June 12, 2022 Hamilton Coe Throckmorton
Psalm 8 The Federated Church, UCC
Above the desk at which I work in our home sit four framed photographs, one each of my parents, and Mary’s parents, and Mary and me, and our son Alex and his spouse Cynthia, all of us on our respective wedding days. Looking at those then spurred me to walk around our house the other day looking at all the pictures we have displayed. And while there’s an occasional picture of a single friend or family member, almost all of them are groupings of people dear to us.
The other day, Mary was looking through a box of things my mother had given us a few years ago, and she came across this picture, a photo of my mother holding me shortly after I was born. And as I gazed at all these pictures, I couldn’t help but be reminded once again that my whole life has played out in the context of all the people with whom I’ve lived that life. I’m the product of my mother and father and brother, Tim; of Jim and Allen and Steve with whom Tim and I played countless games of wiffle ball in our driveway growing up; of Wayne and Gary and Dominic and Sam and Brian and Andy and Joe and Rick and Craig and Chris and Bill with whom I shared a hallway my first year of college; of Becky Reed and Susan Rotblat-Walker and Peggy Kirschner who chaired the search committees of the four churches I’ve served in my ministry; of the people of the Old Brick Church and the Old Meeting House in Vermont and Barrington Congregational Church in Rhode Island and you dear people of Federated Church; and of Mary and our sons Alex and Taylor and our daughter-in-law Cynthia and our granddaughters Allie and Riley. My life is intimately wrapped up with all of them and with all of you.
When I try to imagine my life without any of these people in it, my mind goes blank. It is quite literally impossible to picture my life apart from the people who have accompanied me on my journey. It wouldn’t really be a life if it weren’t wrapped up with the joys and challenges of the relationships that have filled it. Who would I be apart from the tiffs and the tensions, the laughs and the caresses of the people with whom I’ve shared life on this planet? Yes, there’s some core me who’s fundamental to the mix. But that me is only me in relation to you.
And I’m guessing it’s this conviction of the primacy of relationships that somehow led the early church to develop the odd and inscrutable doctrine of the Trinity. The Trinity asserts the head-scratching notion that God is not some one-dimensional entity, but is rather somehow both three and one. Or three in one. Traditionally conceived as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the Godhead, the Holy of Holies has been represented in numerous images of threeness. Often that threeness is expressed in terms of the work God does. God is Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer, for example. Another way of expressing this multifaceted quality of God is to speak of Wisdom, Omnipotence, and Goodness.
Theologically, what the notion of Trinity does is enable us to hold in tension two fundamental truths about God: that God is one, and that there is a fullness to God that can never be expressed in a single image. “God is one”—that’s the heart of the Jewish Shema, the fundamental assertion of God’s uniquely magnificent holiness. And, at the same time, the richness of God can never be conveyed in only one limited way. If we fixate on God as Father, for example, then we miss the majesty and mystery of God as Mother, Rock, Eagle, Ruler, Servant, Dove, Shepherd, Bread, Light, Salt, Door, Vine—all of which are biblical images for God. Theologically, God is one: there is no other God but the Holy One in whom all things cohere. And that God is diverse and multifaceted. Adoring God who is Trinity expresses that theologically.
That’s the theological gift of God as Trinity. There’s also, though, the experiential gift of God as Trinity. The life we know as related to all that is around us—people, of course, but indeed the entire creation—that’s the same life God is leading. God isn’t just some disembodied holiness. God is the one who is intimate relationship, intense entanglement.
Maybe the best way to say it is to say that, in its threeness, it its communal identity, the Trinity is love. Theologian Wendy Farley puts it this way: “The Trinity is united by love. There’s not one part of the Trinity whose job is to love and another part whose job is to do something else. All parts of the Trinity are united by love.
“The old word for that,” she says, “is perichoresis, which means dance. I love this, that there’s a dance of love happening within the Trinity, and that dance of love spills out into creation and redemption” (Thinking about God’s desire with the medieval mystics | The Christian Century).
The heart of the Trinity is that the life of God is a dance of love. So for us, to be people of God is to immerse ourselves in that same dance of love. It’s when we’re dancing that dance of love that we’re being most true to God and to each other. And of course, that love dance is really a variety of dances with a variety of partners. The first dance, of course, is with God. The psalmist knows this. “O Lord, our God, how majestic is your name in all the earth.” That’s the way the 8th psalm begins, and it’s also the way it ends (8:1, 9). To live exuberantly is to “love God with all [our] heart and soul and might” (Deuteronomy 6:5; cf. Luke 10:27 and parallels). If we don’t ground ourselves first in the love dance with God—the love God offers, and the love we return—all our efforts at love will be but pale imitations of love.
And then, as we marinate in the overwhelming love of God, that love spills over into the many relationships that dot our lives. Lutheran minister Peter Marty tells this story: “Seven-year-old Amos loves his public school teacher. His mother [said] recently that when he was practicing writing skills at home one night, he kept saying ‘finger space’ every time he needed to use his index finger to measure distance between the words ‘I love you, Ms. Ross.’ For her birthday, he bought her assorted school supplies. Walking to school one day he picked dandelions to present her with a bouquet.
“Amos’s emotional bond with Ms. Ross brings to mind my own favorite elementary school teacher. Mrs. Rainier was outstanding. I still can’t determine if she was a cut above every other teacher I had through my years or if my crush on her distorted all objectivity. But I loved her, and I learned so much during that third-grade-year. When my parents invited our teachers to our home for dinner every spring, we kids would hide out on the second-floor landing and poke our heads through the stair rail balusters, hoping to hear whatever we could of the adult conversation below. I think I wanted to know if Mrs. Rainier loved me as much as I loved her.”
Marty goes on to say it’s that love that inspires something beyond the ordinary, something better than the mundane. Think about this in your own life. If I sense you love me, I’ll do almost anything for you. You could, alternatively, set a list of high expectations for me and threaten unpleasant consequences if I don’t come through, and the truth is I will never perform as well with a demanding list of expectations as I will if you simply love me. When we sense that God loves us, we can do great things. And the same thing happens with each other. When we love each other, we’re capable of herculean feats. When we support and care for each other, the sky’s the limit. “If I can generously love others and they, in turn, can find a way to love the gist of who I am, there’s no telling how much we’ll [accomplish]” (Love’s knowledge | The Christian Century).
It’s this capacity for love that makes us, as the psalmist says, “a little lower than God” (8:5). When we love, we touch the heavens. When we get out of the way and care for others and give focused attention to their hopes and dreams, we’ve done as God does. We’ve transcended our own puniness and shared in that perichoresis, that holy dance with God.
If we’re dancing with God in love, that dance puts its own distinctive spin on every dimension of life. In the context of recent weeks, it begs, does it not, that we ask questions about our relationship with guns and violence. If we look to the Bible for guidance, we find it isn’t actually big on individual rights, for example. What the Bible is big on is mutual accountability, shared care. We in the U.S. frequently hold our rights to be sacrosanct—rights to free speech and the practice of religion, rights to a free press and a trial by jury, and the right that is so front-and-center in this cultural moment, the right to keep and bear arms.
Most of us would understandably be reluctant to give up these rights. They’re part of what makes this a civil and respectful society. It’s not the rights themselves, though, that elevate us into holy territory. Rights alone are not what ensure human flourishing. They may be necessary, but sometimes they’re just not enough to ensure that life will be at its best. Think about this from the standpoint of a family. You can make sure every member of the family has all their rights intact—their rights to clothing and food and shelter and safety—and that does indeed matter. But none of those rights by themselves make for effervescence. They don’t yield shared laughter or a hug when we’re shattered or a caress when we’re sick. The things that really matter in life are the outflowing not of rights but of love. When people are murdering each other with weapons designed for warfare, when weapons can be purchased with little or no background checks, oughtn’t we to say that those rights take a back seat to the love that keeps our children safe, our siblings alive. Of course, laws limiting magazine size and guaranteeing background checks won’t manufacture love, either. They will, though, value human life over a constitutional right. And that, it seems to me, is to put something of love into practice. When rights run smack into life-treasuring love, when children are mowed down as an outgrowth of those rights, oughtn’t we take the side of life? Oughtn’t we engage in the holy dance of love that cherishes each other’s lives?
Love ought to trump rights, wouldn’t we followers of Christ say? Love, too, far surpasses the small-mindedness that rules out some and rejects those who may seem different, those we may not understand. The dance of love enfolds and invites and includes. As we were reminded last Sunday when Sol Rizzato preached so eloquently here in this pulpit, our transgender siblings have been shunted to the side in inordinate numbers. They’ve been vilified and dismissed and consigned to second- or third- or fourth-class citizenship. They’ve been made to feel that they are somehow disordered, that they are far lower than God. And most of us, if we’re honest, have been part of that lack of understanding. I was so struck, standing next to Sol last Sunday, as people greeted him at the door, by the number of people who said to him something to the effect of, “I never understood what it is to be transgender before, and now I get it.” Most of us—me included—have had to learn. And learn we must. Because it’s in that learning that we stand against the hatred and exclusion and disdain that are so prevalent in our culture, and come to dance instead with God in the choreography of love. It’s in that dance of love that we squash the small and fearful and hateful part of us, and live out, instead, our calling to be just a little lower than God.
Because this is what God does. God treasures us just as we are. And that means that God treasures everyone. Not just you and me and the people who look like us and act like us and think like us. Everyone. Everyone. This is who God is. This is who the Holy Trinity is.
Jay Hulme wrote a little poem that captures this God of dancing love. It’s called “Jesus at the Gay Bar.” Without altering a word of it, though, we could just as easily retitle it “Jesus at the Trans Bar”:
He’s here in the midst of it—
right at the centre of the dance floor,
robes hitched up to His knees
to make it easy to spin.
At some point in the evening
a boy will touch the hem of His robe
and beg to be healed, beg to be
anything other than this;
and he will reach His arms out,
sweat-damp, and weary from dance.
He’ll cup this boy’s face in His hand
my beautiful child
there is nothing in this heart of yours
that ever needs to be healed.
This is the God, the Christ, the Spirit we worship. This is the Holy Trinity dancing its dance of love right here in our midst. And we are privileged beyond belief to be able to join in that dance and to let every single person know that most crucial of all truths: my beautiful child
there is nothing in this heart of yours
that ever needs to be healed.
May it always be so.