a sermon on Psalm 8
preached on Trinity Sunday, May 22, 2016, at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone
I spent the past few days with four hundred Lutherans at a hotel out on Long Island, serving as the parliamentarian for their annual synod assembly. While I’ve been Presbyterian all my life, I have a special place in my heart for Lutherans—my grandmother’s deep faith that continues to inspire me was grounded in her upbringing as a Lutheran, even though she spent the last fifty years of her life as a Presbyterian! So when I first began working with the Lutherans a couple years ago, I made it a point to let them know my more formal name, C. Anderson James. They even put it on my nametag that way! Everyone pretty quickly picked up that I go by “Andy,” but they also figured out that I have good Lutheran roots through my Norwegian family name!
As I stared at my nametag occasionally over the last few days, I was reminded of that age-old question: “What’s in a name?” For us, maybe it is family or ethnic identity, as it is for me, maybe some historical figure, maybe our parents’ favorite writer or artist or sports star, maybe an embrace of creation, maybe something we don’t even know about. While we may think carefully about the origins and meaning of our names, do we apply the same question to God?
Our psalm for this Trinity Sunday lifts up this concern loud and clear for us today: “O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth!” Nowadays, the name of God isn’t always that big of a deal, but in the psalmist’s day, this was a giant concern. One scholar remarks that in the ancient Near East of biblical times, names had unique power:
Names conveyed presence and the ‘nature, power, and reality’ of their bearers, especially in relation to their divine bearers. (Thomas W. Walker, “Trinity Sunday: Psalm 8: Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume III, p. 33, 35)
And for the Hebrew people, one of the divine names, Yahweh, was so holy that it was unspeakable. Even today, when it appears in scripture, faithful Jews replace it with another name for God so as to avoid saying it and compromising its holiness.
To a certain extent, Trinity Sunday as we celebrate it today is rooted in historic understandings of God’s name that had great importance in the culture and philosophy of the ancient world, but does that mean that we can pay less attention to the Trinitarian name of God today? I for one think that we can still learn a few things from this ancient and historic doctrine that we celebrate on this day.
For starters, in its very name this day reminds us of how complex God’s name has become in our Christian understanding—our Triune God, three in one and one in three, is made up of these three persons who each carry a different name, yet these three persons are interrelated in such a way that the works of one cannot be separated from the works of another. And the name of God in the Trinity is complicated further by the historic use of “Father” to refer to the first person of the Trinity. God does not have gender as we humans do, yet this historic name carries a connotation of maleness that disrupts that very understanding to its core.
God’s name gets even more complicated when we look at the incredible variety of names and characteristics attributed to God in scripture. Our last hymn gave us only a small taste of the different names scripture offers us for God, so it wisely reminds us “that no single holy name / but the truth that feeds them all / is the God whom we proclaim.” The issue of God’s name, particularly when thinking about the Trinity, is so incredibly complicated and confusing that it sometimes seems like it isn’t worth the trouble. And yet, amidst all this mystery and uncertainty and confusion, the psalmist demands that we confess the majesty of God’s name.
God’s glory is beyond all description, the psalmist declares, yet praises to it rise up from the mouths of babes and infants. God’s majesty is abundantly clear in the beauty and power of creation, and such incredible glory makes the limitations of our humanity stand out like a lump of coal in a field of diamonds. Even so, God still crowns us with glory and honor and entrusts us with the bounty of the earth so that we might share in the power of God’s name always. In all these ways, God’s name becomes real in the world—and we have the chance to bear it for ourselves, as we join in songs of praise.
But even the best human names for God can’t capture the fullness of who God is. Even our greatest attempts to capture God’s glory in human words will fall short. Yet we still must try. The Trinity is the best name we’ve been able to sort out based on God’s revelation in the Bible and prayerful reflection on this over the centuries, and it is still incredibly confusing, mysterious, and incomplete. And yet, we bear the name of the Triune God each and every day as we live in hope in our world. We bear the name of the Father, the eternal Parent, the first person of the Trinity, whenever we join in care for God’s creation, when we show God’s parental love in our relationships with one another, and when we cry out for justice for the fullness of God’s creation. We bear the name of the Son, a man named Jesus, fully human and fully God, whenever we work to understand God’s presence in the world, when we act to restore God’s intended wholeness to our world, and when we give of ourselves so that others might have the fullness of life. And we bear the name of the Holy Spirit, the eternal wind and fire, whenever we trust that God is present and at work in the world even now, when we embody God’s transformative presence in the midst of uncertainty or change or injustice, and when we step out in faith into the unknown wilderness yet with certainty that God will guide us along the journey.
But even beyond these incredible ways that we bear the work of the Holy Trinity into the world, we bear the name of the Triune God into the world whenever we live as the Triune God does. This living is at its clearest when we recognize that God is three and yet one and one and yet three—an incredible community of persons living and working together for the good of one another, three persons in an intricate dance that yet never gets out of step, three inseparable partners who do incredible work independently and yet for and with one another. And so we are called to bear this name of the Triune God into the world—not a God disconnected from other concerns or attuned to the needs of only a few but a God whose very being depends on being in relationship with others and joining with them to work for the transformation of the world.
This is an incredible and very different name to bear into the world. The complexity of this name can’t be spoken of or explained in only a few words. The community present in this name is difficult to live in our world where The wonder of this name can’t be whittled down to a checklist of steps to confirm our conformity to this doctrine in a matter of seconds. The mystery of this name can’t be figured out in a week, a month, a year, or even a lifetime. Instead, all that is in this name calls us to bear it differently. The complexity, wonder, and mystery of this name demand that we carry it with great care, with openness to different ways of encountering God because we ourselves have encountered God in so many different ways. The community in the triune name of God calls us to be people who aren’t about caring for ourselves so much as we care for others, focusing instead on how we live together as we embody God’s presence in the world. And the majesty in this name demands that in the midst of all this mystery and community we raise our songs of praise now and always. There is so much in God’s name—so much history and tradition, so much ahead for the future, so much reality, so much unknown, so much visible, so much still hidden, so much certainty, so much mystery. And thankfully, we don’t have to get the fullness of this name right all the time so long as we bear it into the world with us each and every day.
So may the majestic name of our Triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, strengthen us and go with us as we bear this name into the world in word and in deed now and always. Amen.