Trinity Sunday | TRANSITIONS WORSHIP SERIES
If you’ve ever been an associate pastor in a congregation large enough to have an associate pastor, you know what today is: It’s one of those “associate pastor” Sundays, along with the Sunday after Easter Sunday, and the Sunday after Christmas Eve, and maybe the Sunday nearest July 4, especially if it’s going to be a long weekend.
You know, the Sundays with complicated things to talk about— like skeptical Thomas casting shade on the others for a whole week, or raging, paranoid Herod ordering the slaughter of every male child in Judea under two, or church-state relationships, or, today, the doctrine of the Trinity. Hard stuff. Stuff the senior pastor would rather not handle, and, of course, won’t handle, because you are there. The senior pastor is on vacation— along with a good chunk of your “regular” congregation.
Been there. Done that. And sorry, the associate never gets the t-shirt.
Of course, for roughly ninety percent of our congregations in the U.S., there is no associate pastor. For most of you coming to another Trinity Sunday means it’s you again, struggling to help your congregation make sense of the only Sunday of the year devoted to a doctrine it took the early church almost 400 years to flesh out in ways most of them could agree to. But you don’t have 400 years to work on this week’s sermon. It’s here. And it’s you. It’s all you.
Been there. Done that, too. And sorry, most small and midsize churches don’t have t-shirts.
But they do have you.
Though maybe not for long.
You may be appointed elsewhere by July 1.
And if not this year, then maybe it was last year, or it might happen next year.
January through March tends to be the “antsy season,” with a lot of us wondering if we’re going to get that call from the district superintendent about an “opportunity.” Once that call has come, the end of May through June, when most of our annual conferences are held in the United States, is also “transition season.” We’re starting to say our goodbyes in earnest, eyeing our shelves to figure how many book boxes we’ll need this time, and scanning the walls of the house or the parsonage to figure out what needs to painted and what needs to be repaired before we move again. We’re still where we’ve been, physically, but psychically we’re living in anticipation and maybe some dread of where we’re going, how we’re going to get there, and what comes next.
United Methodist clergy who may be on the move aren’t the only ones living into transition this time of the year. Lots of families are, too. Schools have let out. Graduations happen. More marriages take place in June than in any other month of the year. It may be the time for the summer camp or work schedule, the first inklings of the empty nest, or the start of life together as a married couple and all the expense (and stress!) that often entails.
For many of us in the U.S., vacation season begins right about now. For churches in the sunbelt, that often means younger families are at the beach or in the mountains during the weekends, and some number of older families and individuals start heading north to find cooler breezes.
All of these changes, all of these transitions, are happening about right now.
So it’s no wonder a lot of our congregations will start a summer schedule soon. If they usually have two or more services, they might combine them and hold just one. Choirs and Sunday schools may be off entirely or on a reduced schedule until vacation season is over and school is back in session.
What does all of this have to do with today in the church year, with Trinity Sunday?
Quite a lot, actually. Because today is one of those “transition Sundays” in the church year, as well as in the wider rhythms of modern American and United Methodist ecclesial life.
Today we make the transition from seasons of preparation for discipleship and mission (Lent and Easter) to an extended season of performance, living out our discipleship on God’s mission in Christ’s name and the Spirit’s power.
Everything we have become as a result of these previous weeks of preparation, baptism, confirmation, and commissioning, we now start putting to the test.
And today, as we begin that journey and that work, we do so, as we do every year, with this core reminder about how we do it. We do it as participants in the life of the God whose mission sends us, a God we know as Trinity, One in Three, and Three in One.
Our reading from Romans today points squarely to this.
“All who are led by the Spirit are children of God… When we cry, Abba, Father, it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ.”
This is our journey, a journey led by the Spirit, a journey in which we cry out to the Father, a cry comes from the Spirit interacting intimately with our own spirits, and a journey that we undertake as joint heirs, siblings, of Jesus Christ.
It’s a big, big transition we make today. We mark how big that transition is even in the fairly dramatic change of the color of the paraments after today from nine solid Sundays of white and gold to next week’s green, which will take us into November.
But because this transition is all about us operating within the very life of the Triune God, it is a transition we can welcome. We don’t welcome all transitions in our lives. And we shouldn’t. Some of them are unjust, harmful, even life-threatening. But this transition we can welcome.
by Taylor Burton-Edwards
A word about “heavenly parent” or “heavenly Father.” This doesn’t mean ethereal, ether-like, vaporous. It means parent- or father-by-adoption. When we are adopted, we become the children of the one who adopts us in every way but genetics. Our adoptive parents care for us as if we were theirs by birth. Many adoptive parents and extended families make no distinction between those born among them and those adopted by them. These parents and families raise them as their own, and as among their own, with all the ways parents and extended families mark their own. Mannerisms, speech patterns, foods and sports teams that are family favorites, all become part of the life of the children they adopt.
“Our Father in heaven” does not mean “a father who is up in the sky, far from us,” but rather marks the “country” from which the one who adopts us comes, and the customs into which the one who adopts us will orient us for the rest of our days. To cry “Abba! Father” is not only to be heard and loved and responded to by the one we call, it is also to recognize God’s adoptive parent role in enculturating us into the ways of heaven here, in this earthly life.
The Spirit leads us outwardly. This isn’t something theoretical; it’s something many in our midst today can give abundant witness to. We experience the Spirit leading us, showing us the way. We may not talk about it much. But we do experience it. All the time.
We don’t always know where the Spirit is leading us, especially in times of transition. I’m in such a time as I write this in my final week “in office” as your director of worship resources. By the time you read this, I likely will have started new work, a new appointment, with InfoServ in early March. Things have been in transition for me since last August. Along the way, I inquired about an open position at InfoServ, and I sensed then the possibility of the Spirit leading me toward it. But I didn’t know if that would happen. What I did know is I could trust the Spirit was leading.
How did I come to know that? I mean, know that, not just consider it a possibility?
It’s because this life we have in the Trinity is a thing. Paul wasn’t theorizing. He was describing what a lot of us since have come to experience directly ourselves, or indirectly through others.
We are joint heirs with Jesus. He is our sibling now, walking with us.
And how do I know that? Jesus was walking with my co-worker and collaborator, Dawn Chesser, too. This may sound strange, because, as I say, a lot of us don’t often talk about these things, but Jesus appeared to her in a vision, and said to her a single word, “Trust.” And she told me and a few others about how our mission-companion and sibling had spoken in this way, and I can tell you, as she had become convinced, that this word was not only for her. “Trust.” Perhaps it is a word for you or others around you going through challenging times of transition just now, too.
The Spirit is leading us. Jesus is walking with us, supporting us on the way. We experience both of these things kind of externally. But we also experience the Spirit moving us internally. Sometimes it’s to call out in prayer to “our Father in heaven.” You know, that prayer Jesus gave us to use. Or sometimes just the opening words, the bare address. We’ve really been adopted into the Trinity. And when we cry out to the Father like that, well, we know it, we feel it, don’t we? God is our Father in heaven. God is our Mother, too, though Paul doesn’t use that term here. God is our heavenly parent, and we are God’s children.
We are God’s adopted children, children of this Triune God who leads us, walks with us, moves us, enculturates us. And being children, we grow, change, and mature; and we are all different. Just as Three in One does not mean Three who are identical within the One God, so our enculturation, life, and mission within the Triune God does not mean we are all the same, or become all the same. Conformity with the image of Jesus, God’s only-begotten-son, another way Paul wrote about the nature and result of our life in the Triune God (Romans 8:29), does not mean uniformity with one another, either, except in one respect, which Paul identifies at the end of verse 17: “if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may be glorified with him.”
Just as Jesus, God in flesh, brought suffering in the flesh into the heart of the Triune God, so, as we suffer with Christ, we are brought more and more into the same heart. Here is saving mystery, the suffering brought into the heart of the Triune God propelling us with the love of God toward all who suffer in this life, even if it brings more suffering to us. For when it does, we, in and with God, are also being glorified.
We are led by the Spirit, being moved inwardly by the Spirit regularly to call out to our adoptive Parent-of-Heaven, a parent whose mannerisms continue to shape us in our uniqueness, even as we are made joint heirs with Jesus, our brother, in our work, in engaging our mission, in using the gifts poured into us by the Spirit, in moving into the places and among the people and creatures who suffer, and so experiencing and knowing the glory of the Holy Three, Holy One, pulsing and flowing ceaselessly in us, and us in the Holy One, Holy Three.
This is what we get to do. This is who we get to become. This is who our Triune God is making us to be, starting here, now.
Welcome to the Season after Pentecost.
Welcome to life and ministry in Triune God.
Welcome to transitions and changes we cannot begin to imagine.
Welcome. And let’s get started. Amen.