The Trinity: A Doctrine Worth Believing

Trinity Sunday, today we celebrate the three-in-one, the one-in-three. Today we hold the feast of the life of God: Father, Son, and Spirit. Today traditionally, the preacher begins with some jokes about the difficulty inherent in this teaching. Oftentimes that is because the rector has wisely assigned Trinity Sunday to an unsuspecting assistant. Watch out Marc, next year you’re tackling the doctrine. The other traditional jokes are math jokes. Today is the day we celebrate that God is bad at math 1+1+1= 1. God has an issue with arithmetic.

We live in a time that is uncomfortable with doctrine. I’ve heard The Episcopal Church described as “non-doctrinal,” as if not having doctrine was a selling point. Come over here to our church. You don’t really have to believe anything to be a member! In a sense that is true. We don’t have litmus tests. I won’t ask you to sign a statement of faith. I am serious when I say, “whoever you are, wherever you are on the journey of faith, you are welcome here.” But don’t mis-hear me when I say those words. Don’t hear me say I don’t think belief has value.

The Trinity is worth believing, even though the doctrine didn’t develop until two or three hundred years after Jesus’ death. Scripture doesn’t use the word “trinity,” and these two short passages from Second Corinthians and Mathew’s Gospel are the only places in the whole Bible where the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are mentioned together. The early church fiercely debated, even fought battles over this idea of Trinity. They say that many of the bishops that turned up at the Council of Nicea were missing ears, eyes, or arms. They had been to war over this doctrine.

Is a doctrine really worth fighting over? Is it worth losing life and limb? The early church mothers and fathers believed this teaching was valuable. Belief has value. Faith is worth the wrestling. For me, this doctrine of the Trinity, this teaching of the Triune life of God, is life-giving. This morning I want to talk about just two ways I find the Trinity, and idea, a doctrine, to be worth believing. I want to talk about the Trinity and creation, and I want to talk about the healing potential I believe the Trinity presents to our divided world.

First: Creation

In that long reading from Genesis we heard about the “seven days” of creation. Know that I do not believe that creation happened in seven literal days. I don’t view Genesis as a Science textbook, a cosmological or geological record. Genesis is theological. Genesis is the story of God’s relationship to creation.

Did you notice the moment at the very beginning? Darkness covers the face of the earth, and a wind from God sweeps over the waters. Even in the first sentences of the Bible there is interplay in the inner life of God. Then God spoke: “Let there be light.” And immediately Christians turn from Genesis to the first chapter of John’s Gospel. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” So in the beginning, if you splice together Genesis and John, you have God’s Spirit and God’s Word named alongside God the Creator. There is interplay in God’s life, even in the Biblical stories of creation. God is not some static stoic creator, but a dynamic relationship. And God is not done with creation, until humanity has been created.

Meister Eckhart the Christian monk and mystic once explained the inner life of the Trinity, and the creation of humanity this way:

“The Father laughed, and the Son was born. The Father and Son then laughed together, and the Spirit was born. The three then started laughing and humanity was born.”

Now, the early church teachers would have come after Eckhart with a sword because he makes it sound like God created the Son and the Spirit. Hopefully they would’ve been assuaged when he said: “it’s poetry!” In that poetry we have an image of the joy, of the laughter, of the relationship at the heart of God’s life. God is about relationship. Humanity is meant for relationship, with God, with fellow humans. We are not in this alone.

We life in a time when our relationships are strained. We can see the evidence on an ecological level. Oceans are rising. Ice Sheets are melting. Species go extinct with regularity. If God had made creation a democracy, I’m not sure humanity would when another term as leader. My vote is with the dolphins. I say that kiddingly, but the more we learn about our planet, the more we learn about an intricate balance of relationships that keeps our biosphere in motion. If we are going to survive, we have to learn to live together. To borrow a term from Eckhart, we have to learn to laugh together, to laugh together with creation, or we might be doomed.

I don’t want to lower the stakes here. I am concerned about the state of our planet. I’m worried for the future of our species. Yet, here’s my hope. This ancient belief, The Trinity, for me provides the diagnosis. We live in broken relationships, with one another, with creation, with God.

But if the Trinity provides a diagnosis, the doctrine can also give us a clue where to look for treatment.

“Learn to laugh together,” Eckhart would say.

As we were traveling down in El Salvador last week, my friend Grace made a fascinating observation. Some of you know Grace. She has a Sunday morning job at another church that keeps her away from our worship services, but she often serves with us at the Trinity meal for the hungry and she comes to evening programs. She came with us to El Salvador, and Grace had a real insight into why I, and so many people say they feel “at home” in the country. People often remark on the hospitality they find in El Salvador, it is a hallmark of the culture. Salvadorans take the time to greet you, to ask you how you are, to really listen.

Grace noticed that, among the Salvadorans, people weren’t “on edge” politically with us, in the way we seem to be with each other in the United States. When she said that, I thought, yeah.

Have you felt this “on-edge-ness”? Have you found yourself not really listening to another person, just readying your “talking points” on a particular political topic? I know I have. Have you found yourself on the receiving end? I’ve said something that set off a reaction from another person. I’ve even set off a set of “talking points” I agreed about. Someone recently tried to convince me that we need stronger gun laws, because they thought I had said something I didn’t. We are on edge.

Grace noticed, in El Salvador, the edge was off. People spent more time listening to one another, and less time correcting. Now stay with me for a moment, because I think Grace’s observation has something to do with the Trinity, with the life of God.

The Franciscan priest Richard Rohr says that “on edge” tension can be called “dualism.” We are set up, in our culture, to see “this” or “that,” “black” or “white,” “male” or “female,” “gay” or “so-called straight,” “conservative” or “liberal.” (The truth is dualism is in El Salvador as well, but sometimes cross-cultural encounters can break through). But dualism is a trap, says Rohr. We are taught to look for the other, the opposite, and to oppose. We don’t hear nuance. You are with us or against us. That tension of the two poles, the opposites, is not of God, Rohr says, at least not how we understand God in Trinity. Trinity breaks apart the idea that there are just two options. There is always a third way. We can move past dualism. What does non-dualism look lie? Like all the colors of the rainbow.

Today at church we’re wearing our rainbows. We’re standing with the thousands in Washington DC, and around the country, marching for equality for the LGBTQ+ community. Being a member of that community has also challenged me to grow past dualism. The LGBTQ+ community have been spiritual teachers for me. Every time I think I have our community fitted into little boxes in my mind, sorted into “this or that” they challenge me to expand. Heck, every time I think I know the acronym for my community, we add a letter. Now we have Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and “Q” (which stands for Queer and Questioning). Then this year we decided to add the symbol “+” for all the groups not named in LGBTQ. I try and keep Holy Communion on the leading edge of welcome to the LGBTQ+ community, and so I added the “Q” to our sign this year, but then I got distressed when I discovered that our letter and symbol kit for the sign outside doesn’t have a “+.” I’m sure God will forgive us this year, but I’m looking into ordering more symbols. I figure I’ll be proactive and I’ll by some emojis while I’m at it.

The spiritual wisdom of the ever expanding LGBTQ+ community is, I believe, the same wisdom in the Christian teaching of the Trinity. God is one, and yet God’s very one-ness is a dynamic diversity. Every time I think I have God nailed down, sorted, defined, God surprises me. Saying God is three-in-one, one-in-three, it is to say that at the very heart of God is a love of difference, and the ability for difference to come together in unity. God’s very life is an embrace of diversity.

The Trinity leads me to ask: What if we treated one another as equally beloved? What if we encountered difference not as a problem to be corrected but as yet another facet of God’s image? What if we didn’t set ourselves up for opposition, but listened and laughed, and added letters onto the description of our community? What if we learned to listen to creation, and to adjust our use of resources to live in better balance? What if we trusted that God was with us in this dynamic search?

Those “what if” questions for me are worth the asking, and more. Those “what if” questions may be our only way forward. This is why I think belief matters, why if you are still walking the journey of faith, I invite you to consider the Trinity. It’s not a cosmic joke. It’s not bad math. The Trinity is a description of God’s life: The triune God, diversity in unity, the loving-laughing non-dual force behind creation. The Trinity can bring hope in a world of broken relationships.

#Wearyourrainbow to church this June

June is LGBTQ+ Pride month, and I have a proposal for you. Wear a rainbow to your house of worship. It could be a scarf, a pin, a ribbon, or a clergy stole. You could even pin a rainbow flag on your back like a cape. But I propose that you wear the pride flag as a symbol of support WITHIN the religious community.

A few weeks ago I was asked by a local PFLAG chapter to speak as part of a panel about religion and LGBTQ+ identity. As I listened to the other panelists and the audience stories, I was reminded how often religious spaces are oppressive to the queer community. I heard story after story of pastors kicking kids out of youth group, conversion therapy, thoughts of suicide motivated by religious belief. As a priest, who happens to be a gay man, the stories were heartbreaking. As a Christian, I don’t believe in hate. I believe God created and God loves LGBTQ+ people. I believe diversity is a blessing. I know so many faithful people who value their queer sisters and brothers, and who value their religion.

So I am asking you: “will you wear your rainbow?” If you are in a church, like mine, that openly embraces the LGBTQ+ community, have fun, take a big group selfie. If you are in a congregation that doesn’t talk much about LGBTQ+ people, or where the pastor and other members may hold a different view, will you still show your support? It may feel risky, and you may be surprised how many folks come up to say “thank you” or who want to talk more about your views. Complacency gets us nowhere. If the narrative about faith and LGBTQ+ people is to change, faithful people have to show up and show their support.

The rainbow has been a symbol of the LGBTQ+ movement since 1978, when Jim Baker a San Francisco designer and drag performer created the first modern Pride flag for a march being organized by Harvey Milk. All through the month of June, rainbow flags fly to celebrate LGBTQ+ Pride. Will Pride flags fly from our churches? Will we proclaim publicly, in and from religious spaces, that God loves ALL God’s people?  Will you #wearyourrainbow this Pride month?

This Sunday, June 11, is a particularly important Sunday for religious visibility around the issues of LGBTQ+ rights. This Sunday there is a National Equality March for Unity and Pride in our nation’s capital. My former church, St. John’s Lafayette Square, is marching. Here in St. Louis, I’m asking our congregation to participate virtually by wearing their rainbow to church.

“Spirituality” A sermon for Pentecost

Pentecost, today, we celebrate the gift of God’s Spirit, the coming of the tongues of flame, what we used to talk about as the “Holy Ghost.” This day begs a series of questions: “what do we mean, as Christians when we talk about “Spirituality?” What (or who) is this “Holy Spirit?” and finally, “Why bother with Christian Spirituality? What is at stake?”

I confess, I sympathize with the sentiment expressed in the popular phrase: “I am spiritual, but not religious.” I understand why people want a distinction. Religion in the eyes of the twenty-first century can seem old-fashioned at best, and often religion can be downright regressive.

While I sympathize with the sentiment, for me, the jig is up. (If you can’t tell by my outfit, I’m pretty pro-religion). But here is my caveat: while I can understand WHY people use the label “spiritual but not religious,” I can’t really tell you what they mean.

It seems to me that “spirituality” is something you might be able to buy at a specialty bookstore, you know the kind that smell like patchouli and feature a number of wind chimes? There you can pick up your copy of the Zohar, along with some prayer beads, a locally made beeswax candle, and then you can go home, light incense, and chant “OM” to your hearts content. Is that what we mean by “spirituality?”

The confusion for me comes because to call all of this “spirituality” is to divorce the practices from their originating traditions. You can say holy words. You can sit in the lotus position. You can click beads through your fingers. But by doing so, I don’t think you’re getting “less religious,” if anything you’re piling the religion on thick. And as I said, I think religion is a good thing. Go ahead. Any practice that helps you slow down, hold silence, anything that helps you get to a contemplative space is good in our busy world.

For Christians, spirituality can involve chanting, prayer beads, silence, meditation, even prayer postures. Spirituality can involve a rule of life, a simple set of practices that give shape to your faith. Such a rule can be simple: pray daily; worship weekly; give generously; serve joyfully; learn constantly; make pilgrimage yearly. Such a rule can be as complex as the book handed down by St. Benedict to his followers. No matter how structured your spirituality, a word of caution to spirituality enthusiasts: these practices can take lifetime to develop.

There is an old Zen story about a young convert who comes up to his master after experiencing what he believes is enlightenment. The old teacher listens patiently and then says: “If you meet Buddha on the Road, kill him.”

Like most Zen stories (and like many of Jesus’ parables) this tale is meant to trip up the hearers. Think about what the master says. “Kill the Buddha.” Any Buddha you meet on the road is not the fullness of the Buddha. Any supposed enlightenment you experience so quickly is not the fullness of enlightenment. Beware the early epiphanies. If you experience them, keep going. Don’t get stuck.

There is another deep truth in this Zen story: it is good to have friends and guides. Spiritual directors are not just for clergy people. Gatherings in homes to read the Bible and to pray make good groundwork for the journey. The journey of faith is long, and like any long journey, the walk is easier with companions.

We’ve talked a bit about what practiced Spirituality can look like. But for Christians “Spirituality” isn’t a nebulous concept. Spirituality is specific. It refers to a person of the Trinity, of the Godhead, God’s Spirit, living with us. That very wind which blew over the waters of creation, the wisdom which brings depth to God’s followers, the Spirit of truth and justice which was upon Jesus as he proclaimed good news to the poor. Spirituality is specific, it’s about God’s spirit.

Let’s turn to this morning’s scripture for a moment. In the Gospel Jesus speaks to his disciple’s at the last supper. Philip’s anxiety is echoed around the table. The disciples are nervous about Jesus telling them he’s leaving. So he promises them “an Advocate.” God will send the Spirit. The Spirit abides within you.

Jesus may have ascended to heaven, but God has not left us. God’s Spirit dwells with us, here, now. You know this Spirit, Jesus tells his followers. Christian Spirituality is about access. Through practicing our faith, we access God’s Spirit, always present to us. Across the spectrum of Christianity those practices may look very different. Holy Rollers may find themselves on the floor. Catholics might sit in silence with rosary beads. Protestants might find inspiration in Scripture. Here at Holy Communion, we gather round a table week by week. All these practices help us to become available to the Spirit which dwells with us, remains with us, abides with us.

So, what’s at stake? Why bother with all of this Spirituality mumbo jumbo? Let me venture an answer to this question based on recent experience. A group of 13 of us returned Thursday from a trip to El Salvador.

There is a story about El Salvador’s martyred Archbishop Oscar Romero that I believe gets at the stakes of spirituality. Romero was famed for his faithful practice. When you visit his little house, you can see the rosary beads that he wore out by praying so often. It was rumored that the Archbishop spent an hour in prayer each day. The story goes that someone asked Romero: “with all that is going on, with the death threats, and the political organizing, and the preaching, with all that busyness bishop, how do you find time to pray for an hour a day?” Unblinking Romero answered him: “on the busy days, on the anxious days, I need two hours.”

The story from Acts reminds us of the prophet Joel’s words about God’s Spirit: “In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.” The day of Pentecost, for us, is a day of celebration. Holy Communion set a series of goals last year, and we’ve met or exceeded all of our goals. We are learning to dream dreams. We are learning to make a prophetic witness in the world.

In Joel’s eyes Spirituality is not a navel-gazing activity. Spirituality is prophetic. When practice our faith, we are sent out, out into the world with a vision for justice, with prophecy. Spirituality is about accessing God’s vision, that another world is possible. The stakes are high. Too many in our world go hungry. Too many live in fear of gun violence. Too many in our world lack access to basic human rights because of their gender, age, sexual orientation, race, religion, ability or other status. We are too divided.

On this day of Pentecost we celebrate that God poured out the Spirit on every race and language and people and nation. We celebrate the indiscriminate love of God, the wide dreams of God, the sweet Spirit in this place. We pray that we might listen to the Spirit still guiding us today so that we might leave this world a little more welcoming, a little more open to diversity, that we might leave this world a more loving community.

Happy Pentecost. May the Spirit of God, who abides with you, lead you to deeper faith and prophetic work for justice.