Trinity Sunday: Touching the Earth
A sermon preaching by The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on Trinity Sunday, May 31, 2015
In the year that King Uzziah died, the prophet Isaiah was given a glimpse of God that left him with a sense both of his inadequacy (“I am a man of unclean lips”) as well as great responsibility. (“Here I am, send me.”) And the angels sang the tri-fold Holy, Holy, Holy.
In the late 13th century, the great German mystical theologian Meister Eckhart asked, “Do you want to know what goes on at the heart of the Trinity?” And with a note of conspiracy, as if sharing a secret, he said:
I’ll tell you.
At the heart of the Trinity
The Father laughs, and gives birth to the Son.
The Son then laughs back at the Father,
And gives birth to the Spirit.
Then the whole Trinity laughs,
And gives birth to us.
The idea of the Trinity is both a myth and an inescapable mystery. It is our testimony that as Christians we do not know how to talk about God without talking about Jesus; and that we cannot talk about Jesus without talking about God; and that we cannot talk about the spirit of the relationship between God and Jesus without talking about that spirit’s relationship to us. To love Jesus is to be drawn into the spirit of his relationship with God. To love God is to be drawn into the spirit of God’s relationship with Jesus. And to love this spirit is to be drawn into the God’s relationship with us.
I have only once had the desire to preach on the Trinity on Trinity Sunday. As a doctrine it’s not very inspiring. But as a mystery, as stained glass and art, as liturgy and song, it points us to the very heart of God which is expressed in creation, revealed in the scriptures and in the life of Jesus, and alive now in the church by the power of the Spirit.
Brazilian theologian Leonardo Boff, in his book Trinity and Society, describes how Trinitarian thought developed in response to various challenges to this mystery. Surrounded by polytheism, and to the accusation that they were polytheists themselves, worshiping Jesus as a second God, the early church insisted on the unity of God – there is only one, as Moses taught; challenged by theologies that would make Jesus (and, by analogy, the Roman Emperor) representatives of God on earth, the church insisted that God’s unity could contain diversity as part of God’s very being; finally, in an age of individuals and individualism, the church has insisted on the social trinity, that mutual encouragement and mutual dependence is in the very heart of God; an eternal dance of creating, redeeming and living.
Trinity and Society was first published in Portuguese more than 25 years ago, but even then Boff was indicated where Trinitarian thought was heading. As the title suggests, the Trinity can serve as a model of a truly liberating and loving human relations: “when the Trinity laughs, it gives birth to us.” But near the very end of the book he also speaks of what he calls “Trinity in Creation.”
The Trinity in Creation seeks to insert Creation in the Trinity. The providence of the Father, the liberation brought by the Son, and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit are ordered for the transfiguration of the universe… this is the festival of the redeemed. It is the celestial dance of the free, the banquet of sons and daughters in the homeland and household of the Trinity, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In a trinitized creation, we shall leap and sing, praise and love the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And we shall be loved by them, praised by them, invited to dance and sing, sing and dance, dance and love forever and ever, Amen.
With this vision of a trinitized creation firmly in place, Leonardo Boff has spent the last 25 years responding theologically to the growing climate crisis.
There is, of course, a challenge here for our interfaith work. How do we as Christians seek the liberation of all people and the restoration of creation alongside those of other faiths.
I have the privilege as a GreenFaith Fellow of working with a very rich interfaith community. GreenFaith’s mission is to inspire, educate, and mobilize people of diverse religious backgrounds for environmental leadership. They believe that protecting the earth is a religious value, and that environmental stewardship is a moral responsibility. As a congregation, we are participating in a green certification process, worshipping our creator on Sunday morning, studying earth care in our scripture in church school and youth group, finding opportunities to be outdoors together, advocating for national and international agreements to limit the effects of climate change, and making necessary changes to our physical property that they may be sustainable in the future.
At the same time we are doing this as a congregation, I have undertaken, as a GreenFaith Fellow, an 18-month environmental leadership program. I have thirty colleagues with whom I meet monthly via webinars and conference calls, a smaller group of friends for conversation and encouragement, and twice now I have taken the better part of a week to go away on retreat with other Fellows. (I have also had to read a dozen books and write three papers, so far). We are Christian and Jewish, Muslim and Hindu, Unitarian, Buddhist, and Baha’i. And we all care deeply for the earth, our common home.
For me, working with my colleagues has been a twofold joy. On the one hand, all of us get to speak to one another about our spiritual experiences in nature, and to realize how much we have in common. Mircia Eliade, the great scholar of religion, has argued persuasively that the origin of spirituality experience involved looking up at the stars and comprehending the vastness of the heavens and the smallness of human being.
When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars that you have established;
what are human beings that you are mindful of them,
mortals that you care for them? (Psalm 8)
Think about it: for most of human history this has been an experience that we could repeat and in a sense share with the Psalmist, or Abraham to whom God promised descendants as numerous as the stars. Think of the raw awe that involves. But for the last 150 years, as a result of atmospheric and light pollution, not one of us has ever seen, truly seen, the night sky that Abraham beheld.
Nevertheless, research shows that the vast majority of people still have what can be called spiritual experiences in nature. My Buddhist friend Kristin had her most profound experience in communion with a juniper bush in the desert. Rabbi Dan shared a moment with a marmot who “saw” him. My friend Stephen, who is Baha’I, was awed by the uncontrollable power of the Trinity River in Texas – that was before the damage from flooding and human trauma which we witnessed last week. My friend Mark, an Episcopal priest, describes being outdoors on a night so completely dark that he could not tell the difference between the stars in the sky and the fireflies all around him. Everything was alive and twinkling and he was just floating and free in the middle of it all. And knowing what it is like in the presence of God.
I have said being a GreenFaith Fellow is a double joy. At the same time we testify to our unity in experiencing the divine in nature, we get to utilize the diversity of our traditions to care for the earth: the Buddhist practice of mindfulness, the Muslim practice of fasting and restraint, the Jewish observance of feast days tied to harvest seasons and the practice of Sabbath rest, as well as our own Christian understanding of Christ’s incarnation as hallowing all flesh, not only ours but that of the lilies of the field and the birds of the air.
Working from our deepest religious identities and convictions, we work together to care for this precarious planet, which is our common home.
This congregation has spoken many times in worship about climate change and the urgency of this moment in history. We know we have less than 30 years to significantly reduce carbon emissions and learn to live lightly on the eaarth if our climate is not to spiral out of control. In December, world leaders will meet in Paris to search for a climate agreement, which will in significant ways determine the future of the planet. That’s just sixth months from now. And a lot needs to happen between now and then. So let me share with you what is already happening?
- Two weeks ago Yeb Saño, the lead climate negotiator for the Philippines, kicked off a “People’s Pilgrimage” by returning to his hometown of Tacloban, which you may remember was ground zero for Typhoon Haiyan in 2013. He and a few neighbors walked 15 km from the center of the city to the San Juanico Bridge – a reverse of the walk he made two years ago through the path of the storms utter destruction in order to return to his “home.” People’s Pilgrimages are being replicated all over the world, and will culminate when Yeb walks from Assisi, Italy to Paris in time to participate in the United Nations Climate Change Conference.
- In just a few weeks, Pope Francis is going to release an encyclical on the environment, and it is widely anticipated that it will speak directly to climate change. GreenFaith is bringing 150 fully scholarshipped young adults to Rome to participate in an international “convergence” of youth for a climate teach-in on religions and the environment.
- Then in September, the Pope is going to address the United Nations and the U.S. Congress on the day before all countries are set to publish their voluntary goals for emissions reductions. From what has been indicated so far it is clear that these voluntary goals will fail to prevent a two degree warming of the atmosphere and what the UN calls “dangerous climate change.” A day of fasting will be called in early October (or early November) as people of all faiths prepare to speak with their own government representatives about this “gap” between our stated goals and our voluntary actions.
- Finally, the United Nations Climate Change Conference will open on November 30th and meet for two weeks. And by then we will be both paying attention and praying.
On the last day of our retreat, we, the GreenFaith Fellows, wanted further ways of engaging public awareness about these event through social media and in local worshipping communities. We came up with two ideas, which our congregation will initiate today. First, photos. Last year social media was filled with images of small groups and entire communities standing in a pool of water to represent the reality of rising oceans and disappearing coastlines. Many went viral. I particularly remember the cartoon of the Statue of Liberty hiking up her skirts to stay above the water. A simple image that did not need words to communicate. We came up with the image of communities gathered in a circle and either sitting, kneeling, or bending over, but in some way touching the earth.
By far the most common depiction of the Buddha is the one printed in your bulletin today, or one like it. In the Buddhist equivalent of our story of Jesus’ temptation, the devil figure Mara approaches the Gautama, soon to become the Buddha, sitting under a Bodhi tree. Gautama has chosen this tree and “I am not going to get up until I have broken through to the secret of the suffering we cause ourselves and others.” Mara challenges him six times, each time more vehemently, until with her seventh and final question she asks him by what authority he, Gautama, claims the right to enlightenment.
And Gautama offered no personal credentials. No curriculum vitae. He didn’t say, “I’m the son of a king.” [Though he could have]. He said nothing at all about himself. He just touched the Earth. It was by the authority of Earth that he sought liberation from suffering.
So at the end of our service today we will go outside for our benediction, and we will gather in a circle and touch the earth. If you cannot bend, kneel, or sit, you may simply cup your hands as if holding earth, or touch a tree, or your neighbor.
The second idea we are initiating today is that of wearing green on the 30th day of each month from now until the United Nations Climate Change Conference opens on November 30th. This was my idea, and I am clearly riffing on our practice of observing Orange Day, but it will help us generate mindfulness and remember this work in our prayers.
With our final prayer, we will ask God’s blessing on our gardens, and our grounds, and then enjoy the good food Sarah Brown has prepared for us today.
May this be a glimpse of a trinitized creation: God, the earth, and all God’s people, in right relation, singing and dancing, praising and loving, forever and ever. Amen.
 Meister Eckhart (1260-1327), quoted by H.H. Richards in A Worship Anthology for Advent and Christmas (Bury St. Edmunds: Kevin Mayhew, 1994).
 Leonardo Boff, Trinity and Society. trans. Paul Burns. (Maryknoll, 1983). p. 230-231.