A Relational God

A sermon preached by Christopher L. Webber at St. Paul’s Church, Bantam, Connecticut, on Trinity Sunday,  June 19, 2011

After the service today I will be talking briefly about my new book, a biography of James W.C. Pennington, but I want to talk about him right now to get us into thinking about the Trinity: three persons, one God, Trinity in Unity. I think there’s a connection.  But I also think I could connect the Trinity with you and with your life. If I can’t, we don’t need to keep Trinity Sunday. Why do it, if it makes no difference? But it does make a difference.  The Trinity is basic to every human life; it does make a difference.

My reason for beginning with James Pennington is that it’s easier, I think, to see it in his life because it’s more dramatic. Just think about two things: first, James Pennington was a remarkable individual. He escaped from slavery in 1829 and at that point he was illiterate. His owner published a wanted ad offering $200 for his recovery and the ad said, he “mumbles or talks with his teeth closed.”  That’s interesting because Pennington became a great preacher and orator. Illiterate and mumbling at the age of 19, he was hired to teach school only five years later. He went on to study at Yale, write the first black history, help integrate the New York City street car system, and provide leadership in the fight to abolish slavery – among other things. So he was a remarkable individual but, point two, he didn’t do it alone.

When he escaped from slavery, he found his way to the door of a man named William Wright, a Quaker, who took him in, gave him work to do, and began to teach him, and to encourage him by telling him about other African Americans who had managed to learn and become writers and scientists in spite of the handicap of being born in slavery.  Pennington didn’t do it alone. He had help from William Wright and others. He had also grown up in an intact and supportive family.

So just take that brief description and think about it: a remarkable individual, a singular person, but a life deeply involved with other lives, other individuals, who shared their lives with him.  Can’t every one of us tell similar stories about ourselves and other people we’ve known? I’m an individual, for better or worse, unique in many ways. I write, I speak in public. My father was a priest, yes, but preaching wasn’t his strong point; no, but my mother won a prize for public speaking in high school. There were always books around when I was growing up. I had examples and encouragement. Nobody else could do exactly what I did, spending hours and hours in libraries doing the research and writing the book, so that’s individual. But I had my wife and family and this parish for encouragement. I had a community with me. I did something unique, but I didn’t do it alone. That’s my point.  Human life is like that. Yes, we are individuals, but we are also social creatures, involved, deeply involved, in a network of relationships.

John Donne said it best: “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main . . . every man’s death diminishes me because I am involved in mankind.”  Every one of us is “involved in mankind.”  I am affected by family and friends; and so are you. I am impacted by events in Afghanistan and Mexico and Japan and Libya, and so are you. We’re watching with hope and fear and fascination the events unfold that they call, “The Arab Spring.” There are whole societies in turmoil. And why? A street vendor burned himself to death in Tunisia and suddenly seemingly powerful dictatorships are crumbling in Egypt and Yemen and Libya and Syria. An individual acted, but millions reacted. Human life has a corporateness about it that we ignore too often in our thinking.

We are brought up, I think, to imagine that our individual identities are primary. I remember learning the phrase, “rugged individualism” – probably in grade school – as an American characteristic and certainly we have valued individualism, maybe more than most other people.  But even so, none of us – not even an American – accomplishes anything alone. Our lives are enriched by music and art produced by others.  We learn with others, work with others, relax with others. We can debate how to provide health care but without hospitals and research institutions there will be no health care. We can fund it one way or another and some ways will prove less efficient and some will be more expensive, but we will fund it because whoever shows up at the ER door is related to us and needs our support. We depend on others and others depend on us. We have to find ways to work together or life becomes a meaningless chaos. It’s not always easy but there’s no way to survive alone.

Here’s an interesting fact: (Well, I think it’s interesting!) In the Hebrew language, the language of the Old Testament, there is no word for an individual body.  There are words for every body part and a word for the flesh we have in common but no word for an individual body. And that’s because they didn’t think primarily in terms of the individual but in terms of society. There are societies like that today that are much less individualistic than we are, for better or worse. The individual isn’t as highly valued; it’s the tribe or society that comes first. Our instinct is to think of that as somehow ignorant or primitive, but doesn’t our individualism sometimes get us in trouble? Might it be a good idea sometimes to think more than we do about how our actions affect others? We are likelier to do that in a family – “Billy stop plaguing your brother,” “Sally, can’t you be nice to your sister?”- but we also set up the goal of individualism to go out on your own. The question is not whether one is wrong and the other right but how to balance our individualism with a social perspective, with an equal respect and concern for the rights and welfare of others.

I’ve never seen it myself but I’m told that small children sometimes come home from school with report cards that say, “Plays well with others” or maybe “Doesn’t play well with others.” And the fact is, if you read the papers or watch news reports on television, we human beings pretty generally don’t play very well with others.  The reason we have governments is to deal with the grown up children who still don’t “play well with others” and all too often hurt each other physically and emotionally and spiritually with the result that we need police forces and armies to defend us from each other. We are social beings.  Anti-social behavior has social consequences.

Now, we read in the Bible that God created us in the image of God and we learn that God is three persons in one Unity. In other words, the fundamental nature of God is complex, a living relationship. We read in the Bible that God is love. Well, love doesn’t exist alone.  Love has to do with relationships and a God without relationships could hardly be a God of love. The triune God is a social God.  So James Pennington’s life, the life of a remarkable individual, strengthened and enriched by relationships, reflected the nature of God. Your life and mine, in their individuality and their relationships reflect the nature of God.

But now let me take this one step further and ask you to think in even larger terms. Not only Americans but human beings generally have thought of themselves, I think, as Lords of Creation. Well, maybe that’s more characteristic of modern human beings. We do read about other societies, Native Americans, for example, who see themselves more often as inter-related with the natural world around them, who personify the trees and animals of their world and respect them, care for them, in a way that we don’t tend to do. We have begun to change in recent years as we have begun to see the impact we make on our environment, as we see whole species disappear.  We cut down forests and plow up prairies and then find the water running off instead of being absorbed and we find the water flooding out over the farms and eroding the soil and washing away the houses we build. And we’ve begun to understand that we are inter-related also with the world around us, that our actions make a difference and not always for the better. We are more deeply related to each other than we often remember and more deeply related to our environment than we are even beginning to understand.

There was an Anglican priest named Thomas Traherne who lived four hundred years ago and put it this way: “Your Enjoyment of the World is never right, till evry [his spelling] Morning you awake in Heaven: see your self in your fathers Palace: and look upon the Skies and the Earth and the Air, as Celestial Joys: having such a Reverend Esteem of all, as if you were among the Angels. The Bride of a Monarch, in her Husbands Chamber, hath no such Causes of Delight as you.   You never Enjoy the World aright, till the Sea it self floweth in your Veins, till you are Clothed with the Heavens, and Crowned with the Stars: and perceiv your self to be the Sole Heir of the whole World: and more then so, becaus Men are in it who are evry one Sole Heirs, as well as you. Till you can Sing and Rejoyce and Delight in GOD, as Misers do in Gold, and Kings in Scepters, you never Enjoy the World.”

Is that how you look at the world and your place in it?  “You never Enjoy the World aright, till the Sea it self floweth in your Veins, till you are Clothed with the Heavens, and Crowned with the Stars: and perceiv your self to be the Sole Heir of the whole World.”

Traherne was a mystic and we may be a bit uncomfortable with mystics. Our society is only beginning to regain a sense of spirituality. But Traherne is right.  Don’t you feel better when the sun is out and the humidity is low and worse when the clouds roll in?  Some of us like to get to an ocean beach in the summer and get into the waves.  Some would rather get out on the Appalachian trail. But there’s an instinctive relationship with the natural world and it’s God’s world and God is in it and we are in God.

Well, you can make some sort of mystery of Trinity Sunday and worry about the mathematics of it but what it’s all about is who we are: human beings deeply related to each other and deeply related to our environment because we are in God and God is in us and a Triune God is a God of relationships who calls us into the relationships that enrich our lives.

I think I should just add one note because today happens also to be Father’s Day and I don’t usually pay any attention to “Hallmark occasions” but isn’t Father’s Day also about individuals in relationship? And doesn’t that relationship also give us some indication of what the Trinity is all about? If you could imagine in any family relationship being always on the same wave length, never at odds, always with the same purpose, you would have just a glimpse of the perfect unity between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit that is always calling us into deeper and better relationships with each other and our world.

We have just two tasks as Christians: worship and mission. Worship is about renewing our relationship with God and mission is about renewing our relationship with the world.  We come in to this place to worship and go out to be in mission. It’s all about our relationships with God and each other because God is a relational God, Three persons in One being. Trinity Sunday is just that simple and just that demanding. Celebrating this day reminds us of who God is and who we are called to be.

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