The First Sunday after Pentecost, Trinity Sunday: May 27, 2018
The Rev. Katharine Flexer, Rector of St. Michael’s Church
So if I were to ask you to turn to your neighbor and describe God, what would you say?
Now don’t worry – this isn’t one of those sermons where I make you actually talk to one another. But think for a moment about how you would answer. I’ve heard different people over the years share their image of God. Some describe Jesus, others a feeling instead of an image. Some describe a mother. But the image I hear more than any other? The old man, with a beard, sitting on a throne. The old white man, to be precise.
And I get it – for many years my first instinctive answer to that question, “what does God look like?”, was Fr. Wally Bristol, the kindly old rector of my childhood, with white hair and beard and spectacles. Even when I knew him well enough to know his clay feet and that he was just human, and knew my theology well enough to say that of course God doesn’t look like that – there he would come, swimming into my mind’s eye, as soon as someone asked my image of God.
I love Fr. Bristol, may he rest in peace. But there’s a real problem with that image.
Today is Trinity Sunday. The Trinity is one of those doctrines we sometimes pretend to love to hate. It can feel abstract and obtuse. Yet the doctrine of the Trinity is at the very heart of the Christian faith. Like everything else we’ve come up with to say about God and the world, the doctrine of the Trinity is really an expression of what people have experienced in their lives. The tangles of Greek philosophy in the 4th century were attempts to put words to the sense people had of God. God was one, and yet experienced in different ways: as the creative force in the world, and so they called God Creator or Father… God in the life and death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, so they called God Son…God as still active in the world, so they called God Spirit. The doctrine of the Trinity was a way, however inadequate, of summarizing what the Bible says about God – creative love incarnate in Jesus Christ and experienced in the community of faith…love lived out in relationship.
The doctrine of the Trinity gets a Sunday all to itself, because it says something fundamental about who God is and how God acts in the world. God is community – God is relationship. God is three in one – community is right there in the very essence of God. No one of the three is ‘more equal’ than the others, none is the one secretly in charge. All three flow into one another, in a constant and divine dance, each making room for the other and each filling the other. Much different from the old white man looking down from the throne.
But this is not just an interesting idea about God. Any doctrine about God or image of God ultimately comes back to us – if we say God is like this, then this tells us the way we are to live. So when we say God is community, that means that we’re supposed to live ourselves in community, with other people. We’re made in the image of God, as community. We aren’t just autonomous creatures in pursuit of self-definition and fulfillment – despite what Western culture might teach us. We aren’t separate from the fate of others, their cares and their joys. We aren’t some of us secretly in charge, or ‘more equal’ than others. We are made instead to be at table all together. There’s a famous icon of the Trinity attributed to Andrei Rublev that shows the Godhead as three angels seated around a table. On the table is a cup, which the three figures are gesturing toward. We, the viewer, fill in the fourth side of the table – the idea is that we are invited into that community and invited to drink of the cup that they share. The community of God’s self has room for us.
The problem is there’s still that old white man on the throne. We’ve arranged our world accordingly. Our world is marked and broken by our inability to live in this kind of community.
At our last diocesan convention, the reparations committee of the Diocese of New York asked us to commit to a Year of Lamentation, ‘to learn about, reflect on, and mourn this diocese’s involvement and complicity in the institution of slavery.’ Today has been set as a Sunday of Lamentation, a time to focus a bit on this topic – a bit heavy for Memorial Day weekend, maybe, but important nonetheless. I’m not sure if the alignment with Trinity Sunday was intentional or not – but it lays out a sharp distinction. On the one hand, a doctrine of the unity of God; on the other, the reality of human disunity and brokenness.
I’ve been reading a book by Jennifer Harvey called Dear White Christians. Harvey argues persuasively – and painfully – that the church’s attempt at racial reconciliation is a flawed enterprise. We are not just ‘red and yellow, black and white,’ a spectrum of colors on the rainbow that can each learn to appreciate the other and come around the table in harmony and happy diversity. Our very concept of race extends from colonial oppression and slavery – the intrinsic right of ‘white’ people to own and subjugate people who are deemed ‘not white.’ Before any real reconciliation can happen, the author says, a debt must be paid, active work must be engaged, white supremacy must be dismantled – by concrete efforts on immigration, the criminal justice system, access to quality education, fairness in housing, and a whole host of other areas in which our system is structured to support white privilege. That is the argument for reparations. It’s a provocative argument and a complicated one, and I confess that I, as a white person, am still trying to fully get my head around what it all leads to. It’s a lot harder than everyone getting together to love one another right now.
The reparations committee in the diocese noted that the first step in redressing the wrong is to lament our history and our present. And indeed, when we look at the icon of the Trinity seated in hospitable fellowship around the table, it looks nothing like our world. There is such trauma and oppression built into the very fabric of our culture and our economy. Our history poisons our communities and our children and our future. There is much to lament. But perhaps the very lamenting is one way to begin truly loving one another.
The Franciscan writer Richard Rohr writes on the destructive imagery of God as Zeus on a cloud – a leftover from pagan days, actually – in contrast to what is actually our orthodox faith in the Trinity. Instead of top-down hierarchical thinking, with an old white man at the top in the divine realm and therefore also in the earthly realm, the Trinity offers a theology of self-emptying love. Rohr notes, “The Jesus path is a constant visible lesson in both allowing and handing on, receiving and giving away what is received…To step into what this mighty river of God’s mercy and restorative justice has always been doing — challenging idols of totalizing false oneness under their guise of uniformity, while allowing the flow of many streams together into genuine oneness.”
For that Jesus path to happen, we have hard work to do.
St Michael’s folk have long celebrated the mix of people here in this congregation. No matter who you are, one person said to me, you come in and see someone else like you. That is a gift indeed, and one of the blessings God has given this community. But we know it is not an end point. It’s a starting place, a very good starting place, for us to work from. First to lament and name all the brokenness of this hard world, and especially all the brokenness resulting from centuries of slavery and subjugation – in our history, in our present, in our own lives and hearts. And yet also, to be nourished by the Trinity here at table together, dancing together, inviting us into that love, empowering us with Jesus’ spirit of mercy and justice. And nourished by this table, we can labor together in ways big and small to change what this world looks like – so it is more like a dance and less like a throne room.
God’s generous invitation to all of us is to come to the table, to come and gather around it in all our differences and diversity. God longs for us to be part of the feast of love. To do that, some of us have to receive, and some of us have to give away. No one claims it’s easy. But the work itself is an act of love – even as we weep and lament with one another, and with God. The cup the Trinity invites us to share is, after all, a cup of sorrow, Jesus’ blood poured out for us. But that sorrow is also life; dying to one way means rising to another. God desires for us to be free; God desires for all God’s children to live as we are created to be, full, abundant human beings. May we all receive, and so may we live.