A God Who Cannot Be Explained (But Has to Be Experienced)
St. Philip Lutheran Church
12 June 2022 + The Holy Trinity
Rev. Josh Evans
After four years of seminary, including two years of field education placements, and now nearly four years into ordained ministry, I’ve reached the stage of my preaching career where my sermon prep usually begins with a quick search through my manuscript archives to see what I’ve preached on a given text or Sunday before.
It turns out that I’ve preached on Trinity Sunday three times before: once in 2018 at a pulpit supply gig; once in 2019 at my previous congregation; and once again, most recently, just last year, here at St. Philip.
It also turns out that all three sermons … are pretty much the same.
So, for those of you keeping score, over the course of eight years, all I have to show for the profound wisdom I have to offer on the Holy Trinity is exactly one sermon preached three times and one TikTok video I made last year that now, inexplicably, has over 20,000 views across my social media platforms.
If that doesn’t speak for itself as to how baffling of a liturgical day this is for preachers everywhere…
Let’s face it: This is a weird Sunday. Much of our liturgical calendar is centered around concrete events and stories: the birth, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus; his earthly ministry and travels with his disciples; the descent of the Holy Spirit and the beginnings of the early church.
But Trinity Sunday is a day about … a theological doctrine. A philosophical idea. It’s a little harder to wrap our minds around.
Trinity Sunday is a day when we try to define and explain God. Almighty and eternal God. God who is beyond time and space. We try to explain this God in the neat confines of a ten-minute sermon, inside of the boundaries of an hour-long liturgy – and yet, we also acknowledge that God himself/herself/themself will not and cannot be confined or bound by the limits we place on God.
This might leave a preacher to wonder: Why even try?
When you think about it, very few people in the Bible have had direct encounters with the Divine, outside of the person of Jesus. And when they did, it changed their lives forever.
Moses wasn’t looking for God the day he stepped away from his flock to see the strange sight of a bush that was ablaze with fire but not consumed by it. If anything, Moses was actively trying to avoid God – on the run as a fugitive from Egypt, having just killed an Egyptian who was beating a Hebrew slave. It didn’t matter how high up in the court and family of Pharaoh he was. Moses was always still an outsider in his adopted family and never quite fit in. And so he fled for his life, leaving behind everything he had ever known…
…and now God was calling him back?
Moses musters up every excuse he can think of, but God meets Moses’s hesitation and excuses with a promise: Ehyeh asher ehyeh. A sound as simple as breath and yet deeply profound: I am that I am… I will be what I will be.
As inexplicable and mysterious as the bush that was blazing but not consumed is the God whom Moses encounters. A God whose very name is mystery:
I will be what I will be. I have been what I have needed to be for you before. I am what I need to be for you now. And I will be whatever I need to be for you next.
God is mystery. So far beyond our human comprehension and understanding. And yet at the same time, so deeply personal – a promise as close to us as our own breath.
I wasn’t looking for a call to ministry when I sat in the sanctuary of the church where a group of us had gathered for a small group leaders retreat. I had just graduated from college. Seminary was like one of those incredibly vivid dreams that suddenly vanishes from memory the moment you wake up – or in my case, the moment I came out as gay.
It didn’t matter that I had found this new church that was founded explicitly as a LGBTQIA+ affirming community. It didn’t matter that the group I was preparing to lead was a faith formation group specifically for LGBTQIA+ Christians.
All morning long, I looked around at everyone else gathered there with me, thinking how much more qualified and experienced they all seemed – and how inadequate I felt by comparison. There’s no way I can do this. Who am I to think I can lead this group?
Later, during some free time when we were given no further instructions other than to meander around the building to reflect and meditate, I found an open pew in the quiet sanctuary. As introverted as I am, I’ve never been one for quiet, reflective spiritual practices, and so in an effort to pass the time, I opened a pew bible and started reading – from Exodus, chapter 3, of all places. Moses’s call story.
“Who am I that should go to Pharaoh?” Preach it, Moses! Who am I that should lead this small group? Pick someone else. Literally anyone else.
And then, as surely as God was speaking to Moses, God was speaking to me: I will be with you. I will be what I will be.
No pep talk. No reminding of my qualifications. (Though I wouldn’t have argued with that.) But a simple reminder of a profound promise.
A God who is mystery. A God who reminds us they have been, are, and will continue to be whatever we need them to be.
Not whatever we want them to be – but what we need them to be. There’s a difference. Moses and I wanted a God who would leave us alone. What we got was a God who never left us.
Today is a liturgical day when we might feel tempted to explain God, but as any preacher can tell you, most roads lead to heresy and will inevitably fall short.
Despite my overly pompous degree title “Master of Divinity,” I can’t explain God. And frankly, I’d be suspicious of anyone who tells me they can.
God cannot be explained. God has to be experienced.
You don’t have to go to the wilderness searching for a flaming bush that tells you to lead a mass exodus of enslaved people into freedom. And you don’t have to go on a retreat where you realize that maybe you are still called to ministry and your sexuality is not an impediment but a gift.
Sure, you can do those things, but it turns out that just about everywhere you look, there is God.
And where there is God, there should be warning signs.
Because if my story, the stories of our biblical ancestors, the stories of countless people of faith, and your stories too are any indication, the experience of that God will change your life.