Some folks asked that I post my sermon from last Sunday. So, here it is.
Friday night, Lisa and I attended a modern dance performance by the Bruce Wood Dance Project. Sadly, it was an unexpected memorial for Mr. Wood, who died just a couple of weeks ago of pneumonia and heart failure, the ultimate end of a decades-long battle with HIV. I was honored to be present. I really mean honored because it felt intimate, as if I had been let in to a person’s private life, even in the midst of that large performance hall. Overhearing conversations in the audience, it was clear that many people had not only been long-time fans of Bruce Wood, but that they knew him personally and supported him through the ups and downs of his life and career. But there was also another kind of intimacy.
In his choreography, you can feel the spirit of the man. Every piece felt deeply personal, like his imagination, his intellect, his will – everything that made him, not only human, but made him uniquely him – was embodied on that stage. His heart and mind made flesh. All of this was constructed out of a troupe of dancers, each of whom was unique, bringing his or her own personal gifts and limitations to the movements given them. Out of a community of difference, Bruce Wood created something sublimely harmonious.
The pieces themselves were not the rigid form of ballet. This was not the tall male lead and the slender ballerina, the man a scaffolding for the woman’s leaps and the woman a toy to be flung around. Dancers danced alone or in duets or trios or in groups of six or more. Same-sex pairings were as common as mixed gender pairings. Bodies engaged one another with sensuality and violence and humor. They merged and separated. They rolled around and over one another, falling and grasping, pulling and shoving. At times they moved in unison and at times they conflicted, literally attacking one another. Sometimes dancers sat down and calmly observed another, but even that gaze was engaged, a crucial support to the flurry of activity across the floor. If you want to understand the Trinity, go see modern dance.
The Trinity was a latecomer to the doctrinal party. The first few hundred years were a fight over whether Jesus and God were the same and the language we might use to talk about that. Once that was relatively settled, people began to ask whether the Spirit should also be included and how. One answer that was offered was perichoresis, which translates literally to “dancing around.” The Spirit was said to be the bond of love between the Father and the Son, the very thing that held them together. It was also said to animate the triune God, the very breath and rhythm of the Godhead. The Spirit was the music to which the Trinity danced. The persons of the Trinity engage and separate, they infuse one another, they grasp and pull at one another, they move in harmony and they move on their own. They are entirely separate, distinct persons, but they are also entirely the same, coeternal and consubstantial, which means they have always existed with no priority of one over another and they are made of the same stuff, having always existed together. Most of that boils down to philosophical hair-splitting and, eventually, church-splitting, but it is also the key to connecting the problem of the Trinity to actual human experience.
Underneath all the arguments over who proceeds from who and how, there was the fundamental claim that the three persons of the Trinity were entirely the same and yet utterly distinct. It sounds like a crazy problem. If things are the same, they are the same. If they are different, they are different. A cannot equal B and also not equal B. It’s just a question of logic, not that logic ever stopped a church from having an argument. In any case, this is the quintessential human problem.
There are ways of talking about humanity that recognize our sameness. We have similar concerns for food and water, for love and companionship. We were all born and we will all die. It’s easy to say that we all want the same things, but if you really talk to someone else, you might find that we really don’t want the same things. Or, at least, we don’t understand or talk about those things in the same ways, so much so that they might as well not be the same at all. Reducing humanity to its commonality denies the very particular experience of what it means to be a human being. No one has the same experiences I do. No one can ever stand in my place and see things through my eyes. There are fundamental differences between people and those differences matter.
So there are ways of talking about humanity that recognize our difference. Positively, this is understood as rich diversity. We celebrate this, especially in America – not a melting pot, but a tossed salad of equally valuable parts. We celebrate our diversity, but we don’t really believe in it. Not completely. Noticing our differences is the first step to valuing those differences. Surely, some things are better than others. This culture or that one must be deficient in some way. Some culture, probably mine, is clearly the best. And my experience within that culture is clearly the best, the key to properly understanding all of humanity. We quickly move from celebration to condemnation.
And so we are in this balancing act. It is absolutely essential that we recognize one another’s difference. If we don’t, we co-opt or erase it. Under the guise of understanding, we claim that everyone is just like us. It’s the height of arrogance. It is also absolutely essential that we recognize the ways in which we are the same: our common needs, our common struggles, our common joys. Otherwise, we break down into tribes and nations, eventually at war. Most importantly, how do we relate to one another in our sameness and difference? This is the problem of the Trinity.
The funny thing is that the problem of the Trinity has never been resolved. The official position of the Catholic Church, the keepers of original Christian doctrine, is that the persons of the Trinity are one and the same, indivisible, inseparable, and coeternal and that they are entirely different, not different manifestations of one thing, but entirely distinct persons. How that works is a mystery. They don’t know and any attempt to explain it has been labeled a heresy. It’s not just digging in their heels, either. Any attempt to explain the Trinity is bound to deny or deemphasize either the three persons’ sameness or the three persons’ difference. A minister friend recently bragged that he had written a sermon on the Trinity that is not heretical. Several people noted that he must be planning to announce the title and then sit in silence for twenty minutes. Sometimes “mystery” is a code word for “impossible.” Language simply can’t capture it. Explanation just doesn’t work.
But here’s the thing: the Trinity does not require explanation; it has the dance. Bruce Wood once said of his work: “I don’t do work that’s clever or brainiac. I just don’t find it interesting. I like work that people can feel, and I think that was the thing people missed. People will never remember patterns or structure, or how many turns they did or how high their legs went — nor should they. But they will remember how they felt.” He’s right. I will never forget what I saw on Friday night because it brought me to tears and it made me laugh. And when I think back to my experiences with God that meant the most, it wasn’t a point of theology or biblical exegesis in a sermon. It was how I felt when I walked down that aisle. It was the smile on my youth minister’s face seeing the changes in my life. It was the friends with whom I shared time. Even now, I don’t remember much of what I have written over the past five years. Looking back through my files is like picking through someone else’s desk. But I remember people’s faces when I serve communion. I remember laughing over dinner. I remember a smile, the light in a person’s eyes when they know they are loved, a hug. I remember sharing food hand to hand. I remember the people I have hurt. I remember those who have hurt me. I remember the lost and the found, the pushing away and the pulling toward. I remember the times we worked together, the moments we shared, and I remember the times we sat back and let someone dance their own dance. This is the human dance, the dance of life, the dance of real people living real lives. This is the beautiful example of the Trinity, sharing in one another’s lives in the bond of love.
In its sameness and difference, there is the sublime harmony of the dance. Regardless of the particular image of God – tall or short, black or white, male or female, gay or straight, rich or poor – we can all move. We can all touch. We can all grasp and fall and jump and rest. We can get in a line and do the Electric Slide or pair up for a waltz or shake it like a hippy-chick or slam dance cosmopolis. And we do. We move in harmony at times. At times we dance to the beat of our own drum. At times we fight. We push people away and draw them near, we hold each other cheek to cheek and sway to the rhythm of life. The Trinity, like life, is not a problem to be solved, but a dance to be danced.