It was Friday evening. I had been stuck on the interstate for two and half hours, between Sewanee and Chattanooga. There had been an awful accident involving two semi-trucks that resulted with some sort of chemical spill. So, the entire East-bound lane of Interstate 24 was shut down.
My gas gauge was starting to slide down, and I called Lisa and told her I was getting off at exit 158, within sight of Lake Nickajack. I was frustrated, mindful of the need for gas, and getting a bit hungry.
That was the most people I had ever seen in a gas station at one time. We were all there, in lines to get drinks, and in line at the in-house McDonald’s and Subway. People were everywhere, yet every single person was a complete stranger to me. I was alone, with over three hours ahead of me (in good traffic) before I could get home to see my family.
After getting my turkey sandwich, chips and drink, I sat down at a little table there in the dining room. There was a lovely family on my right who was headed home to Florida. They had decided to go back West to Jasper and get a hotel for the night. I wished these complete strangers a good trip, and they left.
I looked to my left and saw a young African American couple eating their dinner. To their right was a very gruff looking man (more on him later). I smiled at the couple and said the obligatory “this is awful, huh?” They smiled and said that they actually didn’t live far from here, so they thought they may go back home to Winchester.
“Winchester?” I said. “I know that town. That’s where we go to the Kroger when I’m at school.”
Their eyes brightened up, “You’re at the seminary there at Sewanee?”
“Yes,” I said. “I’m working on my doctorate right now. Taking the weekend to go see my family.”
“So, you’re a minister?” the man asked.
“Yes. I’m an Episcopal priest. The Mountain is full of them this time of year.” We all laughed…
Suddenly, the entire place changed. They both seemed very interested. We talked a bit about school and life there. Typical stuff. Then, suddenly, the man looked at me and said, “could you come over here to our table? I have some questions for you.”
“Sure.” I said moving my sandwich. “I’m Stuart.”
“Sid,” he said. “LaShonda,” she said. Nice to meet you…
At that point, we three complete strangers began an unbelievable conversation about the Bible, about culture, about interpretation, about the influences of society and different denominations. They were Baptist, so they were intrigued when I told them I was raised Baptist. It was absolutely remarkable. We were talking about how important it is to remember that the texts themselves were written in Hebrew and Greek, at which point the gruffy man next to us spoke up:
“I’m sorry to just jump in this conversation, but it seems to me that King James pulled together a bunch of old white Englishmen who must have had their own agendas.” And just like that my stereotype exploded right in front of my eyes.
Sid looked over and said, “Hey man, why don’t you slide up to the table?” And he did.
“Stuart,” I said. “Sid. LaShonda.”
“Hi. I’m Jerry.” Nice to meet you.
And we continued our conversation about social assumptions, about marriage, about diversity, about differences in cultures. At which point Jerry spoke up and said, “It seems to me that the monks who hand wrote all those texts of course made mistakes and brought in their own ideas on what the words must have meant.” Stereotype exploded again right before my eyes.
We sat there and talked for the better part of 45 minutes. Complete strangers. We laughed. We pushed each other, challenging each other even while we said—out loud—how grateful we were for our honesty. We formed community.
Finally, I stood up and told them that I had to go home. We each nodded, and I told them that I just wanted to give thanks for the chance to meet them. “If it hadn’t been for this wreck—unfortunate that it is—we would have never met. We would have just kept driving our separate ways, never having the chance to get to know one another.”
We all told each other goodbye, and when they asked for my card, I gladly gave them one.
And, as I continued driving down Interstate 24, I said to myself, “Isn’t that interesting?”
Trinity Sunday is always the Sunday after the Feast of Pentecost—or at least it has been for about fifteen hundred years now. It is one of those days that marks not an event in the life of Jesus, but rather a doctrine, or an idea. It is an “idea feast” that we have to remind us about one of the primary truths of our Christian faith: that we worship a God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Or, in more inclusive language: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. Or, in more poetic language: Lover, Beloved and Love.
Systematic theologians have tried for years to “explain” the Trinity, looking at the doctrinal, theological, philosophical, metaphysical framework through which Christianity is understood. And, while some of these works have been informative, I tend to think that the Trinity is best understood in other ways—through experience. Maybe that’s because heresies abound around how we understand the Trinity, and if I barely scratched the surface, I bet I would find I’m guilty of a few of them myself.
No, I think an experiential lens is best, because I think my understanding of the Trinity has been forever shaped by my time at Subway near Lake Nickajack. Because, you see, just before I decided to take that exit, I was frustrated. I hate traffic, and I thought to myself, “I have to get home to see my family. And, I have a sermon to write for Sunday that has been giving me fits. What am I going to do?”
And then there were Sid, LaShonda and Jerry…my Holy Trinity off Exit 158 on Interstate 24. They were an answered prayer.
They invited me into a conversation that I could never have planned. We invited each other to stretch, to grow, to share experiences, to wonder together. We formed community. We embodied hospitality for each other over water, tea, sandwiches and Macadamia-nut cookies.
You see, that’s when I realized that the inner reality of God: Father, Son, Holy Spirit; Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer; Lover, Beloved, Love….that inner divine reality that many mystics and theologians have described as a perichoresis, a mutual dancing, is at its heart about Holy Community.
When we say that we are invited into the Divine Life, that we are transformed through grace, that we are called to participate in the Life of Christ, that we are sealed by the Holy Spirit…when we say that we believe that we are called to a life of faith, the Image of the Holy Trinity reminds us that at God’s very heart is a call to community. God IS Community. It is a reality into which each one of us was welcomed at some point in our life—and it is a reality which we are called to share with everyone we meet. It is the mandate and responsibility of Grace Church.
Holy Communion. Divine Indwelling. Enlivening Presence. Spiritual Awakening. Divine Hospitality. Christ-centered life. This is at the heart of our faith, this call to realize our connectedness with one another and with God.
Nice to meet you. Will you slide over to my table? There are some things I’d love to ask you…
The Rev. Stuart Craig Higginbotham
Trinity Sunday, Year A | Genesis 1; Matthew 28 | June 15, 2014