The Church that Feeds People

Pentecost service


Go with the Flow

150531_coverIsaiah 6:1-8

Year B, Trinity Sunday

When Fr. David first asked me to speak on Trinity Sunday, I was really excited. For several weeks I had been thinking about the Trinity and how it shows up in various cultures around the world. When I discovered we’d be reading from different translations at the 8:00 and 10:00 services, I started getting nervous. And then I actually looked at the readings.

The readings!?

How in the world was I supposed to talk about the Trinity or come up with a cohesive insight from these passages? The call of Isaiah, an ecstatic Psalm, Paul talking about adoption, and Jesus’s conversation with Nicodemus—seriously? None of these is exactly solid “Three-in-One” material on its own, and they certainly aren’t when mixed together!

I started to think David had set me up. Maybe he read ahead and decided to pawn these off on someone who didn’t know any better. I actually thought about giving up. But I had said I’d speak, so I decided to give it a try. I went back to the passages and re-read them. Then I read them again. And again. And again.

After nearly two weeks, it struck me: the readings are all related. And they tied in with some of my earlier thinking about the Trinity, too!

Now, people have tried to explain (or explain away) the Trinity for millennia, and I have no illusion that I’m going to resolve the mystery today. Saint Patrick used the example of a clover—three leaves, one plant. Jonathan Edwards wrote about the Father and Son and the living Love that flowed between them as its own distinct being. Others relate it to a triangle or a family with two parents and a child. I’d like to add another point of view.

Please take out your bulletins and look at the image on the cover. It’s called a “mitsudomoe,” and it’s a symbol from Japan’s indigenous religion. When I first saw it, I thought it looked cool, but I figured it was just a logo without any real meaning. Kind of like I had thought about our Bible readings for today—nice, but what do they have to do with each other? However, just like with our readings, there’s a lot more going on here than it first appears.

There are a couple ways of looking at the mitsudomoe. Let’s start by considering the white space inside. That three-armed shape is called a “triskellion,” and variations of it appear in cultures and carvings throughout the world. In the Japanese version, I find it looks a lot like a blade, and a nasty one at that—something you might see a Klingon using in Star Trek. It’s obviously designed to spin, and either way that thing spins, it’s going to hurt. Whether a weapon or a mower or a saw, there’s no doubt it’s going to destroy anything in its path.

That’s what Isaiah must have been thinking in our Old Testament reading. He has a vision of God’s glory and majesty, but it terrifies him. He compares God to himself, and God is so incredible and big that the prophet assumes God must be out to get him. He can hear the angels crying out about God’s glory, but it makes no sense: all he knows is fear. Nothing he or anyone else could try would possibly alter or appease that kind of power, so he falls into a crushing despair. He wants to run from this doom, but he knows the effort would be useless. Like a giant fan, the blades are pulling him in.

Suddenly, one of the angels comes to him, performs a little ritual, and everything changes. Now instead of hearing about God from the angels, Isaiah actually hears God speaking. And instead of hiding in terror, he jumps at the holy invitation and runs to join the Divine work.

What changed?  Nothing indicates that God or the vision itself changed. Nothing about Isaiah as a person actually changed (yes, there was a purification ritual, but rituals are for people, not gods. A flaming coal can’t literally burn away someone’s sin). So what did change here?

It was Isaiah’s perspective.

Let’s look at the mitsudomoe again. Instead of focusing on the white part, take a look at the black part. Each one of those three tadpole-looking things is called a tomoe. Each one is complete on its own. Each one feels alive, like it has motion built into it. But when you bring them together, they become something more. They create a circle, and not just an ordinary circle: they create a vortex, like a whirlpool. That vortex creates a flow of energy drawing everything toward it—a flow I think of as the work and will of God. Working together as a mitsudomoe, the three identical yet individual tomoe draw us in a way that a single one couldn’t accomplish alone. Stare at the symbol long enough, at its perpetual motion and stillness, and you’ll get dizzy—you start to lose yourself. Stare at God’s wonder long enough, and you’ll do the same.

Just like our perspective on the mitsudomoe can change, Isaiah’s perspective on God changed. When he stopped worrying about being good enough for God or being afraid that God would even notice him, instead of seeing the triskellion, those sweeping blades of judgment, he saw God as an invitation, this amazing energy welcoming him to join its continuing work. Dizzy and giddy with relief and riding the unending flow of that power, Isaiah couldn’t help but join in.

Today’s Psalmist obviously experienced something similar. David isn’t just contemplating God intellectually. This isn’t a school theory project for him. He isn’t standing back and watching something calmly from a distance. He’s on the edge of that swirl, that great divine flow, and he’s ready to fall straight in. He feels the ground slipping underneath him, but instead of being afraid, he’s excited! How can he describe God’s wonder? Thunder, fire, a tornado, a roaring river, an earthquake—there aren’t enough images for his excitement. He acts like a little kid shouting for his friends, “Come see this! You guys have GOT to see this!”

I think that same perspective change is what the Apostle Paul was referring to as our adoption as children of God and what Jesus himself was talking about as being “born from above.” Neither of those things has to be some strange, esoteric rite. It isn’t something exotic or distant from any of us. It’s simply waking up and responding to that continuing invitation to join in the greatest good of all time.

For most of my life I’ve been privileged to stand on the edge of that flow, mostly observing, but sometimes actually getting my feet wet. I’ve been building up courage and starting to wade in deeper. Occasionally I even feel my feet starting to slip. It scares me. And I like it. I think you might, too.

Today, I welcome you to follow that same invitation that Isaiah saw, that Paul and Jesus spoke about, and that David practically swam in. Please get your feet wet with me. Together, we can all “go with the Flow.”

Jonathan Hanneman
St. Dunstan’s Episcopal Church
Shoreline, WA

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