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Sunday, June 11, 2017

The Riddle of the Dance

Trinity Sunday – St. Paul’s; June 11, 2017;
Genesis 1:26-27; Matthew 28:16-20 
Jim Melnyk: “The Divine Dance”

Once upon a time a rabbi was crossing the street in front of an Episcopal Church.  A car came out of nowhere, hit the rabbi and ran on.  A priest comes running out from the church, and seeking to comfort the nearly comatose and quite possibly dying man, begins administering last rites.  The priest asks, “Do you believe in God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit?”  To which the rabbi responds, “Me dying, and he asks me riddles!”

Now, to be perfectly fair – I have listened to my good friend, rabbi Raachel, who has taught and preached at St. Paul’s – speak quite knowledgeably about the Trinity as a way of understanding God – but I still love the story – simply because I’m willing to bet that if asked, we would all have to acknowledge how much Three-in-One and One-in-Three sounds like an incredibly challenging riddle.

 On top of that, Trinity Sunday is a liturgical oddity.  On the surface it’s a Sunday that celebrates a doctrine rather than any saying or event in the life of Jesus, and it’s a doctrine that took three centuries of arguing, and sometimes even fighting, to be finalized.  And it does seem more a riddle than a well-composed and understandable concept.   And while it may have originally been put forth as an ironclad definition of God, any attempt at creating such an all-encompassing definition of God would actually be a form of idolatry.

 Franciscan priest and author, Richard Rohr, reminds us, “Our Speaking of God is a search for similes, analogies, and metaphors.  All theological language is an approximation, offered tentatively in holy awe” (The Divine Dance, p. 27).  And so our understanding of God as Holy Trinity is at best a human metaphor for expressing what we believe to be the essential nature – or the essence – of God.    In the end, what we can begin to say about God as a trinity of persons is that the very nature of God is relationship.          

 Rohr talks about the Holy Trinity as “Divine Dance.”  “Whatever is going on in God is a flow, a radical relatedness, a perfect communion between Three – a circle dance of love.  And God is not just a dancer” writes Rohr; “God is the dance itself.”  And this metaphor for God dates back as far as the early Greek Fathers in the first centuries of the Church who depicted “the Trinity infinite current of love [streaming] without ceasing” (ibid).

Later this morning when you come up for communion, take a moment to look at the icon on the table at the foot of the chancel steps.  This copy of Andrei Rublev’s fifteenth century work is perhaps one of the best known and loved icons of the Holy Trinity.  “There’s a story told that one artist became a follower of Jesus just from gazing on this icon, exclaiming, ‘If that’s the nature of God, then I’m a believer’” (ibid, 29). 

Rublev’s icon portrays the story from Genesis where the Lord God visits Abraham and Sarah (Genesis 18:1-8).  The story tells us that the Lord appeared to Abraham, though what Abraham sees before him is three persons.  In the icon, as in the story, we end up with a vision of “The Holy One in the form of Three – eating and drinking, in infinite hospitality and utter enjoyment between themselves.”  As Rohr puts it, “In the beginning was the Relationship” (ibid, 30).

I’ve had this copy of Rublev’s icon for more years than I can recall, and it seems there is always something new to see when gazing upon it.  As you pass by, note that there is a space left open at the table – a space in which we can hopefully envision ourselves – invited to the divine meal – invited to participate in the divine dance.  And when we look at the icon more closely, we can see a small, rectangular space on the side of the table.  Some art historians believe there may, at one time, have been a mirror glued in that spot – as unusual and out of the ordinary as that may have been.  Why a mirror?  So that the observer might truly see themselves at table with the Triune God – we, as the image and likeness of God, gazing back along with the Divine (ibid, 31).

And so we find out that Trinity Sunday is so much more than a feast day celebrating a doctrine of the Church.  It’s a day that first of all invites us into the holy mystery that is God, and then, in turn, invites us to participate in that holy mystery.  God invites us to join in a meal that has been in progress from before the beginning of time – to join in a dance that has moved among the heavens before the birth of the first stars.  Author and Christian activist Shane Claiborne writes, “God is a holy community…and humanity is created in the image of community…called to belong to each other, to be one as God is one” (ibid, review page).

However, our world struggles with the idea of community, don’t we?  We’re good at it in bits and pieces – a small circle of friends here, a close-knit family there – but we’re pretty good at brokenness as well, aren’t we?  We confess, “We have not loved you with our whole heart.  We have not loved our neighbors as ourselves” (BCP, 360).  It’s gotten to a point where groups of people cannot disagree with each other without villainizing one another.  The wider community struggles mightily when social, political, or religious issues come to the forefront – often times not listening to one another, but waiting for the other person to stop speaking so we can get our two cents in.  I struggle all too often with the desire to roll up my sleeves and jump into the fray over so many things.

Our brokenness – our brokenness as families, as citizens, as a world – is a sin against our own selves as much as it is a sin against the mystery that is the Holy Trinity – a sin against the One who creates us to be in relationship with one another – to be a part of an eternal, cosmic dance – to be guests around a dinner table that has enough seats for ever living creature under heaven.

Perhaps a renewed embrace of the Holy Trinity can become the turning point for the healing of our communities.  As Brother Jim Woodrum of the Society of St. John the Evangelist reminds us, “The mystery of the Incarnation is not an isolated event in history but by the power of the Holy Spirit, is ongoing…” empowering each of us to live into the image of our Creator – allowing each of us to reflect the “life, light, and love” of God to the world (Brother, Give Us a Word, 6/10/2017).        

How differently might we look upon everyone around us if we allowed our image – our understanding – of God to be transformed by Richard Rohr’s language of the Divine Dance?  Instead of the idea of Trinity being a rather strange, abstract riddle it could well be the answer to the brokenness of our twenty-first century relationships.  “Instead of God being the Eternal Threatener, we have God as the Ultimate Participant – God being inherent in life itself” (Rohr, paraphrased) – God always involved rather than standing by ready to pounce on us for our mistakes at any given moment.  Instead of so many Christians feeling the need to protect God from those who believe differently from them, we could become a people who invite others, in all their diversity, to join us at table – to join us in the Divine Dance.

The truth is, any time we try to rationally define the mystery that is the Holy Trinity in purely rational terms it will sound more like a riddle than any expression of reality.  Three-in-One and One-in-Three just doesn’t make sense on the head level – despite however many metaphors Christians have tried to use over the years. 

But if we can begin to see the mystery of the Holy Trinity at the heart of every relationship – and can begin to see relationship as the very foundation for the whole of creation – then perhaps we can begin to change how we all relate to one another in this broken world.  Just imagine – finding ourselves seated around a banquet table with enough seats for every living creature – past, present, and yet to come – every living creature under heaven.  Just imagine – God inviting each of us – all of us – a whole world – into a Divine, cosmic, and eternal Dance – loving us all enough to teach us the steps along the way!

Sunday, June 4, 2017

An Odd Match

Pentecost: Numbers 11:24-30; Acts 2:1-21; John 20:19-23
St. Paul’s Smithfield, NC 6/4/201
Jim Melnyk: "An Odd Match"

At first glance, the Episcopal Church and the Holy Spirit seem like an odd match.  Episcopalians, as a whole, appreciate a set, predictable, liturgy – we want to know what comes next, and most of the time we want it to be the same thing that came last week, and the week before, and the week before that….  For instance, I’m willing to bet there would be more than a few surprised looks among us this morning if I were to invite us to use the contemporary form of the Lord’s Prayer.  The Holy Spirit, on the other hand, is like the wind, Jesus tells us in his conversation with Nicodemus early in John’s gospel.  The Holy Spirit, like the wind, blows where it will, and we recognize it by the observable results of its passing.

To put it another way, the Episcopal Church service is usually a place of steadily measured hymns with music and language from centuries past – sometimes as old as the early centuries of the faith.  The Holy Spirit is Jazz at its most unpredictable best – there’s a melody in there – sometimes hiding itself pretty well – but there’s also music and language going at times where we least expect it.  The Episcopal Church and the Holy Spirit can seem like an odd match.

And yet – and yet – this odd combination seems to work – at least on our best days.  It’s like dark chocolate and sea salt or peanut butter and bananas, or a good piece of classical/jazz fusion.  It may surprise us, but it works.  The neat, predictable, day-to-day, finds ways to break out – surprise our taste buds, perk up our ears, capture our attention, and stretch us in new directions.  The Episcopal Church and the Holy Spirit may seem at first glance to be an odd match – but the truth is, the Episcopal Church, even with all its structure and tradition, has been infused with Holy Spirit from its very beginning – as has the Church as a whole.  The wildness and the warmth – the unpredictability and energy of the Holy Spirit is always there – just waiting for a chance to break free and teach us how to breathe once again.  It’s also true that sometimes, when the Holy Spirit throws in some genuine improvisations, it can become a bit disconcerting and hard to follow – but there’s always a purpose behind the Spirit’s actions.

Pentecost has often been referred to by many—sometimes even by this priest—as the birth of the Church.  But what we actually have on the first Pentecost is more like the birth announcement for the Jesus Movement – a movement inaugurated by the gift of God’s Holy Spirit – the gift of the Spirit of the risen Christ – made alive and freely offered for the whole people of God.  Pentecost is “God’s act of life-giving renewal for the whole of creation” (Don Armentrout) and those who open themselves to the Holy Spirit of God on that first day of Pentecost begin to turn the whole world upside down – or perhaps, we should say, right side up.
What is born on Pentecost is a movement, not an institution. That very reality demands a dynamic, living, breathing entity as opposed to a structure into which we must all be shoe-horned.  The gift of God’s Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost is a gift of life and the empowerment given to each of us, that we might follow Jesus in proclaiming the Good News of God’s love for all people for all time – it is God at work in us through the presence and power of the Holy Spirit.

Pentecost is a celebration of the Holy Spirit of God which will not be boxed in, neatly categorized, or nailed down, despite our human tendency to embrace and get caught up in tradition.  The experience of Holy Spirit in the lives of the first followers of Jesus is so overwhelming it cannot be described in one set way.  John tells us about Jesus appearing to the eleven remaining disciples on Easter Day – we don’t know for sure if there were others with them, but I suspect there were.  Jesus appears among them and breathes upon them saying, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” 

On the other hand Luke, writing in Acts anywhere from ten to twenty years before John, tells us that the disciples, along with more than 100 others – about 120 people all told – are gathered together in one place when the Holy Spirit makes a fiery appearance in the midst of rushing winds.  Two very different stories about the gift of the Holy Spirit to the followers of Jesus, and each one has some comforting words for those of us who follow so many years later.

In John’s gospel, Jesus “walks into a community of failures… the community that betrayed him, denied him,  and fled from him, [the community] that now huddles fearful in a locked room, and he wishes them peace. Peace! [Jesus doesn’t] offer recriminations… excuses, or even explanations—just peace. He breathes the Holy Spirit upon them. He doesn't even say that he forgives them, he just does. And then he gives them the power that each of us still holds over others: [power] to forgive” (Shelley Douglass, Sojourners Online, Preaching the Word, 6/4/2017).  Jesus comes to his first followers – his disciples, his friends, and his family – in the midst of their brokenness, in the midst of their failure, in the midst of their sorrow, in the midst of their pain, and offers them not only peace, but the gift of Holy Spirit – his Spirit – in their lives. That same Jesus offers us that same Holy Spirit – in the midst of our brokenness, failures, sorrow or pain – as well as in the midst of our celebrations and joys.

Luke’s version of the gift of the Holy Spirit is promising as well – in a different way.  The event takes place eight weeks after the resurrection, as about 120 believers are gathered together in one place.  They are celebrating Shavuot, which is called the Feast of Weeks in English, or Pentecost in Greek.  This festival is important on two levels.  It marks the spring wheat harvest, which is important, but it also commemorates God’s gift of Torah to the people of Israel gathered at Mt. Sinai so many centuries before. 

Suddenly there is a sound from heaven “like the rush of a violent wind, and it fills the entire house where they are sitting” (Acts 2:2, paraphrased). “This entrance of the Holy Spirit ‘from heaven’ is Jesus returning ‘in the same way’ he left them, as promised (Acts 1:11). Though this scene has always conjured up images of singed hair and Spirit-slain apostles, the ‘tongues [of fire that] appear among them’ is actually a play on the Greek word glossa, meaning the literal tongue, language, or the capacity to speak. Thus this is the story of being… equipped [as a community] to fulfill the mission to bear witness [for Jesus] ‘to the ends of the earth’ (Acts 1:8) (Kari Jo Verhulst, Sojourners Online, Preaching the Word, 6/4/2017).

When Luke tells us that a tongue of fire “rested on each of them” it’s important to understand that the word we translate as “rested” can also mean “to sojourn [with] or to settle down with” each of the followers of Jesus (ibid).  Pentecost is not a one-and-done event – it’s not “one day only!” sale and then we’re left on our own.  We remember from Exodus that Moses and his people built a tabernacle in the wilderness and God sojourned with them along the way. And the Holy Spirit not only came upon the elders at the tent of meeting – where everyone was supposed to be – like good Episcopalians – but the Holy Spirit also came upon Eldad and Medad back at the camp – totally unexpected and not so much welcomed by everyone.  Solomon built the Temple in Jerusalem, and God sojourned there.  Israel went into exile and God sojourned with her in Babylon. John tells us that in Jesus the Word becomes flesh and tabernacles with us – sojourns with us – dwells with us.  And here, Luke tells us the Holy Spirit comes upon the followers of Jesus and stays with them – stays with us.  And immediately Peter and the others begin to proclaim the Good News of God in Christ.  No time taken for study – no time taken for action plans – or for language lessons – God gives them – God gives us – a Word to proclaim.

Pentecost comes to us in a paradoxical combination of ancient tradition and unpredictable freshness – with the warm breath of a reassuring Jesus, and the wild fire and wind of cleansing newness.  This is how God wants to be in our lives...a strong, deep foundation for our souls on the one hand, and refreshing, cleansing, empowering wind and flame on the other. This is the God who wants to take up residence not only with us, but in us as well.

Pentecost and the Episcopal Church is an odd sounding combination for many – but a combination that honors the roots of our faith, and yet allows us to stretch out our limbs toward the heavens, proclaiming with confidence the life-giving love of God.