The late Cardinal Richard Cushing once told a story about a time when he was still a parish priest, giving last rites to a dying man. He began with the traditional question, “Do you believe in God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.?” The man reportedly opened one eye and said, “Here I am dying, and he asks me a riddle.” That sums up pretty concisely what I feel about the Trinity. It is a riddle (or, in church language, a holy mystery). We don’t get how it works, no matter how many metaphors we invoke.
Since anything else I try to say about the Trinity will probably be heretical, I instead want to share a fragment of what I believe about the Trinity. It all comes down to one word: relationship. Everything we are and do springs from God’s relationship within God’s own self and with God’s creation. Like all relationships, the nature our relationship with God and others is a constant dance, an interweaving of roles and responsibilities, an ever-shifting kaleidoscope of all the same pieces, repeatedly falling into different patterns, always together, always in communion.
Relationship is a word that sums up this Trinity too. When our mural of the Trinity goes up on our nice clean wall in July, it will feature, among other things, a depiction of the Trinity that is active and dynamic. One of the subtler features of this mural, one that I didn’t notice at first, is a murmuration of birds flying across all four panels. A murmuration occurs when hundreds of starlings (maybe some other bird species too?) travel together in intricate swooping patterns.
A few years ago, a Princeton professor of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering and his colleagues researched starling murmurations. What they unpacked was the birds’ “remarkable ability to maintain cohesion as a group in highly uncertain environments and with limited, noisy information” — a nice description of what goes on in a murmuration and of what goes on in a church. How do these starling do this intricate dance without crashing into each other? Apparently one secret is that they stay focused on the seven birds nearest to them. Paying attention to the relationships around you helps the whole group move in a harmonious (but still mysterious) dance—true for starlings and true for churches.
Viewing our experience together as a dance may help us re-imagine what it means to be church, but it won’t make it easier. Everything will still be all about relationship, and relationships are messy. Even church relationships. Maybe particularly church relationships. We do not always do what we ought. Sometimes we neglect our duties, and sometimes we do things we shouldn’t do. Christians are called to mimic our relational God by working together in community, recognizing that all the pieces of God’s handiwork are of equal value and contribute to the whole. But we get out of step sometimes, hurting one another, or passively standing by while someone else degrades what God has declared good. Alas, our poor stewardship of the earth is resulting in calamitous changes in our environment while our flawed stewardship of one another’s dignity and value results in conflict daily, on both a small and large scale.
Fortunately, God-with-us does not leave us to our own devices. We are not the choreographers of this dance we call church. Instead, as Paul writes to the Roman Christians, “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” This gift we all receive in baptism, God’s love poured out on us, cannot be erased. Nothing we do or fail to do will wipe the sign of the cross off our foreheads.
All of creation is dependent on the grace and goodness of God, but that doesn’t let us off the hook. Rather, it calls us to deeper, wider, and sturdier murmurations. Another lesson we can learn from starlings comes from Cornell Univ.’s Ornithology Dept., which claims that in the US starlings are “sometimes resented for their abundance and aggressiveness.” Scientific American Magazine calls starlings “a menace.” Let’s not forget that’s part of the church’s job too—to be irritating to the powers that try to stifle the dance of the Trinity. At our baptisms, God’s voice clearly asks us to fly from our safe nests into the world that God so loves, which is in such trouble. God sees babies being separated from their parents at our borders. God sees children in Gaza dying. God sees middle schoolers being shot in their classrooms. God sees the bullied, the beaten, the forgotten, and cries out, “My world is in need! Whom shall I send? Who will go for us?” And with the prophet Isaiah, the church responds, “Here we are! Send us! Send us!”
This week in Washington DC, a group of respected ecumenical theologians (including Bishop Curry, the Episcopal bishop who presided at the royal wedding last week) issued a document called Reclaiming Jesus: A Confession of Faith in a Time of Crisis. Their confession is similar to the Barmen Declaration authored by Karl Barth, Deitrich Bonhoeffer, and other members of the Confessing Church in Germany in the 1930s under the rise of the 3rd Reich. The Reclaiming Jesus confession has six principles, each of which calls Christians to deepen our relationships with God and with each other, to embrace fully the fact that—like the Holy Trinity–we exist only in community. Special attention must be paid to reaching across racial, ethnic, and national lines, for the church’s relationship with the most vulnerable in our society is what marks us as followers of Jesus.
I’d like to have a series of conversations about the theological points this document makes sometime soon. I’ve posted the complete confession on our Trinity FB page and printed out some copies you can pick up in the narthex when you leave today, but here is a broad overview of the 6 principles:
- We believe each human being is made in God’s image and likeness. Therefore we reject the resurgence of white nationalism and racism.
- We believe we are one body. Therefore we reject misogyny, the mistreatment, violent abuse, sexual harassment, and assault of women being further revealed in our culture and politics, including in our churches.
- We believe how we treat the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the stranger, the sick and prisoner is how we treat Christ himself. Therefore we reject the language and policies of political leaders who would debase and abandon the most vulnerable children of God. We strongly the deplore the growing attacks on immigrants and refugees.
- We believe that truth is morally central to our personal and public lives. Therefore we reject the practice and pattern of lying that is invading our political and civil life.
- We believe that Christ’s way of leadership is servanthood, not domination. Therefore we reject any moves toward autocratic political leadership and authoritarian rule, which are theological dangers.
- We believe Jesus when he tells us to go into all nations making disciples. We should love and serve the world and all its inhabitants rather than seek first narrow nationalistic prerogatives. Therefore we reject “America first” as a theological heresy for followers of Christ. We reject xenophobic or ethnic nationalism that places one nation over others.
While these principles are all sound Biblical teaching, some of them might sound confrontational or difficult to explore. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t. As Isaiah felt coal burning his lips in today’s OT reading, it seems impossible that we could live in the times we do without discussing how our faith informs our behavior, both as individuals and as a church. The Good News is that, as relationship partners in/with the Holy Trinity, we can have hard conversations and listen to one another’s stories and perspectives. We can cherish one another’s voices, even when they express ideas and values that differ from our own. Because we are children of the same Abba, we can deliberate about Scripture and practice how this family of God dances with the community, the city, the state, the country, and the world around us.
No matter what we do or don’t do, we trust that the Triune God who is always in relationship will empower the church with the same “remarkable ability to maintain cohesion as a group in highly uncertain environments and with limited, noisy information” that keeps starlings making beautiful patterns in motion. No matter how difficult the choreography we navigate, God’s great love will lead and sustain us in being church together for the sake of the world. How? Well, that’s a mystery.
~Pastor Susan Schneider