If we listen closely this morning, some of us can probably hear chapel bells ringing in our ears. If we look around, we can spot a few tired-eyed people who stayed out a little late last night – just as we can’t spot those who are sleeping in. The photographers, musicians and DJs in our church are especially busy. And many of us are trying to decide just what to wear, and whether we can wear the same thing two or three times this summer, because it is wedding season.
Our sanctuary flowers this morning are given in celebration of the 50 year anniversary of Robert and Alice Angell – an anniversary I understand they share with Sandra and Chris Canipe, and maybe some others in our midst. These couples are celebrating 5 decades of living out the promises made to God and to one another. I think you’d agree these kids are going to make it!
It’s what we hope and pray for Dixon Crews and his fiancé, Sara. Facebook tells me that Dixon, who just a few weeks ago was gracing us with his talents at the organ, proposed to Sara yesterday morning.
And then just last night, Adreeanna Massey – daughter of Sara and our former pastor, Ken, was married to her husband Kyle. As they begin this life together, we can imagine for them the sanctuary flowers decades from now.
On a personal note, this Thursday marks 15 years since Jenny Sherouse and I were married. If that number shocks you, that’s what happens when you get married about 5 minutes after college graduation: it means you become an old married couple at a still relatively young age. It also means our memories of the day are still fresh, from the prep, to the service, to the friends and family surrounding us, and of course, the reception. It was held down the road from our service at the local Presbyterian Church, mainly because we wanted dancing at our wedding! And in that time and place, some Christians didn’t dance – or at least they didn’t allow dancing – including the Baptist churches of our youth. So we twirled about the floor of that Presbyterian social hall, accompanied by jazz standards, and encircled by people who had been so vital to our lives. At one point, we stopped in the middle and looked and promised one another that we’d always remember it: that moment, those people, and the first dance.
In some ways, today is about a marriage. Trinity Sunday, as it’s known in our Christian calendar, reminds us of the joining together of the three parts of the Trinity – Father, Son and Spirit – united in our Christian theology for better or worse for some 1700 years now. God is not one. And God is not three. Somehow God is one and three in some confounding, glorious mystery that exists ever beyond our best attempts to conceptualize and understand it.
It was on Trinity Sunday two years ago that our inquisitive son, Jack, at that time 5-yrs-old, was peppering his mother with questions about this God-in-three persons he had heard about in church. Jenny did her best to respond – probably about as well as any of us would do – and finally he sighed at her replies and said, “Yeah… that sounds made up.”
Well, our young skeptic might be on to something, or at least justified in his questions. Trinity Sunday is the only day in our church calendar where we are called first to consider a teaching of the church rather than a teaching of Jesus. The word “Trinity” never appears in the Bible. We wouldn’t expect it to. It derived from early Christian efforts to make sense of what they read in Scripture and throughout their own experience of the divine. As the early movement of Christ followers organized and became a Church – and with that as teaching and theological identity formed – there was a growing sense that God existed not as singular and static, but in multiple ways.
Like in the first chapters of Genesis. Almost every line is astounding and inspiring, but in the midst of the story of God’s good creation is a statement that seems to expand who we understand God to be and interrupt the monotheism we see throughout the Hebrew Bible. In vv. 26-27 of chapter 1 we hear, “Let us create in our image…” YHWH – God – twice uses the plural pronoun, precisely in this moment of creating humankind in the divine image.
It’s the same image of plurality and relationship that we hear as the risen Christ prepares to depart to the Father, but first commissions his disciples – and all of us who have followed him since – in the name of God the Father, Son and Spirit. Baptize in this way. Go forth in ministry and mission with this image.
Paul uses this language as he blesses the church in Corinth: “May the grace of the Lord Jesus Chris, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all…”
By the year 325 at the Council of Nicea, we find the institutionalization of the belief that God was not a “me” but an “us.” The image of the one who created us, who formed the Church and sent out disciples was Father, Son and Spirit. Three.
“The Trinity is a mystery, not a puzzle…” the theologian Justo Gonzalez has said, “You try to solve the puzzle, but you stand in awe of the mystery.”
Those early Christian ancestors of ours stood in awe, just attempting to take it all in and reckon with this teaching. In all of their attempts to explain or internalize, some of them came to embrace it with a certain image. A word that came from Greek theatre. Perichoresis.
Peri – “around” from where we get perimeter. And Choresis – from where we get the word choreography, dance. God is like a circular dance, they came to understand. God is the flow and the swirling between these three. God is a constant movement of love flowing in an around itself, then finally outward to draw all people in.
This ancient image has led contemporary mystic and influential writer Father Richard Rohr to describe the Trinity as The Divine Dance.
It’s there from the very beginning. God swirling above the waters and creating humankind. This same dynamic, loving God moving in the lives of every one of us, and sending us out in that same movement, empowered by the spirit to call others into the flow. Sometimes we forget the dance in our refusal to serve God and our denial of the community God offers. We’ve been stumbling and tripping over ourselves since the Garden itself. Yet, through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, we are always called back in. As Father Rohr has said, “God is not a dancer. God is the dance itself.”
But so many Christians don’t dance. Which is to say, so many of us believe in God without any evidence of the relationship and unity that exists within Father, Son and Spirit three.
The theologian Karl Rahner once produced a classic study called The Trinity, in which he says that “Christians are, in their practical life, almost mere monotheists.’” That is, if Christianity ended up dropping the doctrine of the Trinity, he suggested, the day-to-day lives of Christians would remain largely unchanged. Because so often our lives bear no evidence of this community we see in our God in three persons. We don’t operate with this sense of interrelatedness that testifies to the creative God who binds us all together in love.
We so often live as though God is one. Individual. Because if God is one, then we can more easily operate that way. We can be one. We can be individualistic, isolated and cut off, looking to our own interests above all else and set on our own achievement. We can participate in that exercise throughout the whole of Christian theology of deciding who is in and who is out, as though such a practice is within our capacity for discernment. If God is one, then we can stress not relationship, but exclusion. But God is not one.
So maybe at times we’d rather God be two. Because if God is two, then we can operate that way. We can be two. Which is to say, we can operate with a dualistic understanding of the world. An oppositional approach, where we are locked in struggle and competition. A simplistic either/or with everything placed in easy pairs that define each other, and are ultimately defined by and against and over and under each other, with an element of power so often introduced.
You recognize that kind of thinking. It divides us. It separates us into categories.
And I wonder if that kind of oppositional understanding is part of why that indelible image I carry of my wedding day is mostly full of people who look just like me. Because if left to my own devices, my life is constructed that way. With divisions of race. Divisions of class and status. Divisions of background and ethnicity. And everyone looks like me.
I wonder if our failure to embrace a God as three might have something to do with the anger and bitterness that separates us into easy split screens and polarized politics.
I can’t help but wonder if that kind of competitive approach might have something to do with the somehow always mounting disparity in our world. Or if that kind of simplistic, either/or understanding of things might have something to do with our incessant struggles with racism, discrimination and all those overpowered, oppressed, and wounded even to this day.
Because instead of the mysterious, awe-inspiring dance of the Trinity, we so often create God in our own image, as the one, in Anne Lamott’s phrasing, “who loves what we love and hates what we hate.” We understand God so often in a way that fits within out human capacity for love, when God is calling us to dance – to join in with the movements of the Trinity, and participate in how they change the movements of this world.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu was caught up in the dance years ago, as we see in his career of seeking justice and equality, resisting division, especially during the deepest, most devastating days of the Apartheid in South Africa. Nelson Mandela was in prison, and some of the only voices left were those of church leaders, like Desmond Tutu. But he had become a target for silencing and intimidation. On one occasion, the government had canceled a political rally, and so Bishop Tutu decided to hold a church service instead. Everyone gathered at St. George’s Cathedral in Cape Town, and as they did troops massed by the hundreds outside to intimidate and threaten. Finally some of the troops came inside where they lined the walls, writing down and taping everything Archbishop Tutu said. But he stood up boldly to preach. And that’s when he must have sensed the movements of this God-in-three were in him, too. He stood and proclaimed the Apartheid would not endure, as the troops jotted down every word, and in one extraordinary moment he pointed his finger at those enforcers standing along the walls of his sanctuary and said, “You are powerful. You are very powerful, but you are not gods and I serve a God who cannot be mocked.” Then he flashed that wonderful Desmond Tutu smile and said, “So, since you’ve already lost, since you’ve already lost, I invite you today to come and join us.”
And at that the congregation erupted. And do you know what they did? They began dancing. Dancing in the church. Then pouring out of the church and dancing in the streets. Jim Wallis, who was there observing this remarkable moment, said it was astounding. The government troops just moved back because in Wallis’ words, “No one had any idea what to do with dancing worshippers.” (1)
I suppose this world doesn’t have the first clue what to do with Christians who dance. Who move freely in the name of love. Who give up deciding who’s in and who’s out and who join the circling movements of the Trinity, recognizing that this life of God is in them. They are called to take it on, and display it to the world.
Last weekend, many of you know, I had the opportunity to spend 48 hours in New York for the retirement of Rev. Ronnie Adams – a friend and mentor in my life – who for 22 years has served as a missionary in New York City with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, largely as a pastor to the HIV/AIDS community.
Ronnie is not a dancer. But his friend Milton is. Milton moved to New York some years ago to pursue his dream of becoming a professional dancer, becoming a backup dancer to Madonna and several famous pop stars. But his health began to wane after he contracted HIV. Last weekend at Ronnie’s party, Milton was among the speakers. He leaned on his cane, a frail and tired man appearing much older than his fifty some years. He described how he first met Ronnie, when years ago ostracized from his family and wondering about his future, he attended one of the weekly services Ronnie led at the local AIDS ministry, Harmony House.
I always knew Ronnie went to Harmony House on Sundays, attending part of our church service at Metro Baptist sometimes – he’d greet people, sometimes have a bagel, then leave after the first hymn to walk the 10 blocks to Harmony House, where I always pictured him preaching to hundreds, gathered in rows to listen to Ronnie’s powerful witness. But Milton described how every Sunday, Ronnie would enter that community room at Harmony House, and from those rows of chairs, he’d pull 6 or 7 and place them in a circle, sit down with his Bible, and wait for his congregation. “You became my pastor,” Milton said, “And that circle became my church.”
And it turns out Ronnie is a dancer after all. As any of us are when we join this circling movement of God – when our movements are free, when our welcome is clear, when our relationships are equitable and just, and when our life reflects the life of God.
My friends, Scott and Audrey, are the kind of Baptists who dance, and they did so years ago at their own wedding. Scott, who is the pastor of First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon, and his wife Audrey, had grown up together in the same home church – Providence Baptist in Charlotte – so their wedding was full of their church surrounding them – former Sunday School teachers and youth leaders, senior mentors and old friends. It was a beautiful occasion for them.
The summer following their wedding, Scott and Audrey were home staying with her parents for a bit and they got a message on the answering machine from one of those fellow church members and wedding guests. His name was John Spikes, an older man and character known affectionately to most everyone as “Spike.”
Spike said on the message how glad he was that Scott and Audrey were back in town and he wanted to wish them a happy anniversary. Then he continued, and he thanked them for inviting he and his wife Yvonne to the wedding. Yvonne was one of those former Sunday School teachers in attendance. And after a long battle with cancer, she had died soon after the wedding. On that answering machine message, Spike shared words of gratitude with Scott and Audrey for all the wonderful memories their wedding had provided for he and Yvonne. Their wedding celebration was the last time Spike and Yvonne appeared together in public. It was the last time they had their picture taken. And it turns out, it was the last time they danced. Scott smiled as he remembered Spike’s words on that answering machine years ago and said, “And here I was thinking my wedding was just about me.” (2)
But it’s never just “me.” It’s always about “us.” We are created in this image. We are commissioned in it. It encircles us, it sweeps us up, and it sends us out. So let us go out dancing. In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
(1) In God’s Politics
(2) Thanks to Scott and Audrey Dickison for sharing this wonderful story