Trinity Sunday - 1st Sunday after Pentecost – Year C
May 30, 2010
Let us pray: May Creator guide these words and may the breadth of God's nature – Spirit, Parent, Child be opened to us as wide as we can imagine, and may our imaginations be pushed to consider beyond our knowing and the limits of time and space. Amen.
My undergraduate degree is a Bachelor of Mathematics. There are not too many institutions of higher learning in North America, just three according to Wikipedia, and only twelve in the world that offer a Bachelor of Mathematics. I've always been rather pleased to hold this somewhat rare degree. A while later after I had graduated from theological college and had been granted the degree of Master of Divinity, someone took a look at my name with the degrees listed in abbreviation (as is usually the case) and I can't remember if it was in jest or with serious inquiry, wondered if I had a Bachelor of Mathematics and a Master of Division! One would hope that as an ordained minister of The United Church of Canada – that I would have some kind of degree in creating unity rather than division, but seeing as my most common typo is the Untied Church – in fact it is so common that I've come to telling people that I spell United by typing U – N – T – I – E – D – backspace – backspace – backspace – backspace – I - T – E – D, one might rightly wonder if something Freudian is going on within me.
I tell you all this not because I am trying to erect some kind of ivory tower on which to stand. I think in part this information was on my mind because of the little party that was held in my honour on Thursday in recognition of the twenty-year anniversary of my being ordained. Part of the paraphernalia that was collected for that event were a number of documents, one being a little blurb about me that was published in the order of worship for the service at which I was ordained. As with everyone, my name and degrees were listed, so while I'm not usually too worried about my educational background – hoping to show what I've learned in action rather than by having a string of alphabet after my name, that little blurb reminded me of that question once posed to me about having a Masters degree in Division.
Another reason this stuff is on my mind is because of my fascination with numbers. Among the other things that Sharon and I managed to dig up were a letter to my family explaining the decision that had been placed before me to answer the call of God and become a candidate for ministry. Ever since, I've had this kind of dual tension running within me – a tension which calls me to use my aptitude and gifts with computing technology and my call to ministry, a tension which will never be resolved to my completed satisfaction, but a tension that is hopefully lived out in a creative mix of right and left brain activity, and a helpful mix of reason and mystery.
Of course the degree is a B. Math. but the discipline was computer science. It all came from an earlier aptitude that I discovered in high school, namely a facility with math and calculus. That's what led me to consider a career that would make use of those God-given abilities and to make a long story short, a seminal trip to what would become my alma mater for what was called a computer science day for high school students began a story that has given shape to my life ever since.
This nostalgia laden interlude is almost over. I just want to say that part of my fascination with mathematics very early on, came from consideration of constructs which seemed to give me a vision of how we could attempt to quantify the concept of mystery. I don't remember when I was first introduced to the number infinite – but what a magical idea it was to think of something going on without end. Somewhere along the way I learned about the number Pi – a number which describes something so common in everyday life – with its association with a circle – and as we know circles appear everywhere – just stop for a moment and see how often they appear and yet cannot be pinned down to an exact definition, for the decimal places in the calculation of Pi just keep going on and on and on. Computer technology has enabled us to calculate Pi to millions of decimal places, but in the end it is just an exercise similar to the climbing of a mountain – done because it is there for the doing.
I can still remember sitting in Math class one day and being led to consider the idea that between every finite point on a line there was a seemingly infinite number of points – a concept that invites us to think in some ways in four dimensions – not easy for the human brain to do.
But are these not images of God? Are these not ideas that invite us to imagine the transcendent, mysterious nature of God – going beyond our imagination to places and depths that defy description. Note that I say depths – God is not just out there, but also in here. Can we limit how deeply God can occupy our souls and spirit. Yes there is a limit to how deep we can go within us physically, but when we are talking about depth of spirit, depth of personhood, depth of relationship is there any limit?
Mathematics gives us a language by which we can begin or attempt to describe or define something that us undefinable or indescribable. I remember one of my more interesting computer classes was in something called Numerical Analysis. Numerical Analysis involves using computer programmes to generate increasingly accurate approximations of functions and formulae. I won't go into any detail – partly because the details have by now escaped me, and partly because it would likely make little sense to most of you anyway. However what I do want to tell you about that particular branch of computer science is that it accomplishes with very great accuracy something that can never be completely accurately described. Put simply, and I hope there are no Computer Science professors or practitioners here to correct me – numerical analysis tries to define infinite.
So why all this consideration of math and computer science? Well it came to mind because of the number three! In case you haven't noticed, numbers are pretty significant in the biblical record. I was sitting with some of the residents of Aven Manor on Thursday afternoon in my turn for the weekly worship service. I had chosen to read a passage with them from Leviticus – a passage which lays out in very clear fashion the importance of the number seven as it applies to the concept of sabbath. One out of every seven days was to be considered a day of sabbath. But more than this, seven times seven in years – which adds up of course to forty-nine is a signal that the following year – the fiftieth year is to be a year of jubilee. The point is that there was great fascination with numbers – another being the number forty – notice how often it occurs in the biblical story, along with the number twelve. Music to the ears of a young math whiz it was when I first started thinking about these things. Perhaps my reveries at worship about these things made the fact that I was there somewhat under threat a little more palatable – who knows, and I don't remember.
Back to the number three. Maybe you've already figured it out this being Trinity Sunday after all. It is maddening to me when certain theologians, preachers and spiritual leaders take something like the concept of trinity – which while it has some basis in scripture is not really a scriptural concept at all – and use it as a limit. God can only be three – which admittedly is a step forward from the boundary defining idea that God is one, is an unnecessarily constricting definition. Three is better than one, but it is the very idea that three is an expansion of the idea that God can only be defined in one way that gives power and strength to the trinity. If we can widen our circle of description and definition of God to three, then surely this sets a pattern for expanding our understanding of God even further. Bring Many Names – not just one or even three. Consider many metaphors, examples, descriptions, and understandings. This is what the Trinity says to me.
A couple of weeks ago, as you may recall, I was involved in my role as Conference President in the Celebration of Ministry service in High River. This service along with being a worship service is one at which people who are serving in ministry are recognized, commissioned and ordained. In unity across the Christian church there are certain practices that are recognized as being universal. One of these practices includes the words that are used in baptism and in such other rituals such as ordination and commissioning. As is often the case, the choice of words and commonality of practice requires a certain amount of compromise. And so the words that are almost universally – and certainly I could say in mainline Christianity are universally accepted – the words that are to be used in reference to God is known as the Trinitarian formula – further more narrowly defined as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. These are the words that are accepted across the Christian church, and as such they are the words that we are supposed to use in baptism and as I said in services where people are recognized, ordained and commissioned for ministry. I was the one given the responsibility to say those words, and as you may guess – the non-inclusive nature of them was a problem for me. So I asked if I could change them and the answer was yes – that I could say more than that, as long as I used the words that were given as well, and so I that's what I did. For me, that is a freedom allowed to me by the very fact that the trinity has come along post-scripture – a freedom to grow the definition we have for God beyond the past practice. And what did I say instead: Great Spirit God, Creator, Mother and Father, Son and Holy Spirit – still limiting in one sense, but truer to my understanding of who and what God is. For someone like me, and possibly you, who understands infinite at least in part as a metaphor for God – it is a step along the way.
I leave the final words today on this topic to that great theologian Buzz Lightyear who probably did not know that he was offering a description of God when he said: To infinite and beyond! Amen.