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"Joy and the Trinity" by Rev. Andrew Warner, Plymouth Church UCC - May 27, 2018

posted May 29, 2018, 11:15 AM by Plymouth Church UCC

A while ago, I was talking with a friend about the work of our congregation to address white privilege and to work for racial equity and immigration rights.  The friend I talked with is white; and as we talked, her face became clouded, until she said, “I just find it so depressing to talk about this.” It made her feel ashamed to talk about issues of oppression and discrimination.  She wanted to talk about happier topics. “Why can’t people just be happy?” she wanted to know.

The conversation stuck in my mind.  First, I know many people struggle with this sense that talking about white privilege is demoralizing.  But I also realize that these conversations and the work for racial justice brings me deep joy. And so, the difference between how my friend and I experience this work made me wonder: how can we find more joy in the work for racial equity?

In part, my friend made me realize that I don’t talk about joy enough.  And perhaps that’s a challenge for those of us committed to justice work: we talk more about justice than joy.  It’s not that I think we face a choice; as if we can either have a serious conversation about justice or have a happy conversation about joy.

No, what I mean is that those of us engaged in justice work need to talk more about how this work creates a deep sense of joy in us.  (And by joy I don’t mean giddiness but a deeply resonate sense of purposeful peace.)

I felt that joy recently when I went with about a dozen people in our community to the May 1st march in Waukesha.  (Banners from that march still decorate our sanctuary and the Commons.)  We were joined by thousands, more than I could count, walking through the streets of Waukesha to protest a policy which would turn Waukesha sheriff deputies into Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers; empowering them to stop and detain anyone who looked like they might not be citizens; which practically means more situations like the one that unfolded recently in Montana, where two US citizens were detained for speaking Spanish in a convenience store.  So, we were in Waukesha to advocate for immigration justice; but as I walked along, an abiding feeling of joy overcame me. Perhaps it was because of all the butterfly symbols we carried; perhaps because I walked with friends; perhaps because of the gorgeous day; perhaps because I saw old friends like an alum from college and a veteran of LGBT rights struggles.

All those reasons and more for joy.  But, as I think about that joy, I begin to wonder if it had less to do with who I was with and more to do with God.

We often talk about the Biblical reasons for our justice work; rooting our values in Jesus’ teachings.  But could our joy also be a spiritual experience, something rooted in the very nature of God?

And so, as I think about the joy I felt in Waukesha, I want to step back to think a bit about our Christian understanding of God.  This Sunday we honor the Christian idea that God is Triune: that God, the mother-and-father of us all, God known to us as Jesus Christ, and God present among us as the Holy Spirit is actually just one God.

If your mind glazed over at this point, you are not alone.  For this idea of God as Triune has long confounded Christians.  The math doesn’t make sense: 1 + 1 + 1 = 1. And we Christians have spent thousands of years arguing about what it means to believe in the Trinity.  And yet, for all the confusion of this theological idea, I treasure it.

And I treasure it because the idea of God as Triune inspires me with a vision of community: God as both distinct - three persons - and yet meaningfully together - unified.  Distinctly three. United as one. Divine equality. Eternal equity.

This vision of beloved community matters to me because of what it says about human possibilities.  Scripture speaks of humanity as bearing the image of God; humans as the likeness of the divine. Which left theologians wondering: how do we reflect God’s Triune image?

In Western Christianity, the kind of Christianity that shaped much of our Christian movement, theologians looked for the ways an individual embodied the Trinity.  St. Augustine saw the Trinity reflected in an individual’s memory, understanding, and will. (And of course, this just anticipated in some ways Jung’s later idea of the id, ego, and superego.)

While in the West we’ve looked for the Trinity in individuals, other Christians sought the Trinity reflected more communally.  Eastern theologians saw humanity reflecting the Triune nature of God collectively; all humans bearing the image of God. This can particularly matter now, when we live in such an individualistic society: we can move from thinking of our individual life embodying God to imagine our mutuality reflecting the divine.

Gregory of Nyssa was one of those theologians who saw the Trinity reflected in human community.  As he explained it: God, the mother-and-father of us all, God known to us as Jesus Christ, and God present among us as the Holy Spirit share the same substance.  And likewise, humans, for all our diversity, share the same substance. And so, Gregory didn’t find particular meaning in the “three-ness” of God, but in the equality and equity of God; not the number but the sharing of a life together.  And so, he then looked for the reflection of God in those experiences of human equality and equity, seeing in all our human diversity, a common humanity.

A similar insight comes to us in hymns, like the one we often sing after congregational meetings.  

Blest be the tie that binds

our hearts in Christian love;

the fellowship of kindred minds

is like to that above.

Finding God’s image reflected not in one person but in all humanity helps me understand why I experienced joy in Waukesha.  Moments of community, particularly moments of diversity in community, bring my heart closer to reflecting something of God’s own community.  My joy was like to that above.

This year, with Trinity Sunday falling on Memorial Day Weekend, I’m also struck by how this idea of embodying the Trinity speaks to our national questions of identity.  Do we find God best reflected in one body - one universal norm - or do we find God best reflected in our great diversity? And in a similar way, do we look to one norm of what it means to be an American?  Or do we find our American-ness in the breadth of our diversity?

Such a debate goes back a long way in our democracy.  This week I read an old speech by Carl Schurz, a German immigrant who settled in Wisconsin before becoming a Union General.  In the lead up to the Civil War, he traveled the country giving stump speeches for Abraham Lincoln. And in those speeches, he articulated what he called “True Americanism.”  And his concept still speaks to our debates now.

Speaking in Boston, to a crowd who he knew questioned some of his right to be in America, he addressed square on their questioning of his belonging. “I, born in a foreign land, pay my tribute to Americanism? Yes, for to me the word Americanism, true Americanism, comprehends the noblest ideas which ever swelled a human heart with noble pride.”  And as he went on, he said that while other nations claimed to be homeland for a particular people, America was different because it was a mother-country to all humanity.  He recalled all the immigrants who came to America, saying, “Thus was founded the great colony of free humanity, which has not old England alone, but the world, for its mother-country.”  Schurz spoke to American greatness as founded not in the purity of some European culture but in the striving of diverse peoples for their equality.

Schurz, in that same speech, anticipated the insight of Martin Luther King, who famously said, “I can never be who I ought to be until you are who you ought to be; and you can never be who you ought to be until I am how I ought to be.”  This idea of the interwoven nature of our dependency seemed evident to Schurz in the South: enslavers denied freedom to other humans but in the process shackled their own liberty, because in the slave states people didn’t have freedom of speech and assembly; enforcing slavery meant slave states set aside our Bill of Rights.  As Schurz explained:

The system of slavery has enslaved them all, master as well as slave. What is the cause of all this? It is that you cannot deny one class of society the full measure of their natural rights without imposing restraints upon your own liberty. If you want to be free, there is but one way: it is to guarantee an equally full measure of liberty to all your neighbors. There is no other.

Schurz knew he could not be truly free as long as other humans were enslaved.  This desire for freedom caused him and his fellow soldiers to risk their lives for the freedom of others.  And so, for Schurz, “True Americanism,” true patriotism, meant striving toward the realizing of equality and equity among humans; a striving for a society like to that above.

Our American experience speaks to me of why diverse community brings deep joy.  The more I am free, the more I am free to feel joy. My freedom depends on the freedom of others.  So, when I work for freedom, I free not only others but myself.

I knew that in Waukesha.  I marched so that undocumented immigrants would be free from the fear that a traffic stop could result in deportation.  But I also marched so that my children could drive through Waukesha without fear of how they would prove their citizenship to every sheriff they met.

More broadly, these last few years as we learned more about white privilege and organized for racial equity meant I learned and grew and discovered.  I formed new friendships; and saw other friendships become deeper. Just last month Pastor Joy Gallmon, pastor of St. Mark’s AME, the oldest African-American church in our city, invited me to her installation service.  But for the journey of our congregation, I would not have been there. And once there, I discovered joy in a new place, in a shared love of Jesus, and in a common mission to work together for equity.

On this Trinity Sunday - Memorial Day Sunday, I’m struck by the joy I find in our work for equity.  I find joy in this work, joy because I know God wants me to live in a beloved community that reflects the very diversity at the heart of God.  I know my freedom comes with the greater freedom for all my sisters and brothers. And as I stretch my heart and conscience and mind through sacred conversations, I find the deep, abiding joy of God in my soul.

Alleluia and Amen.