When I was in high school, each summer — right around this time of year, in early June, just after school had let out, but before summer had kicked into full swing — the high school choir from my church would go on a choir tour. We’d spend the spring putting together, choreographing and rehearsing a show and then we’d take it on the road. We went to Texas one year, Tennessee another. We even came here to Chicago once in the late 80s — maybe you’ve heard of us? We we called “Nexus.” We were sort of the 80s church-based equivalent of Glee.
The summer tour was the highlight of the year. It was the thing that kept us all motivated to come to rehearsals each Wednesday night. But tour wasn’t all about the concerts we’d do each evening, or the people we met in each of the stops along the way. No, mainly, tour was all about what happened on the bus.
In order to transport 30 kids, 5 sponsors, 6 sets of risers, drums, guitars, and all the suitcases for all the singers and sponsors, you needed a tour bus. But we were low-budget. We weren’t traveling in the sort of luxury tour busses you see pulled up outside the Vic or the Riviera on a Friday night. No, we traveled in used school busses, purchased by the church and repainted white and red with the name of our congregation on the side. They were low tech. They lacked air-conditioning.
It was on the bus that our group of 30 played out all our high school dramas. We fell in love over the tops of stiff-backed chairs with green plastic upholstery. We played I-Spy and 20 questions. We told stories and jokes. We flirted, we teased, we fought, we made up. We were a society on the bus, we were a microcosm of the world. We were popular and we were awkward. We were studious and we were slackers. We were fair-of-skin and we were be-speckled with pimples.
If we’re lucky, we’ve all had “summer tour” experiences in our lives. Maybe it was a sports team that went to regionals, or a debate team that competed in the out-of-town tournaments. Maybe it was a group of fraternity brothers or sorority sisters that shared a house (and a bathroom). Maybe it’s the group of friends that goes to Vegas or rents a house on the beach. Maybe it’s the group that gets together for breakfast once a week at the diner, or maybe it’s the people who gather on Friday nights to play poker or Scrabble. Whatever the pretext for your grouping, it’s the people you share life with.
Life is meant to be shared, wouldn’t you agree? Life isn’t really life if we isolate ourselves from the world, if we simply endure time spent in the company of others so that we can get back to being alone. Sure, there are introverts and extroverts among us, we all have different needs for solitude and levels of tolerance for social situations. Yet, even the most introverted of people finds some pleasure in human company of one sort or another, even if it is simply sitting close to one another as one reads a novel and the other other a newspaper. There is joy that comes from being in community.
Biologists and sociologists would say that the human being is a social animal. Archbishop Desmond Tutu talks about the African idea of ubuntu. Roughly translated ubuntu means, “people are people through other people.” It means that apart from community, there is no humanity. It’s something we all forget in ways both big and small. In our actions and our attitudes, in our foreign policies and in our household relationships, we can begin to treat each other like objects, like tools that exist simply to meet our individual needs. The notion of ubuntu reminds us that it’s not so simple, that every human action has reactive consequences for the rest of us. When a person remembers this, when a person lives in a way that respects her or his impact on the rest of us, they say that person has ubuntu.
One of the ways we talk about this theologically comes up today in the church’s observance of The Holy Trinity. For the last half year we have traveled with Jesus, from the preparations for his birth during Advent through his passion and resurrection during the Three Days and Easter. As the end of his earthly ministry drew near, Jesus promised his disciples that he would not leave them orphaned but that he would send an Advocate, the Spirit of truth. We celebrating the sending of that Holy Spirit last week with the festival of Pentecost that brings to an end the fifty days of Easter.
Today we begin the second half of the church’s year, a season the church calls simply “Time after Pentecost” or “Ordinary Time.” The sanctuary, which has been draped in blue, then white, then green, then purple, then white, then red will soon be dressed in the greens that symbolize growth in the life of faith throughout the summer and the fall.
But this season begins today with one last festival, a white day in the church’s calendar, the festival of the Holy Trinity. The day is white like the robes traditionally worn for baptism, to remind us that in baptism we have entered into a new kind of life, the kind of life that can only be lived in community.
Paul’s letter to the church in Rome puts this to us so beautifully, combining not only the communal life of God — the Creator, the Beloved, and the Spirit — but also the ways we are drawn into this life with God when he writes,
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.”
When we say, quoting Genesis, that humanity is made in the image and likeness of God, this is part of what we are saying as well — that God, who exists in the community of the the Parent, the Child and the Spirit, has created us for community as well. That we are not only parents and children, but by the Spirit we are adopted into a family of being that includes everyone, everywhere.
This was the part that was always so hard for us to remember on the summer tour bus, which had a sort of predictable arc to its storyline. After months of late night rehearsals we boarded the bus with lots of energy and excitement. Seats were claimed with purses and pillows, with seniors always asserting their right to the prime seats in the back of the bus. The first few concerts would go well enough, but we didn’t really hit our stride until about half way through. Early tour romances were quick to burn out, but provided plenty for the rest of us to talk about. By halfway through, we had established a new way of relating to each other. We were a unit. Hours spent on the bus driving from Iowa to Ohio had forged a new identity, and our closeness came through in our performances.
Then it would start to unravel. Friendships fell apart over jealousies. Condescension devolved into bullying. Things were said and done that were hard to forgive and the bus started to feel like a prison on wheels. We lost our ubuntu and started living for ourselves, nursing hurt feelings and wounded pride.
You’ve probably seen what it looks like when teenagers have a big falling out with each other, when they lose their ubuntu. It’s not pretty. It’s even worse when adults do it though. When we lose our ubuntu we have all sorts of ways of taking it out on each other. Our cliques become more brutal than any school lunchroom or tour bus, as we sell each other into poverty and bomb each other into oblivion in the name of self-interest and self-defense. Our ubuntu is so obscured that we lose track of our common humanity. We need to start over. We need to be reborn.
That is the case with Nicodemus, a leader among the Jews — caught between the demands of empire and the passionate new vision for humanity and all of creation taking the country by storm as the Jesus bus stops in one town after another. He know in his gut that no one could do what Jesus was doing without God’s power and purpose on his side. But he can’t imagine how to cross the distance between the ways things are and the way things are supposed to be. He asks, “how can anyone be born after having grown old?”
Don’t we know this question all too well ourselves? How can we start over at this age? How can we become new people, now that we’ve already bought a house, or finished a degree, or raised a family? How can we become new people when all we’ve ever known is this way of being, these passed down prejudices, these categories of us and them?
Jesus says the answer is love.
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
The only way our tour bus ever made it back to Des Moines in one piece was by the power of love. Somewhere, out on the road together, we remembered that the God we were singing about each night in each of those churches was real, and so was that God’s love for us. We were still young enough for our hearts to be open to the possibility of forgiveness, and repentance, and reconciliation.
As our church enters the second half of the year, the long green season of ordinary time, we are called to remember the white robes of our baptism that symbolize our adoption into the community of God — our Maker, our Savior, our Power. It does not matter if we have grown tired and hopeless, if our have grown bitter and angry, if we have grown jealous and fearful. In Christ Jesus, by the power of the Holy Spirit, God is making us new. We are being born again, in and for and through one another.