Watch and Listen

SJF • Trinity 2011 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness...”+

We come today to Trinity Sunday, the day on which we are invited to think about who God is rather than what God has done — although with that wonderful reading of the story of creation from Genesis still in our ears, there is ample opportunity to reflect upon what God has done!

Thinking about the Trinity is something that theologians just can’t seem to get enough of. They also often don’t know when to stop! There are distinct dangers in trying too hard to understand what is beyond our comprehension. It’s especially hard if one has a curious and inquiring mind.

I learned the danger in that as a child of six when I tried to dismantle my mother’s wristwatch — all that exercise got me was a hopelessly damaged watch, and going to bed without supper and with a sore behind and, and an earnest talk from my father trying to explain — in terms that my child’s mind could understand — how much more valuable my mother’s Hamilton wristwatch was than even all of my toys put together. Strange to say, after all that, I still became a theologian!

But maybe it was because of that. Perhaps it was my father’s willingness to offer an explanation that did it. And surely it is good on this day which is Father’s Day as well as Trinity Sunday, for me to remember and give thanks for my own father, God rest him. For even though he gave me a good shellacking after my misdeed with the watch, he also took the time to explain what that watch was worth in terms I could understand. He didn’t teach me anything about its mechanism — which I as a child had vainly sought by taking it apart. But he did teach me about its value — and surely that is what a good theologian is called to do, especially when it comes to the Trinity.

As my father sat on the edge of my bed while I pouted under the covers, he held up one of my toys, a wind-up tank, and said, “Toby, do you understand that your mother’s watch cost more than a hundred of these?” I was awe-struck. A hundred tanks! What an armored division that would make! All the toy soldiers in my plastic army would not be able to stand up against such an assault! And it slowly dawned on me, How awesome is the value of that tiny wristwatch. I did not learn how the wristwatch worked, but how valuable it was.

My father took the time to explain the value of that watch in terms I could understand and in the form of a metaphor — a parable, if you will. My father taught me how to teach.

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And I pass along this teaching. God is not to be taken apart in the vain search to understand how God works. Rather God is someone to be supremely valued — valued as worth more than all creation. Even after we have taken in all of creation, in awesome wonder, our final word should be, How great thou art!

God is to be supremely valued, and loved — and listened to. God is, after all, more like my father than like my mother’s watch. Not only did I learn more from my father than from the watch, but my father showed his love for me — even though at the time the discipline was painful! — especially in taking the time to teach and help me to see where I had gone wrong. God is not to be dismantled, but to be listened to — and listened for.

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Author James Hamilton tells a story that resonates with my own childhood. In the suburb where I grew up some people still didn’t have refrigerators. Many had moved to Baltimore from the mountains of West Virginia to get jobs in the post-war boom, and they brought their iceboxes with them. The iceman would still come down the alley behind our houses with his horse-drawn ice-wagon, selling slabs of ice just the right size to slide into the compartment of the icebox — do any of you here still call your refrigerator an “icebox?” My father always did — in spite of the fact that he worked his way through night-school — studying to become a school-teacher — in the appliance department at Sears! So even though we had a Kenmore in the kitchen, it was always the “icebox” in our house.

The ice in the wagon came from the icehouse, where it was made and stored. Our neighborhood icehouse made the ice with a compressor, but back in the old days they would harvest it in the winter from the frozen river near which it stood. The slabs of ice would be covered with canvas and sawdust until it was time to deliver them. The long, low icehouse had no windows, and the thick door sealed shut to keep the coolness in. The ice would be secure there behind those well-insulated walls.

Well, one midsummer day, one of the workers in the icehouse discovered he’d lost his pocket-watch. It had been left to him by his father, and he was really upset to lose it. He searched up and down, pushing the sawdust with the big broom they used, but with no luck. The other guys helped him, but they couldn’t find the watch; and then they began to wonder if maybe he hadn’t lost it somewhere else.

Kids such as myself used to hang around the icehouse, especially in the hot, humid Baltimore summer, because when the men loaded the ice on the wagons with the big, scary metal pincers, occasionally a block would drop and shatter, and the kids would scramble for the sliding shards of ice, to rub on their forehead or the back of the neck, or to let the cool water drip over their heads. (I could use one right now!)

One of the kids was watching and listening to the men looking for the missing watch, and when they went off on their lunch break, shaking their heads and shrugging, he snuck into the icehouse, and closed the door behind him.

The dim light bulbs were spaced far apart, and even with them on there wasn’t much light; all to keep the ice from melting. The air was cool and he could see his breath, the first time he’d seen it in six months. And it was very, very quiet. The thick walls and sealed out all the heat and all the sound. He looked around at the stacked-up blocks of ice, like building stones mortared with sawdust, covered with canvas shrouds. He imagined he was inside the Great Pyramid, a silent, ancient tomb.

He saw a flat spot in the sawdust about his size, went over to it, and laid himself down; he folded his hands across his chest and closed his eyes thinking about Boris Karloff in The Mummy and keeping very, very still. And in that stillness, he could hear the sounds that ice makes as it gently creaks, and the drip-drip-drip of the water as it slowly melts off. But soon he began to hear another sound. Tick-tick tick-tick tick-tick tick-tick.

And after a few moments of careful listening, he got up and walked across the sawdust to right where the watch had fallen, stuck half under the edge of a slab of ice, wedged tight in a fold of the canvas and covered with sawdust. All of the men’s searching and sweeping had only pushed it deeper. And when he emerged into the bright summer afternoon, even though squinting against the sun, he greeted the astonished iceman with the watch he thought he’d never see again. And as a reward he broke him off a nice fresh corner of a slab of ice, just for him, pure sweet cooling ice that had never touched the ground.

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If God is like a watch — he’s more like that one. We won’t find God by sweeping up a sawdust storm of theological speculation. As the Psalmist says, I will still my soul and make it quiet like a child upon its mother’s breast; or, as I will add, this Father’s Day, like a child in its father’s arms. God is holding us close, and loves us dearly, this unsearchable and sublimely valuable God of ours, and all we need do is listen — listen — and we will hear the beat of the heart of the One-in-Three who called the whole world into being. Listen! Upon that breast, and in those loving arms, we are carried day by day, by this loving God whom we know by Name as the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.+