God’s Dance with Us

The Episcopal Church of St. Gregory of Nyssa, San Francisco

A sermon for Trinity Sunday, June 3, 2012.  The lectionary readings are Isaiah 6:1-8, Canticle 2, Romans 8:12-17, and John 3:1-17.

Jesus tells Nicodemus, “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”  Older translations used other terms, with Jesus saying that no one could see the kingdom of God unless the person was “born again” or “born anew.” Nicodemus asks him, “How can this be? How can someone be born when they are old? How can that happen?”

Jesus goes on to try to explain to Nicodemus what he has tried to explain to his friends, to the people at Cana, to the woman at the well, to the tax collectors and the religious officials. Jesus tries to explain to Nicodemus what he had tried to explain to his disciples again and again and again: that one must be open to the spirit. One must be open to the cleansing of baptismal waters. One must be open to God as God moves and makes his way among us. For God has SO loved the world, that God has come into it. God was born in the world, that we might be born again and born to eternal life.day: the mystery of the Holy Trinity. To be born again, to be born anew, to be born from above– has to do with our being open to God however and whenever God comes to us.

The way that God calls us, the way that God meets us, can change over time. For the person who grows spiritually, the way we perceive God and the ways in which we meet God should change over time. A child who is loved by her parents may easily understand God as a parent. Learning to love the stories of Jesus, we may come to know God most powerfully through Jesus. Listening to God through the whole of life, the ups and downs, and all of the mysteries—we may become more attune to God as Spirit.

The early church spoke of the Holy Trinity as having to do with God’s indwelling, with God’s mutual outpouring and movement into. The Trinity was understood as a dynamic: the Father always pouring love and light and energy into the Son, the Son always pouring himself into the Spirit, and the Spirit moving back into and around the Father and the Son. The word that theologians used to describe this continual activity of God is very close to the Greek work for dance, and so it became a popular way of speaking of the Trinity as a kind of dance of love. Brian McLaren puts it well when he writes,

“The Father, Son, and Spirit live in an eternal, joyful, vibrant dance of love and honor, rhythm and harmony, grace and beauty, giving and receiving. The universe was created to be an expression and extension of the dance of God—so all creatures share in the dynamic joy of movement, love, vitality, harmony, and celebration.” (Sojourners, March 2006)

With God there’s always dancing. And we can never be quite sure where God may lead.
In July, our Adult Forum will spend time reading a book called Take this Bread by Sara Miles.  The book is the story of how Sara, at the age of 46, a secular intellectual, journalist, and former war correspondent one day walked into the Episcopal Church of St. Gregory of Nyssa in San Francisco.  In receiving Communion, she began to connect that bread with the bread of heaven, with the bread needed to feed the world.  She got busy, became a Christian, and founding a food ministry that continues to operate from St. Gregory’s.  But my point in talking about Gregory of Nyssa today is not about the book or the bread, but the walls of the place.

Some of you have heard me talk about this church before, especially as I got ready to visit it a few years ago.  The Church of St. Gregory of Nyssa is a church that was founded to try to reclaim the sense of wonder and celebration of the early church, and a famous part of their liturgy includes dancing.  Dancing is so much a part of the church, that when they built a real worship space some years ago, they did it with the particular idea of making room for dancing, for crowds and crowds of people to dance around the altar and with each other.  But even more amazing to me than the dancing parishioners is that on the walls, all around the inside of the church’s rotunda, there are pictures of the faithful—faithful saints of every age, class, custom, and condition—88 saints, and they’re all dancing. 

Dancing together are Sojourner Truth, Miriam, Origen, Malcolm X, Elizabeth I, Iqbal Masih, and Teresa of Avila. One of the longest-named holy people in from the Anglican Tradition is Samuel Joseph Isaac Schereschewski, a missionary who went to China to share the Gospel.  But arriving there, he became ill with a disease that left him paralyzed, so his plans changed.  Rather than give up, he stayed, and worked slowly and painstakingly at translating the Bible into Chinese, which he did.  As he put it, “except for the illness and the wheelchair,” he could never have accomplished that particular work.  And so, Schereschewski is pictured there, too, in his wheelchair, holding on to Ella Fitzgerald on his left and Pope John XXIII on the right. See an image at http://www.allsaintscompany.org/saint/john-xxiii

This picture of saints dancing reminds us that “to dance” often appears to involve primarily the body.  But as any of us who feels awkward, or constrained, or restricted in any way knows, the dance begins inside long before it ever manifests itself.  The dance can be interior and intensely spiritual. The dance can be outward and explicitly political, such as the silent, haunting dance of the mothers of the disappeared who protested the violence of Central America in the 1980s.

God invites us to join in this dance of love—the love of God that overflows into all of creation. It doesn’t matter if we feel a little awkward. It doesn’t matter if we don’t think we know the steps or that we might stumble and fall occasionally. We’ll learn the steps. We’ll lean on each other, and we’ll continue to grow stronger in God’s love even as we invite others to join us.

May we, like Nicodemus— like all the matriarchs and patriarchs, saints and martyrs—may we be born from above. May we be open to God in whatever way God reveals, and may we have the faith to join the dance of God’s eternal love.

In the name of the Holy and undivided Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.  Amen.

About John F. Beddingfield

Rector of The Church of the Holy Trinity (Episcopal) in New York City on East 88th Street between 1st Ave and 2nd Ave.
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