SERMON: Trinity Sunday: 1st after Pentecost
In the name of the holy and undivided Trinity, one God now and forever. Amen.
Oddly enough, this morning’s readings are all about beginnings and endings. I’m not sure if this was done on purpose, but it struck me rather unexpectedly as I was preparing this sermon. We have the opening sections of Genesis recounting the creation of the world and of humans, with that mention of God’s day of rest. We have the last part of the second letter to the Corinthians and Paul’s final words of instruction, including the familiar greeting with which we open our celebration every Sunday. And we have the very last paragraph of the very last chapter of the gospel of Matthew known as the Great Commission, where Jesus instructs his followers to “make disciples of all nations.”
Perhaps beginnings and endings are appropriate for times of transition, and especially now as we move into this long post-Pentecost period in the Church’s liturgical life. Of course, we are also transitioning in a more secular way: moving from spring to summer, to a time more free and relaxed, a time when vacation and leisure rather than work and drudgery occupy our mental landscape. But today is also Trinity Sunday, and I’m wondering—foolishly perhaps—about what we can make of beginnings and endings and the rather intimidating idea of a Triune God, of a God at once single and multiple, a God who is both unity and diversity. I say “intimidating,” but I use it more as a sort of common expression. There is not—and there should not be—anything intimidating about the Trinity. We think there is because we’ve been taught that it is something that we will never understand. Yet the Trinity lies at the very heart of our Christian faith. I don’t know about you, but I don’t really like the idea that I could never understand something that is so central to what I believe. I am not being foolhardy, I think; just slightly fearless.
There are lots of pitfalls to avoid in preaching on the Trinity. In fact, it’s a bit of a tired old preacher’s cliché. Beware of heresy, they joke, as though the Church’s foundations will shake and tumble if you so much as step out of line. Of course, one’s person’s heresy is another person’s orthodoxy, and vice-versa, so I’m really not sure the fear is all that much warranted. Then there’s the ever-present problem of becoming a bit too schmaltzy or even rather mundane about explaining the three-in-one motif—you know, the idea of St. Patrick’s shamrock and all. And what can one say about that very modern and perennial issue, Trinitarian gender? Father, Son and Holy Spirit—two males, with a third of indeterminate gender. Rather problematic, to say the least. I could even pull that old professor’s trick: “O, you know, the Trinity is actually not a monotheistic idea; it’s really polytheism in disguise.” And finally, we could totally foreclose discussion by calling it all an unfathomable and unresolvable mystery. Point final. Well, perhaps it’s time to try something a bit different. Let’s try a little Trinitarian tango…..in drag.
A friend of mine, Jay, an Episcopalian priest and theologian at the Pacific School of Religion, writes this in his book entitled Dancing with God: “Christian traditions have at times tried to explain Divine Reality, but less frequently than many people probably realize. Christian history actually offers not just one way but many ways to speak about the rhythms of Trinitarian mystery and none of them turns out to be entirely adequate. Taking that history to heart, Anglican Christians have insisted on retaining the Trinitarian character of Christian faith even while experimenting with new and imaginative ways to speak about it. This process of experimentation has continued for centuries, which can caution us against trying to find the ultimately correct formula for Divine Reality. Rather than speaking correctly, Christian faith continually invites us to speak better and for the sake of inspiring the hope to which a Trinitarian theology tries to point: To hear the divine music of the divine dancer and at last to join the divine dance itself.”
Jay loves to dance, so it makes good sense that, as a priest and theologian, he should talk about Christian faith as dancing with God, and of the Trinity in terms of the divine composer, the divine dancer and the divine dance. It’s a colourful image. It connotes graceful movement, harmony, beauty, and elegance: a divine choreography, as it were. And if you’re thinking of a Trinitarian tango, a little voluptuousness as well—not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course. I also love his line about speaking “better” rather than “correctly” about the Trinity. Jay is saying here that we need to use our imagination: that the important thing is not to do or speak theology the right way, but to speak theology creatively, and to speak it as a way of inspiring hope, a way of inviting others into the divine dance. When we speak of the Trinity—of the Divine Reality—we may never be totally sure, but that does not mean that we should be afraid of speaking incorrectly.
So, if we take Jay’s image to heart, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised about the seemingly eclectic mix of the readings for this morning. In the first one from Genesis, God the divine composer sets the stage for the dance, inviting us to share in its beauty and glory. And for God, the dance is good. God composes and dances so much, and so well in fact, that God needs a break. Notice too that God speaks with the royal “we.” Already, from the beginning, God’s composition is multi-vocal. God does not dance alone.
In the second and third readings—from Paul and from Matthew—we hear voices of unity and reassurance. Paul’s plea is for order and fellowship in the name of the Trinitarian God of love. And in the gospel, Jesus reminds his apostles—and notice that there were some who still doubted, even at the very end—that his mission was now their mission; that they were to teach like him, proclaiming and baptizing in the name of the Holy Trinity. The divine dancer is here inviting us as dance partners. We need not worry if we do not know the steps; he will take the lead. The divine dancer will also be with us to the end of the age.
The tango is a dance that implies continuous movement: movement that is at once flexible, yet also highly choreographed. The word “tango” actually comes from the Latin tangere, which means “to touch.” If you’ve ever seen the tango danced professionally, you will have been struck by the importance of touch between the two partners, how the two bodies move in intimate and synchronous movement. Almost as one. Almost as though they were one body. If there were three persons, we would call it Trinitarian. A Trinitarian tango. Three bodies touching each other in a never-ending and intimate choreography, yet there is only one dance. And the overall effect is a beauty to behold. That’s not a bad image, I would think, for what we call the mystery of the Trinity.
So let’s go with Trinitarian tango. But where, you may ask, does the “drag” part come in? Well, drag does two things. It is performance, of course, in that it changes the appearance of things—in this case, gender—by reframing it into its opposite. But drag is also, and perhaps even more importantly, a form of critique. As such, drag forces us to see habitual things differently, with a new lens, and it often leaves us feeling slightly off-kilter, and purposely so. Drag forces us to ask ourselves questions, and thereby to challenge what is considered normative. Why? Because what is considered normative is so very often problematic or oppressive.
The so-called mystery of the Trinity—and this is where you may think that I am going out on a limb—can be likened to a drag performance, in the sense that it is really meant to disturb and challenge our pre-conceived and all-too-simplistic notions of who or what God is. The Trinity is ultimately a critique of the limits and arrogance of human reason in trying to understand everything. It forces us to stand in awe, as it were, and to admire the beauty of the divine dance for what it really is, on its own terms. I think a multi-vocal God—a God who is at once both/and, and either/or—is ultimately a more complex and richer God. This God, like the tango, is ever in movement, a choreographed beauty one can behold with pleasure. Such a triune God also forces and requires us to think in more complex and subtle terms, and to see our taken-for-granted world differently. Just as drag obliges us to look beyond the everyday surface of things, so a triune God should challenge us to ask some disturbing theological questions of what we see around us, and change it. Why? Because this triune God is too complex and too sweeping to get caught in our usual black-and-white clichés. This triune God moves beyond distinctions and divisions, yet celebrates difference. A Trinitarian tango in drag.
At the start of this homily, in reflecting on today’s readings, I mentioned beginnings and endings. What of them? The divine dance—the Divine Reality—never stops. Beginnings and endings, in a way, are artificial constructs. When the tango is danced well, it seems to flow forever. Our God—the God of one in many, and of many in one—dances forever. The divine dance is seamless; it is catching.
Would anyone care to dance?