Being Together AND Separate – Holy Trinity B

My father was getting frustrated with me. And I was getting frustrated with my father. We were trying to explain to each other how to drive stick shift. I was sixteen and just got my license. I wanted to learn how to drive a standard transmission because my Dad had a cool, sporty looking VW sitting in the driveway.

The mutual explanations were literally driving us crazy. The words, interpretations, hand and foot demonstrations were getting us to a bad place in our relationship.

Finally, I had enough. I stomped out to the car, somehow managed to get it on the street in front of our house, and just did it. The only way I was going to learn was to do it. To try. To make mistakes, for sure. But experiencing the manual transmission what with the clutch-work and shifting was the only way I was going to learn. Not by talking about it till we were red in the face.

Living with my parents most days now as we wait to sell our house in Petawawa brings back many memories of growing up and learning new things in my youth.

Today is Trinity Sunday. I congratulate you for having the courage to come to church on Trinity Sunday. Because preachers are usually anxious about what to teach about the Holy Trinity; this is not an easy topic to explain.

Boiled down: We worship a God who self-discloses as three persons in one God. Beyond saying this, I believe we would be lost and get frustrated if all we did was acknowledge the Trinity as we do each time we confess our faith using the words of one of the traditional Creeds of Christianity. If left only to doctrinal abstractions and statements of belief, we would go in circles and play mind games with one another. Our questions could keep us perpetually stuck.

At some point the only thing left to do is just experience God. The Trinity exposes if anything the nature and function of our relational God. In other words the only way to learn about God is to enter into a relationship with God. To quote Henri Nouwen, “life [and God, I would add] is not a problem to be solved but a mystery to be entered into.” (From his book Seeds of Hope in the chapter on “Presence and Absence”)

And what do we learn about this God we experience? Well, let’s begin by characterizing the way God self-relates and by implication how Christians are called upon to relate with one another.

For starters: We are not God and God is not us. There is this basic differentiation. I think life experiences teach us that no matter how hard we try or how far we progress or how good our technology or knowledge increases – we are not nor never can be God. There is a limit to our humanity. There are boundaries to be respected. To deny this is foolish. God is quite simply, beyond anything we humans on earth can ever be or imagine.

While the distinction is firm, that does not mean God is not in us, with us, around us in the fabric of creation. Using hefty theological language: God is immanent as well as transcendent. Our life reveals this both/and aspect of relationship with God. It IS a mystery to be entered, not solved nor explained with words alone.

The Trinity challenges us to be together while also being separate.

For example, I have related all my life with an identical twin brother – David. David and I have had to work very hard, especially in our youth, asserting our differences more so than our similarities. At one point our friends seemed to get the “how-similar-we-were” part more than our individualities.

I think in loving relationships, like marriage, we get the “together” part well. And certainly in healthy marriages there needs to be that sense of emotional connection and a desire to be together – to be sure.

But how do healthy relationships also exhibit a separateness, which is equally important? And Godly. Let there be spaces in our togetherness. Don’t blur relational boundaries. Don’t become enmeshed with another so much that individualities are denied, ignored, suppressed. Kahlil Gibran, who wrote the book “The Prophet”, is often quoted at weddings. He wrote this famous poem On Marriage:

Let there be spaces in your togetherness /And let the winds of the heavens dance between you … /Love one another but make not a [smothering] of love; /Let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls … /Stand together yet not too near together …

By respecting our separateness we discover our unity. Unity is paradoxical. Because only by accepting our inherent diversity will we truly be able to celebrate our unity in the triune God. We sometimes, I think, assume that for the church to be unified we need to conform one to another. We have to be same-minded. We need to be uniform and march together in lock-step to the same tune on all doctrinal and liturgical issues.

But our differences are as important if not more in experiencing organizational health. Our unity is strengthened in Christ Jesus when, like a body, the parts are free to function as they are meant and not coerced or forced into some conforming imposition.

The one aspect of the famous David and Goliath story from the bible I love occurs when King Saul expects that the only way little shepherd boy David can defeat the giant Philistine warrior is by putting on all the armor trappings of a typical Israelite soldier. But David, thankfully, is able to recognize his own giftedness and shed the uniform and use the simple gifts given to him – some stones and a sling.

Healthy, relational love is not expressed just in warm fuzzies/feel good, go-along-to-get-along ways. But also needed is some tough love; that is, asserting one’s own wants and needs even if it might upset someone else that you love and care for.

When emotional distance is established in any relationship, when clarifying your stance, taking a stand, taking responsibility for your needs flavors the nature of the relationship, there will be health and healing. Thank God Martin Luther had the guts to stand up over 500 years ago and clarify his stance when he said, “Here I stand.” Those three words set a religious world in motion for centuries to come.

I quoted Dutch priest Henri Nouwen at the beginning of my sermon; Henri Nouwen lived a large portion of his life as pastor caring for the intelligently disabled people at L’Arche Daybreak Community inTorontosome decades ago. He wrote several books about the Christian life, spirituality and ministry before dying in the mid-90’s. He has been, for me, a mentor through his written word.

He writes often about the importance of a balance between a ministry of presence AND absence. While being present constitutes much of pastoral care work, he argues for the importance of also being absent. In other words, not always being with, but being apart from the one for whom you care.

God entered into intimacy with us not only by Christ’s coming but also by his leaving – in his dying an earthly death, in the ascension. In fact, the Gospels show that on the Cross where God’s absence was most loudly expressed by Jesus when he cried, “My God, My God, why have you deserted me…” (Psalm 22:1-15) God’s presence was then most profoundly revealed. When God through the humanity of Jesus freely chose to share our most painful experience of divine absence, then God became most present to us, in the Spirit our Comforter. Without a separateness in the relationship, we would not know God’s profound presence.

Thank God for the Trinity! In relating to a triune God we learn first hand in our life’s experience what it means in relationship to be both together and separate in holy love.

Amen.

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