Today’s scripture readings:
Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31
Last Sunday after church Oby and I went to the Orpheum Theater in Minneapolis for a matinee performance of Dear Evan Hansen, which won the 2017 Tony Award for Best Musical. In the show, Evan Hansen is a 17-year-old boy who is painfully awkward. His people skills are severely limited, and it seems every time he opens his mouth, he ends up embarrassing himself. It’s difficult to watch. What Evan has learned from so many humiliating moments is to slip into the shadows and to keep his mouth shut, to avoid putting himself in situations where he might have to interact with others, because every time he does, he reveals himself to be absolutely, positively, socially inept. As a result, Evan Hansen is friendless and lonely; he feels like he is, as one lyric puts it, “on the outside always looking in, tapping on the glass, waving through a window,” wondering if anyone will ever wave back at him. Evan Hansen is desperate for affection, for connection; he is desperate for relationship.
Part of what makes Evan Hansen a sympathetic character is that all of us yearn for relationship. All of us at some point in our lives have felt like Evan Hansen, like we’re trapped on the outside looking in. We all desire connection. It’s a universal human longing. The longing for relationship is fundamental to our human nature. We want to be known and loved. We are all desperate for relationship.
Today is Holy Trinity Sunday—the only Sunday in the entire church year devoted to a theological doctrine. So that’s exciting. I’ve actually been dreading preaching today, imagining that I would have to come up with something profound to say about a theological concept that nobody really understands but which is central to the Christian faith.
I’m not sure that anything I have to say about the Holy Trinity is very profound, so let me share with you instead this quote from the 20th-century Lutheran theologian Joseph Sittler. He said: “Of the great Christian or Jewish words—God, love, sin, guilt, forgiveness, reconciliation—none is a definition. They are all relational statements. That is, love is not a thing; it is a relation. Guilt is not a thing; it is a relation. Sin, too, is not a thing, it is a relation… You cannot find a definition of love… love becomes clear and recognizable only when you behold a relationship.” Sittler says we can only understand these big theological concepts like love or sin or guilt or forgiveness in the context of a relationship. Love doesn’t mean anything in the absence of two people who are experiencing it. Sin and guilt don’t make any sense without one person who has done wrong by another. Forgiveness only happens between two people who are trying to restore a relationship.
I think the same is true of the concept of the Holy Trinity. It can only be understood in terms of a relationship. There’s a funny video series on YouTube called “Mr. Deity” that parodies various religious ideas and biblical stories. Mr. Deity is a kind of clueless, distracted depiction of God the Father, and the series also features a handsome 20-something Jesus who Mr. Deity recruits to go down to earth and do a “really big favor” and a wonky, detail-oriented assistant named Larry, who may or may not represent the Holy Spirit. Together the three of them have all sorts of arguments and make all sorts of important decisions, about things like what kind of evil will be allowed on earth and just how dark dark matter should be. One whole episode is about Mr. Deity trying to help Jesus understand why he needs to go down to earth and die and how that is going to save the humans from their sins. OK, so the way the Holy Trinity as depicted in the Mr. Deity series probably isn’t actually how the Trinity works in real life. But theologians do talk about the Holy Trinity as three distinct entities in relationship with one another. Actually, Christian theologians say God is “one God in three persons”—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—and that the three “persons” of the Trinity are distinct but share one essence. (It’s totally confusing. Do you see why I said nobody really understands the concept of the Holy Trinity?) The important thing, I think, is that when Christians talk about God as three-in-one, what we’re really saying is that the essence of God is a relationship—not exactly like Mr. Deity, Jesus, and Larry working together to govern creation but… sort oflike that. God is a relationship.
Maybe part of what it means to be created in the image of God is that we are created for relationship. We are created for connection. When we talk about building community and getting to know one another better here at Gloria Dei, when we pray for those who are on our prayer list, when members of the church visit those who are homebound and offer them communion, we do all those things not just because we’re nice people and those are good things for Christians to do. We do all those things because God has created us for relationship. Those are ways for us to practice being the people God created us to be.
I actually think this is a profound idea in an era when we are more connected than ever but experience unprecedented levels of loneliness and isolation. The writers of Dear Evan Hansen said they had observed that there’s “a need to connect, the need to be part of a community… especially in the digital, isolated age that we now find ourselves in.” And they said it made them “think about our desire to connect, and our desire to be a part of something larger than ourselves. Despite our great connectedness through Facebook and Twitter and all of these social media platforms, despite being as connected as we’ve ever been as a society, we’re more isolated than ever. All of us, teenagers and adults alike.” “In this world of ever-widening connection,” they said, “when we’re all connected to each other at all times of the day, we’re all one text away from each other, we all somehow strangely feel as disconnected… and as alone as we ever have.”
In his recent book entitled Them: Why We Hate Each Other—and How to Heal, former Senator and historian Ben Sasse tries to understand why American politics has become so “tribalistic and vicious.” He speculates that technology has made us more lonely and created a society that is devoid of real connection. He says that loneliness is a major public health crisis, not just because of the toll it takes on individuals who experience isolation and depression but because of the impact it is having on our society, dividing us from one another, turning us against each other, and poisoning our political discourse. The solutions he proposes aren’t particularly revolutionary. He suggests we need to get away from our screens—whether it’s our phones or our computers or TVs blaring one-sided cable news—and invest in our communities. He says we need to focus on building relationships and reestablishing connections. Maybe there really is something to this idea that God created us for relationship and connection.
The most amazing thing about all of this Holy Trinity business may be that Jesus tells us that we share in the relationship that he has with the Father. The Gospel lesson today comes from a section near the end of John’s Gospel often called the Farewell Discourse. Jesus tells the disciples he will be going away but assures them that the unbreakable bond that exists between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is a bond that includes all of them, and all of us. He tells them, “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you.” He tells them, “God will send the Spirit to be with you forever, who will abide with you and be in you.” He tells them, “In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me. On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.” The love that is shared within the relationship of the Trinity is love that holds us, too—which means we are held by a love that could never be diminished or taken away. Which means, we are never really on the outside looking in, like Evan Hansen waving through a window, but are bound up forever in the same love that is the very essence of God. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Michael Schaub, “In ‘Them,’ Sen. Sasse Aims To Find Ways To Move America Beyond Divisive Politics,” National Public Radio, October 15, 2018, https://www.npr.org/2018/10/15/656139543/in-them-sen-sasse-aims-to-find-ways-to-move-america-beyond-divisive-politics.
Joseph Sittler, Gravity and Grace: Reflections and Provocations (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1986).
Ann Svennungsen, “Sermon for Trinity Sunday,” June 6, 2004, http://day1.org/449-sermon_for_trinity_sunday.
Aliza Weinberger, “How the writer of ‘Dear Evan Hansen’ made mental health the talk of this Broadway season,” on Mashable, June 3, 2017, https://mashable.com/2017/06/03/dear-evan-hansen-steven-levenson/.
Rachel Weinstein and Caitlin Clements, Dear Evan Hansen Official Study Guide, https://dearevanhansen.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/04/Dear-Evan-Hansen-pages-version.pdf.
The featured artwork for this post is “The Holy Trinity” by Jerónimo Cósida, c. 1570.