St. Thomas Evangelical Lutheran Church

3800 East Third Street

Bloomington, Indiana 47401

(812) 332-5252


Sermon for Holy Trinity (May 22, 2016)

Liturgical Color: White

Reverend Doctor Lyle E. McKee


A Dancing Fellowship

Grace to you and peace from our loving God, from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, and from the Spirit who binds us in community. Amen.

Several years ago, I organized a group of pastors and got a grant to study the church's response to urban sprawl. We were four Lutheran and four Episcopal pastors in Indianapolis working in urban settings and troubled by the many urban problems such as concentrated poverty, segregation, violence, land use, and per capita carbon footprints.

We travelled to and studied several cities, including Mexico City, one of the largest urban centers on the planet; Portland, Oregon, known for its progressive urban planning policies; Albuquerque, New Mexico, for water policy; and San Francisco, California to look at the intricacies of a megalopolis and to consult with Lutheran and Episcopal theologians in Berkeley. It was in San Francisco that we stopped at a church that caught our imaginations. Visiting our denomination's intriguing congregations in the places of our study was part of the process. But what I recall most about this particular congregation had nothing directly to do with our objectives; it had to do with some of the features of a really fascinating and unique place—St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church.

As one enters this church, one comes into a large octagonal room, perhaps the size of our Heritage Hall. In the center is a baptismal font, and it becomes clear that this entire space is the congregation's baptistery (at least at the time of our visit). On the walls of what they now call the rotunda are icons of various saints, many of them recognizable, with a few surprises. Yes, there are King David and St. Francis of Assisi. But also depicted are Martin Luther, Malcolm X, Anne Frank, Margaret Mead, and Mahatma Gandhi—people from many fields of endeavor, every time, and many faiths. These saints and sinners hold hands in the circle of the walls, and it becomes clear that they are dancing. Those who stand do soon their right leg, bent at the knee. The left knee is drawn up over the right leg in what is clearly a dancing pose.

The saints and sinners of time and eternity dance together. It was, even in its unfinished version back in the late 1990s, strikingly infectious. The icons weren't completed until 2009. You can view them online.

Today, as you know by now,is Holy Trinity Sunday. So why am I talking about dancing icons?

Well, I believe that what is most important about belief in a triune God is not that we experience God in three ways, but that we understand God within the nature of God as dynamic community or, as my sermon title suggests, a dancing fellowship.

All who have loved know something of this reality. A friendship between two persons may "exist" for days or for years; the relationship is there, but it may be static. Then, suddenly it changes, and the interpersonal situation comes alive with intense emotion and empathy. Lover and loved are one. Individuals shine and actually discover themselves in the love of the other. Their caring is so deep and full that it spills over into the lives of family and friends, and we cannot be in their presence without being touched by that love. As we have been touched here at St. Thomas by the love that has grown between our beloved Juan Carlos, our Adult Choir Director, colleague, and friend for more than three years, and Evelyn, our beloved soprano, cook, event planner, and friend. Sorry. I had to mention them. They will be sorely missed on this final Sunday of J.C.'s choral direction among us. But we revel in their upcoming nuptials.

Okay. So, to believe in a God as Trinity is to suggest that there is an inner relational energy within God that spills over into the Christian life in this kind of way, a way of interplaying, community-dancing, love.

You see, John of Damascus, an eighth century theologian, describes this understanding of God by proposing that there is an exchange of energy between the persons of the Trinity by virtue of their eternal love. The unity of the Trinity is not static; it exists as open and loving community. John of Damascus uses the Greek word "perichoresis" to describe what is going on within God. "Perichoresis" comes from the same root as the word "choreography." It suggests that there is an active, circulatory character within the eternal divine life.

If you've ever been to a Greek wedding, or you remember Zorba the Greek, you know something of their distinctive way of dancing. It too is called perichoresis. There aren't only two dancers, but three or many more. They go in circles, weaving in and out in a beautiful pattern of motion. They then move faster and faster and faster, while maintaining their rhythm and synchronicity. Eventually, the dancing becomes a blur. Their individual identities are part of a larger dance. The early church fathers and mothers looked at that dance (perichoresis) and said, "That's what the Trinity is like." It's a harmonious set of relationship in which there is mutual giving and receiving. Perichoresis is the dance of love. That's what's going on in the iconography of the upper walls of the rotunda at St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco. A perichoresis. A fellowship of dance.

When we worship a triune God, we celebrate the love that flows in God's eternal dance of togetherness-adance we know through Jesus Christ, the Lord of the dance.

I considered having us sing a song that came to mind as I was writing the sermon. Some of you may remember it as being popular in the 1960s. It's called "Lord of The Dance" and was written by Sydney Carter. It has many stanzas. Here are the first and final (sing)

I danced in the morning when the world was young

I danced in the moon and the stars and the sun

I came down from heaven and I danced on the earth

At Bethlehem I had my birth

Dance, dance, wherever you may be

I am the lord of the dance, said he

And I lead you all, wherever you may be

And I lead you all in the dance, said he

They cut me down and I leapt up high

I am the life that will never, never die

I'll live in you if you'll live in me

I am the Lord of the dance, said he

Dance, dance, wherever you may be

I am the lord of the dance, said he

And I lead you all, wherever you may be

And I lead you all in the dance, said he

About this song, Sydney Carter wrote:

"I see Christ as the incarnation of the piper who is calling us. He dances that shape and pattern which is at the heart of our reality. By Christ I mean not only Jesus; in other times and places, other planets, there may be other Lords of the Dance. But Jesus is the one I know of first and best. I sing of the dancing pattern in the life and words of Jesus.

"Whether Jesus ever leaped in Galilee to the rhythm of a pipe or drum I do not know. We are told that David danced (and as an act of worship too), so it is not impossible. The fact that many Christians have regarded dancing as a bit ungodly (in a church, at any rate) does not mean that Jesus did.

"The Shakers didn't. This sect flourished in the United States in the nineteenth century, but the first Shakers came from Manchester in England, where they were sometimes called the "Shaking Quakers". They hived off to America in 1774, under the leadership of Mother Anne. They established celibate communities - men at one end, women at the other; though they met for work and worship. Dancing, for them, was a spiritual activity. They also made furniture of a functional, lyrical simplicity. Even the cloaks and bonnets that the women wore were distinctly stylish, in a sober and forbidding way.

"Their hymns were odd, but sometimes of great beauty: from one of these (Simple Gifts) I adapted this melody. I could have written another for the words of 'Lord of the Dance' (some people have), but this was so appropriate that it seemed a waste of time to do so. Also, I wanted to salute the Shakers.

"Sometimes, for a change I sing the whole song in the present tense. 'I dance in the morning when the world is begun...'. It's worth a try." (From Green Print for Song, Stainer & Bell, 1974)

I think that Carter got it right, and that Jesus did leap and dance to the rhythms of ancient Galilee. I believe that God is dancing around the cosmos, altering the tune and the steps to conform with what is best at any given time and place. I believe that the Trinity dances here among us now.

A true doctrine of the Trinity contains the vision of a community of women and men in church and society without privilege or distinction joined together in a resurrection dance, putting evil and tragedy to flight and ushering in peace, harmony, and justice. A true doctrine of the Trinity asserts that seriously playful and playfully serious relationship is fundamental to God and that a perichoreticcommunity is the foundation of God's interaction with the world.

Understood in this way, the doctrine of the Trinity itself calls us to care for one another as well as enjoy one another. Even the very nature of God represents an ethic of justice, caring, and joy. Like the various expressions of God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Creator, Reconciler, and Advocate—we and every member of the community have equal worth and equal place in the dance circle. Everyone is appreciated, honored, celebrated, and included. No one is left out.

Ours as Christians is a dance of life in this world. The relationships among the persons of the trinity—dynamic, interactive, loving, serving, joyful—form the model for our dance steps too. Through the Gospel, we have been brought into the dance with our dancing God. We witness to the joy of God through the dance of life in a world that seems to have forgotten how to dance. We gather to dance in the spirit and with wisdom. We go forth to dance with compassion and justice. The Christian life is a dance of being gathered, nurtured, and sent. God is a dancing fellowship. And so are we!

Will you dance with me? Since our hymnal has a related tune, let's use that one. It's number 412, "Come, Join the Dance of Trinity." Perhaps a few of you will come forward and I'll teach you a simple dance step, and we'll dance to a verse of this hymn before we all sing it together. Feel free to dance in place as you sing. And we'll join those icons at St. Gregory in the eternal dancing fellowship. Amen.

May this God, who is more than we can imagine—whose being itself calls us into a just and compassionate dancing fellowship with one another, bless us and keep us in this holy communion. Amen.

 

 

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