God is Community – Beloved Community

+In the Name of God: Creator, Redeemer, and Life-giver, our one true God for ever.  Amen.

Good morning.  Today is Trinity Sunday, a statement that is unlikely to stir anyone’s soul, and, in many ways, seems completely irrelevant to what’s been going on in this country during these past days and weeks.

I certainly thought so earlier this week when my email and Facebook page was flooded with the kind of stuff clergy post online and send to one another about theology and life in the church. We trade jokes about arcane philosophical concepts and ancient heresies we were required to memorize back in our seminary days. These exchanges among my clergy friends go on during the rest of the year, but they always seem to reach new heights around Trinity Sunday – since there’s so much rich material available for satire.

Let me give you a couple of examples: A YouTube video from a source called Lutheran Satire, makes the rounds annually. It’s called “St. Patrick’s Bad Analogies,” and features two cartoon characters who criticize every comparison Patrick tries to make. The video’s point is that you always end up committing some ancient heresy whenever you use an analogy to explain the Trinity.

Another video – new to me this year, was from the Parish of Haliburton, Ontario. In the video, a member of the choir sings a rousing version of “I am the very model of a modern trinitarian” set to Gilbert and Sullivan’s “I am the very model of a modern major general.”

Even The Onion got into the act a few years ago, with a radio news piece called “God is quietly phasing the Holy Ghost out of the Trinity.” You see, the Holy Trinity was “overstaffed and over budget” and needed to be downsized.  The Lord God announces that once the Holy Ghost is phased out, “the Trinity will henceforth be known as the “Holy Duo.”

Satire can be fun, especially if you know enough to be in on the joke. But the jokes didn’t seem as funny this year, and I had a harder time being amused by the cleverness. Things seem more serious than in the past. And I found myself asking questions like these:

What does this theological concept of the Trinity have to do with the sorrow, frustration, and rage that so many of us feel when another unarmed black man dies in police custody? What does the Holy Trinity have to do with the passion that has moved many of us to join the protests here in Chicago? And what does the nature of God have to do with the renewed urgency we feel to establish a society of dignity and justice?  I can’t speak for you, but I feel personally confused and powerless when I try to figure out what I can do to change things.

These are the questions I want to try to address this morning. I know that I can only begin to articulate how the understanding of the nature of God has anything to do with how we might respond. But I believe what theologians have said for a very long time, and that is this: we become what we worship.  Bishop NT Wright puts it much better than I in his book, Surprised by Hope.  He writes: “One of the primary laws of human life is that you become like what you worship; what’s more, you reflect what you worship not only to the object itself but also outward to the world around.” If we become what we worship, we better try to understand what God is like.

This is not easy. Greater minds than ours have tried to understand the mystery of God and have not succeeded.  The story is told of St. Augustine of Hippo, the great philosopher and theologian, who wanted so much to understand the doctrine of the Trinity and to be able to explain it logically. One day as he was walking along the sea shore and reflecting on this, he suddenly saw a little child all alone on the shore. The child made a hole in the sand, ran to the sea with a little cup, filled her cup, came and poured it into the hole she had made in the sand.

Back and forth she went to the sea, filled her cup and came and poured it into the hole. Augustine went up to her and said, “Little child, what are doing?” and she replied, “I am trying to empty the sea into this hole.”

“How do you think,” Augustine asked her, “that you can empty this immense sea into this tiny hole and with this tiny cup?” To which she replied, “And you, how do you suppose that with this your small head you can comprehend the immensity of God?” With that the child disappeared.

Even if our heads are too small to comprehend the immensity of God, we believe that God has revealed God’s self to us. What can we say?

Let me talk about a book published back in the year 2000.  It is a serious, deeply theological book written by the Brazilian theologian and writer, Leonardo Boff.  For those who do not recognize the name, Leonardo Boff is a former Franciscan friar who has written extensively in the field of Liberation Theology.  His brilliance and his willingness to provoke controversy landed him in frequent trouble with the Roman Catholic Church.  The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith silenced him for an entire year back in 1985 when Cardinal Ratzinger, later Pope Benedict, was leading the Congregation.  

The book I want to talk about this morning is the book entitled, Holy Trinity: Perfect Community.  In the book, Leonardo Boff talks about the doctrine of the Trinity – how in the beginning was “the communion of the Three, not the solitude of the One.”  Boff is saying, in other words, that the very nature of God is community. 

Now that’s quite a statement when we begin to digest it.  As with any profound, complicated idea, it takes time to wrap our minds around it.  What Boff does in the book – and it’s not very long – only 120 pages – is to explore this idea.

Boff uses the classic language of the doctrine of the Trinity – God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Like many of you, I am grateful that we’ve expanded the metaphors we use to include other and less-gendered language when we talk about the Trinity. We sing canticles that talk about God or Jesus as “mother.”  And, your priests pronounce the blessing at the end of our services in the name of God: Creator, Christ, and Holy Spirit.  But Leonardo Boff’s book was written 20 years ago, and I think his bona fides when it comes to siding with the oppressed give him a pass when he uses traditional language for the Trinity.  

So, I hope we can hear the questions he is asking when he wonders, “How has the Father of infinite kindness been revealed?  How has the Son, our brother, been revealed?  How has the Holy Spirit, our strength, been revealed?”  He answers these questions by writing that the Blessed Trinity is a communion (or community) of life and love among the divine three.  God has been revealed, he says, not as a solitary figure, but as three persons in eternal communion with each other.  God does not exist in isolated individualism but in a community of relationships. God is not a loner or a recluse. God is community – Beloved Community.

There are many images that have flashed across the screen this past week and much that could be said about what they revealed. Some of the images were so deeply troubling that we will not be able to “unsee” them for a very long time. Of course, we shouldn’t try to “unsee” them. To do so would be a form of denial – one that perpetuates a pattern of not wanting to see – not wanting to see how very differently black and brown people are often treated.

Can we see what happens to black and brown men in the criminal justice system? African Americans are much more likely than white Americans to be arrested. Once arrested, they are more likely to be convicted. And once convicted, they are more likely to experience lengthy prison sentences. African-American adults are 5.9 times as likely to be incarcerated than whites. As of 2001, one of every three black boys born in that year could expect to go to prison in his lifetime compared to one of every seventeenwhite boys. In the last census whites comprised 72.4% of the population; African Americans were 12.6%

Can we see the enormous gap between white and black household wealth? The Brookings Institute reported recently that the net worth of a typical white family is nearly ten times greater than that of a Black family, revealing the effects of accumulated inequality and discrimination, as well as differences in power and opportunity that can be traced back to this nation’s inception.

Black students have less access to quality early childhood education, are far more likely to be suspended from school, and are much less likely to graduate from high school and attend college than white students with the same family income. Can we see these things, too? And if we can see these things, can we also see that we have a responsibility to change them?

What has happened during my lifetime has been the erosion of the idea of the common good – of community. More and more we exist in isolated individualism. We forget that we are made in the image of a God whose very nature is community.

The Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglass, the Dean of Episcopal Divinity School at Union Theological Seminary in New York, wrote a strongly-worded piece this past week she entitled, “America’s Lost Soul.” A Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Denison University and ordained at St. Margaret’s Episcopal Church in Dayton, she wrote about “privileged “’whiteness’ standing its ground with no regard for the lives of people of color.”  She noted our “self-centered refusal to make sacrifices for the other—especially when those others are disproportionately people of color.”  Just as I cannot “unsee” some of the images from the past week, I cannot “unhear” her words. 

And I will end by saying this. Today we celebrate the Holy Trinity. We proclaim a God whose very nature is Beloved Community. We human beings, made in the image and likeness of God, must work, and work hard, to make the Beloved Community real and visible in our communities and in our country. For us to exist in isolated individualism – for us to ignore the common good – is blasphemous – even sinful. Instead of barricading ourselves behind our shields, we need to kneel with our neighbors to understand their hopes and dreams. Instead of clearing paths to satisfy our own self-interests, we need to clear paths for the interests, needs, and aspirations of others.

To do this, we have to start with ourselves. We have to recognize our self-centeredness, realize of our lack of concern for those who differ from us, and repent of what our prayer book calls “our self-indulgent appetites and ways, and our exploitation of other people.”

For too long our blindness to human need and suffering, and our indifference to injustice and cruelty have compounded the tremendous cost in dreams deferred and lives lost that have been paid by generation after generation of black and brown people.

But we cannot stop with self-examination, as hard and as searching as that needs to be. We also have to find ways – like teaching our children about race, organizing and advocating for change in public policy, building alliances in places like Lawndale, and showing up to cast our ballots for issues and candidates that make the Beloved Community more real.

This week, our Presiding Bishop said, “Our long-term commitment to racial justice and reconciliation is embedded in our identity as baptized followers of Jesus. We will still be doing it when the news cameras are long gone.” 

We will still be doing it, because we believe there is a Beloved Community living at the center of the universe.

Amen.