us orphaned, and that God’s Spirit flows through everything we do with deeds of miraculous power. The hymn we sang at the opening of our service, “Come, Thou Almighty King” (Pilgrim Hymnal #246, vss. 1 -3), speaks of the three persons of the Trinity, and captures the reality that we know and experience God in such a variety of ways, using traditional biblical images and metaphors.
The gift of knowing the truth about God’s triune identity is also in discovering that community is at the very heart of God. In fact, God is community. God is “we” and “us” and “our”. And we—you and me, simple humans—were brought into being in order to participate with God in that community, in that “us-ness”. As former Connecticut UCC pastor Richard Leach affirms in the second hymn we sang, “Come, Join the Dance of Trinity” (Evangelical Lutheran Worship #412), the whole creation of the world and all that is in it—which includes us—happened “as the Three, in love and hope, made room within their dance.” We are the product of God making room within God’s own dance, of making space for us to join-in with all that God enjoys.
Each of those two opening selections explore the Trinity through the identities of the three “persons”. But as I said just a moment ago, God—and especially the One Triune God—is better experienced than explained.
One of the ways we experience God in God’s fullness is through attending to the great purposes of God… what is it that God seeks to be about in our world, and what is it that God intends for us, as our purpose in life—whether as individuals or as church. Indeed, God’s purposes are revealed through the work of each of the ‘persons’ of the Trinity. One of the keys for us as a church to discern and focus our purpose is to remember and root ourselves in God’s purpose for the world: God’s mission to fill all the earth with God’s glory, for all peoples to hear God’s word, for all of us to recognize our dependence on God in all we do.
* Pilgrim #298 (vss. 1, 2, 4) — “God is Working His Purpose Out”
The mighty, marching tones of that music by Martin Shaw, it drives home a traditional notion of an all-powerful God moving forcefully through the world. While there is something to be said for God’s omnipotence, the missionary movements of the 19th and early 20th centuries from which this hymn text came were perhaps a little too fond of this image of God’s unstoppable progress. We now realize that those movements often used such mighty, forceful, determined images of God (and entirely male ones, I might add) as license for unfortunate and at times unspeakable human abuses of power and force, along with a great deal of cultural imperialism, all in the supposed name of the gospel.
In this next piece, we enter into God’s presence in a rather different mode. In “Come and Seek the Ways of Wisdom,” UCC pastor Ruth Duck makes use of the very biblical image of “wisdom” as that unifying divine essence in the Trinity—the voice that spoke at creation, the Spirit that brooded over the water, the Word that was made flesh in Jesus—all forms of what the ancients called, in Greek, Sophia—Wisdom—an essence of the divine almost always referred to in the feminine. The Wisdom tradition, which has great biblical warrant, has played a role in Christian mysticism for centuries, and has garnered new attention as faithful people in our times seek language for God that continues to add even more expansive imagery to our faith vocabulary. Allow this hymn to speak to you in a new key about God’s purposes for you, for us together, and for all of creation.
Glory to God #174 — “Come and Seek the Ways of Wisdom”
To really know God in God’s fullness, though, you have to move beyond the distant conceptions, the abstract notions, the high and mighty. You have to get personal. You have to open up to the presence of God here, with us, in us, among us, active in our world and in our lives. The next piece—which is the one we learned together at the beginning of the service—is a relatively new piece written in the samba rhythms you’ll find in the music of various Latin American cultures. Interestingly enough, though, it was actually written by a Swedish Lutheran! More importantly, though, it brings the distant language of God’s holiness near to us, in God’s desire for our wholeness, in God’s presence here in the church, in God’s presence in the sacrament of Holy Communion, in the gift of new life. And I for one quite like how it does this with a samba beat, since God’s presence shouldn’t only make us hushed or awestruck… it should make us dance!
* Glory to God #596 — “You Are Holy”
We also know God’s presence in very intimate and comforting ways. The story of Mary Magdalene coming to the tomb and being greeted by the risen Jesus, it is the story of how Jesus calls each of us by name, and of how, indeed, even today, when any of us open ourselves to his presence, we too can affirm that “he walks with me and he talks with me.”
As we sing, we also come before God with the best of our offerings—ourselves, our time, our talents, and our treasures—so that through the ministry made possible by those gifts, others and all the world might know such a precious presence of love.
New Century Hymnal #237 — “I Come to the Garden Alone”
What do we usually mean when we say that something is “spiritual” or that someone is “Spirit-filled”?
I believe that the power of the Spirit, of God’s Holy Spirit, is that it can draw us up out of ourselves and into something greater and larger and grander than we ever thought possible. In writing to the Romans, Paul says that by our own human ability alone, we can’t even to cry out to God. But, he says, “With this Spirit, we cry, ‘Abba, Father.’ The same Spirit agrees with our spirit, that we are God’s children.” In other words, the Spirit gives us power to cry out. The Spirit gives us power to believe. The Spirit gives us power to praise.
Praise itself has power, our next hymn would affirm. Written by UCC pastor James Gertmenian, who just retired as senior minister of the Plymouth Congregational Church in Minneapolis, “God of Abraham and Sarah” traces God’s involvement in our world through the stories of the Bible and the situations of the world, and highlights the praise that the Spirit makes well up inside us out of all of it. In such praise, it turns out, we find healing, glory, and even freedom.
* New Century Hymnal #20 — “God of Abraham and Sarah”
* A Litany of Praise and Adoration
Beginning and End,
beyond all Names:
giver of food and drink,
clothing and warmth,
love and hope,
life in all its goodness—
We praise and adore you.
Wisdom and Word:
lover of outcasts,
friend of the poor,
one of us, yet one with God,
crucified and risen,
life in the midst of death—
We praise and adore you.
Storm and Breath:
waking the oppressed,
making us one,
unseen and unexpected,
untamable energy of life—
We praise and adore you.
Holy Trinity, forever One,
whose nature is community;
sunbounded dance of love:
in whom we love, and grow,
and know our neighbor,
life in all its fullness,
making all things new—
We praise and adore you.
(By Brian Wren, from Bread of Tomorrow, Prayers for the Church Year, ed. Janet Morley, pub. Orbis Books; reprinted in Celebrate God’s Presence: A Book of Services for the United Church of Canada, ©2000 The United Church Publishing House; alt.)
* Pilgrim Hymnal #251 — “Holy, Holy, Holy! Lord God Almighty”
* Benediction (ad lib.)
Hymnals referenced herein are:
- The New Century Hymnal, United Church of Christ, ©1995 Pilgrim Press.
- Pilgrim Hymnal, Congregationalist (pre-UCC), ©1958 Pilgrim Press.
- Glory to God: Hymns, Psalms, and Spiritual Songs, Presbyterian Church U.S.A., ©2013 Westminster John Knox Press. (Selections from Glory to God were printed in the worship bulletin.)
- Evangelical Lutheran Worship (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America), ©2006 admin. Augsburg Fortress, Publishers. (The selection from Evangelical Lutheran Worship was printed in the worship bulletin.)