Theology Takes a Holiday

In 2021, as it often does, Trinity Sunday coincides with Memorial Day Weekend.  This year, the folks at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights contemplated the ways that those events might bump up against one another and help to enrich meaning for us.  Our Scriptures included John 3:1-17 and Romans 8:12-17.

To listen to the sermon as preached in worship, please use the audio player below:

To see the entire worship service, visit the YouTube link below:

I’d like to begin this morning by throwing some numbers at you.

800

1 billion

37 million

1,354,664

3

Let me tell you more about these numbers, and why I’m dragging them into our celebration of the Lord’s Day.

This weekend, our world is shaped by the collision of cultures.  Americans, frustrated by pandemic shut-downs, fueled by the optimism they feel because of vaccine that is coursing through their veins, are eager to visit their grandchildren, their parents, or friends from whom they’ve been separated too long.  And so we’ll celebrate with picnics.  It’s estimated that 800 hot dogs will be consumed each second tomorrow – making Memorial Day the second “grilling-est” day of the year after July 4.  We’ll drink $1 billion worth of beer, and 37 million of us (up 60% from last year) will travel more than 50 miles to spend the holiday somewhere else.

It’s like the cork has come out of the bottle – so many of us, constrained for so long, are saying “Woo-hoo! Road Trip! Summer! Picnic! Here I come!”

At the same time, we will recognize that an estimated 1,354,664 servicemen and women have died in wars from the American Revolution to the current conflicts in Afghanistan and Syria.  Folks who are connected with the military, or who have lost family and friends in horrible ways, may protest: “What, have you people lost your minds?  This is NOT an excuse to party! This is a solemn day for remembering and honoring those who have made the supreme sacrifice.”

And lastly, pastors are given a liturgical calendar that says today is Trinity Sunday – a day for Christians to remember that God is three persons yet one being.  We have the responsibility, says the Church, to contemplate the mysteries of how Divinity is expressed, or made incarnate, or experienced.  Here’s the thing about any attempt to explain the doctrine of the Trinity: if we try to make the explanation short, we’ll be guilty of heresy.  There is no easy way to talk about Trinity.  And yet if we persist in our explanations, we’ll be even more boring than we usually are.

The beginning of summer.  Memorial Day.  Trinity Sunday.  Believe it or not, I think that there is some common ground here.

Our yearning for travel, for celebration, and for reunions reveals our innate desire for connection and community.  I think that we feel this more keenly after the experience of a year that has been characterized by fear, contagion, masks, isolation, and conflict.  When someone brings up the idea of a picnic, we see that there is something incredibly positive that is revealed in the ability to connect with other human beings.  In our picnics we affirm that there is something innately good about eating and laughing and playing together.

Don’t get me wrong – even in the darkest days of our “shelter in place” and quarantining, we knew that we belonged to each other; we knew that we were known.  But we also came to understand that Zoom and Facetime and telephone calls are not substitutes for physical presence.  They’re good… but they’re not the same.  We gather in reunion and we acknowledge the grief of separation.

And those of us who have suffered loss in one of America’s conflicts carry with us this weekend a grief as well.  You who never knew your grandfathers or your mothers… you who grew up seeing faded photographs of young people in crisp uniforms proudly displayed on a mantel year after year… you know something about the goodness of connectivity by having experienced its absence.  You grew up with a hole, you’ve known loss or diminishment because of what hasn’t been there.

I suspect that in the next day or so, you’ll hear (or maybe even use) the phrase, “freedom isn’t free”.  Now, sometimes we hurl those words as an invective at someone else; we use them in a way that is designed to produce shame or perhaps stifle conversation about the appropriate use of military force.  But this weekend, we will look at row upon row of tombstones; we will consider countless deaths, and we must realize that any expression of a free society does incur a cost.  There is pain to be borne.

And for millennia, the church has added an emphatic “yes” to both of these propositions.  We affirm with all of who we are that humanity is created for community and joy and celebration.  And in the same breath we confess that often the gift of love carries with it the burden of pain and sorrow.

I’m not going to try to explain the “doctrine of the Trinity” to anyone this morning, but I do want to point out that the scriptural depictions of the Divine are all rooted in the awareness that whoever, whatever God is – well, we just don’t have enough words to describe or define that.

Right there on page one, we’re told that something of what it means to be God is to exist in community.  “And God said ‘let US make humans in OUR image’…” it says in Genesis.  The book of Proverbs describes “lady wisdom” as God’s companion, and of course the whole story of Jesus describes an interplay between the creative force behind all that is, the empowering Spirit or breath of life, and the corporeal presence of a man who called God his Father and who breathed life into those he met.  One of the struggles in the church right now is finding the correct pronouns to use for God.  Historically, English speakers have used the masculine singular “He” not because there’s any evidence to suggest that God has a gender, but because traditional English does not have a gender-neutral pronoun that is both singular and personal.  I’d rather misgender God by calling God “He” or “She” than suggest that God is less than personal by calling God “It”.  In God’s very nature, there is personality and community.

Paul was writing to his friends in Rome who were trying to make sense out of their own situation.  They were in the process of being forced out of their previous religious communities because of their embrace of Jesus as the Christ.  At the same time, the Empire of Rome was quick to lay the blame for anything from wildfires to volcanic eruptions at the feet of this “new” religious group.  They asked the old Apostle, “Why does this hurt so much?”

Paul, being a scholar, uses a lot of very heavy theological language in an attempt to communicate that the Divine Nature is expressed in a familial relationship that is rooted in love.  He goes on to remind his readers that love carries risk – that love can be painful.  To be made in God’s image, he says, to be like God, or to be family to God, is to know the vulnerability and the suffering that love entails.

The Gospel reading – one of the most familiar stories in the Bible – gives us a story that shows how this looks in our lives.  Jesus describes an authentic relationship with the Holy One by using the analogy of childbirth.  Can you think of any better example of an event that is such a potent combination of pain, anxiety, fear, joy, hope, and love?  Knowing God, Jesus says, is like being born.  It is amazing, of course… but it can be messy, and there is often pain and tenderness.  Those things happen whenever there is any kind of intimacy.

And so here we are on Trinity Sunday, trying to use our paltry vocabularies to try to consider what it means to participate in a relationship with the Divine.

We celebrate that you have always been connected with that One who birthed you and all that there is, and who has equipped you for a life of love, and hope, and relationship.

We rejoice in the fact that you have never drawn breath apart from that great Spirit – the ruah, or the pneuma – who is everywhere and always, thereby binding you not only to those you recognize and even love, but to the whole family of creation at every place and all times.

And we exult in the eternal presence of Jesus who showed us what it means to participate in the Divine Intent one day at a time, one step after another, to the end that we and others would recognize the significance and glory of the love that can never die.

So, yeah – it’s a holiday weekend.  Have a hot dog or two.  Give a hug.  Enjoy a cold beverage with people you love.  You were made for relationship and for joy.

And this particular holiday is Memorial Day – so pause and reflect, giving thanks for what you’ve received undeservedly, and for that from which you’ve been spared.  Take in the measure of this day from your own vantage point of time and space and resolve, perhaps, to live and act in such a way that honors the pain and loss and sacrifice of others.

And it is, of course, Trinity Sunday.  St. Augustine was a great African teacher of the early church, and he preached a sermon in which he famously taught,  “Si comprehendus, non est Deus” (if you can understand it, it’s not God).  In saying this, I don’t believe that Augustine did, and nor do I wish to engage in what one of my professors would have termed “a premature appeal to mystery”.  Rather, I think that the old cleric is saying that the Divine is best apprehended, or recognized, rather than comprehended or explained.

Maybe this will help: today is the 39th anniversary of my marriage to Sharon.  That union has produced a host of realities in this world, some of which are beautiful and others are more mundane.  There is nothing more lovely to have come from that marriage, however, than our daughter Ariel.  No one has spent more time with Sharon and me than our daughter.  She knows us.  But she does not and cannot know or comprehend all that is between her mother and me.  Yet even in her inability to comprehend, she can be thankful and grateful (or irritated and bitter, I suppose).  She can apprehend our marriage.  But she cannot fully comprehend it.

You are made from Love.  You are made for Love.  The notion of the Trinity is an attempt to apprehend that truth that none of us – even God – is ever alone.  And this theology of the Trinity is one that is meant to be shared and lived.  You are not supposed to traipse into church on Sunday and suffer through an experience of trying to figure out the theology as if it were an algebraic proof to be solved and then find yourself released into an alternative, better reality where you are able to play a game of cornhole and share a meal with friends.  No… we come to worship in order to be reminded of the fact that the fabric of the universe is relationship.  We hold that truth near and dear to us in this place, while we sit with the One who has made us, who has called us, and who fills us.  The rest of our lives – our eating, drinking, reuniting, sacrificing, appreciating, laughing, crying, and loving lives… they are the opportunity for us to practice who we have been made to be in the context of love and relationships, with all their complexity.  Thanks be to God, the source of all that has been, is, and ever will be.  Amen.

 

 

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