The Zen Roshi Shunru Suzuki was once asked for a two word definition of Buddhism and he said, “Things change.” If I were asked to define Christianity in two more words, I would say, “Keep Dancing.”
Because there is something deep in the rhythm of our faith journey that is a kind of dancing: in seasons of feast and fast, in penance and thanksgiving, with both long journeys lost and a great homecoming, with birth and death and pain and pleasure and the cross and resurrection, as the sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving cuts all across our common life in Christ: I think that’s the heart of it.
It happens even in the silent times when nothing is supposed to happen: those of us who attempt a meditation practice know the various swings between taking in and letting go, receiving and relinquishing. losing track and starting again.
But that two-step dancing rhythm is certainly found all over the Scripture and the Tradition we follow and is close to the heart of the Gospel: even in the very Summary of the Law….
'Hear, O Israel... You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength…This is the first commandment and the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these..."
So you can see one love moving in several directions, dancing and then dividing a number of ways. Thomas Merton used to tell his students in the monastery, “You have to know you have a heart before you can give it away.” There too, the alternating rhythm, the sense on one side, of being close to God, being seen by God, loved by God deeper than we know ourselves (and knowing that love to be the centre of it all) — and on the other side the difficult vocation of knowing you have a heart in order to hand it away.
So, both focussing on heaven, the upward call of Christ, as well as on the horizontal call to see and hear and connect with your nearest and farthest family and neighbours in a self-giving, heartbreaking charity and clarity. Thats the dance of the twofold gift: to take it all in and to give it all away.
So today Jesus, this sign of God’s love, comes to us not only to be, as Augustine writes, closer to us than we are to ourselves, and to bring us to ourselves, but also “to bring fire, baptism, stress until it is finished, not peace but division.”
And we're not used to that and well might you think, “Wait!” What about “my yoke is easy and my burden light,” What about “casting your cares on Jesus”, What about, “I call you my friends?” If all that is true, then what about this other side of this two-step Jesus, who comes “to bring fire… baptism… stress… until it is finished… not peace but division.” Wait.
And Jesus said, “From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three...: father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”
As Miss Bette Davis says, in the film, All About Eve, “Fasten your seat-belts, it’s going to be a bumpy night!” Because today Jesus is coming to forecast a confusing time. But I think that this very demanding confusion is the most hopeful and deepest and closest call for the church today: to recall we have a heart in order to give it away just as we have to keep dancing with loving God and loving our neighbours as ourselves.
For as God in Christ continues to join us in exploring what it means to be human and, in that company, can we continue to explore what God and the church might mean in a world where more and more people are less and less interested in any possible definition of religion or relationship, with anything that might be called a God of meaning and mystery, a God of life and love?
I have a working two-fold answer from the early fourth century and the Bishop of Alexandria. Athanasius wrote that God becomes human so that humankind might become God. You can dance with that a little so that it turns into: “God becomes human so that humankind might become truly human.” Jesus joins us in the very complex middle of the human dance so that we might come to know there really is no place on our journey where we can overlook the possibility of God’s presence in our very human lives, even in all the muck and mystery; that, in fact, there is where the dance is!
This leads to further questions like what Thomas Merton writes:
“Am I sure that the meaning of my life is the meaning God intends for it? Does God impose a meaning on my life from the outside, through event, custom, routine, law, system, impact with others in society? Or am I called to create from within, with God, with God's grace, a meaning which reflects God's truth and makes me God"s “word” spoken freely in my personal situation?
My true identity lies hidden in God’s call to my freedom and my response to God. This means I must use my freedom in order to love… not merely receiving a form imposed on me by external forces, or forming my own life according to an approved social pattern, but directing my love to the personal reality of my [sister and my] brother, and embracing God’s will in its naked, often impenetrable mystery.”
Maybe this has to do with Mother Teresa of India saying that, “The problem with the world is that we draw our family circle too small.” For with almost 1 .7 billion people on the planet maybe the family is divided more than three against two and two four against three and we need to work and pray with these larger numbers.
And maybe this connects to what the German pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote this from a Nazi prison before he was assassinated in 1944:
'I'm still discovering right up to this moment, that it is only by living completely in this world that one learns to have faith. … I mean living unreservedly in life's duties, problems, successes and failures, experiences and perplexities. In so doing we throw ourselves completely into the arms of God.’
Can you see that might just be where worship meets the world? As we often say, “We offer ourselves to you as a living sacrifice through Jesus Christ our Lord. Send us out in the power of your Spirit to live and work to your praise and glory.” Again, there the dance is!
Let’s finish with a prayer from the Gelasian Sacramentary, circa 750AD. Let us pray:
O God of unchangeable power and eternal light: Look favourably on your whole Church, that wonderful and sacred mystery; by the effectual working of your providence, carry out in tranquility the plan of salvation; let the whole world see and know that things which were cast down are being raised up, and things which had grown old are being made new, and that all things are being brought to their perfection by him through whom all things were made, your Son Jesus Christ our Lord; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen