Sermon for Trinity, Sunday, June 07 2020, 10:30 am
Mtr. Maggie Helwig, Church of Saint Stephen-in-the-Fields, Toronto
Genesis 1:1-2:4a; Psalm 8; 2 Corinthians 13:11-13; Matthew 28:16-20
I love the strange and difficult doctrine of the Trinity—it is one of the things which drew me towards Christianity—and most years, on Trinity Sunday, I am happy to preach about exactly that. But it is much harder this year. It is hard to find the words to speak at all. The COVID-19 pandemic is still claiming lives in Ontario every day, and its centre has now moved clearly to low-wage workers, especially in food processing plants, warehouses, and agriculture, many of them migrants, most of them black or brown. And at the same time, years, centuries, of anger at the abuse and murder of Black people has erupted in the United States, in a protest movement more vivid and persistent than anything this generation has seen, echoing here and Toronto and around the world.
How to talk about theology when anyone who walked downtown yesterday walked past street after street of plywood, major retail centres all boarded up in a bizarre anticipation of a riot that never was, a disturbing symbol of this society’s fear of the justified anger of Black activists and their anti-racist allies? How to talk about theology when, this week, the President of the United States cleared the area around St John’s Church in DC with tear gas and flashbang grenades, driving away a crowd which included the clergy, who had been handing out water and snacks to protestors, so that he could stand for seventeen seconds in front of a closed building holding a Bible upside-down, recalling nothing so much as the abomination of desolation described by Jesus in the gospels of Mark and Matthew?
How to go into the world in the name of the Trinity when our book, our faith, can be used in this way? When this grotesque tableau reminds us so forcibly that the church has been on both sides of this story, that Black people have found in the church a story of liberation which has carried them, a place of safety and community which has protected them, but also sometimes yet another zone of oppression, exclusion, and violence? That we still look every day at pictures of an inexplicably white Jesus, though one of the few things we can know as a historical certainty is that he was not that, was in fact a dark-skinned man murdered by the legal authorities of his time; that though the Episcopal and Anglican churches are trying to reckon with their history of racism, our complicity in colonialism, slavery, and brutality, our church still remains dominated by a mostly white leadership—including, in a small way, myself? What does the doctrine of the Trinity mean in this complicated context?
Everything, perhaps. Because if the doctrine means only one thing, it is this—we are all connected, and the life of one person is the life of all. We are made by the wind, by the breath and the voice, in the image and the likeness of God, and that image, and that likeness, are not single or isolated, but exist as a community of love. God is community, God is society, inherently, a society of mutual love and the grace which holds space for the others, of radical equality and interdependence, the society we are very much not, but always called to become. Even at the moment before creation, God was not alone, but was the dynamic movement of relationship, the creating intelligence of the word, the live-giving movement of the breath, and the great force of existence which calls all things forth and declares them all, all of them, every bit of this hurting world, to be good, to be very good, to be a world created in order to be beloved.
We must not betray this vision. We must not betray this world. To be trinitarian is to strive to live into that image and likeness which is relationship, to understand that all breakdowns in relationship between persons, all that would degrade or destroy the humanity of another person, is a crime against the nature of God. The breath which was choked from George Floyd is not separable from the breath which moved over the waters. God is killed on the streets, and in the crowded lodgings of migrant farm workers, and in all the small actions of injustice which make up the fabric of this society as it exists right now.
The Greek word which early theologians came up with to describe how the three persons of the Trinity relate to each other is perichoresis. And it is actually a beautiful word. It comes from a word meaning “around” and a word meaning “make room for” or “contain” — the three persons mutually contain and are contained within and around each other, mutually make space for each other within the divine nature. It’s a false etymology to derive this from choreos, the dance, but it’s kind of a useful false etymology. The three persons may be imagined as dancing into and out of each other almost, responding and deferring and instantly adapting as dancers do, inhabiting space and each other in movement, and not just as a pair—something human minds can maybe almost begin to comprehend—but as three, a greater space, a complex shape, a formation which is entirely mutually contained and yet open—open to us, inviting us, as children by adoption, into that dynamic relationship.
To cultivate in ourselves that responsiveness, that mutual making of space, is of course more difficult for us, not the effortless grace of the life of God. For those of us in positions of privilege, we must train ourselves in listening to the silenced voices, often in listening to things we do not much want to hear, and in that responsiveness which can change, step back when we’re asked, step forward when that’s what is really needed—and do so in the ways that make the most sense in our various conditions, that responsiveness, that openness, to the choices and challenges of the proper moment, including the negotiation with protest and pandemic, for which there are no simple or universal correct answers. For people who have been crushed beneath the weight of racism and other oppressions, that responsiveness may be the listening to that voice which proclaims you absolutely good, beloved, infinitely valued, whatever the human constructs of violence may claim. The work of the three-personed God in the person reclaiming their own full selfhood, and stepping forward to claim it, sometimes in the face of danger, sometimes by refusing to let the violence do its work.
For the dynamic life of the Trinity is also an invitation, an invitation extended to us, so that we may become part of the work, part of the shared desire for creation’s thriving. Who will go for us, and who shall we send?, asks the voice in Isaiah. And we, like the frightened prophet with his burnt lips, are asked to respond — “Here am I. Send me.” And we come to this response by slowly forming ourselves into creatures who want, out of our own deep nature, what God wants, creatures who desire goodness and life and the redemption of all creation. Even if we do sometimes—often—doubt, are often fearful and uncertain, like those first witnesses whose doubt is spoken of, in Matthew’s gospel, with such matter-of-fact unconcern, as if it were no problem at all. For that too is a part of us.
This is the great commission, then—not to go into the world beating people up with Bibles until they surrender, not to be agents of religion as accomplice to power, but to go into the world to live out God’s desire, that all of creation should reclaim its inherent goodness. That, even in the midst of plague and death and fire, even when our name is misused and our book defiled, we should still live the lives to which we are called, still play our small part in bringing back that life which we were all meant to have. That all creation may rise.