You may listen to Mother Johnson's sermon here.
Some time ago, when our little dog Tipper was just a puppy, I got it in my head that she had special powers. Or maybe it’s more honest to say that I thought I had special powers. Here’s what happened: my friend’s son Thomas was about seven years old, and he was going through a phase in which he was afraid of dogs. I thought I knew just what to do. I thought I knew that my charming puppy Tipper could cure him.
So one day I marched over to my friend’s office while Thomas was there, and I brought my charming puppy with me. Tipper had just learned a bunch of new tricks, so I knew we could put on a great show. And I must say: Tipper and I were in terrific form. I offered liver treats, and I put the dog through her paces. She sat. She shook hands. She rolled over. She barked. She jumped. This will show him, I thought. He’ll see how cute and smart she is, and he will get over that irrational fear. I will cure him.
Why do adults think they can talk children out of being afraid?
Midway through our little show—ok, my little show—I became aware that something wasn’t working the way I had planned. It wasn’t the dog. Tipper was still doing all her tricks eagerly. Sit. Stand. Speak. Jump. I thought she was brilliant. But Thomas wasn’t responding the way I thought he would. It wasn’t that he seemed particularly fearful. It was some other emotion I saw on his face. Almost as though he pitied me.
Finally, as gently as he could, young Thomas leaned in in a kind of tactful way, and he said to me, “You know, my cat can do all those things without even being asked.”
Now this was kind of deflating. I mean, sure, cats are magnificent in their independence. They do seem to be able to do almost anything, in a state of serene indifference. Cats are wonderful. But wasn’t Thomas missing the point? It wasn’t the sitting or the shaking hands or the jumping that mattered. It was the excitement. The communication with another species. My dog Tipper was thrilled to be doing tricks with me. And it wasn’t just about the liver treats. I know this dog: treats are ok with her but what she really loves is the game itself. She is keen and eager and joyful. And when she really gets into the game, it’s something wonderful to see.
From time to time over the last few years, I’ve been mulling this story over, and because I’m one of those shameful preachers who are always looking for sermon illustrations, I’ve filed the story of Thomas and Tipper away in the back of my mind. I always thought I would use this story in a sermon about the law, about obedience to God’s will. God loves joyful obedience. You know: God wants us to be more like puppies and a little less like cats who do what we want when we want.
But now I think I see it differently. Now I think the story might really be about the Holy Trinity.
Because the whole force of the encounter between Thomas and Tipper, I had hoped, was to be about the joy of connection. About reaching across some kind of gulf to communicate with something we are not. It may not have worked very well with Thomas—my mistake there, for sure—but if you know and love a dog you know that joy and connection I’m talking about. There is something real there. The dog loves to be in the game. It isn’t only the prospect of being fed that leads her to quiver with excitement, anticipating every command, eyes wide, ears perked up, her whole being alert with expectation.
This Trinity Sunday, let’s not get too wrapped up in worrying about the exact details. Why three? How is it that we call the Holy Spirit a “person” of the Trinity? How many heresies are there that have to do with misunderstanding what the doctrine of the Trinity is trying to tell us? All matter deeply but to my mind they don’t help us a lot if we can’t pause to take in that fundamental reality: that at the heart of everything that exists—in our own hearts—the bottom line is God’s tireless energy for being with us, for being in the game with us, if you will. For reaching out across what seems like an impossible gulf, to be profoundly connected to what we are not. Alert with expectation.
It’s that tireless, electrifying energy that makes it natural for God to create everything we know and everything we don’t know. It’s that tireless, electrifying energy that leads God to be one with suffering humanity in the person of Jesus. It’s that tireless, electrifying joy of responding that leads the Holy Spirit to seek us out wherever we are trying to hide, to reach into us and through us and bring us along, and send us out to reach others.
In church circles we like to talk about something we call the doctrine of the Trinity, but we should probably be talking about the Trinity as a manifesto. Today, Trinity Sunday, is not a day for commemorating a concept. It’s a day for being swept away by a force. Getting wrapped up in a presence. Being overtaken with anticipation about what the living, breathing, heart of God will do next. This is a day for pining, trembling, to connect heaven and earth. Because that quivering anticipation comes from the one who created us and redeemed us and sustains us. And our deepest joy comes from being spellbound.
Today, this Trinity Sunday, can we imagine being spellbound by the love of God and the sheer electricity of everything around us? Eyes wide open, straining every nerve to catch what happens next? Keen? Eager?
I’ll admit that it’s a challenge to contemplate. This present moment in the world as we know it is more than a little daunting. Most of us, if we are honest, will find that we fear what might come next. We may fear to know where history is taking us. We may be afraid of what we are becoming, individually and collectively. The temptation these days is to become feline rather than canine. Majestic in our isolation from what disturbs us. Apparently unperturbed by the realities we choose to ignore. Who doesn’t want to smooth over the turbulence of the world? Who doesn’t wish that it were possible to glide by, catlike, while the world calls to us? Ready to respond, perhaps, but only as we choose to respond, in our own sweet time. Ready to do things that are important, but unenthusiastic about being asked.
But these times are God’s times. Our days are in God’s hands. And our deepest joy is in jumping in, as God did and God does, to be connected.
Could we be electrified by the present moment, drawn so deeply across the gulf of everything that terrifies us that we long, like God, to jump into human history and respond? Could we be filled with the power of the Holy Spirit and bound like the Son to human sin and suffering even while we rejoice in the love of the Father? Compelled to go forward to the ends of the world to make disciples of all nations?
Whether we choose to know it or not, God has given us our manifesto. God is our manifesto. God’s very life is our joy and our command.
Go. Baptize. Stand. Speak. Jump.
Preached by Mother Nora Johnson
Trinity Sunday, 2014
Saint Mark's Church, Philadelphia