That Which We Have Heard & Known

Occasional thoughts of an Anglican Episcopal priest

The Trinity Comes to Dinner: Sermon for Trinity Sunday, June 16, 2019

There is an old tradition in the church: on Trinity Sunday, rectors do their best to get someone else to preach. If they have a curate or associate priest, he or she gets the pulpit on that day. If not, they try to invite some old retired priest to fill in (as Father George has done today). No one really wants to preach on Trinity Sunday, the only day of the Christian year given to the celebration or commemoration of a theological doctrine, mostly because theology is dull, dry, and boring to most people and partly because this particular theology is one most of us get wrong no matter how much we try to do otherwise. Back when I was a curate getting the Trinity Sunday assignment, my rector encouraged me with the sunny observation that, listening to a sermon in almost any church on Trinity Sunday, one could be practically guaranteed to hear heresy.

As I started preparing to preach on this Trinity Sunday, however, I thought, “I have an out, a handy escape hatch” because today is not only the church’s feast of the one, holy, blessed, and glorious Trinity, it is also the secular, some say “Hallmark,” holiday of Father’s Day. So, I thought, “I’ll talk about Father’s Day and if the Trinity decides to show up, well … that’ll be fine.”

Every year in this diocese in the few weeks before Father’s Day, our Right Reverend Father in God, Bishop Hollingsworth, holds a conference for the clergy which is mandatory for rectors and other full-time parish priests and deacons, but optional for us retired folk. In this, my first year of retirement, I was looking forward to not going, but then the bishop scheduled as the conference presenter a retired bishop from North Carolina, Porter Taylor, who is now a professor of theology and literature at Wake Forest. His topic was to be storytelling and so I found myself opting to go.

Bishop Taylor used works from contemporary poets as a way to introduce each of the four segments of his presentation, reminding me of some poets whose work I know and introducing me to others. I thought I would share two of those poems with you today.  The first is by one of those poets I hadn’t known of, Gerard Locklin, a professor emeritus of English at CSU Long Beach. Bishop Taylor shared with us Locklin’s poem No Longer A Teenager:

my daughter, who turns twenty tomorrow,
has become truly independent.
she doesn’t need her father to help her
deal with the bureaucracies of schools,
hmo’s, insurance, the dmv.
she is quite capable of handling
landlords, bosses, and auto repair shops.
also boyfriends and roommates.
and her mother.

frankly it’s been a big relief.
the teenage years were often stressful.
sometimes, though, i feel a little useless.

but when she drove down from northern California
to visit us for a couple of days,
she came through the door with the

biggest, warmest hug in the world for me.
and when we all went out for lunch,
she said, affecting a little girl’s voice,
“i’m going to sit next to my daddy,”
and she did, and slid over close to me
so i could put my arm around her shoulder
until the food arrived.

i’ve been keeping busy since she’s been gone,
mainly with my teaching and writing,
a little travel connected with both,
but i realized now how long it had been
since i had felt deep emotion.

when she left i said, simply,
“i love you,”
and she replied, quietly,
“i love you too.”
you know it isn’t always easy for
a twenty-year-old to say that;
it isn’t always easy for a father.

literature and opera are full of
characters who die for love:
i stay alive for her.[1]

Like Locklin, I am the father of a daughter (and of a son), and it seems to me that that what his poem describes there at the end is the essence of a father’s love, of what we expect fatherhood to be at its best: staying alive for his children. We often, as the poet alludes, hear of love or loyalty so strong someone would die for its object, but the real substance of paternal (and, indeed, of maternal) love is to live for one’s children. It is to rejoice with them when there is cause for joy and it is to suffer with them through life’s inevitable pain, knowing (as Paul writes to the Romans) “that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint.”[2] That’s what we expect of fathers, and it’s what we celebrate today.

As I was thinking about that, I remembered a scene in that old movie, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,[3] so I rented the movie from Amazon and – Surprise! – that’s when the Trinity decided to show up! I hope you’ve seen and remember the movie. Made in the mid-1960s it tells the story of one day in the lives of two families: one a blue-collar African-American family; the other, upper-middle class white. It is the story of the day on which the children of the two families announce that they intend to get married. Remember that this was fifty-plus years ago when interracial marriage was rare and hugely significant; as the movie shows, it was opposed by both blacks and whites, shocked most of us white folks (even the liberals among us), and was illegal in about a third of the United States. I watched the movie again this past week and while the dialog is a little dated, I still think it’s a brilliant screenplay and is as timely today as it was then. I would urge you to watch it again (or, if you’ve not seen it, for the first time); as I mentioned, you can rent it on Amazon Prime. But I didn’t think of the movie because of its commentary on American race relations; I thought of it, as I said, because of one scene, a scene depicting the relationship of a father and a son.

There is a scene in the movie in which Dr. John Prentice, the well-educated, urbane physician played by Sidney Poitier, is arguing with his decidedly blue-collar, working-class, retired postal-worker father played by Roy Glenn. The black father is trying to tell his black son why he can’t marry white girl Katherine Houghton. Part of his argument is that he, as father, has the right to dictate to his son because of all he has done for him, that his son owes him respect and obedience. The son replies:

You tell me what rights I’ve got or haven’t got and what I owe to you for what you’ve done for me. Let me tell you something. I owe you nothing. If you carried that bag a million miles, you did what you were supposed to do because you brought me into this world, and from that day you owed me everything you could ever do for me. Like I will owe my son if I ever have [one].[4]

That’s hard and it’s harsh, but it gets right at it, doesn’t it? That is what we expect of fathers: not to die for their children, but to live for them, to provide for them, to take care of them, and sometimes to save them even from themselves. I think we believe that of fathers because such life is the example set by the Trinity, by God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.[5]

The Trinity showed up when I realized while watching the movie that Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner not only gives us a picture of what fatherhood is, it also shows us not one, but two three-person family units which we can see as metaphors for this weird and almost incomprehensible vision of God we call “the Trinity.” Now, as you know, metaphors and analogies can only go so far and if we go too far with them we cross that border into heresy and, as I said, that’s why rectors try to get someone else to preach on Trinity Sunday. I’ll try not to step over the line here today.

I’ve already reminded you of (or introduced you to) the Prentices. John Prentice, Sr., the strong, dominant, rule-making, judging father, insisting that his way be followed, his rules obeyed; he is the God of the Old Testament, the Great I AM.[6] Dr. John Prentice, Jr., is the independent but always obedient son who like Jesus carries his father’s name (recall how Jesus repeatedly and pointedly claimed the Divine Name saying, “I am…”  – I am the good shepherd,[7] I am the bread of life,[8] I am the way,[9] I am the Truth[10]). He also goes into the world as a source of healing and life; the character is not merely a doctor, he is a world-famous, international health-care provider overseeing (we are told) programs that save millions of lives. The third member of this triad is Mrs. Prentice played by the lovely Beah Richardson: she represents the spirit of love. Mrs. Prentice actually has very little to say to her son and her husband during the movie, other than to encourage them to talk to each other. Instead, like the spirit she goes out into the world and has a lot to say to the parents of her son’s fiancée Joanna. She reminds both Matthew and Christina Drayton of the power of love in individual lives and in a broken world; like the Spirit promised by Jesus, she says things they almost cannot bear to hear.[11]

The Draytons, of course, are the other Trinity metaphor the movie gives us. The strong parent-child relationship in this triad is the mother-daughter pairing of Christina, played by Katharine Hepburn, and Joanna, played by Katharine Houghton. Christina is like the God of the New Testament: she stands by and with her child, loving her, supporting her, embracing her, empowering her, even when she is certain that the course she is on will end in pain and suffering. Joanna represents the Divine Child coming into the world to challenge the status quo, confidently asserting that there are laws higher than the laws of humankind. When the script reminds us that at the time the movie was made (early 1967) interracial marriage was illegal “in 16 or 17 States,” Joey Drayton’s response, like Jesus’ arguing that the Sabbath is meant to liberate not to enslave,[12] pretty much boils down to “So what?” She is the rule-breaker pointing beyond the rules to the Truth which they obscure. In this triad, the spirit is represented by Matthew Drayton, played by Spencer Tracy. He is the spirit of wisdom, the Counselor and Advocate, championing caution and common sense, arguing for everyone to slow down and not rush headlong into hasty action. (John Prentice and Joey Drayton, by the way, have decided marry after knowing one another for only ten days, so Matt’s advice and counsel might seem rather well-taken!)

So there they are, the Prentices – three persons, one family – and the Draytons – also three persons, one family – each giving us an insight, a partial insight, into the Trinity – three Persons, one God. Now, as I’ve already said, analogies and metaphors are limited and we can’t extend them too far, and movie-based analogies are perhaps limited more than others, but the two Trinity metaphors in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner are to a certain extent self-correcting and they extend each other a bit further when the characters representing the Spirit in each interact, when Mrs. Prentice talks with Matthew Drayton, when the spirit of love informs and transforms the spirit of wisdom.

In his book Walking the Path of the Jewish Mystic, Rabbi Yoel Glick explores the sefirot or centers of the human spirit identified in the Jewish mystical tradition of the Kabbalah. Glick explains that in what he calls “the throat center” love combines with wisdom to “awaken the transformative energy of chesed.”[13] This is what happens in the movie.

Chesed is the Hebrew word translated as “kindness” in that familiar admonition from the Prophet Micah: “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”[14] The word chesed appears 248 times in the Hebrew Bible. It is difficult to translate into English, because there is no direct equivalent in our language. When Miles Coverdale made the first English-language translation of Holy Scripture, he invented the hyphenated term “loving-kindness” as a translation. It is also sometimes rendered as “mercy,” “compassion,” “steadfast love,” or “covenant loyalty.”[15] According to Jewish tradition, chesed is one of the thirteen attributes of God; in fact, “over and over again, [it is] the central attribute of God in Hebrew Scripture.”[16]

Episcopal theologian Catherine Wallace asserts, “The imago dei [image of God] within us is made manifest in our own human capacity for chesed.”[17] This, by the way, is the answer to the question posed in our psalm today: “What is man that you should be mindful of him?”[18] It is our God-like capacity for chesed. As Rabbi Glick writes, individuals who work from a foundation of chesed

. . . have loving compassion for our suffering and merciful wisdom for our earthly struggles. They pour out their love on us. They teach us how to sanctify our existence. They strive with compassion to alleviate our sorrows. They work with mercy to ease our burdens, to lighten the load we carry in our lives.[19]

It is no wonder that the Psalmist describes chesed-capable humans as “but little lower than the angels,”[20] nor that Micah encourages us to love chesed, nor that it is such kindness, wisdom represented by Matt Drayton informed and transformed by love represented by Mrs. Prentice, that allows both sets of parents in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner to accept (and, one believes, eventually to bless) the marriage of their children. At the center of the Trinity which the two families represent in their differing ways is chesed, loving-kindness.

And is not the life of loving-kindness, as described by Rabbi Glick, the life of merciful wisdom, of sanctified existence, of lightened burdens, the life we hope fathers will live for and share with their children; is not that what we celebrate when we celebrate Father’s Day?

I said at the outset that I wanted to share with you this morning two poems used by Bishop Taylor so I will close with the second. It is by Naomi Shahib Nye, a Palestinian American poet from New Mexico. If Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner was a great commentary on race relations in mid-1960s America, her poem Wandering Around an Albuquerque Airport Terminal[21] may be the finest piece of literature I’ve found about being an Arab Muslim in post-9/11 America. I strongly commend it to you. However, it is not the poem I want to share with you this morning.

The poem Bishop Taylor had us consider at the clergy conference is about chesed, about kindness. And that is its title: this is Kindness by Naomi Shahib Nye:

Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.

Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.

Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.
Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to gaze at bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
It is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.[22]

Dear People of God, may kindness, the kindness of a father who stays alive for his children, the kindness at the heart of the Holy Trinity, be yours and may it go with you everywhere, like a friend. Amen.

====================

This homily will be offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the First Sunday after Pentecost (Trinity Sunday), June 16, 2019, to the people of St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church, Massillon, Ohio, where Fr. Funston will “supply” as guest clergy.

The lessons scheduled for the service (Trinity, Year C) are Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31; Psalm 8; Romans 5:1-5; and St. John 16:12-15. These lessons can be found at The Lectionary Page.

====================

Notes:
Click on footnote numbers to link back to associated text.

[1] No Longer A Teenager from The Life Force Poems (Water Row Books, Marlborough, MA: 2002), p. 48

[2] Romans 5:1-5

[3] Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967), IMBD listing, online

[4] Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner, Script (Dialogue Transcript), online

[5] John 1:1-4

[6] Exodus 3:14

[7] John 10:11

[8] John 6:35

[9] John 14:6

[10] Ibid.

[11] John 16:12-15

[12] “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath” – Mark 2:27

[13] Yoel Glick, Walking the Path of the Jewish Mystic (Jewish Lights Publishing, Woodstock, VT: 2015), pp. 25-26

[14] Micah 6:8

[15] See Kurt Stuckmeyer, Some Thoughts on Loving-Kindness, Following Jesus blog, posted May 17, online

[16] Catherine M. Wallace, Confronting Religious Absolutism: Christian Humanism and the Moral Imagination (Cascade Books, Eugene, OR: 2016), p. 25

[17] Ibid., p. 26

[18] Psalm 8:5a

[19] Glick, op.cit., pp. 25-26

[20] Psalm 8:6a

[21] Naomi Shihab Nye, Wandering Around an Albuquerque Airport Terminal, Words for the Year blog, posted March 24, 2014, online

[22] Kindness from Words Under the Words: Selected Poems (Eighth Mountain Press, Portland, OR: 1995), p. 42

1 Comment

  1. I have the Naomi Shahib Nye piece about being in the Albuquerque Terminal. I even used it in a sermon. Your sermons is fine work. Thank you for thinking about me.

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