Sunday, June 15, 2014
I grew up with a Preschool Music Teacher as a mother. Every time we got into the car it was an opportunity for her to do research with my brother and me as test subjects. We have heard more children's music tapes than you would believe even exist.
The song that has stayed with me most is Tom Chapin's "Great Big Words," which extols the virtues of excessively ponderous verbiage, or as the song's chorus puts it: Great big words, I like big words.
On a Sunday celebrating the trinity, one runs into a bunch of Great Big Words. I think this is largely because the trinity is one of descriptions of God that we can only understand by faith, because mortal minds can't wrap around the bigness of our God in three persons, who is still one God, and yet each person is also the full expression of God. Western Theologians have sought for generations to find an image that adequately portrays the Trinity, and nobody has succeeded. Every image either leans too far towards "God is one" or "God is three" So we professional theologians hide behind our big words so that we can look smart even while we admit that God is greater than our ability to describe God.
Today's sermon title is one of those big words: Perichoresis.
Having grown up singing songs about liking big words, and then majoring in English at Presbyterian College, I've become one of those people who talks about grammar and stuff for fun. So I'm going to take down the big-word mask and break it up so I can't hide behind it.
Perichoresis is the word you get when you mash "perimeter" and "choreography" together. One is the measurement around something, the other is dancing. Perichoresis, therefore, is dancing around together. We get it from the Eastern branches of the Christian Church, who use the image of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit dancing together to grab hold of the mystery of the trinity.
The dancing trinity shows how closely and joyfully the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit work together, and that's the image I want us to hold in our Genesis passage. "When God began to create the heavens and the earth, the earth, being unformed and void, with darkness over the surface of the deep and the Spirit of God sweeping over the water." Already the dance has begun, sweeping back and forth over the world before it even existed.
The word-lover in me is excitedly caught up in how artfully our Genesis passage is woven together. The shape of this creation story as first God builds and then fills creation, placing the capstone of God's blessing as God rests on the sabbath day. The way all the components relate with one another fills the Creator with joy. It doesn't just tell a story, story itself dances within the text, taking familiar steps each day: beginning each day with "God said..." and ending each one with "And there was evening, and there was morning..." The first three days God separates and creates space, light is separated from dark, the waters are separated by an expanse, and dry land is separated from water. Then in the next three days the sky is filled with greater and lesser lights, the sky and sea are filled with birds and fish, and the dry land is filled with all manner of animal life, including us!
Then on day seven, the dance moves we learned from days one through six are capped off with a blessing, with sabbath, with rest, "The heaven and the earth were finished, and all their array. On the seventh day God finished the work that he had been doing, and he ceased on the seventh day from all the work that he had done. And God blessed the seventh day and declared it holy, because on it God ceased from all the work of creation that he had done."
My Dad is a woodworker, always tinkering with some project or another in his shop. As soon as I was old enough to listen when I was told "Don't touch, you'll hurt yourself" he started inviting me to come help him on whatever project he was working on at the time. I might be reading or watching television and he would walk past and say "How about giving me a hand?" There was always an understanding that he would still love me if I said "No," but I usually jumped up from what I was doing anyway.
We would work for a while, sometimes until we were at a convenient stopping point, sometimes the stopping point came when Dad was frustrated and needed to walk away before he smashed the project into a thousand pieces.
Once we were done for the night, he'd pour himself a glass of wine and we'd sit out on the back porch, resting because our work for the day was done. We still work in the shop together when we visit one another. These days I'll have a glass as well, and that's the image I have of sabbath: a couple of people, lightly dusted with wood shavings, sitting with their feet up talking about the world after a long day of work.
Even holding up the images of Sabbath rest and the dancing trinity, this bible story is still very familiar. I've read this bible story more times than I can count, I've even preached on it before at an evening prayer service. Every time I read it through the words of Paul's letter to the church in Rome, "God speaks into being things which do not exist." God says "Lights!" and suddenly from everywhere and from nowhere, light floods the scene. But this time I noticed something different: "Let there be..."
In this passage, God's creative word is an invitation. "Let there be..." And at God's creative invitation, light, and an expanse, and dry land, and vegetation, and lights, and swarms of living creatures, and every kind of living creature, and people, all joyfully leap into existence.
In a world where folks very seriously and sternly debate precisely how the cosmos came into being, and the timetable in which it happened, the idea of joyfully answering God's invitation sweeps the perspective so far that we almost don't know it when we see it. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are having so much fun dancing together that God wants more dance partners! They say "Dance with me!" and light suddenly dances across the darkness, land dances between the waters, birds dance in the air, fish in the sea, animals dance on land and God sees that it is good!
Then God gets an idea: "And God said, 'Let us make [people] in our image, after our likeness. They shall rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, the cattle, the whole earth, and all the creeping things that creep on earth.' And God created a human in his image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them."
Just by being people we are answering God's invitation to dance alongside the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. But because we are created in God's image, we are able to join participate in what God is doing in so many other ways, and we can celebrate each other the way the three persons of the Trinity joyfully dance around together!
This church is one body, but "none is the full image of God alone. Only in community of humankind is God reflected." We each are invited to dance alongside God, and none of us can see the full image of God in our own dance, no matter how sweet our dance moves may be.
Each summer for the last several years, I've been invited to serve on staff at Tri-Cities Workcamp, which is sort of a mix of church camp and mission trip. During the day, youth are sent out into inner-city Petersburg to do home repair in some of the most run-down neighborhoods in the city. After their daily work is done, we come together to share a meal and do an evening program. As the night draws to a close and we get ready to send the campers off to dessert and then to sleep, we invite a few folks to come forward and tell the whole camp where they saw God that day.
There's always a moment or two of silence, and then someone who has come to Workcamp for years will pop up, stride over to the stage and share their experience of God, and how they were able to participate in God's continuing acts of creation. Then another camper, perhaps a little younger, a little less sure of themselves, will take their place and share as well. And the kingdom of God gathered in that place will celebrate both of their stories, clapping and joyfully shouting even before they make it to the microphone because the invitation has been answered.
Workcamp is one of those communities where I have seen a slightly clearer image of God. This church is, and will be, another community where our congregation, and others around us, can see the image of God, sweeping over the waters, dancing through creation, joyfully doing the work God invites us to do!
But like all people, and all communities, we're broken. We're a little afraid of looking silly when no one else seems to be joining the dance. It's so much easier to stand at the edges and watch what God is doing than to answer the invitation ourselves. We don't even fully understand what God is doing. We only have access to a piece of the greatness of God, a small part of the dance that God has chosen to share with us. It's more comfortable to hide behind our big words, even if it means trading joyful faces for stern looks.
When we got so wrapped up that we could not recognize the image of God, God the Son, the Word spoken at creation, came to us to get us out on the floor! We know him as Jesus of Nazareth, God-with-us, the Word made flesh. Just as God created people in God's image so that we could share relationship with God, so we are created anew through the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ. Jesus brings us back into communion with God. After the resurrection, Matthew's gospel tells us a story of a new invitation to participate in what God is doing in the world.
"Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus told them to go. When they saw him, they worshipped him, but some doubted. Jesus came near and spoke to them, 'I've received all authority in heaven and on earth. Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey everything that I've commanded you. Look, I myself will be with you every day until the end of this present age.'"
Still learning to dance, still learning to joyfully leap into the world where God is at work, some of the disciples doubted. They were so used to their brokenness they didn't know how to live in a world made new by the God who was dancing around it. Maybe they still saw themselves as broken, or couldn't accept that God loved them anyway. Maybe they didn't understand how God was still able to work after Jesus had been killed on a cross. Maybe they would rather hide behind big words than admit they didn't really know what was going on.
But even when we don't get it, even when we can't find the beat and our dance moves are terrible, God still extends the invitation, because it's not about who's the best dancer, it's about answering God's invitation to join in the work of the kingdom. It's about joyfully living as people created in the image of God. God's sovereignty is an invitation to communion with God. In a broken world that is still distorted by sin, "the good news is that life in God's well-ordered world can be joyous and grateful response."
So even though we know only in part, "We take a fragmentary community, fragmentary faith, a fragmentary understanding of the Trinitarian God, and we go into the world with everything Jesus has taught us." One day we will know fully, even as we are fully known.
God is dancing around the whole of creation, and is inviting us to dance alongside the Perichoresis. How will you answer God's invitation to join the work of the Kingdom of God?
Here's one suggestion from a guy named Jesus: "Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey everything that I've commanded you. Look, I myself will be with you every day until the end of this present age."
Kind of makes you want to dance, doesn't it?