We’ve had plenty of family togetherness in recent months, and while for the most part we love our life together as the Sherouse six, there are times we all need reminders that we don’t exist on our own, but as a family.
My friend, Danny, had a way of reminding his two boys of this. A regular ritual. Dr. Daniel Goodman was my favorite professor in college at Palm Beach Atlantic and a mentor in the years that followed, later teaching in the Divinity School of Gardner Webb University. He and his wife, Barbara, were parents to two – Daniel and Dylan. And they’d sometimes use the phrase “We are four.” So at times when his boys needed to remember that, Danny would remind them. If they rolled their eyes or protested when it was time to go to their brother’s soccer game or tennis match, or out the door for pizza as a family (“Dad, I want to stay and watch tv…”), Danny would say, “Hey buddy. What are we? We are not one. We are not two. We are four,” as he held up four fingers.
Danny knew that even from a young age his boys – like all the rest of us growing in this world – would begin to understand themselves first and foremost as individuals. As isolated beings, with their own concerns, plans and priorities, their own remote controls and cell phones, their own relationships and pursuits. We are more than that, he told them. You are more than that.
That kind of unity and belonging becomes ingrained in a person. It endures. I know this because in one of the great losses of my life, my dear friend, Dr. Dan Goodman, passed away 11 years ago, suddenly, in his early 40s, a little older than I am today. Barbara, Daniel and Dylan stood before us all at the memorial service, just to say a few words of gratitude, and among the things they so bravely said, Barbara reminded her boys of that phrase. “Boys, what are we?” As she asked the question at the front of the church, I noticed that Dylan – now a grown young adult but then about 12 yrs old – held up four fingers.
It was so moving. So much so for Jenny and me, that about a year later when our first child was born – John Daniel Sherouse – we began to use this phrase. This motion. We are three. We’ve added some fingers, and even another hand now — but the message remains. We are not one, we are not two. We are more than detached individuals. More than independent beings. More than separate bedrooms in a home or separate homes in a community or separate communities in a wider world or separate concerns cut off from one another. We also exist for and with one another.
Trinity Sunday is the day we are reminded of that in our life together as a family of faith called “church.” It’s the day God holds up three fingers, to remind us that the life of God is not singular nor individual, not dichotomous nor binary. God is more than that. The life of God is multiple, shared, interdependent. Not one. Not two. We are three.
It was some years ago on Trinity Sunday our inquisitive John Daniel – whom you know as “Jack” – at 5-yrs-old was peppering his mother with questions about this God-in-three-persons he had heard about in church. Just what does Trinity mean, anyway? Jenny did her best to respond – as well as any of us would – and finally he sighed at her replies and said, “Yeah… that sounds made up.”
Well, our young skeptic was 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 ponder 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’s one of those times where followers of Christ have sought to make sense of what they read in Scripture and what they read in their experience of God’s work and revelation in the world. 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.
We see it in Matthew, in today’s passage, as the risen Christ prepares to depart, 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 in this identity.
Paul uses this language as he blesses the church in Corinth: “May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.”
It’s even found at very beginning, 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 verse 26-27 of chapter 1 we hear, “Let us create in our image…” YHWH – God – twice uses the plural pronoun — us, our — precisely in this moment of creating humankind in the divine image.
We are created in the image of God. But are we cultivating our lives in this way? Do we live in the way we were created, tied together in a community so much larger than our individual concerns?
The 20th-century 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 fail to live out that image. But in his Great Commission, Jesus knew how desperately the world needs it. It’s the last thing he says to us, commissioning us with that image. And he also must have known how much we resist it, betray it, deny it, seek to entomb it and forget it.
Sometimes we would rather God be one, not three. Because if God is one then we can more easily be one. We can be individualistic. We can attend to our own needs and wants and desires. We can just isolate and cut off, looking only to our own interests instead of the interests of others, and fixed on our own achievement.
I can’t help but wonder if that sort of individualistic mindset is not part of the reality of inequity and racial injustice so apparent in our world. We’ve had the chance to acknowledge it, to face it, but so many of us have wanted to ignore it, lest it slow us from our own pursuits. Yes, we who focus so much on our own interests, our own ascension, our own success and believe we are self-made would love to worship a God who is one. But God is not one.
So maybe at times we’d rather God be two, not three. Because if God is two, then we can be two. Our world is incredibly binary. It’s either/or, one or the other, with everything so often placed in simplified pairs. These pairs define each other, and are ultimately defined by and against and over and under each other. We learn so much in contrasting pairs: yes and no, up and down, hot and cold, circle and square, and so it goes. And a little later, people learn that they are boy not girl, white not black, rich not poor, straight not gay, and so it goes.
See, pairs can teach us contrasts, but pairs also introduce an element of power. And 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, white supremacy, and all those overpowered, oppressed, and wounded even to this day. Yes, so much about our world would love to worship a God who is two. But God is not two.
God is three. The life of the Trinity is shared, mutual, interdependent. It’s a wholly different kind of relationship than those that govern our world. And if God exists in this way, so too the people created in the image of God-in-three are called to exist in this way.
It requires a change in us — a shift from the patterns we know back to the image that was there from the beginning.
If you walk through downtown Greensboro today, where protests have called out for change each day this week, you’ll see that most windows have been covered with plywood. And throughout the week, as I mentioned earlier in the service, artists have come to paint vivid messages of change and hope in their own form of protest, with words like those Civil Rights era words from Sam Cooke, written after he was turned away from a whites-only motel in Louisiana: “It’s been a long time comin’, but I know, a change is gonna come.”
As the change comes, it involves systems and structures, and all of us raising our voices for hopeful shifts and reform. And it also involves the renewal of our understanding of the life of God in our lives. It involves the humility to listen, to hear, to find ourselves wrapped up in a single garment of destiny, a web of mutuality to use Dr. King’s phrase.
Many of us have been doing that anew throughout these days of change and hopeful renewal — listening, learning, resisting white supremacy where we find it, educating ourselves on the work of racial justice, and taking on the virtue of humility so core to a life in community and so important for so many of us these days.
A few years ago, I was part of a community-city group in Greensboro, convened by our mayor and other leaders and activists to discuss racial injustice in Greensboro. We met every Monday, and it was hard work. And I learned a lot. Like at one particularly urgent meeting, we were preparing a public statement, that outlined the objectives of our group, and it came to a point where we were tweaking language. I found myself advocating for a change in “tone,” a softer approach. I called it tactics and strategy, but was met with strong opposition, especially from the black leaders and other people of color in the room who were sick of accommodating and appeasing. Yet I was just convinced I was right, I was smart, I knew what I was talking about, I understood power, I was strategic… to the point I ignored their experience entirely. Afterward a friend, one of the other white leaders in the group, pulled me aside and said to me as I stood in the parking lot in my frustration, “I know what you’re feeling. But you didn’t listen. I find that if I’m at a table and I see it one way, while nearly every person of color sees it another way, then I’m the one who needs to listen and to learn.”
Those among us who are white are finding ourselves in a place of learning, humility, and growth. It can lead to transformation, and might even lead us more vividly into the change that can still come. It’s a change that looks a lot like the world envisioned by the God who holds up three fingers, reminding us how we were created in the image of relationship, we were sent out with the formula of God in three, we were called beyond the individualistic pursuits and oppositional struggles of our nature, to change into the image of a God who is mutual and interdependent, and calls us all into the work of truth and justice, taking God’s life into our life.
So hear the voice of God to you today, asking you once more, “Who are you?” You are not one. You are not two. You are more than that. You are made in the image, and called in the community, and formed in the love of blessed Trinity.