Today is Trinity Sunday, but I hope not to give a long-winded sermon about complicated doctrine. You may be used to saying, “I don’t understand the Trinity. The math doesn’t add up, 3 in one and one in 3, how does that work? Some year I should invite our rabbi in residence Rori Picker-Neiss to preach Trinity Sunday. I would love to hear a real monotheist wrestle with the Trinity. But since Rori isn’t here this morning, I want to take a different tack. I want to talk about what the Trinity teaches us about power.
Talking about the Trinity tends to lend itself to other statements we make about God, one of which is that God is “almighty” or “all powerful.” When we talk about God this way, how often do we stop and question what we mean by power? Does God’s power look like human power? Our world is rife with examples of power abused. Public hearings started this week examining the role of white power organizations and the former president in capitol riot. Beyond our borders, we have seen power concentrate in a small number of hands in terrifying ways in recent days. Autocrats start wars. Presidents in Central America acting like dictators, are using public health decrees and states of emergency to lock up political opposition. The right use of power has become a pressing concern.
The Trinity and Power
I wonder whether the Trinity might function as a corrective. The Trinity teaches us that God is a community of persons, and the early church insisted on a truth about power that surprised. God in Trinity is a community of radical equality. God the Father is not more powerful than God the Son. God the Spirit, who we don’t fully comprehend, is just as powerful, just as important. The persons of the Trinity are all coequal. Power, real power, is therefore relational. God’s power is always exercised in community.
This may be seem a strange way for a church leader to talk about power. The church can be pretty “top down.” The doctrine of the Trinity was settled at the same time that the church was inventing the idea of “hierarchy.” The word hierarchy was originally used to describe the ranks of angels and the structures of the church. Power came down from on high. In these early centuries, bishops were becoming more powerful. Certain bishops in certain influential cities were gaining titles like patriarch, metropolitan, and eventually archbishop and pope, that all comes from this era. We mapped a structure of power and said it was ordained by God.
But while the Church was inventing hierarchy, at the same time theologians taught something fascinating about God. The Trinity looks like it should be a hierarchy: God the Father on Top, God the Son Second, and honestly who knows about the Spirit… I’ve been using the traditional language, but know I’ll say something more about God and gender in a moment. The Trinity looks like it should be a hierarchy, a clear structure of power. But the earliest theologians held that in the Trinity, all three persons are equal. Even though we call one Father, one Son, and one Ghost or Spirit, all three are equally, fully, God.
There’s a tension in church. The church insists the heart of God was equity, and we kept building hierarchies. We keep organizing and blessing top-down power. Even Episcopalians, who somewhat pattern our church governance on the US constitution, with elections and co-equal houses in our legislative bodies, we love a hierarchy. We dress priests in fancy clothes, bishops even fancier. We like to know who is on top.
Hierarchy beyond the Church: Top Down vs. Bottom up Power
Now the church may have invented hierarchy, but the idea caught on fast. Universities compete with the church around questions of odd titles and silly dress. I sometimes laugh at the outfits I have to wear on Sunday, but go to a graduation you’ll quickly find something sillier on a member of the faculty. We likewise set up formal hierarchies in government and in business. We set up less formal hierarchies as well: in society, in schools, among friends. We tend to know the pecking order, don’t we? And we imbue even these informal hierarchies with a sort of spiritual power, like they are immutable, permanent, ordained.
In Jesus’ time rank and station mattered deeply. Think of the characters we meet in the Gospel: Emperors, Centurions, Governors, High Priests, Tetrarchs, Kings. But in the Gospel notice: the people with whom Jesus spent most of his time ranked at the bottom: Jesus shared a table with shepherds, fisherfolk, servants, lepers, Samaritans, sinners. Jesus balked at the power systems of the day. Jesus confounded the systems of “power over” others. Jesus practiced relational power, “power with” the marginalized, the outsider, the outcast.
The Trinity takes something of Jesus’ community ethic into the heart of God. Friends, what if the best image of God is a community living in perfect equity? What if we stopped drawing pictures of an old White bearded man on a throne next to a younger white bearded man on a throne and their pet bird? What if we re-imaged God to look less like our systems of power, and more like the co-equality of Trinity? What if we believed that God’s power is always related to God’s love. God is almighty precisely because God is all-loving. If you are talking about a Christian understanding of power, you have to unite the ideas that power is related to love. If we want that to be true, how do we re-image God?
Images of God: The death of whitemalegod
The theologian Cristena Cleveland believes this re-imaging, this reimagining, is exactly the work Christians need to do in our moment. Cleveland’s latest book, “God is a Black Woman” is unapologetic. She calls the default inherited cultural image whitemalegod (all one word, no spaces, no capitalization) whitemalegod. She asks, what happens if instead we look for God as Black and Feminine?
Unlike whitemalegod who is all about head knowledge and the mastery of information, She requires full-bodied change. Since whitemalegod lives in the realm of the head, he wants us to stay there too. He wants us to consume books about the Sacred Black Feminine, talk about Her, and “know” things about Her because that will distract us from actually being transformed by Her. He knows She’s been coming for him for centuries and he’s desperate to prevent us from joining the hunt.
We have inherited a flawed picture of God, made in the image of human systems of power. What happens if we open ourselves to encountering God in ways we didn’t think we had permission? What if we go search for a God who isn’t some old white man in the sky?
Cleveland’s work has me re-thinking questions of power. Often in seminary they teach that the oldest theological question is this: “If God is all-powerful and all-good, why is there suffering?” Disease, natural disaster, even war become questions of God’s power: “how could God allow this to happen?” I have been thinking lately how much that question is the kind of question you ask of a God who looks like a white man in the sky.
So what is power?
What if power doesn’t work the way we thought? What if when we say God is “all-powerful” we don’t mean that God dictates every movement of every creature? How do we find a God who looks less like Pharaoh and more like the midwives in the first chapter of Exodus who find a way to save children’s lives, even when it seems politically impossible? Then being “all-powerful” means that, even when the circumstances seem hopeless, God always has room to act. What if sometime, often, God’s action is simply to show up and weep with us? Then God’s power looks less like the power white men imagine for themselves, power over others. God’s power is more like the power of Black women to “make a way out of no way.”
I have images of God in mind this week. In part, I am thinking of imagery because of our new window there in the chapel. On Tuesday the window was both installed and blessed. The hope is eventually this window will sit in a series that will fill the all the glass in the chapel. We’ve got to raise a little more money for to fill in the gaps.
Importantly, this is our first stained-glass at Holy Communion showing Biblical characters, Jesus and Mary Magdalene, as Black. The rest of the planned windows will also feature people of color in Biblical roles.
Imagery matters, in part because it talks about who has a claim on the story. I want to tell you the title Cbabi gave the window. Left up to me, the window which depicts Easter morning in the garden, would probably would have been called simply, “the Resurrection” as if in the window we were just playing with an idea. Cbabi, who has a better sense of the stakes, named the work: “Rise Up.”
Rise up, because the stories we read in this church aren’t just ancient stories. They’re not just ideas to debate. Rise up, because the revolution continues. The work of God is your work now. That’s why Mary is heading out of the last frame, to go tell the other disciples Jesus is risen, the work goes on. Rise up, because when you encounter God in ways that challenge the status quo, you need to pray with your feet and work for change. Rise up, because you are the disciples of your generation.
The Trinity doesn’t have to be just some idea we talk about, some ancient teaching we debate once a year. God is more than an idea. God is alive and moving. The Trinity stands ready to confound those who think they already know what God looks like and how divine power works. When the world all seems too much, remember, our faith teaches us the heart all creation is a community of perfect equity. God can be found, gathered round a table, ready to work for change.
One thought on “The Trinity: Rise Up, A Sermon on God’s Power”
Interesting sermon, Mike. Glad to see you are back.