Rev. Paul Mitchell
Vashon United Methodist Church
Recently I was walking the Shingle Mill Creek Trail with a new friend from Vashon. He is active in working to abolish the death penalty in Washington, a conviction we share. The more we talk, the more we find we have in common. Little did we know that as we walked, parents of children and families of teachers were identifying their slain loved ones after the school shooting in Santa Fe, Texas. A loner, someone who did not feel himself to be part of the community – who felt he had been shut out – had taken it into his hands to assure that nobody would enjoy “belonging” to community if he could not.
Now, it just so happens that my friend is Jewish. And as we walked I was telling him about my preparations for Pentecost – a holiday that Christians coopted from Judaism. In Judaism, it is Shavuot – the festival that remembers the conveyance of the Law to Moses – including what we call the Ten Commandments. That, too, is something we have that first belonged to the Jews. Some Christians hold the ten commandments in such high regard that they overshadow the significance and power of the Holy Spirit experience fifty days after the resurrection. Holding these two very different perspectives on Pentecost side by side, we begin to understand that Jesus is our law, and that human relationships – the lives of communities – cannot ultimately be governed by immutable regulations. My friend wondered aloud why the Doctrine of the Trinity is so central to Christians, and I had to admit that it has often resulted in more division than unity within and between communities.
Contemporary theologian N. T. Wright has this to say about the Doctrine of the Trinity:
“The doctrine of the Trinity, properly understood, is as much a way of saying ‘we don’t know’ as of saying ‘we do know.’ To say that the true God is Three and One is to recognize that if there is a God then of course we shouldn’t expect [God] to fit neatly into our little categories. If [God] did, [God] wouldn’t be God at all, merely a god, a god we might perhaps have wanted.
“The Trinity is not something that the clever theologian comes up with as a result of hours spent in the theological laboratory, after which he or she can return to announce that they’ve got God worked out now, the analysis is complete, and here is God neatly laid out on a slab. The only time they laid God out on a slab [God] rose again three days afterwards.
“On the contrary: the doctrine of the Trinity is, if you like, a signpost pointing ahead into the dark, saying: ‘Trust me; follow me; my love will keep you safe.’ Or, perhaps better, the doctrine of the Trinity is a signpost pointing into a light which gets brighter and brighter until we are dazzled and blinded, but which says: ‘Come, and I will make you children of light.’”[i]
My friend admits his own struggle with the faith of his ancestors, especially as he faces the increasing atrocities, inequities, and degradations clouding our horizons. Judaism is famously a religion of the “via negativa” – built around convictions of what God is not, and how communities should not. The affirmations that Judaism and Christianity share – that we are created in the image and likeness of God, that God is all-merciful and ever-abiding – seem less and less certain. And the institutions that evolved to serve and preserve those convictions seem increasingly subject to worldly distractions: power, money, control, correctness, and – especially in these united states – individual rights and personal freedoms. My friend would likely describe his Judaism as “Cultural but not Religious.” I wonder, is that so bad? At least there is a sense of community. In fact, it may be the most precious and broadly shared conviction of Judaism – the inherited and tended community. That is the sensibility that is conveyed in the short Psalm 133 – one of the Psalms of ascent, that pilgrims to the holy city, Jerusalem, sang as they went up for festivals like Shavuot.
Eugene Peterson, whose reflections on the Psalms of Ascent originally inspired me to preach these series of sermons, says that to become Christian is inherently to become a member of a community. There is no choice in the matter. We may choose to attend worship or not, to engage in Christ-like service or not, to identify ourselves publicly or not, to proclaim the unconditional love and expectation of justice that we have come to know in Jesus Christ … or not. But we are inextricably sewn in, woven in, knit in to a body that is not our own, but is the body of Christ. Peterson says,
“[Community] is not [optional]…. It is part of the fabric of redemption…. God never makes private, secret salvation deals with people…. So the question is not, ‘Am I going to be a part of a community of faith?’ but ‘How am I going to live in this community of faith?’”[ii]
What does all this have to do with Trinity Sunday? Perhaps the Trinity is no more than a confusing distraction. Perhaps, like me, you resist the idea that we could even begin to know something so definitive about the interior life of God. In trying to explain to my Jewish friend just why I continue to hold a “Trinitarian View of the Universe” I shared the image that I used last Sunday of the conversation within God. I speculated that there is an internal Divine conversation in which one proposes, one responds, and one listens. That exchange might swirl and spin, generating and emanating the continuing energy and life of creation. This suggests to me that God is not static and unchanging, but dynamic and constantly transcending time and space – constantly putting the world back together again. God moves. God changes. And so should we.
You may be thinking to yourself, what is Pastor Paul going to ask us to do now? What crazy idea does he have up his sleeve this time. And you would be right – but I think it may not be what you are expecting. I want you to do something you’ve been doing – or at least someone has been doing right here for 134 years. I believe we are called to be a community in which each person is taken seriously – and delightfully, a community in which each person learns to trust others – especially others who are not quite like them, to be compassionate with others, to rejoice with others. The psalmist says, “See how good, how pleasant it is to live in community.” Human community, like the idea of the swirling, spinning trinity within God, is dynamic and changing.
Peterson goes on to say,
“Living together in a way that evokes the glad song of Psalm 133 is one of the great and arduous tasks before Christ’s people. Nothing requires more attention and energy. It is easier to do almost anything else. It is far easier to deal with people as problems to be solved than to have anything to do with them in community. If a person can be isolated from [relationships] and then be professionally counselled, advised, and guided, without the complications of all those relationships, things are very much simpler. But if such practices are engaged in systematically, they become an avoidance of community. Christians are a community of people who are visibly together at worship but who remain in relationship through the week in witness and service.”
The idea of the Trinity places relationship as the fundamental nature of being. We are not beings first but become beings through relationship. The alluring simplicity of being alone is part of the reason our social fabric is wearing thin. Being together is increasingly becoming a subversive, counterculture conspiracy.
I lift before you today an affirmation of what we have done, and an aspiration for what we might do. Some of you already know that the Catherine Carr gift that funded Hot Sauce! was only enough to fund two years of the program. Through fund-raising efforts on the part of the participants – the youth and their families – the program was extended into this year and will soon come to a close. At our potluck this past Thursday evening, we shared with the families that the leaders are moving on to other projects and the funding has run out. Hot Sauce! has been exactly the kind of Spirit-led effort that builds Holy Community – despite the fact that it’s not a “religious” program. It has created a safe space for young people who do not have other places they feel that they “belong” – a community in which each person is taken seriously – a small community built around listening deeply and belonging to one another.
Author Brene Brown defines belonging this way: “True belonging is the spiritual practice of believing in and belonging to yourself so deeply that you can share your most authentic self with the world and find sacredness in both being a part of something and standing alone in the wilderness. True belonging does not require you to change who you are; it requires you to be who you are.”
That is what we have offered here for a handful of lively, promising young people. Our Church Council grappled with the decision, and decided to continue to offer our facilities for a future “Hot Sauce!” – but not continue to fund it from our general operating budget. In no way do I want to second-guess or undermine their decision. But, I wonder, if we, as creative and compassionate people, made in the image and likeness of God, who is a community of unconditional love and dreams of all children thriving, might just find a way to rustle up $6000 a year over and above our operating budget to continue the community building that has begun. If each of us here give modestly beyond our regular giving, we can continue, step by step, to put the world back together again.[iii]
Will you join me?
[i] N.T. Wright, For All God’s Worth: True Worship and the Calling of the Church (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1997), 24.
[ii] Eugene Peterson, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction: Discipleship in an instant Society (Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 2000), 175-176.
[iii] Note: within two days, $4450 had been given or pledged for the Hot Sauce! program for 2018-19. As soon as we have the full amount we will begin to search for the creative and enthusiastic staffing to work with these important members of our community.