There is an old tradition in the church: on Trinity Sunday, rectors do their best to get someone else to preach. If they have a curate or associate priest, he or she gets the pulpit on that day. If not, they try to invite some old retired priest to fill in (as Rachel has done today). No one really wants to preach on Trinity Sunday, the only day of the Christian year given to the celebration or commemoration of a theological doctrine, mostly because theology is dull, dry, and boring to most people and partly because this particular theological doctrine is one most of us get wrong no matter how much we try to do otherwise.
We try in all sorts of ways to explain the Trinity, through diagrams, through analogies, through some really bad and usually silly similes and metaphors. Most such explanations are less than convincing, and virtually all are theologically problematic. As Brian McLaren has observed:
Seemingly orthodox Christians expose themselves—often to their own surprise—as closet adoptionists or Arians, unconscious Nestorians or Apollinarians, or implicit monophysitists or monothelitists.
So I’m going to leave Christian theology behind for a moment and ask you a question from another religious tradition: “What is the sound of one hand clapping?”
This sermon was first preached on Easter Sunday, 2001, at St. Francis of Assisi in the Pines Episcopal Church, Stilwell, Kansas, where I was rector from July 1993 to June 2003. I had thought it lost when that parish abandoned its internet domain after I left that position. However, at the urging of a friend, I searched for it on the Internet Archive’s “wayback machine,” and was surprised to find it. I have updated some of the references and corrected some mistakes to publish it here. I have always thought it a pretty good sermon, and I guess others have thought so, too: in the course of researching sources to update the footnotes, I found that a rather large chunk of it had been reproduced in full, without attribution, as the pastor’s 2019 Easter letter in the newsletter of a Roman Catholic parish in Scotland.[A] (As my fellow Anglican cleric Charles Caleb Cotton wrote in 1824 – and Oscar Wilde later quoted and expanded – “Imitation is the sincerest [form] of flattery.”[B])
Easter is a joke. Amen.
(The Preacher steps out of the pulpit, perhaps even returns to his chair, then returns to the pulpit.)
OK … I guess I should explain that. What is a “joke”? Princeton University’s WordNet Dictionary says, in one of its definitions, that a joke is an “activity characterized by good humor.” Can you think of a better way to characterize the resurrection of Jesus than as an “activity characterized by good humor”? The Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth was God’s activity of the highest and best humor!
I wrote in our newsletter, The Canticle, that the Sunday we call “Easter” is really not a separate feast day; it is the third part of a three-day celebration that begins at sundown on the previous Thursday, the day we call “Maundy.” This three-day celebration is called by an ancient Latin name, “the Triduum.” The Triduum is a single celebration in three acts. We have arrived at Act Three in the drama of redemption.
does not travel
from A to B to C
in a neat and orderly fashion.
It starts at A
heading in the direction of B
but takes a detour to A-prime
and then to 1
from which it may turn to 1(a)
or possibly to 2.
After touching on 2,
it leaps to Red
and then Green.
Perhaps at this juncture,
it bounds back on track for B,
but when it gets there,
instead of heading in the direction of C,
it may pause and catch its breath.
It may, in fact,
and never get to C.
Until 2 a.m.
when the phone will ring
and a voice will say, “C!”
–– C. Eric Funston
29 January 2020
When I was a kid growing up first in southern Nevada and then in southern California, the weeks leading up to Christmas (we weren’t church members so we didn’t call them “Advent”) were always the same. They followed a pattern set by my mother. We bought a tree and decorated it; we set up a model electric train around it. We bought and wrapped packages and put them under the tree, making tunnels for that toy train. We went to the Christmas light shows in nearby parks and drove through the neighborhoods that went all out for cooperative, or sometimes competitive, outdoor displays. My mother would make several batches of bourbon balls (those confections made of crushed vanilla wafers and booze) and give them to friends and co-workers. Christmas Eve we would watch one or more Christmas movies on TV, and early Christmas morning we would open our packages . . . carefully so that my mother could save the wrapping paper. Then all day would be spent cooking and watching TV and playing bridge. After the big Christmas dinner, my step-father and I would do the clean up, my brother and my uncle would watch TV . . . and my mother would sneak off to her room and cry. You see . . . no matter how carefully we prepared, no matter how strictly we adhered to Mom’s pattern, something always went wrong. We never got it right; Christmas never turned out the way my mother wanted it to be.
Some years later, I read the work of the Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai and I understood what our family problem was.
Lenten Journal, Day 23
I linger over coffee
but I rush through eating an orange
I pour my coffee slowly and deliberately
savoring its aroma, craning my neck
to position my nose over the steam
breathing in the rich, roasted chocolate scent
earthy and acid, dark and mysterious
but I quickly peel an orange
ripping the rind from the flesh
putting asunder that which God had put together
I take contemplative sips of my coffee,
a half a mouthful at most,
meditating over its mellowness,
crispness, brightness, fruity palate, floral bitterness,
but I stuff my mouth with whole sections of orange,
sometimes two, sometimes three,
and crush them rapidly into pulpy juiciness
imagining my jaws acting like the juicer
of the lemonade vendor on the carnival midway
Lenten prayers are coffee and oranges
sometimes thoughtfully, carefully prayed,
sometimes hurried and rushed
sometimes a little of both
– C. Eric Funston, “Lenten Prayers,” 29 March 2019
I’m not preaching this week, but if I were . . .
I often read poetry as part of, and frequently as a substitute for, a homily. This is especially true on “high holy days” when the liturgy and the lessons of the lectionary speak so eloquently that the attempt at exegesis seems at best irrelevant and at worst intrusive, e.g., Good Friday or Palm Sunday. On such days, in such liturgies and with such lessons, the poets seem to get and to give the message so much better than I can.
There are two poems that I’ve used on Palm Sunday which look at the story focusing on or speaking through one of the often-ignored characters, the donkey which carried Christ into the city of Jerusalem. One is Mary Oliver’s The Poet Thinks about the Donkey in which the poet expresses her hopes for the animal. The other is G.K. Chesterton’s The Donkey in which the animal speaks for itself.
Lenten Journal, Day 22
Today is the 20th weekday in Lent … the season is half over!
I thought I would write some poetry, but it just turned into a limerick.
Christianity is not about pie in the sky by and by
It’s not about getting a ticket to heaven when you die
There’re no guarantees
when you fall on your knees
That a voice will answer when you ask “What?” or “When?” or “Why?”
No guarantees. That’s life. There is a Lenten guarantee, however. It ends with Resurrection.
Lenten Journal, Day 19
A pink spot, sort of,
transparent, sort of,
maybe even not there, sort of.
First seen on my eReader,
on my iPad,
on my laptop screen,
on my Galaxy phone.
Imagined, really, more than seen,
an after-image of an after-image, maybe.
Lenten Journal, Day 17
Somewhere in memory is a room
Its walls are Navajo White, or possibly pale yellow
It is furnished with twin beds with quilted, green spreads
There is a dresser on the wall opposite the beds
Between the beds, a table with a lamp and a radio
The wall next to one bed holds the door to a closet
And on that wall, next to the corner of that wall and the dresser wall,
Is the door into the room
The middle of the wall next to the other bed is pierced by a window
It is the front wall of the house
And the window looks out onto the street
Lenten Journal, Day 7
There are leaves
Littering my yard
The moldering detritus of fall
Disturbed dancing in an insistent zephyr
Crumbling into dust
In the Wind moving across the surface
The oranges and golds in which
They once were dressed long gone
The beiges of their nude undergarments bared
Their dusty echoes fading
They have lain thus
Blanketed by snow
Under untrustworthy white
As my sorrows and sins
Have slumbered ‘neath
The eagerness of Advent
The joy of Nativity
The surprise of Epiphany
But spring has come
Lent warmed by burnt palms
Melting prior seasons’ deceits
Baring the moldering detritus of life’s mistakes
Blowing it away crumbling
A streak of ash dancing
“You are dust…” it sings
“You are dust…”
“You are dust…”
Its dusty echo fades
“You are dust…”
And a Voice answers
“You are my friends!”
– Lenten Leaves, C. Eric Funston, 13 March 2019