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Trinity Sunday – May 30, 2021

Romans 8:12–17; John 3:1–17

Part of my spiritual practice during the week before Memorial Day is to reread Tim O’Brien’s short story collection “The Things They Carried.

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Though fiction, the stories are based on the author’s experience as a soldier in the Vietnam War. The title story describes in beautiful, poetic prose how soldiers carried much more than supplies, equipment and weapons. The soldiers carried memories of the dead and suffered under the weight of grief and fear.

For many, Memorial Day is an occasion for lighthearted relaxation. With the availability of COVID-19 vaccines, this year holds more promise for meaningful community than last year’s holiday, which was constrained by the tight grip of the raging pandemic. But while making plans for backyard cookouts with friends and family, it is worth considering how the grief and fear of our double battle with coronavirus and racism still weighs on us.

In his new book “How Not to Be Afraid,” Gareth Higgins asserts that fear is fundamental to “the dominant, diminishing stories our culture often recites.” Fear makes us small; it carries with it feelings of mistrust and isolation. From his childhood experiences in the violence in Northern Ireland (known as the Troubles), Higgins knows that the weight of fear may continue to press upon us, even suffocate us. Thinking of fear as this kind of oppressive force makes the Black Lives Matter cry “I can’t breathe” all the more poignant. And terrifying.

But instead of fear, Higgins invites us to practice spiritual disciplines rooted in contemplation that evoke “the biggest story there is” — that we are “welcomed participants in the evolution of love.”

This “biggest story” provides my segue to the liturgical calendar and Trinity Sunday. I’ll waste neither ink nor breath trying to explain the Holy Three in One. Suffice to say that the doctrine is a beautiful mystery that is rooted in God’s relationship with God’s own self. And so, God is in relationship with humankind, and we are called to be in relationship with one another — “for all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God” (Rom 8:14).

As Jesus tries to explain to befuddled Nicodemus (and to we moderns who are often equally confused), it is the very same Spirit of God that gives new life. Whether “born again” or “born from above,” our rebirth is a gift of grace from the One who so loved and continues to love and will always love the world (John 3:16). As Paul eloquently maintains, this grace of eternal, unconditional love was not given that we should “fall back into fear” (Romans 8:15).

We are welcomed participants in the evolution of love.

While I will not attempt to illustrate the Trinity with a metaphor, I think a meaningful sermon or lesson plan for this Sunday will help us to imagine living into love instead of fear. For the prompting of our holy imaginations, I turn to yet another author whom I admire.

In “The Christian Imagination,” Willie James Jennings condemns the theology of colonialism, domination and empire that justified the slave economy as well as the racial superiority of white, European Christians. Jennings returns to the roots of Christianity’s relationship with biblical Israel to offer “a sense of connection and belonging and of a freedom to claim, to embrace, to make familiar one who is not.” The hope of genuine Christian “intimacy” is a “deep joining, the opening of lives to one another in love and desire.” Jennings challenges Christians to imagine what it would be like in our place and time if we lived by the same Spirit that bears witness to our spirits that we are all children of God (Romans 8:16).

To consider how this theology might be put into practice, I return to “How Not to be Afraid.” Higgins invites us to inspire our social justice efforts through contemplative practices. In one exercise, he asks that we imagine the face of a loved one who “sparks a smile or gratitude or love.” Picture your beloved, then let the image get bigger and clearer as you slowly breathe. Higgins likes to envision the image in his mind projected onto an enormous outdoor movie screen!

Once this picture is enlarged, breathe slowly and deliberatively. Send the image of love to every cell in your body with each inhale, and back out into the world with each exhale.

Memorial Day calls to mind my maternal grandfather. He died when I was only 10 years old. Granddad fought in World War II. He never talked about this. He never went to church. As an adult, I wonder how these two absences were related. I wonder what he carried all those years until his own baptism was completed in death.

I know my grandfather taught me the sacrament of baseball. When I got to spend the weekend at his house, he and I would watch the Atlanta Braves on Saturday afternoons, even though the team was truly awful in the late 1980s. Then, Granddad would race me to the backyard grass — he’d always let me win. Once outside, we would play catch, pretending to be the Braves players, until we walked back to the house for supper by the light of fireflies.

In a drawer of my writing desk, I keep Granddad’s old baseball glove. The words “Big Man” are written across the leather. I slip the glove onto my hand, which fits perfectly after all these years. I take deep breaths and the man who lovingly looms large in my distant childhood becomes present here with me as love bridges the chasm of time. I lay down some of my fears.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, amen.

This week:

  1. Who do you know that is weighed with a heavy burden? What are some griefs or fears that we carry as individuals, as a society, as people of faith?
  2. What does Memorial Day mean to you? How does this holiday relate to your faith?
  3. What is the importance of the doctrine of the Trinity in terms of relationships? How might this doctrine be “a beautiful mystery” and why is that important?
  4. Thinking of a genuine, Christian intimacy, how would a “spirit of adoption” (Romans 8:15) shape our politics? Our churches? Our faith put into action?
  5. Using your holy imagination, what would it look like to live into love instead of fear in your life? How about in your church and larger community? What relationships are you called to work on this week? This summer?
  6. Practice this spiritual exercise: Try to picture a beloved person’s face while you focus on your breathing. You may meditate alone, or try practicing this spiritual discipline with others. Afterward, members of the group might share stories about the person whom they called to mind.

This week’s lectionary reflection is by Andrew Taylor-Troutman, pastor of Chapel in the Pines Presbyterian Church in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

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