The title to my sermon this morning is an allusion to one of the great american lullabies written by George Gerswhin — Summertime.
and the livin’s easy
The fish are jumpin
And the cotton is high.
Oh, your daddy’s rich
And your momma’s good lookin’
So hush you little baby
Don’t you cry.
One of these mornings
You’re going to rise up singing
Then you’ll spread your wings
And you’ll take to the sky
But till that morning
There’s a’nothing can harm you
With daddy and mamma standing by
Gerswin’s Rhapsody in Blue was the first real orchestral piece of music that I ever played. I was a budding musician, playing at a summer conservatory of music. I played music all day long that summer, and his melodies have haunted me ever since.
I suspect that this love of Gershwin was the beginning of my interest in the African American experience of freedom in the midst of captivity. What could be more profoundly theological than their understanding expressed through story and song and their history, that “out of the heart are issues of life and that no external force, however great and overwhelming, can at long last destroy a people,” unless they allow a victory against them of the spirit (Howard Marshall).
W.E.B. Dubois, in The Soul of Black Folk, argued that the African American experience is one of a double allegiance — first to the land of their origin, as a place that stands for freedom and renewal, and also, and no less, to America, their home. This double allegiance is not simply a psychological description — it describes a trust in God that goes beyond hoping for release to seeing themselves as part of the great cloud of witnesses who proclaimed a way out of no way, a way of love and a freedom of the spirit.
Martin Luther King, Jr. gave best expression to this double allegiance when he said, “A threat to justice anywhere in the world is a threat to justice everywhere in the world.”
And when Clara sings that first lullaby, we sense that this opera is out to make the world a better place. And what a hook. No other song says summer like those first few lines. It’s sensuousness is concrete and unavoidable. Tied up in this real, earthy, beautiful song — is the eternal hope — a hope that is born out of the misery of white supremacy that one day, we will all be free to fly.
Anyway — summer livin’ always seems to cry out for summer preachin’. School’s out, and the thought of not having to roust the children to their morning-get-ready-for-school-chores, has me thinking light. Problem is — today is Trinity Sunday. Anything but light. Anything but sensuous. Anything but livin’ easy.
Perhaps we need to inject a little of that Porgy and Bess mentality into it. In fact, I so heartily agree with the famous English bishop of the 1960’s, John A. T. Robinson who said of the doctrine of the trinity that it had become a formula as arid and as unintelligible as E=MC2, that I have mostly ignored it.
There are certainly those who might call my thinking heretical. Those who would argue that if you have a low doctrine of the Trinity that you can’t well be a Christian now then, can you?
Neo-orthodox theology, which is the kind of theology that grew from a demand to modernize the orthodox theologians, and which yet remains adamant that you can’t speak of God unless you define God Trinitarily, has a strong hold. Even among my colleagues in the United Church of Christ, colleagues about whom you would say they are anything but conservative, this neo-orthodoxy holds some hallowed ground for them as the benchmark of all that is theological.
This unaccountable neo-orthodox grip prevents us from really thinking through how the church might be alienating the large percentage of the even larger percentage of people who do not find church worth their while — if those who want to name their experience of God as something other than Father, Son and Holy Spirit are declared enemies of the church, then that is in fact what they will be — against the church and most certainly not finding their heart’s longing for spiritual sustainence and the kind of transcendental relationship with the rest of the world that MLK Jr. argues is required if we are to live in peace someday.
And so, I don’t do Trinity Sunday. In fact, I think this might be the first time I’ve preached on it in my years here. Perhaps I am rather much like man who had to recite the Athanasian Creed on Sunday morning. It reads, “The Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible, and the Holy Ghost incomprehensible.” The man muttered to himself, but to loudly for the comfort of those around him, “The whole damn thing incomprehensible!”
The story is apocryphal, but it does express a general feeling among many folk – church goer and ‘exile’ — ‘Trinity’ is incomprehensible indeed! It is at best irrelevant, and perhaps at worst, nonsensical.
While the neo-orthodox approach to the trinity is like this, it seems important to me not to be too hasty and throw out the baby with the bathwater. The question is, what is the baby and what is the bathwater?
This doctrine of the trinity, like any other part of our history, was once used to explain something about people’s experience of God. Today we don’t speak of angels at the intersection of route 2 and 100 at the entrance to the village, proclaiming good news — and that’s not for lack of good news — it’s for lack of angels. But that doesn’t mean when we read the Christmas story we don’t stell of angels.
What was it about people’s experience of God that made them speak of three persons in one?
A clue to this question is, as is so often the case, found in the old language. When a Greek speaking person of the antiquity used the word “person,” they did not simply or only refer to an individual, like we do today — they meant by the word to speak of something about the individual. In fact the Greek word, originally referred the mask worn by an actor used to convey an aspect of a character in a play. They recognized that in drama they were not just characters on the stage, they were representations of parts of what it meant to be a human living in a particular time and place dealing with a particular circumstance.
The Greek word for person has less of a permanent character to it than we give it today, and instead recognizes that an individual is only an individual in relation to the moment. A person is a becoming and not a being.
My summer-time guess is that those early theologians used the word person to express something we today express through the language of relationship and community. It was a way of saying that in God this connection is a multifaceted sacredness, not to be limited to one way or even three.
I was out working in the front garden several weeks ago after worship and a friend rode his bicycle by and stopped to chat — And he asked me what I was doing, working on the sabbath — just to poke fun. I offered my usual bleak, tepid response that unfortunately that does not apply to me. And he replied that well, God doesn’t really expect us to pay any mind to those old commandments anyway.
Now, I am no less an anti-literalist than he is — but I had to say that I thought of all the commandments, that was the one God really intended to be held literally. Wouldn’t it be good! Wouldn’t it be oh so good if our imagining about God came from a place of satisfaction and relaxation? The doctrine of the Trinity, likewise might be freed from it’s arid nonsense to become an expression of the real and sensual that makes our relationships ones worth having.
If we could let the trinity have some summer livin’ then not only would that be a welcome change from the pulpit and church for those exiled by it, but that the literalness and woodeness which binds this doctrine, and is used by some as a kind of definition of God, as a gate, would be answered in a creative and imaginative way, involving all people seeking justice here and everywhere.
If we could bring just some of that enjoyment that we associate with summer vacation into our livin’ and thinkin’ then maybe our thinking is better and our living more fun.
Maybe this is really what the storyteller Matthew is on about. That the essence of God is to be in mutual relation . . .
A mystery of dynamic communion of connectedness.
A dancing and celebrating Christ, eager for summer livin’.