Trinity Sunday, 2016
Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31
On the night before I preached this sermon, I saw on Facebook this post from Episcopal Memes:
Thank you Lady Violet, Dowager Countess of Grantham. I will risk it.
I am not a good dancer. I am awkward in my body. I am better at stepping on toes than cutting a rug. I never wanted to go to dances in high school or college for fear of embarrassment. The only exception to this is group dancing. Oh, I’m still not any good, but if feels like in a group dance I’m not on stage. It gives me space to follow along and learn as I go from those around me. If I’m in a line dance, I always position myself at the center so I never end up in the front, but can always watch and do what the person in front of me is doing.
A few years ago on sabbatical we were visiting the Scottish Isle of Iona where Christianity first came to Britain. We were invited to a ceilidh, a traditional Scottish celebration that includes storytelling, song and dance. They had to be very patient with these two-left-footed Americans trying to learn new rhythms and new steps, but how much fun to join in the ever-encircling dance that wasn’t about partners and getting it right, but about celebrating community and finding our place in it.
Today is Trinity Sunday, the only day of the Christian year given over not to a story but to a doctrine, specifically a teaching about the nature of God. The Trinity is perhaps the most misunderstood and weird teaching of the church, that the One God is really three, but not three separately, three-in-one. Wrap your mind around that!
People have tried to describe the Trinity in many different ways. Father, Son and Holy Spirit is one way. St. Augustine described the Trinity as the “Lover, the Beloved, and the Love that flows in between.” I like that sense of movement. Others have related it to the three states of water, liquid, ice, and gas. All still water, but we interact with them in different ways.
My favorite description, however, is not static but dynamic, moving, swirling, twirling, bounding, leaping, freeing. The image of God that makes my heart sing is that God is a dancing trio who are inviting me into their dance. Though I do not know all the steps, they draw me in nevertheless, encouraging, clapping, sometimes moving my feet when I don’t know how, sometimes turning me ‘round to face one or another of them, or even to look out, to reach out, to invite others in.
There is a Greek word for this image of God, perichoresis. It literally means “to make space around,” but figuratively it imagines a divine dance, constantly making space for one another, persistently opening up to welcome us in.
Why does it matter? Well, our image of God matters quite a lot. If we imagine God to be a judge waiting to condemn us, we will relate to him fearfully, or not at all. If we see God as requiring purity of thought or action, we will strive to make ourselves acceptable to God and distance ourselves from those we think don’t measure up. But what if we take seriously the image of God as a twirling-swirling, ever-moving community of other-centered love? It matters to me that the very nature of God is love, the very nature of God is self-giving, the very nature of God is to make space for others, to make space even for me. It matters to me that God is not static and definable even by our best systematic theologies, but God is ever moving in an unforced rhythm of grace that is not demanding but playful, that is not confining but freeing.
God is not self-absorbed, but takes sheer delight in keeping company together. Because God’s nature is to love, God’s greatest desire is to invite us into the dance, to show us the waltz of the new creation, to teach us the two-step of eternal life. If we are to become the people God desires us to be, we will have to learn to dance to the music of self-forgetful love. Set free from worrying about getting it wrong or being self-conscious that we are not good enough, we are invited into the divine dance that will free us to find our best life by taking the divine lead, interacting and moving responsively in rhythm with the One who is making space for me and for you.
So if God is this ever-moving dance of self-giving love making space for us, what does it mean that we gather to worship as a church? What would church look like if we were to become like this Holy, dancing Trinity? We might dance more in worship, for one. More importantly, we might become ourselves a community of other-centered love, delighting in one another yet always reaching out, always inviting others to experience the joy and release of being set free from our old ways of being to learn the dance of the new creation. We would be God’s dance studio with music that doesn’t entertain us or make us feel good, but moves us emotionally, spiritually, even physically to respond with heart mind, soul and body to God’s loving initiative in our lives. We would not worry when someone missed a step but would encourage them to respond to the Divine rhythm moving with us. This is worship! This is celebration! This is becoming as God is.
When Jesus sent his disciples off with their marching orders in Matthew 28, he said,
Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. Look, I will be with you always, even to the end of the age (Mt. 28:19-20).
It sounds so formal and regimented, until you begin to think of the dance. I used to think of baptizing “in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit” as a formula to use in baptisms, but I have begun to see it now as an invitation to the dance. It is not a magic incantation, but an invitation to encounter the life God has promised for each of us not just individually but in community. We are not just baptizing “in the name of,” we are baptizing into the life of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, initiating people into the kind of space-making, self-giving, other-centered, self-forgetful love that is the very nature of God and that makes us more like the God we worship. We are teaching the responsive dance, following the lead of the God who wants to be with us.
At our General Conference last week, themed with this same scripture from Matthew 28:19-20, the tensions that have torn our unity were on full display. There were moments that I was not sure our denomination could survive. We seem captivated by the polarities and dualistic thinking that want to force us either toward scriptural holiness or toward social holiness. John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, taught that scriptural and social holiness are not two things but one.
At one particularly tense moment when I was watching the proceedings, the presiding bishop called a recess. The live stream cut off and I waited and prayed for what would happen next. I looked on my Facebook and Twitter feeds to see if anyone would give me a glimpse of what was going on. Then I saw it: during the recess instead of breaking into caucus groups, someone in the African delegation stood up and began singing “Hallelujah!” Soon all the African members of the conference were on their feet singing and swaying, and the delegations from the rest of the world began to sing and dance with them. It was a beautiful moment of self-forgetful love.
In the moments following, the General Conference decided not to try to legislate one another into a corner, deepening the divide, but referred the most contentious questions around human sexuality and the ways we order the life of the church to a special commission to be appointed by our council of bishops charged with helping us find our way through what seems like an impasse through prayerful conversation and listening discernment rather than contentious debate and divisive legislation. It was a Holy Spirit moment if I’ve ever seen one, and I am convinced it could not have happened without the body singing and dancing praises to our creator, remembering who we are in relation to the One who dances in and among us, whose desire is to be One with us.
In Proverbs 8, Holy Wisdom is evoked as a witness to the creation, as a participant in the pushing back of the chaotic waters when they threatened to overwhelm. If ever we needed Holy Wisdom pushing back the chaos in United Methodism it was last week. The description of Holy Wisdom resonates beautifully the image of Christ as the “Word of God” in John 1, not only present at the creation, but coming to dwell within it. Proverbs 8:30-31 reads: “I was beside the master of crafts, having fun, smiling, (giggling) before him, frolicking with his inhabited world and delighting in the human race.”
God’s primary work in creation was to create a habitat within which we all may live. Creation is God’s way of making space for us. God’s desire is to dwell with us, to have fun with us, to smile and giggle with us, to frolic with us in this inhabited world, to take delight in us.
Dallas Willard teaches that:
The aim of God in human history is the creation of an all-inclusive community of loving persons with God himself at its center as its prime sustainer and most glorious inhabitant (Life with God Bible, 1).
We see it Genesis 3 with God walking with Adam and Eve in the cool of the evening. We see it in Revelation 22 with creation restored and God living among us, interacting with us freely. We see it in John 1 when the Word became flesh and dwelt among us and in Proverbs 8 as Divine Wisdom frolics in the whole inhabited world, dwelling and delighting with us.
If the very nature of God is making space for others, how can we do less? If the purpose of God in history is the creation of an all-inclusive community of loving persons, should that not be our aim as well? If God’s desire is to dwell and delight with us as Word and Holy Wisdom, our best response is to host a party, let’s call it worship, and make sure everyone, and I do mean every one, has a specific, personalized invitation to come and join the dance.