The Three Sisters Trinity

The Three Sisters Trinity
John 16:12-15
Rev. Liz Kearny
Longview Presbyterian Church
June 12th, 2022

12 ‘I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. 13When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. 14He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. 15All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.

This is the Word of God. Thanks be to God. 

I finally got my turn at the library to borrow a book that’s been recommended to me for at least a decade, “Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants,” by Robin Wall Kimmerer. Kimmerer is a “mother, scientist, decorated professor, and enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation.” (Robin Wall Kimmerer’s website.) A couple weeks ago, I read about the three sisters, a planting method exhibiting the “genius of indigenous agriculture”, (Robin Wall Kimmerer, “Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants,” The Three Sisters, quoted.) as Kimmerer puts it, which plants corn, beans, and squash in the same square foot of soil because of the ways they uniquely support one another in flourishing. “Together these plants,” Kimmerer writes, “feed the people, feed the land, and feed our imaginations, telling us how we might live.” (Kimmerer)

This three and one symbiosis was fresh on my mind as I prepared this sermon for today – Trinity Sunday – a day when many churches reflect on that mystery that God is somehow one and three: Parent God, child Jesus, and Holy Spirit. In today’s passage, Jesus is trying to tell his disciples how they’ll stay in relationship with the Divine after he leaves them. To Jesus, this Trinitarian talk arose from his deep care for these friends he loved. He knew they were going to face huge challenges and live through wild, uncertain times. Speaking of the Trinity was his way of strengthening them for what was to come. And I think, with the help of the three sisters, reflecting on the Trinity can strengthen us for the days ahead too.

A beautiful mystery of three sisters planting is that no one plant does the same thing, and yet it is in their togetherness that they flourish. The corn grows tall, the first out of the ground. The bean grows second, wrapping its vine around the corn stalk to grow upward. The squash grows low and outward, protecting the stems of the other two from pests with its huge leaves and keeping the moisture in that square foot of soil. At first glance, it might seem like the bean is just taking from the corn and the squash without offering anything in return, but Kimmerer shares that “the bean will grow an oxygen-free nodule to house the bacterium and, in return, the bacterium shares its nitrogen with the plant. Together, they create nitrogen fertilizer that enters the soil and fuels the growth of the corn and the squash, too.” (Kimmerer) Each plant plays its role. No plant takes over the role of the others. In this, they flourish as one. This is a paradox of the Trinity – that boundaries can somehow lead to one abundant whole. Our text tells us that the Spirit guides into truth, the Son offers wisdom for the Spirit to declare to us, and our Parent God shares all things in common with the Spirit and Son. This mystery asks us, in a time when needs and needs and needs press in from all sides in our world: what is my thing to do, and how can I say no to what’s not mine so I can say yes to my part in the whole? No plant can be all things. No person can be all things. What gifts do you bring to this square foot of soil and how do you put boundaries around where and when and how often to use your gifts so that your ‘yes’ can be a ‘yes’ with your whole glorious self? When do you need to be sister bean, asking for the help of corn when you need someone to lean on? When do you need to be sister corn, asking squash to protect your root system from the bugs with her generous leaves? When do you need to be sister squash, asking bean for some of her extra nitrogen to grow? The Parent, Child, and Spirit show us this paradoxical boundaried-oneness with stunning clarity. As Kimmerer puts it, “…the beauty of the partnership is that each plant does what it does in order to increase its own growth. But as it happens, when the individuals flourish, so does the whole.” (Kimmerer) Somehow three and somehow one.

The three sisters also teach us to redefine ownership from a private right to be defended to a set of responsibilities to be shared. Consider what happens in modern day monoculture farming practice, with its roots in settlers demanding productivity from land for profit. Kimmerer talks about looking out over the corn field of a neighbor, corn stalks standing shoulder to shoulder without their sisters growing alongside them. “Tank sprayers on the tractor have delivered applications of fertilizer;” Kimmerer writes, ‘you can smell it in the spring as it drifts off the fields. A dose of ammonium nitrate substitutes for the partnership of a bean. And the tractors return with herbicides to suppress weeds in lieu of squash leaves.” (Kimmerer) When people own the land in such a way that pushes corn to its limit for the sake of raking in more money, chemical fertilizers and weed suppressants that harm our communities make their way into the growing process to replace the relationships that helped these plants to flourish under Native care. Fossil fuels are extracted to run the machines used to harvest crops that grow this way and our relationship with this planet is broken, because when white settlers came here, they defined ownership as having a right to take as much as they possibly could from the land, the plants, and the Indigenous peoples who resided here before them.

But the three sisters show us that ownership is not a set of individual rights to be gripped tightly but a set of responsibilities we have to each other. “Polycultures—fields with many species of plants—are less susceptible to pest outbreaks than monocultures,” Kimmerer writes. Their co-laboring with one another creates an environment where no bug is given sole access to wipe out a plant because the richly diverse environment provides for predator bugs too, which keep any one species from taking over. Each plant has the space it needs to thrive individually, and that happens not in spite of but because they offer what they have to the others, whether it is shade, pest protection, a climbing stalk, or nitrogen for the soil. When the three sisters share ownership of the land, it’s not about each plant’s personal right to grow, but about their responsibilities to support the growth of their neighboring plants.

We hear this Trinitarian redefining of ownership in Jesus’ words today. “[The Spirit] will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.” I love how theologian Casey Overton puts it when speaking of the wealth of love God has to share: “So whose is it? Is it God’s? Jesus’? The Spirit’s? Ours? Yes. Yes it is. Who gets to use it first? Everybody. When? Always. And this is the glory of God,” Overton writes, “that there is no differentiation between what belongs to Source, the “Son”, Spirit, or disciples… Our God is an intimate community.” (Casey Overton, “Liturgy that Matters – June 12, 2022: John 16:12-15”, enfleshed: spiritual nourishment for collective liberation.)

The American obsession with private property – of ownership for the sake of taking and taking and taking – is killing us. Resource extraction driven by greed has led to climate change. A refusal by elected officials to use public goods for universal healthcare means people die from diseases already cured because they can’t afford the bill. Churches build up and build up their physical buildings while ignoring the needs of their neighbors, and thus the church loses its prophetic witness, communities suffer, and the pews of those beautiful buildings are emptier with each passing year. 

How can we be Trinitarian when it comes to our definition of ownership? How does the Trinity’s blurring of the lines of who owns what lead us to stop accumulating wealth and property for ourselves when we have enough and to share what we have when we have more than we need? How do we make that sharing and redistribution of wealth a daily habit? What would it mean for what we write into our wills and how we decide to redistribute wealth right now? As we donate our church’s land next door, how can we live out our responsibility to the new neighbors who will be moving in? How are we called to welcome them into shared space to be a part of one whole? 

As Kimmerer reflects on the tall corn stalk, the climbing bean vine, and the sprawling squash all singing together in defined individuality and somehow blurred oneness, she writes: “Perhaps we should consider this a Four Sisters garden, for the planter is also an essential partner. It is she who turns up the soil, she who scares away the crows, and she who pushes seeds into the soil. We are the planters, the ones who clear the land, pull the weeds, and pick the bugs; we save the seeds over winter and plant them again next spring. We are midwives to their gifts. We cannot live without them, but it’s also true that they cannot live without us… We too are part of the reciprocity. They can’t meet their responsibilities unless we meet ours.” (Kimmerer) Jesus knows that his disciples, that we, face more difficult and uncertain days ahead. That’s why he invites us into the relationship of the Trinity – a relationship of reciprocity that has always been and always will be, a relationship that can sustain us in times of apocalypse. In this Trinitarian life, we are not called to be all things. We ask for what we need and we share what we can. We are called not to defend our rights to ownership but to be responsible to one another so that all can thrive. As theologian Casey Overton writes, “May the lines of individuality be blurred only for the liberation of the collective.” (Casey Overton) Amen.

One thought on “The Three Sisters Trinity

  1. A Shaman and European first world type were reflecting on their similar and different inner dialogues. The Shaman said gently, “You think of rights. I think of obligations…”

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