If you ever watched Saturday morning cartoons, you might remember a little three minute show called “Schoolhouse Rock.” These were short cartoons that tried to teach everything from multiplication to grammer to civics. The very first one of these was written by a jazz pianist, singer and composer named Bob Dorough in 1973 and it was called “Three is a Magic Number.” I won't try to sing it, but it went like this:
Three is a magic number,
Yes it is, it's a magic number.
Somewhere in the ancient, mystic trinity
You get three as a magic number.
The past and the present and the future.
Faith and Hope and Charity,
The heart and the brain and the body
Give you three as a magic number.
It goes on to describe it takes three legs to make a tri-pod and three wheels to make a tricycle, and that triangles have three corners and three sides. Before the serious counting begins, he sings:
A man and a woman had a little baby,
Yes, they did.
They had three in the family,
And that's a magic number.
The parents of those being baptized today might be interested in this last stanza. It alludes to something that system theory and family therapists know and that is that people in families and groups like to organize themselves in triads—groups of three. Two parents and a child make a triad. Two parents and two children makes two triads. Two parents and three children makes you... outnumbered.
Things come in threes—good or bad things depending on what you're counting—and in baseball you've got three strikes, three outs and you have to touch three bases before you can come home.
The songwriter is right. Three is a magic number.
Today, we celebrate the Holy Trinity. It is the only feast of the church set aside for something the Church believes instead of something that Jesus did or taught. Jesus never uses the word “trinity,” but in passages like todays Gospel he alludes to the biggness and the complexity of God by referring to God the Father being one with himself, who gives himself for the world, who will together send the Holy Spirit. The trinity is a doctrine, yes, but it is a doctrine and a description of God that grows out of people's experience of God and an attempt to explain this new experience of God to people.
Before the Trinity, people believed that there were different gods for different thing or functions—weather, earthquakes, fire—or for experiences like love, creativity, wisdom, power. In some cultures, gods were located in places or with people, as well.
The Jews understood that there is only one God, undivided, and that God did all these things and was in all these places. It took them sometime to really wrap their arms around the implications of this very idea. They used to carry around God's presence in a box, the tabernacle, and then God's presence was focused on the Temple. But time and exile and restoration taught them that God was bigger and more present that that.
Christians believe that God came to humanity and joined with humanity in the person of Jesus Christ. That in Christ, God is fully present in a person who is also fully human at the very same time. The idea of incarnation was shocking and strange to both Jews and gentiles—God cannot be divided and yet Christians were saying that the God of history and the God of heaven was present at the very same time in this person. Christians take it a step further because Christianity teaches that God is still fully present right now and available to people through and in the Holy Spirit. We are saying that God is three persons, undivided. Distinct personalities or natures, one substance.
Now you know why it took the Church the better part of four centuries to flesh out what they discovered about God.
On a more personal level, we tend to approach God using only part of us and so we get an incomplete picture. When we try to think through the Trinity, or just feel our way to God, or if we only use the artistic or the functional parts of our brains to understand, we will find ourselves stuck or confused or at least not satisfied. A lot of people give up on religion without really trying because we forget how multi-dimensional we are, let alone God! If we can't think it through, can't feel it all the time, or if we don't experience it here and now, we walk away.
We know the world on many levels. God knows that about us. God wants all of us not just our brains alone, our hearts alone or our hands alone. God relates to all of us and invites us to know the fullness of God.
Which is a good thing because God shows up in a variety of ways. God is Creator. And teacher. God is redeemer and the one who forgives and heals. God is spirit, who inspires creativity or insight, or who animates and motivates. And when we start to experience of the One God from anyone of these places, we begin to see what is that the Trinity is talking about. The challenge is not to make the starting place the only place.
Mary W. Anderson, wrote, a few years back in the Christian Century, about a memorable experience she had at—you guessed it—age three about the Trinity:
I was watching my grandmother sleep during her afternoon nap. As I contemplated her existence, I thought wisely. "That's Grandmama, Mamma, and Odell." She smiled in her sleep as I called her by the names used for her by her grandchildren, her daughter, and her husband. Three names, three relationships -- and yet the same person. Amazing!
How these three people are one people is at once obvious—it's right there in front of us—and a mystery. But in this simple way, Anderson describes the fullness that is us at the same time points to the fullness that is God.
But this fullness of God is not meant just to be talked about and is not for speculation alone. It is meant to be lived. Finally, the best way to understand the Trinity is to live it—to experience all the ways that God shows up in our lives and in our world.
Since this is our name-feast, and since we are launching a trio of people in their new life in Christ, let's look at how we live the Trinity at Trinity.
In this parish, we have a space which evokes majesty and beauty, we have worship which points us towards awe and causes us to sing. These are just some of the ways that points us to majesty and holiness of God.
But we don't just worship, we do. We care for the poor and the hungry, and we care for each other. We are present to people in need, we teach children and adults, and we give of our wealth, skills and time to make a real, positive difference in the lives of people.
Still, there's more to us than doing and worshiping. We are a community. We encourage and build each other up, we are pray for each other, and we discover in each other that God is at work changing us in great and small ways so that we become the people God made us to be.
The very delicate and yet natural work of living Christian community is in itself a sign that points to our relational, triune God.
The songwriter says 'three is a magic number.' And I think he is right. You need three legs for a stool and three wheels for a tricycle; there's faith, hope and charity; and when we look in a mirror or into the faces of the people we love, we see many faces and yet one face. Three and One.
God is like that too. Three persons, one God. The Trinity describes how God comes to us and how we glimpse the fullness of God.
We can talk about it. We can speculate. But finally the way to know the fullness of God is live it.
And while there are many ways to begin to know the Triune God, there is only one thing that God asks of absolutely everyone—you, me, and even Jesus--and guess what? It's that magic number, again. It's a trinity.
We are to love God with all our heart and with all our soul and with all our mind.