Holy Trinity 2021

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary

Readings for the The Holy Trinity (First Sunday after Pentecost), Year B (2021, 2024)

Isaiah 6:1-8
Psalm 29
Romans 8:12-17
John 3:1-17

It is a sure bet that on Holy Trinity Sunday many worshippers in traditional congregations will be singing the familiar hymn, “Holy, Holy, Holy.” While there is something bracing about joining one’s voice in such an old favorite, Walter Brueggemann has a warning for us. “It is most unfortunate that the doxological, poetic formulation of the Trinity, ‘God in three persons,’ has often been reduced from poetic liturgical formulation to a propositional claim that pretends it can be parsed in conventional human rationality. The purpose of doxology is to defy such explanatory reasoning, which is why at its best the church sings rather than reasons or disputes” (Brueggemann, “The Great Drama of the Trinitarian Hymn ‘Holy, Holy,’ Holy,’” Christian Century, Dec. 10, 2018).

Yes, the Holy Trinity is a great mystery incapable of being rationally understood. At the same time, we are called to suggest how this deep mystery may provide guidance for faith communities. Often, it is from the Orthodox communions we are reminded of what is most basic: “There is no true being without communion” (John Zizioulas, Being As Communion, St. Vladimir’s Press, 1985, p. 18).  That is, the Holy One is a community in many of the same ways that humans, mammals, and even ants need community to become themselves. Von Balthasar shows us ”In generating the Son, the Father does not ‘lose’ himself to someone else in order thereby to ‘regain’ himself: for he is always himself by giving himself” (quoted in Rodney Howsare, Balthasar—A Guide for the Perplexed, t&t clark, 2009, pp. 105-106). Much the same is true of the Son and Spirit. They become themselves by giving themselves away in a mutual dance —  perichoresis.

Just as movement is the essence of divine life, so it is also foundational to creation. For the creation is the result of the Triune God “making room” for more life. What is true of this One-in-Three is also the intention for the creation. As Wirzba suggests, “To be a personal creature is thus to be one who is from the beginning shaped by and called into fellowship. Trinitarian creation means that life is founded upon…a perpetual ‘making room’ within ourselves for others to be.  Rather than being a possession, life is a gift—a movement of self-offering and receiving love” (Norman Wirzba, Food and Faith: A Theology of Eating, 2nd ed., Cambridge, 2019, p. 50). And this gift is liveliest when we join with others to extend this hospitality to the whole creation in caring, listening, and learning. We are members of one another in the membership of creation.

When the gift nature of creation’s dance was forgotten, the Holy One called prophets. This was certainly the case with the earliest Isaiah. Although some think it strange that the record of his prophetic call does not come until the sixth chapter, it cannot be denied that the first five chapters demonstrate dramatically the need for prophetic activity (David L. Peterson, The Prophetic Literature, Westminster John Knox, 2002, p. 79). These chapters show a culture where the flow of God’s gifts has been blocked through an economy of “winner take all.”  For example, “Ah, you who join house to house, who add field to field, until there is room for no one but you….” (Isaiah 5:8), and “Ah, you who are heroes in drinking wine and valiant at mixing drink, who acquit the guilty for a bribe, and deprive the innocent of their rights!” (Isaiah 5:22-23)

In the midst of this corruption, Isaiah experiences an overwhelming vision of the glory of the LORD complete with winged seraphim. Because no one can experience this and live, Isaiah wails, “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!” (Isaiah 6:5-6)  His predicament is solved as his lips are cleansed by a burning coal. As a result, when the voice of the LORD is heard inquiring, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?”, the overwhelmed Isaiah can only answer, “Here I am, send me!” (Isaiah 6:8)

Crucial to understanding this prophetic call is the quasi-liturgical calling of the seraphim, a song we call the Sanctus: “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory” (Isaiah 6:3). Because the creation is filled with the glory of God, even the seraphim cannot contain it: it overflows. A prophet-messenger must be sent to deflate the illusion of those who have deceived themselves into thinking that self-concerned greed can stop the coursing flow of creation’s gifts without penalty.

Which is precisely our problem. The Global Footprint Network, based on the work of Bill Rees and colleagues at the University of British Columbia, measures the “natural resources” used globally, by country, and by citizens of each country compared to the earth’s regenerative capacity. By the Network’s latest determination, it would take 5 Earths to sustain the “American Way of Life” globally, a fortunate impossibility (GlobalFootprintNetwork.net). While we are unlikely like Isaiah, to have seraphim breathing down our necks, we are also called to say “Here I Am Lord” to “make room” for all of creation to thrive.

Without doubt this call to the dance of creation requires public policy attention in order to address specific concerns of housing equity and criminal justice. This may be considered most helpfully as what Jeremy Lent calls the level of “fractal organization” which recognizes that the health of the whole system requires the flourishing of each part. (Jeremy Lent, “Toward an Ecological Civilization,” Yes!, Spring 2021, p. 22). Rather than approaching problems from an abstract macro level, this calls for looking at the quality of life in my neighborhood and providing suggestions for policy improvements from the bottom up.  For example, listening to elders, the disabled, and children who need the pedestrian green light time extended at a crossing may spur action toward walkable cities more significant than a well-funded public relations campaign. As each neighborhood “makes room” for more life, the city flourishes.

Or, we may also embrace the parallel principle of “subsidiarity,” which aims at accomplishing common goals at the lowest appropriate level of organization.  To discover possibilities for local food production and gardening, a group or family may plant a surplus of pre-season tomatoes and peppers from saved seeds and invite neighbors to choose their varietals to plant. Soon this becomes an early plant “swap” and  then a harvest potluck. Just as many food buying clubs have become food co-ops, book trading has become a “Little Library,” and tool sharing has led to “tool libraries,” so similar actions may become a “good virus,” a model that can spread and be replicated widely.

But none of this happens until we honor the membership among neighbors near and far and the great diversity of otherkind whirling in the dance of creation. If we see our apartments or houses as little more than places to park our cars before “parking” ourselves in front of our digital media screens, communal life shrivels. It is to warn us against this pseudo-life that Paul writes. “So then, brothers and sisters, we are debtors (meaning: we owe everything) not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh—for if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live” (Romans 8:12-13). By now, we are well aware that by “flesh” and “body” Paul does not mean either our physical bodies or the creation, but the self-absorption that leads us to join with Sinatra in singing “I Did it My Way,” a life we are tempted to adopt by nearly every commercial ad we hear or see.

But “all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God” (Romans 8:14). The Spirit is the connector who not only orients us, but ties us to both the faith community and membership in the Holy Trinity’s dance of creation. This membership we share through baptism (David Horrell, Cherryl Hunt, and Christopher Southgate, Greening Paul, Baylor, 2010, p. 64) grants not only gifts and energies moving us to give ourselves to one another and the whole of creation, but inflames all who would live “by the flesh.” After all, if “me first” disappeared what would happen to our economic system? Paul is incredibly prescient and honest about this as he speaks of the inheritance of the community of hope which will inevitably bring suffering because of our new dance (Romans 8:17).

That we are not part of a popularity contest is made clear from our Gospel Reading from John. To protect his public reputation (a clue to his commitment to live by control, “the flesh”), Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night. To maintain his dignity, he begins the dialogue with what turns out to be empty flattery: “Teacher, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God, for no one can do these signs apart from the presence of God” (John 3:2). Apparently, “signs and wonders” were simply considered part of a top-flight rabbi’s “bag of tricks,’ not that unusual among those “in the guild.”

Jesus’ response moves immediately beyond what “we as teachers do.” It is not about rabbinical performance; it is about “being born again from above” (John 3:3). That this moves beyond Nicodemus’ ken is made clear by his literalizing the double-entendre. Nicodemus, in spite of his concern for his reputation seems willing to learn, but remains mired in “the flesh” (John 3:6). Jesus responds, “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (John 3: 8). This is all beyond Nicodemus.

As a “teacher of Israel” he does not understand the creational liveliness of his own tradition. For even reflection on “earthly things” (ta epigeia/epi: upon + ge: earth) provides understanding. “Implicit here is the idea that the processes of the whole creation are revelatory” (Margaret Daly-Denton, John: An Earth Bible Commentary, Bloomsbury, 2013, p. 75). We find a lush wealth of natural metaphors throughout the gospel: wine, seeds, water, vines, bread, fishing, gardens….  And the Hebrew Scriptures are even richer in the use of creation for primary theological teaching. Think of the LORD’s dialogue with Job from the whirlwind, a conversation full of “earthly things:” constellations, oxen, calving deer, and ravens, to name but a few (Job 38 -41). And this becomes even more evident as we investigate the deep connections seen in non-human creation.

For example, consider the work of forester Suzanne Simard.  In the early 1990’s Simard noticed that when volunteer paper birches growing near Douglas firs soon to be cut for timber were cleared away, the health of the firs declined.  What was happening? Several years of investigation revealed the birch and firs not only to be connected by mycorrhizal fungi that created a mutualism among the plants, but that the Douglas firs depended on the paper birch for additional photosynthetic carbon (described in Robert McFarlane, Underland, Hamish Hamilton, 2019, p. 90).  “The ultimate mutualism is between plants and mycorrhizal fungi,” claims Merlin Sheldrake, a British forester. (McFarlane, p. 97). Another example of “making room” for other species in the dance of creation.

Ultimately, our care for “earthly things” is based on the familiar “For God so loved the world he gave (made room for) his only Son….” (John 3:16). The Father-Creator who made room for creation loves and sustains it to the point of making room for the Son, the incarnate one “in whom all things hold together” (Colossians 1:17 ) while being lifted up in glory. With the result that …everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (John 3:16).    No, this is not endless life extension; rather, it is life that lives out of the new creation enlivened by the Spiritus-Creator.

As Daly-Denton writes, “Earlier in this scene Jesus speaks both of seeing the basilica (kingdom) (John 3:3) and of entering into it. The rebirth that Jesus offers will enable people to recognize that the basilica has dawned and to become part of it themselves” (Daly-Denton, pp. 77-78). We continue initiating people to this life, baptizing them through “water and Spirit” (John 3:5) to live out of the newness that is the kingdom. As part of this welcome into the community in the name of the One who is three, the candidate for baptism or parents/sponsors promise “to care for others and the world God made” (Evangelical Lutheran Worship, Augsburg-Fortress, 2006, p. 228).

That this new kingdom life is not reserved for humankind is perfectly consistent with the energy of the Trinity which continues to “make room” in love for an expanding membership of creation, deepening the rhythm of cosmic dance. This expansion augments the liveliness of all God has made and enhances the lives of all community members who care for one another and the vibrant world God made. When the invitation to dance is refused, the results are all too clear. As poet Bill Holm wrote in his poem “Advice:”

Someone dancing inside us
Learned only a few steps:
The “Do-Your-Work” in 4/4 time,
The “What-Do-You-Expect” waltz.
He hasn’t noticed yet the woman
Standing away from the lamp,
The one with the black eyes
Who knows the rhumba,
And strange steps in jumpy rhythms
From the mountains in Bulgaria.
If they dance together,
Something unexpected will happen.
If they don’t, the next world
Will be a lot like this one.
(The Chain Letter of the Soul, Milkweed Editions,
2009, p. 136)

Tom Mundahl, Elm Cottage, Saint Paul, MN
tmundahl@gmail.com

Originally written by Tom Mundahl in 2021.