“1 ÷ 2 = 2, 2 +1 = 3”
Sermon by the Rev. Rhonda Rubinson, priest-in-charge
Church of the Intercession NYC
Trinity Sunday, June 7, 2020
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Today is Trinity Sunday, the Sunday that follows the gift of the Spirit in tongues of fire on Pentecost. And on this Trinity Sunday, our city and our country are burning with another kind of fire. We are alarmed, unnerved, and in excruciating pain, as we relive over and over again the murder of George Floyd, which recalls all of the similarly horrible race-based murders that preceded it. We are all participating in or watching the passionate protests that express our anger and our despair; the protests have become our common experience.
Emotionally, we feel like we are drowning, so we’re groping for a lifeline, something to pull us up and out of the pain and flames. We watch TV obsessively, praying that the right pundit or politician will say something that will be our “Balm in Gilead”. We read every editorial in every newspaper and listen to every preacher’s sermon that falls in our inbox, desperate for somebody’s words to help us make sense of our time, to give us a measure of peace and a reason to hope that things can truly change.
We’re looking in the wrong place. Instead of a lifeline to pull us out of the pain because we feel too weak to stand it, we need something – or someone – a rock to stand on in the midst of the pain, which will give us strength to bear it and to conquer the forces that have wrought our current situation in the first place.
I’m not going to repeat what has already been said by people far more articulate and qualified than I, and I won’t rehash what we all know has happened and continues to happen. Instead, we’re going to engage this moment from a different angle entirely: we are going to go rock hunting deep underneath the fiery surface of our world. Now I’m giving you fair warning that this is going to be challenging: we’re going to draw lessons from different sources of knowledge from diverse times and cultures. We’re going to touch on many subjects including American and world history, economics, sociology, geology, geometry, arithmetic, and theology – but don’t worry, this isn’t a four-hour sermon; we’ll be done in time for lunch. Here we go.
We all know that earthquakes and volcanic eruptions have causes, forces that are at work far below the surface of the earth. When plates on the earth’s mantle pull apart or collide, the strain on those plates eventually ruptures, causing the trauma on the surface – that’s an earthquake. And when the pressure of super-heated magma below the earth’s mantle builds too high, it blows a hole through the earth’s surface – that’s a volcano. We cannot see those forces, but we know they are there. Most importantly, these are forces that have operated consistently in the same way since the earth was formed about 5 billion years ago.
There are similarly consistent forces operating in societies, colliding and ripping and boiling beneath the visible surface. We are alarmed by what we are experiencing, but we are far from the only society in human history to erupt in such a way. Folks of a certain age, like myself, have been transported back into the ‘60s, when our country felt like it was disintegrating, so much so that it was not at all certain that we could continue as a nation, very much like now. Protests against the war in Viet Nam were met with violent crackdowns by law enforcement and the National Guard, then the protest movement spread to include the demand for revolutionary change in many areas, including civil rights and women’s liberation. Back then there were also new factors in the mix that worsened the deep divisions in the country: a new hallucinogenic drug culture and the invention of cheap reliable birth control. The result was hippies and yippies, the SDS and the Black Panthers side by side with Janis Joplin, Timothy Leary, Malcom X and the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. It’s easy to forget how both terrifying and exhilarating that time was. There was anger and fear but also hope, that society and the world could change for the better, ushering in an age of both justice and peace – if our country could only manage to survive.
We did survive, and there were some systemic changes, but now we are facing down some of the very same issues. Now we have a pandemic and the new technology of social media replacing drugs and sex in similar exacerbating roles. And of course, back then we had very misguided leadership in Washington; although LBJ and even Nixon now look like paragons of wisdom and stability compared to the current occupant of the White House. Yet there still is great fear and great hope, that further systemic change is possible.
Let’s dig deeper, going even further back in history to look at another conflict with surprising similarities to our own: the French Revolution – not the American Revolution, which was a political revolution, but the French Revolution. That conflict, despite some roots in the democratic principles of our earlier revolution, was a class revolution. There were many factors fueling it, but a large one was the French trying to topple their elites – their monarchy, aristocracy, and clergy, while today we are infuriated at our elites: the 1%, and the movers and shakers of the very corrupt economic system – including corporations and banks – who together cause a massive amount of oppression in our society. Income and class inequality has always been a strong force driving civil unrest, and it too, is right now driving our current earthquakes and volcanos.
There’s a cautionary part to the story of the French Revolution, one to which we had best pay close attention. The French destroyed the society they were trying to fix. Their intentions were good, but their methods annihilated their cause. Even such Francophiles as Thomas Jefferson, who swooned over everything French, couldn’t take it when the blood began to flow; he cut and ran. The guillotine and the scaffold first took out the monarchy and aristocracy, but then the murderous violence turned on common people. Ultimately the result for France was Napoleon. Here’s the lesson: the result of a failed democratic experiment is never a kindler, gentler president or government, it’s a crackdown-loving autocratic regime that is hardly a model of peaceful democracy. This is another force that’s been operating without fail for millennia, ever since we humans began forming into societies.
That tear-it-all-down-to-start-from-scratch philosophy is the product of despair, and despair is a sign of powerlessness. Powerlessness itself has surprising deep roots of its own. Still burrowing hunting for our rock, we’re going to go further back to the ancient world, to discover the origins of our depressing, existential modern world view. I found this surprising when I learned it recently: people in the ancient world – until roughly the eighth century A.D., had no concept at all of the meaning of zero, of nothing. The idea of nothing would have been incomprehensible to them; there was no such thing as nothingness. This does not mean that they didn’t understand the concept of emptiness – an empty chair, an empty box – but emptiness is quite different than nothingness.
Therefore, no one back then could have believed that the universe came from nothing, which if true would have meant that there was a possibility that we could be or become nothing. They believed that one thing preceded the universe, and that we are all generated from that primal unity. Early Jews, Christians and Moslems believed this too – we’ll get to that in a moment.
Now stay with me for a moment, as we do a little arithmetic. The grounding in the belief that a unity undergirds creation meant that the ancients began counting not at zero but at one – and when the symbol for zero finally appeared in India sometime before the 8th century, it was placed after nine: you counted 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 0, because at that time zero was considered a placeholder that enabled notation of the larger numbers, not because it referred to any concept.
We, on the other hand, begin counting with zero. We believe that nothing precedes the number one, therefore we believe that we arise from nothing, and nothing is our return destination. This deeply colors our worldview and our behavior, because our deepest fear is having no value, literally being a zero. Make no mistake: this is a driving force behind our destructive behavior. If we can be annihilated, our feelings tell us, then let’s take everything down with us. In the past century or so this has given western culture everything from existentialism to punk and emo rock music – a multitude of cults of nothing.
Both science and the Bible powerfully refute this. Quantum mechanics tells us that there is nowhere where there is nothing – force fields and waves and various particles completely suffuse all of creation. Even the opening of the Book of Genesis is not a story of creation ex nihilo – out of nothing. The Bible begins, “In the beginning, God was creating the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was moving over the surface of the waters.” This is a story of organization of chaos, by God, the unity that made all that there is, including each one of us – Sh’ma Yisroel, Adonai eloheinu, Adonai echad: Hear O Israel, the Lord our God is one. This is a belief common to all the People of the Book – Jews, Christians, and Moslems alike.
We all also believe that we are created in God’s image, so it is our job to emulate the way God has created and continues to create – by forming order out of chaos. This brings us to one last stop in the distant past: ancient Egypt. Every year after the floods of the Nile receded, Egyptians had to recreate their land – they viewed it as partnering with the creator god in restoring structure and order to the earth after it was wiped away by watery chaos. They were the first geometers – this is where we get the word “geometry” – and they would not try to reproduce the same layout every year: farms, houses, even temples would shift according to what was best for that moment in time, but it was all done according to timeless principles. They felt empowered to create this new order; they believed that the authority to do so was given to them by the gods.
We’ve finally found the rock we’ve been searching for. Beneath everything we experience and beneath all that there is, beneath all turbulent forces, beneath all human history, beneath all the boiling and fire, is God. Okay, you might say, so we’ve arrived at God, but how does the one true God of the “Sh’ma” become three, the Trinity? The answer lies in a hidden aspect of God’s nature. If you look closely at the Bible, particularly at the Hebrew Scriptures, you’ll quickly notice that God refers to God’s self in the plural surprisingly often. In Genesis we hear God say, “Let us make humankind in our image according to our likeness,” “in the image of God he created them, male and female He created them.” God’s nature already encompasses what we experience as different genders, yet they are one in God.
Now, of course we know that all life multiplies – single cells split into two, multiplying life, and of course a male and a female can create a new child. So the basic sustaining family unit consists of three – father, mother, and child – a trinity. But the Trinity we celebrate today is not that traditional family unit: in that Trinity we have both the father and the mother included in the first person of the Trinity, God, then we have a son, Jesus, and a third family member is the Holy Spirit, who we know is also person, but who is never assigned a gender. What does this tell us? That God loves non-traditional families as well as traditional ones – because not only is God’s family non-traditional, but God’s self is an unconventional Trinity. God longs for us to be part of his big, weird, blended family. No less than 37 times in the Hebrew Scriptures does God say that he wants Israel to be his people, so that He can be Israel’s God. God says this so many times that it almost seems that we were created for the sole purpose of keeping God company.
Church, because we were created by God, redeemed by Jesus, and sanctified by the Holy Spirit, we are given the power and the authority to do what God does, to make order out of chaos. We are called on to be geometers, doing the work – the very hard sustained work – of recreating our society and our world according to the timeless principles of justice and peace. This means not just protesting or sending email petitions to politicians, although all of that has its place – but we are called on to use the tools and the resources we have to make the changes we so desperately need to our world in our time.
We can operate within this democracy, as flawed as it is; burning it to the ground will not solve any of its the problems, nor will only talking or succumbing to despair. Finding the right people to run for office for every office from the smallest local position to the presidency; raising up leadership and refraining from destroying potential leaders because they’ve made human mistakes; investing our time, our money, and our lives to change our society from the inside out will remake the structures in our society. This takes concentrated, arduous effort, but it is what we are called to do.
As the church, we are called on to be beacons of hope, peace, justice and light, models of stability in the midst of earthquakes and volcanos. We have Christ the solid rock on which we stand to bear us up. And because God loved us so much that he sent both his Son and the Holy Spirit to save us and empower us, we can never fear becoming nothing. No pundit or politician or preacher can ever save us, but together with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, we can.