Dancing with God the Holy Trinity

Trinity Shield ChoirA sermon for Trinity Sunday, May 27, 2018.  The scripture readings are Isaiah 6:1-8Psalm 29Romans 8:12-17, and John 3:1-17

Listen to the sermon HERE

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. 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.

With God there’s always dancing. And we can never be quite sure where God may lead. Many of us probably have examples of God’s dancing us into strange places, but I think of a particular story today about God’s leading the dance. And it involves a church and a person.  The person is named Sara. And the church is called St. Gregory’s.

Sara Miles was 46 years old.  A former war correspondent then working as a journalist—if asked, she would have described herself as a secular intellectual.  She had seen religion and religious people coopted on both sides of war and misery.  But in her book, Take this Bread, Miles writes about how one day walked into the Episcopal Church of St. Gregory of Nyssa in the Potrero Hill neighborhood of San Francisco.  She gradually drew closer to what was going on in that place. And in receiving Communion, she began to connect the bread of heaven with the bread needed to feed the world.  And so, she got busy, became a Christian, and founded a food ministry that continues to operate from St. Gregory’s.

But there’s an interesting aspect to St.  Gregory’s that helped Sara Miles join God’s dance in that place.  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 their own church, 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.

As amazing as that may sound, when one walks into St. Gregory’s, one feels like one is being invited to join a dance that has begun long before. On the walls and 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.

Was Sara Miles inspired to begin a food ministry by the dancing saints?  Or by the dance of God?  Or by a mixture of those things and others?  Yes, would be my answer.

St. Gregory’s has saints dancing. We have saints around us as too—both in the windows and in the pews.  But on the edge of our pews, we have a reminder that God is dancing and inviting us to join in.

On the edge of each pew at Holy Trinity there is a carved a “shield of the Holy Trinity.” Most of the ones we see in our church just have a design, but if you come up into the choir area, you’ll see pews with words added.  They’re words in Latin, so they might also look a little like symbols.

But the Holy Trinity shield, popular in the Middle Ages, labels each of the circular points with a person of the Trinity:  Pater (Father), Filius (Son), and Sanctus Spiritus (Holy Spirit).  In the middle is the Latin word Deus, for God, and connecting each of the outer circles is a line in which is written, “Non est”, or “is not.”  This shield is a reminder that God is movement, God is dance, God is never standing still—the Father is not the Son, is not the Holy Spirit.  But each of the other circles, (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) “est” or IS God.  The Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God.  The shield, whether with words or without words, is a little like those spinners that kids play with—a blur of action and energy, with direction that’s hard for us to predict.

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 Spirit.  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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