On Friday evening, Corrie and I attended the gathering at the Alliant Center where the Rev. Alex Gee and others introduced “Our Madison Plan” the culmination of more than a year’s work of conversation, research, and planning in the effort to address the racial disparities in Madison and Dane County. As I stood listening in the packed room, I reflected on the challenges that we face as a community. It’s not just race and class that divide us; it’s not just the wide disparities in opportunity and educational achievement. As Rev. Gee pointed out, there is a deep cultural challenge that we face. Although he was addressing the challenges in the African-American community, his analysis extends to American society in general.
We have come to a place where we seem not to think that the larger community has any stake in what happens to individual members or groups. If someone is left behind, if a group fails to succeed economically, the fault is their own, and the larger community seems not to care that some members don’t succeed. In fact, we’re likely to punish them further or stigmatize them for their failures.
As I listened to Alex Gee’s eloquent plea to the African-American community to come together to address the ills that beset and to hold the larger community responsible for its role in creating the disparities that exist, I heard a call to a larger vision that seeks the common good of the whole community, not just individuals or certain sectors of it. Gee appealed to the prophet Jeremiah’s advice to the exiles in Babylon to “seek the peace of the city”—the peace and prosperity of a city that had destroyed their own city and brought them in captivity to Babylon.
Of course, Rev. Gee was saying this in a larger context in which calls to seek the common good seem to be falling on deaf ears. In our state, just this year we are witnessing the further dismantling of so many things that enhance our common life—from the state parks and environmental protection to public education from the university down to pre-K. There are punitive measures put in place against the most vulnerable members of our society, with new restrictions on what food stamps can be used for and efforts to require drug testing of recipients of such programs. Calls for the common good, community and the like are no longer falling on deaf ears—they seem to be in a language foreign to our politicians and to many of our fellow citizens. What can we do?
It may seem more than a little odd for me to be talking about such matters on this Sunday, Trinity Sunday, when our readings, hymns, and liturgical calendar have us focused on the nature of the God we worship, and the central doctrine of our faith, that God is One in Three—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. But I would argue that our society has come to this place because of our rampant, destructive individualism. It’s an individualism that emerges from a form of Christianity that sees the significance of our relationship with God in only individualistic terms. What matters is my personal relationship, my salvation, and nothing else. It also understands and sees God in only very narrow terms, defining God in ways that keeps us comfortable allows us to experience God only on our terms.
The reading from Isaiah challenges us to open ourselves to the possibility of experiencing God’s utter transcendence and otherness. Some of the language is familiar to us from our liturgy; the Holy, Holy, Holy that the seraphim sing are words we sing in the Eucharist, but the story itself, even if we’ve heard it before, is profoundly strange. Isaiah is in the Temple and experiences a theophany—a vision of God. Although he tells us he sees God, in truth, he doesn’t. He only sees the hem of God’s robe, which fills the whole temple. What he does see are the heavenly creatures that attend God, the six-winged seraphim. There’s something like an earthquake, the temple’s foundation shakes and the building is filled with smoke. Not surprisingly, Isaiah is terrified, but more than that. The encounter with God puts his own existence in proper perspective. He sees himself for who he is—“Woe is me, I am a man of unclean lips.”
Just as Isaiah is able only to see the hem of God’s robe, the Trinity is a constant reminder that our every effort to comprehend God will fail, that God remains beyond our understanding, that at the very nature of God is divine mystery. Our attempts to make sense of God, to define God in terms that we understand, will always fail, because the words and concepts we use can no better contain God than the temple could contain more than God’s robe.
At the same time, language is all we have, and the Trinity is the church’s attempt to explain something of how we do experience God—as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and what that triune experience of God may say about God’s very nature.
And here’s the thing. What does the Trinity tell us about God’s nature? That at the very heart of God, intrinsic to God’s nature, is not just one-ness, individuality, but three-ness, community. God’s very nature is relationship—the relationship of parent and child; God’s very nature is love. Indeed, in St. Augustine’s great treatise on the Trinity, one of the first images he uses as he explores the Trinity’s meaning is Love. Could it be, Augustine asked, whether the Trinity can be explained in this way: the one who loves, the Beloved, and the Love that binds them together?
It’s a rich, compelling image even if in the end it is inadequate to explain the nature of the Trinity. But I think it helps us comprehend several key aspects of God’s nature. First and foremost, love. Love goes beyond itself, seeking something, someone to love. As sufficient as God is in Godself, God moved outwardly, creating the world and human beings in it. That joyful playful creativity that I mentioned in last week’s sermon invites and compels us to move beyond ourselves and our own preoccupations to seek the other, to love.
The second point should be obvious, but perhaps it is not. Just as love requires an object, just as God is One in Three, it should go without saying that at the very heart of God’s nature is community, relationship that is not binary, but multiple. We can see it in the story from Isaiah. As powerful as Isaiah’s experience was, as terrifying and humbling as it was, it is not a story about Isaiah’s relationship with God. It is a story of Isaiah’s prophetic call. Having experienced something so powerful, Isaiah’s responds by volunteering to go out and preach to the people. His experience drew him out of himself into the world, to do God’s work.
One way to think about this is to use an image that Meister Eckhart the 14th century German mystic used, “overflowing.” It suggests that God cannot be contained in Godself, limited to Godself, but moves outwardly toward others, toward us and all of creation.
The mystery that is Trinity, the mystery that is God, impels outside of ourselves into the world, into encounter and relationship with others. The mystery that is at the heart of our relationship with God propels outward to experience that mystery in relationship with others, to experience in and through others the God who created them and us. When everything in our society, our culture, and politics, draws us into ourselves, into self-focus and self-absorption, the overflowing Trinity expands our world, widens our vision, enlarges our imagination. It impels us outward, seeking others, creating and broadening community.
As Christians, we are called to proclaim a moral imagination that is as expansive and overflowing as the Triune God whom we worship. As Christians we are called to embody and to model the beloved community in which all are loved by God. We are called to a beloved community in which love overflows into the world, and to all of humanity beloved of God.