The Rev. Dianne O’Connell

First Congregational Church

June 19, 2011


Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31

John 16:12-15

2 Cor 13:11-14

A Trinity Sunday

Elephant Walk

Good Morning!  It’s Trinity Sunday, Men of the Church Sunday and Fathers Day, all in one. That’s a tall order for a sermon.  I have to admit when I started to put together today’s thoughts, it felt something like one of those school writing assignments – “take a rubber ball, a sailboat, and an old telephone book and use them in an opening paragraph of a short story.”  I think it best perhaps to address each issue separately.

  First, let’s start with the Trinity.  If we celebrated the birthday of the church with enthusiasm and commotion last Sunday, this week, we snap back to our senses and determine to be more intellectual.  We’ll see how that works out. In their attempt to better understand God, the heavy-duty theological thinkers over the years have traditionally dissected God into three parts – an Ultimate Creator many of us experience as Father, an Earthly Transitional Being many of us experience as Divine Sibling, and the third aspect, many experience as an inexplicable Presence among us, or Holy Spirit. It’s a bit like a Divine Nuclear Family – and all the roles are necessary, we will find.

This past winter, if you remember, I asked members of the congregation to come up with some sermon ideas.  I received all sorts of questions and suggestions.  One question came from Ralph and I’ve saved it during the intervening months for just this day – Trinity Sunday.  Why three?, Ralph asked.  Why not God in Four Parts?  Or a Blessed Seven-Part God?

It was Kate who sent me searching for a Sevenfold understanding of God.  Remember the bulletin last week?  “At Pentecost the Holy Spirit descended, and with a mighty wind and cloven tongues of fire for a moment overcame human differences,” Kate wrote.  “We received the seven gifts of the spirit: wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord.”  Congregational Church members were invited to wear red to represent the flames, and red rose petals were scattered to symbolize the presence of the Holy Spirit in each of us. 

Seven is one of those special numbers.  Remember the Seven Deadly Sins? Wrath, greed, sloth, pride, lust, envy, and gluttony. And the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.  And the Seven Seas. And then there were the Seven Dwarfs. To the ancients, I’ve been told, “seven” actually was another way of saying “many.”  Seven would not have been too many to describe the ways of experiencing God, but seven was not the chosen number.

No, the ancient theologians settled on Three to represent Divine wholeness, or perfection.  It takes at least three lines to enclose anything.  Therefore, “three” stands for that which is solid, real, substantial, and complete.  Perfect.

Time is divided into three:  past, present and future.

All Matter is divided into three kingdoms:  Animal, vegetable, and mineral.

So, all that is Divine is divided into three: God the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Together: Divine Wholeness.

Three is not the only perfect number, by the way.  Seven as we’ve seen, represents spiritual perfection; ten represents numerical perfection; and twelve represents governmental perfection, i.e., the Twelve Tribes of Israel, the twelve disciples, etc.

The Tuesday evening Dine and Discuss group has spent a year with Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan – so I always make a point to look up with Borg or Crossan have to say on any given subject.  I was not disappointed when I plugged in Crossan and Trinity and came up with Crossan’s reflection on trinitarian structures he has found in all religions. 

“All religions that I have ever known or can ever imagine are trinitarian,” he states. He goes on to explain that most stories of a religion’s origins include an Unknowable Force, a First Believer/Hero, and a translator, a mysterious divine presence, who can make the experience real on the earthly plane.  These are actually my words – Crossan used the phrases Ultimate Referent, Material Manifestation, and Faithful Believer.

It was hard enough to see myself baptizing a child in the name of the Unknowable Force, the First Believer, and a Mysterious Divine Presence; absolutely impossible to baptize a child in the name of the Ultimate Referent and the Material Manifestation, although Faithful Believer might have worked.

Last week, I described the mysterious divine presence, the Holy Spirit, in terms of Wisdom, the female aspect of God.  The reading from Proverbs this morning speaks of Wisdom and refers to her in terms of the female gender.

It is only appropriate, however, that I note that in the reading from the Gospel of John this morning, Jesus speaks of the Holy Spirit or Divine Counselor using the male gender to describe this aspect of God at work in the world.

The Holy Spirit, or Wisdom, really transcends gender, but for me, she will always be She. It makes the Trinity more complete, more perfect, for me.

But I liked what Marcus Borg said during the final episode of the Dine and Discuss Series.  We can spend our time splitting hairs on theological concepts like the gender of the Holy Spirit, or pre-destination, or transubstantiation – and while worrying about such minutia, we just might miss the whole message of Jesus.  Borg says the message is really quite simple:  Those who chose to follow Jesus were to do two things, Love God, and Promote Justice among people here on earth. And how do we do that? By being who we are right where God has put us.  I’m going to try to explain my thoughts here in terms of both people and elephants.

The Presbyterian calendar declares today to be Men of the Church Sunday, to sort of expand on the traditional recognition of Fathers Day and to explore the notion that it takes a whole village to raise a child.  I’d like to start my explanation here by thanking each of the men of First Congregational Church for just being you.  Some of you do manly things like move chairs, install ovens, cook marvelous stuff, fix windows, change light bulbs, you know what you do.  Thanks for all that, but mostly I’d like to thank you for just being you. 

When we come to church on a Sunday morning, or a Tuesday evening, or whenever, our main motivation is probably not to deepen our understanding of the Trinity – but in a strange way, we may very well begin to live the Trinity – by participating in  an expanded community, through becoming a part of a spiritual extended family, by moving toward a Divine, yet personal, Wholeness.  Note the title of the sermon: Maybe it is time to bring in the elephants.

            I’ve been known to use the illustration of three blind men attempting to describe what an elephant is like.  The elephant represents God, in this case.  The first blind man takes hold of a leg and declares the elephant is like a mighty tree.  The second blind man grabs a tusk and declares that the elephant is like a massive spear.  The third blind man grabs the elephant’s tail and states that the elephant is like a thick, strong rope.  All three are accurate in their descriptions of what they have experienced about the elephant, but I’m sure we would agree that they each still had a great deal to learn about elephants.

            A whole herd of elephants seemed to be camped out in my brain this week, but I really wasn’t sure why.  I sensed that I had met these animals before, but it took a few days for me to remember where. It was more than eleven years ago – I looked it up on the Internet. It was on a game reserve in East Africa and these elephants had taught me the importance of male influence and a complete community on the development of young pacaderms.  This is a little esoteric, so please bear with me a little longer.

            It was back in the year 2000, I remember the story vividly now. At least thirty-six rhinoceros, including some rare black ones,  had been mysteriously killed by being run through with what looked like big, thick spears. The situation was getting serious.

            Park rangers and conservationists staked out the place and waited to find out what or who were killing the animals.  It turned out to be a gang of young elephants – sort of out to make trouble, attacking and killing the rhinoceros with their tusks, for no other reason than that they could.  But why?  This was NOT normal behavior for elephants.

            Well, after putting their heads together, researchers remembered that these young elephants were actually orphans.  The older males of the herd had been culled out several years before when these youngsters were just little Dumbos.  Now that they were entering puberty, there were no old bulls in the herd to serve as proper role models.  An interesting theory developed.  Park rangers scurried around and imported six old bull elephants from a different game reserve and introduced them to the herd.  :::Ahem:::

            I can see the old bulls lumbering off the trucks, walking out onto the savannah, shaking their heads, and fixing an eye on those young elephants. Researchers report that the young elephants shaped up immediately and their offensive behavior ceased.

A similar problem was identified in a separate game park.  Ten good-sized bull elephants were sent to seriously influence the young elephants there.  Sure enough. No more dead rhinoceroses in the second game park either.  Today, park rangers are considerably more careful when they contemplate messing with the gender balances in African elephant herds.

            It should be noted that these elephants were not biologically related to the younger elephants; they weren’t even mated to the female elephants in the herd; they were just big, bull elephants that knew it was wrong to jog across the savannah killing rhinos.  Their mere presence and rational behavior patterns affected the level of run-away hormones in the teenagers.  It takes a whole herd to raise a responsible, young bull elephant.  It takes a whole herd to raise a responsible, young cow elephant, too, I’m sure.  And some of us more mature elephants just are happier when our community includes men and women, younger and older friends, friends from a variety of backgrounds with differing talents and interests.  Where do we find communities like that?  Very often right here at church.

            So on this Trinity Sunday, maybe we don’t focus particularly on the Number Three, but rather on what it represents. Divine wholeness.  Completion. Perfection.  Where and how do we experience Wholeness?  From where does our spiritual Authority come?  And I mean all the good that proper authority can represent?  My prayer for us is that we continue to seek to build a more perfect elephant herd within which we may:   Do Justice, Love Mercy, and Walk Humbly with Our God.  Amen.


Please join me in Hymn No. 450                       “God the Spirit, Guide and Guardian”



May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ,

And the love of God, and

The fellowship of the Holy Spirit

Be with you all. Amen.

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