Genesis 1:1-2:4a; 2 Corinthians 13:11-13; Matthew 28:16-20
“Draw Us into the Dance” is the title for the liturgy that I’m using today, liturgy that comes from the Rev. Thom Shuman who writes for the Iona Community in Scotland. I was intrigued by the title and, though the liturgy is wordy, it has an element of movement and dance in it.
“Draw us into the dance,” is the prayer that is implied throughout the liturgy. Yet, how odd it is to think of faithfulness as a participation in dance! Shuman, in this prayer, assumes that the dance is already going on – and we’re to join in.
Why does he choose this as a theme for Trinity Sunday?
Hear Shuman’s words:
“There are all sorts of explanations that might be offered when it comes to the doctrine of the Trinity, all kinds of theologians can be quoted, all manner of creeds and confessions might be affirmed. And – after all that – most of us are still confused.
One image I find helpful is that of the dance – the Holy Community joining hands and joyfully being in relationship with one another. Sometimes, God is the one who keeps the underlying beat going, Jesus might teach a new step that the others had not thought of yet and the Spirit will improvise the tune so that the tempo and rhythm is not always the same. But they are always in step; they are always focusing on one another, even as each is aware of the particular part they play in the dance.
And they want to share that dance with us – to teach us the steps, to help us hear the music.
The Father reaches out in Love, inviting us to dance, to show us those moves called grace, wonder, laughter, peace. The Son connects with us in Love, taking us by the hand to draw us into the dance, whether we are hurting, or angry, or grieving, or broken, or lost. And the Spirit welcomes us, enfolding us in Love, as we are taught to dance with abandon, with kindness, with hope, with gentleness.
And as we dance, we discover that the Trinity is not so much a doctrine as it is a relationship – with us!”
One of my favorite authors is Sam Keen. To quote him (again): “Once upon a time there was an unchanging God who was king over an orderly world…” He was speaking about the faith that had reigned for a long, long time, a faith that was carefully scripted, explained in and through doctrines that got learned, memorized and recited to prove to ourselves and others the truths of the faith. Then, the world intruded and everything seemed to fall apart. The notion of a God who could be contained and defined by our careful doctrines, of a God who was predictable, immovable, constant and unchanging began to falter. Some went so far as to declare God dead.
Keen, writing in the late sixties, noted the cultural upheavals of the day, upheavals that by no means have lessened, but rather grown more intense. The constants in our world showed themselves to be less than fully reliable.
Maybe the sense that the constants we relied on weren’t trustworthy arose as science began to delve into the mysteries of how it is the world, the creation, itself is constructed. We found not solidity, but intricate dance: the dance of electrons around nuclei, the dance within the protons and neutrons of atoms, the dance that scientists call the butterfly effect, telling us that the world is inter-related in ways that boggle the mind.
Movement and energy are the building blocks of reality. Inter-relatedness is an often unacknowledged reality.
What if this movement, energy, and inter-relatedness were reflections of the Divine, the creator?
Simon and Garfunkle had a song, “I Am a Rock.” (Still love it!) It declares an ultimate aloneness. “I am a rock. I am an island.” I think of it as the introvert’s anthem! We live in a society that values self-sufficiency, independence – seeing oneself as the center of our own universe. On Trinity Sunday, we speak of one God – God in three persons – parent, child, and spirit. In that declaration, perhaps we would be well served by focusing less on how that might be possible and more on the fluid nature of God – God who is in constant relationship with God’s very self. That core nature of God – of being a community – becomes the source, the blueprint for the world and human beings.
If we explore the universe, we discover a dance. In atoms, energy is expressed in a choreography that allows the parts to work together and become building blocks. There is the dance of the universe: planets in orbit around suns; galaxies dancing with each other. There is the dance that is the wonder of the human body –each organ with its choreographed responsibility, working together to allow us to see, hear, smell, taste, feel: to allow us to move and think and dream: to invite us into life-giving community with one another and with God.
“I am a rock” ends on a plaintive “a rock feels no pain and an island never cries.” Yes, it is true that a rock feels no pain (as far as we know) and an island never cries. But that sense of aloneness is present. Even the pain and the tears would be preferable to that stark isolation.
There is a vulnerability in God’s dance. God knows that vulnerability in and through the life and death of Jesus. The dance, in our world, is never perfect. We step on one another’s toes. We mis-hear the beat and are out of step with God’s good dance. We choose different music that drowns out the heavenly beat and dance according to our own sense of what is right.
This dance calls us beyond ourselves – to see the world and know that we have a responsibility to it and for it. The dance calls us to recognize those who share the planet with us and care for them, as God does. It calls us to see the creation itself and acknowledge our connection to it so that we may care for it in ways that promote its very healing and wholeness. The dance calls us to mercy, to justice, to reconciliation, to seeking and working for the ways of peace. It calls us to allow ourselves to be wounded and vulnerable and, yes, even wrong, as we strive to hear God’s song and step into God’s dance.
With the title for the service “Draw Us into the Dance,” I thought we had to sing “Lord of the Dance.” The hymn words come from the time when all the assumptions about God were beginning to be challenged and shaken. “Dance, then, wherever you may be. ‘I am the Lord of the dance,’ said he. ‘And I’ll lead you all, wherever you may be. And I’ll lead you all in the dance,’ said he.”
Ann Weems’ poem, based on the hymn, starts:
When they ask what happened here,
We’ll simply say Christ came by
and we learned his dance.
Perhaps Christ learned his dance in the community that is God – Father, Son, Holy Ghost; parent, child, spirit; creator, redeemer, sustainer. The three in a holy dance into which we are invited.
Genesis 11:1-9; Acts 2:1-21
Richard Boyce said that if this story of Babel weren’t in the Bible we would immediately recognize it as “a rumble, a showdown, a battle between two teams.” It’s worse than the battle between David and Goliath. God wins – almost before the battle begins. Here, in this difficult story, it seems that God is lined up against the whole of humanity. No one speaks on behalf of human beings. So, God acted. The presumptuous human beings, who were striving to make a name for themselves -- by building a tower that would reach the heavens – were scattered across the earth. And God confused their language so that they could not readily understand one another.
If we hear the story this way, God seems to be easily offended. If God was angry at some people building a city and tower, what might God think about the world today? Wouldn’t the misdeeds of human beings today put those people to shame?
We have to remember that this story’s origins are ancient. It was used as a way of explaining the existence of multiple cultures and languages. By the time the story made it into the sacred texts, it had theological layers. So, it is one of those stories that we need to address because the picture of God it presents is a difficult one.
We live in the Babel world – a world of divisions. As we get closer to one another, as technology connects us across vast distances, we are finding that instead of a growing or deepening unity, we are increasingly fragmented. Historian Arthur Schlesinger, in the 1990s, was concerned that “tribal interests and ethnic identities would unravel the fragile bonds of unity in culture.” He looked at other countries where such things had happened. In the 1970s people would speak of the TV being a technological advance that brought people together. People were watching the same things. Now, there are so many choices that we may not have any idea what someone else finds entertaining or important. Douglas Doney said, “We are addicted to Babel.” From the story we get many of the values that are prevalent in our society and even in our faith. He suggests that Babel represents individualism. “Rugged individualism is the stuff of Babel. Individual thought is the stuff of Babel.” And it is this Babel mentality that allows injustice to thrive – because the self is the final judge of all things. “Babel is what makes a distinction between rich and poor. Babel is what makes people think they can own other people. Babel is what makes people think they can condemn other people. Babel is what makes enemies.”
The Pentecost Story in Acts has often been understood as an “undoing” of the story of Babel. In this ancient story, the people are scattered and no longer able to speak to one another. With the outpouring of the Spirit, disciples are able to speak the good news in a multitude of languages. Doney says, “The Holy Spirit comes to everyone – the intellectual and the unsophisticated, the committed and the apathetic, the fundamentalist and the pagan, the man and the woman and those in between – and for an instant, they all speak the same language.” (I would suggest, instead, that they all speak languages that allow communication. They speak the same message, not the same language.)
If this new coming together were the continuing reality of the church, we might truly say that Pentecost undid the fracturing of Babel. The Biblical witness appears to point to an early unity in the church. There are stories of everything being held in common and of erasing class distinctions. Some of the accounts may be more wishful thinking than reality. Many of Paul’s letters address the difficulties of putting diverse people together. He challenged the way the Lord’s Supper was treated in some faith gatherings. The rich brought food – but then went home to their own houses to dine. And of course, we remember his challenge to the Galatians that in Christ there is no more male or female, slave or free, Jew or Gentile.
Margaret Aymer noted that we can’t see this story as a “reversal of Babel.” In the Babel story the people move from having one language to having many languages. In this Pentecost story, the disciples are not given “one language.” They are given a multitude of languages so that the good news can be proclaimed to diverse people. Scholar Richard Sheffield said that it is unfortunate that we have loosely come to think of the description of what happened that day as “tongues of fire” resting on each. Instead, we should remain faithful to the Biblical witness that speaks of “tongues, as of fire.” “Divided tongues…better represent the divided tongues, or languages, of Babel.”
Back to the Babel story. Is it a story of judgment?
Scholar Ralph Klein reflected on recent scholarship that offers a very different way of reading or hearing the story of Babel. The new look suggests that the story isn’t about pride and punishment. The people were striving to make a name for themselves. Elsewhere in the Bible that is not seen as bad thing. But, they were driven by fear. They were driven by the fear that if they didn’t build the city (and the tower) they would be separated from one another. They were building their fortress against a fear. Yahweh’s intervention can be read differently as well. Instead of “confusing” their language, it might be translated that Yahweh mixed their language. The story may tell us that “Cultural diversity is the consequence of God’s design for the world, not the result of God’s punishment.” Klein points out that in the story it is the people who crave uniformity (which is different from unity). God wants diversity. Perhaps what they feared was, instead, part of God’s good plan for humanity.
This new interpretation fits well with the Pentecost story. God still embraces the diverseness of the world – and speaks the good news to that diversity.
Sheffield noted that the Pentecost story takes place seven weeks after the crucifixion, when those opposed to Jesus thought they had ended the “nonsense” of his message by putting him to death. They thought they had contained the threat. They had entombed the trouble maker. The tomb was their new fortress against the fears his message engendered.
Pentecost is the story of their nightmare coming true. They were afraid of the consequences of Jesus’ message, so they put the messenger to death. At Pentecost, the message spread “like fire.” We’re told that by the end of the day, three thousand people had heard the message that was Jesus’ life, his words and deeds, and his death. In the story of Babel, the people thought they could keep themselves safe by building a city. Their nightmare, that they would be scattered, came true as God dispersed them on the earth and mixed their language.
What are our worst fears? Where, when and how do we think we need to protect:
When I was in seminary, I worked at a church that sent me and the pastor to a workshop on church growth. The leader had all sorts of diagrams. But, what I remember is his story about bringing in someone new. He told of his church “evangelizing” a woman who worked in a bar. “You have to use her contacts quickly,” he said, “because she will have fewer and fewer friends outside of the church.” They had insisted that she leave her livelihood and find something more appropriate for a good Christian. His goal for conversion was to pull people out of the lives and the circles of friendship they had known – and place them within the fortress that was the church.
Yet, Pentecost startles. The Spirit comes with a liveliness that stirs up, and unsettles, and disrupts. It drives us out of our sheltered existence to encounter the diverse world that is God’s world!
Jenkins says that “the cacophony of voices becomes a chorus of praise, babble becomes communication, and community is fashioned out of potential adversaries.” It is this movement of God – toward the inclusion, the celebration, the welcoming of diversity and difference – that we are invited to join. God calls us to move from the isolation that we sometimes crave to embrace the community of faith that is never contained within walls, or cultures, or even theologies.
Today, we remember God’s dreams for us, for creation are still startling. Sometimes God’s dreams are our nightmares. Yet God’s dreams are born of love and invite us to share in the love.
Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17, 20-21
The Book of the Revelation to John has to be one of the most difficult books in the Bible. It is also called the Apocalypse of John. Now, apocolypticism is, according to the Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, “a type of religious thought which apparently originated in Zoroastrianism [from Persia] and taken over by Judaism in the exilic and postexilic periods.”
One of its primary characteristics is that it depicts a cosmic battle – which, in Christianity, is between God and Satan. It proclaims that though Satan may appear to be winning, God will ultimately prevail. The future – God’s future – will be perfect and eternal and the righteous will be blessed.
This book of the Revelation to John has been interpreted in many ways, through the years and even today. Sometimes, it is seen as an accurate description of how the world will end. There will be a cosmic battle of sorts.
A second way of looking at the book acknowledges the context in which the book was written. Therefore, to understand the book, we need to get into the head and understand what was going on in the author’s world.
A third approach has been to see the images in the book as an “account of the struggles facing the journey to the soul of God.” (New Interpreter’s Bible) A fourth way of interpreting the book – similar to the first – is to see it as a “gateway to a greater understanding of reality, both divine and human, spiritual and political.”
This book cannot be read with an idea that it needs to be decoded. Years ago, I talked with a couple who were convinced that the new UPC codes – you know, the barcodes on everything – were a sign that the world was about to end. “Those codes are going to be tattooed on peoples’ foreheads,” they told me, “so that the government can track us. They are Satan’s sign. When that happens, the world will be about to end!” It is this approach reading of the book that has supported all those stories of a cosmic battle that will take place.
Instead of seeing it as a book to be decoded, we are asked to use a variety of interpretive skills. The book startles, it questions, and it challenges us to look at the world around us in a new way. It is not meant to be taken and interpreted literally. The language is metaphorical and poetic, inviting us to new insights. We might think of the way we look at dreams. I think it was a Dear Abby column recently where someone wrote about having dreams about an ex-boyfriend. “I don’t understand,” she said, “I love my new partner. Why am I dreaming about this former partner?” Dear Abby responded that the dreams were not to be taken as outright truth, but as indicative of something deeper.
Today’s verses are taken from the final chapter – which is also the final chapter in the entire Bible as we know it.
Biblical scholar Paul Johnson wrote about the familiarity of the words. Such familiarity can connect us with deep emotions. But he also notes that within these verses there are instructions. “Blessed re those who wash their robes, so that they will have the right to the tree of life and may enter the city.” Johnson reflected, “It points us away from sky gazing and orients us toward the everyday work of the faithful in ways that can be interpreted both practically and metaphorically. Doing laundry is not glamorous or exciting. It can be mundane and tedious labor. Yet it is necessary.” He presents that as a corrective on the recurring desire to “predict” the end of the world. That emphasis often distracts the faithful from the work of being God’s people. We are all called to ministry – to participating in the life of the community as it bears witness to God in the world. We’re not called to a spectator sport.
Joseph Britton reflected on the invitation that shines through this passage – the invitation to dwell in the place of holiness that is the meeting between the human and divine. The book ends with the invitation to be in that place, to “participate in this divine/human exchange.” It is learning to live in a way that Jewish theologian Heschel describes as compatible with God’s presence. We live as those who recognize that the Divine breaks into ordinary circumstances.
I can hear, in that reflection, parts of the gospel lesson for today. Jesus, in his prayer, points to that place of holiness where there is a meeting of the human and divine. “As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” Perhaps he is saying, “Come, enter into that place of holiness where God is present in the ordinary.”
Now, Jesus’ prayer also spoke of unity. “The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one.” I find that one of the hardest passages to hear. We know that God’s people are fractured. We are divided by our theologies, by our traditions, by race, by class, by culture – even by politics. Churches strive for oneness by excluding those that don’t fit into their understanding of truth. Our own presbytery is facing the departure of quite a few congregations who feel that remaining in communion with the denomination would be sinful. We unite – and then we divide.
Contrast the way we behave with these ending words in Revelation. “Let everyone who hears say, ‘Come.’ And let everyone who is thirsty come. Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift…” Johnson points out the universality of these words. It is a corrective to our tendency to make God’s chosen, God’s elect, God’s welcome particular and narrow. Johnson suggests that when there is talk of washing our robes we are being invited to cleanse ourselves of our own “prejudices and assumptions.” The unity for which Jesus prayed was not something we accomplish on our own. It is something into which we live because it is part of what it means to be compatible with God.
I read Flannery O’Connor’s short story “Revelation,” which explores this very notion. The central character is a woman who is convinced of her own favored standing with God. She spends a lot of time mentally placing people in categories. During a trip to the doctor’s office where she was forced to encounter many whom she judged to be unworthy, she was accused by a young woman (that she had deemed ugly) of being “an old wart hog from hell.” This accusation shook her. She saw herself as a fully good and righteous, Christian woman – one approved by Jesus! As she wrestled with this soul shattering accusation, she had a vision. She saw the purple streak of sunset as a bridge heading to heaven. And on that bridge were all the people she had dismissed as trash. This multitude was singing and clapping and leaping for joy. There followed a group that resembled her. They were marching with dignity. But, she could see that everything they had valued was being burned away. God’s oneness, God’s grace, God’s invitation dwarfed every expectation, every prejudice, every assumption she had made.
This book of the Revelation to John mattered so much to the early church that it became the final words of the Bible. We are to wrestle with its beauty, its challenges, its glorious language and metaphors. It holds the promise that God is present and active in this world – that heaven is not remote. When Jesus prayed that those who believed in him might be where he was, to see his glory, maybe he wasn’t speaking of the world to come, but of his presence in this world. His life was testimony to the reality that the Divine has entered the human realm. Revelation challenges us to live in that holy place where the divine touches the ordinary. It calls us to work in this world, attending to our own faith that we may shed the assumptions and the prejudices that prevent us from seeing the magnitude of God’s grace and redemption. It calls us to work in this world, sharing the good news of that grace and redemption with all. The book speaks of realities deeper than words, of truths that cannot be contained by written words. Yet it invites us to witness to God’s presence as revealed through those words, in the life of Jesus, and in the witness of the saints of yesterday and today.
We need a little background for this morning’s gospel story. Bethseda, a pool in Jerusalem, was a well-known pool, famous as a place of healing. Some texts added an explanation to the story. “In these lay many invalids – blind, lame, and paralyzed, waiting for the stirring of the water; for an angel of the Lord went down at certain seasons into the pool, and stirred up the water; whoever stepped in first after the stirring of the water was made well from whatever that disease that person had.”
We used this story yesterday at the regional presbytery meeting. The passage was printed out and given to each person. The pastor who printed out the version added these extra verses. One person said that they helped. They give us the context. The man’s response to Jesus’ question, “I have no one to put me in the pool when the water is disturbed; while I am getting there, someone else steps into the pool before me,” then makes sense.
As we talked about the story, one element stood out to many – the element of the angel stirring up the waters – disturbing the waters. Healing would take place only after the water had been stirred up. It was a reminder to us that the way of God is not one of being satisfied with the status quo. We’re always called to something new – to a wholeness that eludes us if things stay the way they are.
As I looked at this story, I thought less about what had happened when the angel stirred up the water and more about the assumptions of those who waited for the water to be disturbed by God’s messenger. The man, and all those with him, saw one path to healing – getting into the pool first when the water had been stirred up. Healing was something that was in short supply. (One woman pointed out that only one person received healing.) So, you had to be on top of things to get into that pool first – to get God’s grace. How hard it must have been! The blind would have needed someone to tell them that the water had been stirred up. Others, obviously, needed someone to help them step into those waters.
Yesterday, I was charged with speaking about church vitality. There is an attitude that is prevalent in churches today that we have become “ill.” The church is blind – blind to a changing culture. The church is lame. We limp through our traditional practices and hope that we will get where we’re supposed to be going. And, sometimes, the church is paralyzed – unable to act, to function – to do anything more than merely exist. So, oftentimes we’re passive, expecting someone to take care of us or we sit and wait for some angel to stir up things – and then hope we can be first in the water to find that elusive wholeness. We look for that elusive something that will make us whole again. And, sometimes, it seems that we are fighting for God’s scarce grace.
“Do you want to be made well?” Jesus asked the man who had been sick for so long. “Do you want to be made well?”
Now, wouldn’t we expect his answer to be a resounding, “Yes!”? Of course he would want to be made well. Yet, that isn’t his answer. Instead, he points to the obstacle in his way, the thing that prevents him from being healed. The only path he recognizes, that of descending into the pool when the water is stirred up is out of reach for him. Therefore, he assumes he cannot be “made well.” The path to wellness is constantly blocked. He sort of whines.
I think of the church today that often seems to be in the whining stage. “We would be strong – if more people would come – if they didn’t play golf on Sunday mornings – if kids weren’t doing sports on Sundays – if people would be less self-centered – if people would remember that church matters – if people were moral!” We’re not well. We’re not whole. And it’s easy to blame someone else.
Maybe, if Jesus had said to the man, “Hey, I’m here to take you down into the water when it is stirred up,” he would have answered “yes I want to be made well!” But Jesus didn’t offer to lead him to the waters, the stirred up waters. Because Jesus did not see those waters as the only path to wholeness.
A week ago, I went to a meeting with two experts from the denomination. One, Ann Philbrick, is an expert on church revitalization or church transformation. The other, Vera White, is one of the leaders in the denomination’s endeavor 1001 New Worshiping Communities. Both of them spoke about the need for churches to begin to think outside the box – to embrace the idea that God is working and calling us to work beyond the box that is the church and the box that is our traditions. Like the man at Bethseda, we need to remember that God surprises us by working in ways we might not expect.
We have for a long time operated on the “build it and they will come” mentality. Churches build fancy sanctuaries or hire staff to present slick programs. Some churches have built elaborate campuses that offer gyms, theaters, bowling alleys, fancy youth facilities, and assorted programs to entice people. As I’ve talked to church leaders, I still hear that sentiment that if only they find the right program, the church will grow and find new health.
It’s time to recognize that our wholeness comes not from being locked into particular notions of what the church is to look like and to do. We are to respond to Jesus’ invitation to stand up, pick up the mats, and walk. It was an unexpected invitation. The man was healed as he responded to that invitation. That healing meant that he could move and proclaim what God, through Jesus, had done for him.
The church isn’t in the same world as it was 10, 15, 25, or 50 years ago. It’s not even the same world as a year or two ago. Just think of the major changes in our own society! Now, we could bemoan the changes. Or we could, instead, look for God’s call and God’s presence in a world that is different. If the world doesn’t come the church we’ve always known, how does the church go to where the people are?
I’ve begun reading a book by Diana Butler-Bass that says the church, too often, seems to be sleeping through the revolution around us instead of engaging the world – as Jesus did – and finding ways of proclaiming and bringing God’s presence in new ways that invite a greater and deeper wholeness. Just because people are absent from church does not mean that they aren’t interested in being whole, in finding meaning, in mending the societies in which we live. The failure to engage is as much ours as theirs. In fact, it may be more our failure than theirs because we have not looked beyond what we’ve always know (we have been blind), because we are limping along (we are lame) and because we are paralyzed by our assumptions that God works only in particular ways, through particular structures and people. Jesus says to us, “Stand up, take your mat and walk.”
Christmas Eve Service
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