Trinity Sunday Year B 5-31-15
©Holly Lyman Antolini
Lections: A Liturgy of Freedom, including excerpts from William W. Brown’s “Slave Narrative” and from Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech, as well as Isaiah 6:1-8 & John 3:1-17.
We, who are led by the Spirit of God are your children, O God. For we did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but we have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, "Abba! Father!" it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ-- if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him. God, give us the power! AMEN. [Paul’s Letter to the Romans, Chapter 8, verses 14-17, adapted]
It is a daunting thing to speak at all, just on the heels of this powerful testimony of our legacy of slavery and diminishment at the very taproot of this brave experiment in citizen-led democracy in the United States of America, and our equally fundamental drive for liberation from that very same inherent inequality, our drive to establish and protect equal opportunity and respect for all human beings. So let me use this time to speak about why we in the Anti-Oppression Team of St. James’s thought the Liturgy of Freedom was a good way to focus our worship in service to our participation in the Black Lives Matter movement, on the Feast of the God we name as Trinity: Three Persons in One Being, a Unity in Diversity bound together by love. Or as we often say, The Lover, the Beloved and the Love who binds all together in One. Why would we rehearse the excruciating history of slavery in America on a feast in which we not only name God as inherently a Community of Love with a Unity, but also affirm that we ourselves in Christ are “children of God” as Christ is “child of God,” made, every single one of us, in God’s image and inheriting the kingdom of God, the loving power of God, and the ministry of God, in our baptism into the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ?
I propose that this liturgy is particularly appropriate for this Feast precisely because the affirmation of God’s inherent Community of Love, in which we are called - baptized, to participate - is “a radical act of faith. There is nothing that forces us to assume that our experience can ever emerge as a single, meaningful whole and much that discourages this hope.” Can I get an “Amen” to that??? How MUCH of our history as humans beings cuts against this hope, this faith: a history of division and competition, of unfairness and injustice, of destructively self-serving tribalism and prejudice! Yet on this, the Feast of the Holy Trinity One God, we affirm that faith and hope, nonetheless. “The ultimate name of this one God is love. God’s inner life is generated and formed by love, and God goes on to create the universe by love and to enter into, incarnate in Christ, by love and to stay with us and work in us by love in the Spirit.” [L. William Countryman, New Proclamation, Year B 2003]
And so in the name of the Creator, the Liberator, and the Inspirer, Three in One, all of which work mysteriously together at all times in all places, we affirm and reaffirm our faith that it is in the inherent nature of God, and God’s relationship to us, that we are invited into this braided circle of reinforcing love, into Unity in Diversity, utterly distinct and utterly belonging to each other in the power of the Holy Spirit vested in us in the Feast of Pentecost last Sunday.
And we affirm and reaffirm, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, that as children of this inherently communal and loving God, we are gifted in the power of the Spirit for three crucial things in the work of liberation. First, we are gifted by the Spirit with “understanding: people divided by language, [by race, by culture, by economic advantage or the lack thereof, by education and experience,] find one another newly intelligible. [Second, we are gifted by the Holy Spirit with] confidence: people who have been afraid for their lives are suddenly to be found speaking up in public and telling the truth about their experience. [The voiceless find their voices; the marginalized move to the center of power; tears become joy; separation becomes connection; suffering gives birth to deep compassion. And third, we are gifted by the Holy Spirit with] community: people give up the family identifications that had previously defined them and treat one another as genuine sisters and brothers.” [Ibid.] This Liturgy of Freedom is a call to further the work of liberation from disunity, disharmony, and persecution and entry into the understanding, confidence, and community that is inherent in the nature of God, as we claim our own status as God’s children.
And finally, there is something implicit in all we have already prayed and sung this morning, something inherent in the nature of the Triune God we worship. Another gift of the Holy Spirit, fundamental to the work of loving liberation that we seek to further, in Jesus’ name. But it is something which remains implicit and unspoken in our readings and which I think needs to be spoken, named aloud, and claimed by us all if we are to move forward in the Black Lives Matter movement and forward toward a broader inclusion of all in the right to “life, liberty & the pursuit of happiness.” That something is forgiveness.
Given the depth of depravity to which William W. Brown’s testimony in his Slave Narrative points, and its ongoing legacy in the wildly tilted playing field of poverty and incarceration for people of color, the continuing mistreatment of people of color at almost any level you care to name, from car loans to police shootings to asset levels to employment opportunities, it is understandable that people become skeptical about the power of a good God to redeem us. And it is understandable that we default to a debilitating rage when we are confronted with the persistent truth of our society’s unfairness. Rage can be a gift of the Holy Spirit, an important fuel to action. It cannot simply be denied or parked as inconvenient, much as we can be tempted – and taught – to do so. Rage is a part of the Currency of Truth that is essential to the loving flow of all the currencies in the Holy Trinity, One God.
But rage cannot have the last word. We have seen the fruits of that. We are WATCHING the fruits of that in the terrible atrocities of ISIS in the Middle East. Martin Luther King Jr. knew this more acutely than most. It’s why he did rigorous training in non-violent response in preparation for the Civil Rights protests. He knew that rage had its place, but its place was in service to deliberate, strategic self-possession. And his model for that was Jesus Christ.
And with Jesus as his model, he knew that merely containing rage was not a recipe for liberation. Rage had to be baptized, transformed into forgiveness. There is no formula for forgiveness. Forgiveness is a gift of the Holy Spirit. We can – we must – pray for it, prepare for it, be open to it. But we cannot command it. It helps if we have experienced BEING forgiven, ourselves. Hence the extraordinary power of Sister Helen Prejean, who seems to have spent her life in monastic orders learning how to BE forgiven and therefore how to forgive people we routinely believe are unforgivable, without in any way ignoring or overlooking the heinous acts they have committed against each other.
Journalist Charles Blow’s story might be helpful in the pursuit of understanding about forgiveness, in the context of a Liturgy of Freedom in the Black Lives Matter movement. Columnist for the New York Times, Charles Blow is an African-American born into a family struggling with poverty in the rural South. He writes on the dynamics of racism and injustice in his columns with consistent insight and power. But he connected that testimony back to his own, highly personal experience in his autobiography, Fire Shut Up in My Bones, published in 2014. There he revealed not just a complex narrative about growing up black and smart in poverty and emerging by dint of education into opportunity, but also about childhood sexual molestation and its destructive challenge to the formation of one’s identity. I URGE you to read the whole highly readable book yourself and benefit from the whole narrative. But here I will share just his discovery when he managed to resist flying down the Interstate from his college to his hometown to shoot the man who had molested him as a child, his gun under his car seat. “I had to stop hating Chester to start loving myself, Blow writes. Forgiveness was freedom…I simply had to let go of my past so that I could step into my future… Daring to step into oneself is the bravest, strangest, most natural, most terrifying thing a person can do, because when you cease to wrap yourself in artifice you are naked, and when you are naked, you are vulnerable. But vulnerability is the leading edge of truth. Being willing to sacrifice a false life is the only way to live a true one. I had to stop romanticizing the man I might have been and be the man that I was, not by neatly fitting other people’s definitions of masculinity or constructs of sexuality, [or whatever definitions are pushing you outside your real self], but by being uniquely me – made in the image of God, nurtured by the bosom of nature, and forged in the fire of life… I had to summon the power… that was greater than all others. I had to stop running like the river, always wanting to be somewhere other than where I was, and just be the ocean – vast, deep, and exactly where it was always meant to be. I had to start trying to live by the Serenity Prayer:” [“God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”] [Reinhold Niebuhr, in a sermon in 1943]
This Trinity Sunday, in the context of this Liturgy of Freedom, I invite you to be vulnerable to yourself, forgive YOURSELF for being who you are, discover YOURSELF as a child of God, forgiven, loved and free. Inquire whom YOU might be called to forgive – whom you might PRAY to be GIFTED to forgive! - in order to live fully into that freedom. And see what work of courage and change YOU are called to, empowered by the Holy Spirit of God who is working within you and between us all, healing our wounds and knitting us back together in order to send us out to do the work of justice rooted in love, rooted in a God who is a community of love. AMEN.