Sermon offered May 31, 2015
By Rev. Dr. Amy Ruth Schacht
A Complicated God
A quick lesson in the Christian Calendar, because while all around us we’re celebrating graduations and transitions and the beginning of summer, in God’s time, today is Trinity Sunday. Yes, a lesser-known holy day in the Christian calendar – no one wakes up early, or counts down the days, or buys presents or plans special menus for Trinity Sunday! Honestly, we don’t even understand the Trinity – It remains one of the big stumbling blocks in inter-faith dialogues. To Jews and Muslims it seems we Christians are fudging a bit on monotheism with our “Three in One” God.
Trinity Sunday reminds us that we do worship a complicated God. Every year on the Sunday after Pentecost – Pentecost is when we celebrate the birthday of the church and the gift of the Holy Spirit, we celebrate this trinity of a God. The present God gives the church of the divine presence, present with us every moment. Follow? Yeah, clear as mud. In brief, Trinity Sunday is when we celebrate what we traditionally have called the Three-Persons of God: Father, Son and Holy Ghost.
Here’s the main issue I have with Trinity Sunday: First, understanding the Trinity as God in three persons, blessed trinity, is beyond the average human mind. Maybe string theorists or quantum physicists get it – Those people who really, really can wrap their minds around how the things we see can be two places at one time; how the things we see are made up of waves that are really particles that are really waves. But for us regular folk, who live in the physical world, we know the world through our 5 senses, not through mathematical theory. Secondly, although many theologians throughout the ages have loved to debate the nature of the Godhead – in fact, stories of how the town butcher and baker all argued just how divine the person of Christ, splitting folk between the Nicene Creed – begotten, not made – and the Apostles’ Creed – back when people really cared about such things – Well, today you are more likely to find such heated arguments between mac aficionados and pc loyalists – computer types. Why should we care?
So it’s an esoteric debate that seems irrelevant to our lives. But here is why it matters: Because Trinity Sunday, our Triune God, is less about three distinct separate beings, or a division of labor between the persons of the Trinity, than it is about the relationships our divine maker literally embodies. It is what is between this arbitrarily defined threesome that makes all the difference, not their separateness.
God’s very existence depends on relationship, just as our very existence does. Our brains develop and grow, and our lives matter, only insofar as we interact with one another. There is no separate me and separate you; there is only us. Which is a challenge to understand when we’ve got Paul here dividing the world between our “flesh” and our “spirit.” Because that is a false dichotomy, a false division, as well.
What is a thought? What is a feeling? What is a decision? What is our Spirit, our soul? But a measurable, physical reality of a complex interaction of neurons, synapses, hormones, bio-chemicals, neurotransmitters, the complicated chemistry that makes up our memories and our experiences and our interpretations of our memories and experiences. It all has a biological, that is, physical, real, fleshy component – Not that we understand it all, and definitely NOT that we can reduce a human being to a mess of chemical interactions. My point is that we are our bodies; our bodies are us. In spite of how our bodies, our flesh, have gotten a bad rap over the eons.
So what is Paul talking about here? Richard Rohr explains it really well when he points out that the problem is not that we have a body, but that we think our body is separate from who we are, and that in our bodies, we are separate from everyone else. Paul is saying that our physical bodies have true life when we have the Spirit of Christ in our hearts, but that it is our flesh – Which Richard Rohr suggests means more our “egos,” or our “false selves” gets in the way. Our “false selves” show up when we compare ourselves to others, when we think our lives matter because of the work we do, our children matter because they are prettier or smarter or stronger.
As many of you know, Thursday afternoon my son Ben graduated from high school. The week before, he mentioned that out of the 12 Howard County High Schools, 10 ranked in the top 50 in the state, 11 in the top 60. The one that didn’t even make the list? His high school, Hammond High. You can bet that was on every teacher and administrator’s mind as we all gathered to celebrate the class of 2015. And Marcy Leonard, the Principal – she had been feeling the heat – No one wants to be last on the list, but you sure don’t want to be the principal of a school that doesn’t even make the list. Apparently the higher-ups were giving her some flack about Hammond’s less-than-competitive test scores. That was the context when she gave her graduation speech, with some help from the faculty and staff ad hoc chorus.
She started off asking the graduates how they will look back and measure their last year of high school – There are five hundred twenty five thousand six hundred minutes in a year, and there are lots of ways to measure a year, especially when you look at the numbers that go along with your senior year in high school. She asked, “@ill you measure it by your GPA? How many goals you scored, your teams’ win-loss record? (If you are familiar with Hammond sports, that’s a quick way to feel like a failure, by the way.) Will you measure it by how many clubs you joined, how many AP classes you took, your SAT score, your ACT score, the awards you won.” Of course, by now I am in tears, but that is when the ad hoc teachers’ chorus started singing a song from the Broadway musical “Rent,” that starts off: “Five hundred twenty five thousand six hundred minutes, how do you measure, measure a year.”
And she went on for awhile, about all the ways the seniors could measure their life – Their salaries, the cars they will drive, the degrees they will earn, the titles after their names. The chorus of the song from Rent goes, “In five hundred twenty five thousand six hundred minutes …. How do you measure, a year in the life? Let's celebrate: Remember a year in the life of friends … Remember the love.”
Of course, that was her point – That is the true measurement of our lives – How we are connected to each other, how we honor and celebrate and care for those connections. There is no you and me, there is only us. What matters is what is between us, not the accomplishments of any individual one of us. Last weekend, while the rest of us went to open up our River House on the St. Lawrence River, my daughter stayed with a friend because of tests and academics, and she went to church with this family. When we checked in by phone, she just said, “Mom, we went to church, and I have a LOT of opinions to share.” This is what she told me: Her friend has grown up in this church, just like Sadie and Ben have grown up in this church. No one said hello to Kristina or her family. No one talked with them, and they didn’t talk with anyone else. Sadie was flabbergasted, but then, at the end of the service, when they were just walking out, she was like, “Wait! Where are the cookies? You don’t have any cookies? How can this be church?” Her friend said that the church was just too big to provide cookies for everyone …. But Sadie knew, cookies aren’t just about the cookies, and if everyone contributed, it wouldn’t be too much of a burden.
My daughter isn’t a real fan of church, of worship – You may remember as a toddler she spent church trying to get out of her uncomfortable clothes; as an elementary student she spent the hour drawing; as a middle schooler she told Session at Confirmation she wasn’t too sure what she believed, but that she was only 13 and she figured she was going to spend the rest of her life figuring it all out. Then she showed up in her trademark high tops and hair dyed – At least it was liturgical red. But she knows that while worship isn’t her cup of tea, she also knows that church isn’t about the numbers, or the rock music, and it isn’t about worrying all about the non-believers. It’s so hokey, I know – But when we start thinking it is all about us as individuals, we’re lost. So when the Apostle Paul talks about how the flesh gets in the way – He means just that – when our focus on our little prince and princess selves, our own egos and what they need – we’ve lost our connection – To God, to each other, to what really matters. When we celebrate the Trinity, we are reminded that relationship is the core of who our God is, and how God made us to be – There is no love if there is no one to share it with. And this past week, as I watched my kid graduate from high school, I was so, so grateful to this church, for growing my kids into their most faithful selves – Ben’s kindness, Sadie’s compassion for the underdog – For how here, whoever you are, there is a place for you here, today and always – And we mean it.
Whether you stormed out of here angry swearing you’ll never come back, whether you’ve never stepped foot in this place, whether you’ve gritted your teeth through some conflicts, or lost your temper, been foolish, been wise, been hurt, helped someone heal - we know God here in our relationships – with each other, and with the world. We might take that for granted, just as my daughter did, but this Sunday we’re reminded: We are in this together, and we only exist in our connections and relationships. It is true biologically, developmentally, and theologically.
This is where we are known and formed by the love of Christ. What matters most is what is between us, for even that reflects the true nature of our triune God. Thanks be to God.
But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you. So then, brothers and sisters, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh, for if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God.