Sermon May 22: The Tie That Binds

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Faith United Methodist Church

May 22, 2016

Trinity Sunday

Rev. Kristabeth Atwood

Scripture: Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31, Psalm 8

Prayer for Illumination:        

As we reflect on your word, O God, may your Spirit of Truth bring us wisdom to carry the message of the Gospel in our hearts. May we live according to your word that we might reflect your glory. Amen.

Sermon:                                 The Tie that Binds

Trinity Sunday. Three in One. One in Three. My Desk Dictionary defines trinity as a triad, “a union or group of three usually closely related persons or things.” But our understanding of Trinity is a little more….. theological. We worship one God made known in three persons.

The word Trinity is a non-Scriptural term that was put forth as a way to describe the mystery we see reflected in the Scriptures. There are several places in the Gospel where we hear Jesus speak of the Father and the Spirit. In the Gospel of John Jesus proclaims, “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all truth; for he will not speak on his own….” And later Jesus affirms, “He (the Spirit) will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine.” In just those brief verses, we see Jesus, the Holy Spirit and the Father working together.

While the Trinity was not revealed to us fully until Jesus’ resurrection and the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, we can look back and see how God revealed God’s self in different ways throughout the Old and New Testaments. The passages from Proverbs and Psalm 8 are two of those places.  Coming from a strictly monotheistic tradition the early Jewish followers of Christ had to explain how God could be both three and one. The doctrine of the Trinity was developed to address just that.

But mysteries that are explained cease to be mysteries, right? Dispelling the mystery is the temptation we fall into when we try to explain the unexplainable, to illustrate what cannot be illustrated. When we think we have a handle on the Trinity; that’s when we’re really in trouble. In fact, we can probably never fully comprehend the truth that God is one in three persons. If we stay too much “in our heads” we risk losing the sense of awe about it all. I think I agree with what Johannes Tauler wrote in Seasons of the Spirit, “To experience the working of the Trinity is better than to talk about it.”

Yet, what is compelling to me about the Trinity is that it reflects a God in relationship. The Father, Son and Holy Spirit are not separate. The tie that binds. They work together. In our Old Testament lesson we hear from Wisdom.   Wisdom is personified in Proverbs as a woman and has, at different times, been identified with the persons of Christ or the Holy Spirit. In any case, this Scripture gives us a glimpse into a God who exists in relationship. “Ages ago I was set up, at the first, before the beginning of the earth…when he had not yet made earth and fields, or the world’s first bits of soil…I was his daily delight.” As Debbie Blue puts it, “In the beginning God contained within Godself a personal union: a relationship.”

So, if God is a God of relationship, what does that mean for us? Over the last two weeks United Methodists from around the world gathered in Portland, Oregon for our quadrennial General Conference. This event happens every four years and sets the rules that all United Methodist Churches are to uphold. General Conference carries the great promise of being a witness to the world of unity and of what it means to follow Christ in the Methodist tradition.

To say that this General Conference was a debacle would be generous. To begin, delegates couldn’t agree on the rules by which they would do their work together. Translation equipment for the many non-English speaking delegates failed, leaving delegates unaware of what was coming up for vote. Any hope that there would be a move toward greater inclusivity for gay, lesbian, and transgendered Methodist to serve as clergy or for the ability for UMC clergy and churches to host same-gender weddings quickly dissolved. The body stood by the current statement in the Book of Discipline that homosexuality is “incompatible with Christian teachings.”

I’m sure that some of you saw the articles in the New York Times or Washington Post. Maybe you ran across one of the many blog posts shared on Facebook. And I know that at least one member of our congregation live-streamed some of the proceedings and watched in real time. My biggest source of information was from friends who were General Conference either as delegates, volunteers or demonstrators. I heard of delegates who embraced LGBTQ demonstrators and then voted against a resolution calling for the worldwide de-criminalization of homosexuality. I heard of a friend of mine, who is a gay man, being called away from his work because someone in another committee had never met a gay person. This is heart-breaking stuff.

This past week I’ve struggled with the meaning of unity that our beautiful Trinity represents. The tie that binds. Are we called to be united at all costs? General Conference closed with a call for unity, but what if that unity promotes harm and not love? Perhaps the tie that binds is not always blessed. Perhaps the tie that binds is, sometimes, more like a noose. The early church father, Augustine of Hippo, described the Trinity as a union of a lover (God the Father), the Beloved (Christ), and the love that binds them together (Holy Spirit). This, to me, does not seem like a unity of harm.

I love the United Methodist Church. My Methodist roots go back generations. I follow the church founded by John Wesley because I believe that connectionalism and social justice are essential to being a follower of Christ. What I won’t do is honor unity over justice.   True unity does not come without social justice. To be truly united we all must see each other as equals, as siblings in the eyes of God. As Paul wrote in his letter to the Corinthians, “If one member suffers, we all suffer together.” As Martin Luther King Jr. affirmed, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

So I am grieving where we find ourselves at this moment in history. And I, along with many friends and colleagues, are wondering if there is a way forward to greater justice and love and true unity. And the Trinity, our beautiful Trinity, gives me hope. Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer.

As the Lutheran preacher Luke Bouman puts it, “The Trinity is the story of an unexpected God in relationship with us in unexpected places and unexpected ways.”  On Trinity Sunday we can’t just do the math. Does 1+1+1=3? Or does 1+1+1=1? Maybe both answers are correct. On Trinity Sunday, we don’t celebrate a doctrine, but a way of life. A way of life that involves the story of God’s love in Jesus, the presence of God through creation and the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Ties that bind God together as One and us together with God. A way of life that includes relationship. Relationships themselves are mysteries for which we can thank God. God’s relationship in the Trinity. The relationship with have with God. And our relationships with each other. May our goal be not just to be united, but to be united together in love.

Let us pray: Triune God, you are not a God of isolation, but a God of relationship. Help us to reach out to you and to each other, that all your children may experience the love made manifest through you, our Creator, our Redeemer, our Sustainer. Amen.