(a sermon for November 11, 2018, the 25th Sunday after Pentecost, based on 1 Peter 2:1-10)
It’s actually one of the great assurances we’re given in Holy Scripture, and also affirms very succinctly who we are as the church: “Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people.”
Of course, how we got from what we were to who we are now; that’s another story… in fact, it’s the biblical story, and what a story it is!
I love how in his wonderful little book “History, Herstory, Ourstory,” the late Rev. David Steele managed to encapsulate the whole biblical narrative by describing it as a ballet. He wrote that the story of the bible is “about how… God calls people into the Dance. About how [God] works with individuals here, small or large groups there, getting their ears tuned to the music, teaching them the rudimentary steps, putting them in touch with the unique rhythms and movements [God] has implanted in their souls. [And, yes] it’s about how people resist [that call]; how they get tired of practicing; or how they feel burdened with two left feet and just want to watch.”
But, Steele goes on to say, this particular ballet is also about “the patience and persistence of [God], who keeps at the job of getting people ready for that final number, with a cast of billions, where every person holds her head up high, [where] no one is a wall flower, [where] each one dances his unique steps, and the total choreography is so stunning, so intricate, yet so profoundly simple that as we dance it our breath is taken away… the story of the Bible is about the Dance of Life,” concludes Steele, and its music is called the kingdom of God.
Well, speaking as one of those who has perennially felt burdened in his life with two left feet, I appreciate that parable; for it reminds me that at least regarding our faith, we’re all dancers in God’s sight and that we are all meant to be a part of this wonderful ballet that God has lovingly created especially for us!
I know I’ve shared with some of you already that of all the preparations leading up to the two weddings of our daughter and son this past summer and fall, the thing that worried me the most was… the father/daughter dance! Not that I didn’t want to do it; on the contrary, I’d been dreaming of that moment from the time Sarah was born, just as I’ve always known that someday I’d be dancing at my sons’ weddings. It’s just that… I’m not a good dancer; I mean: I’m. Really. Not. A. Good. Dancer! Now, I’ve always tended to blame this on the fact that as a teenager I was pretty shy and very awkward, and so I didn’t go to a whole lot of dances in high school; and even when I did, and for years afterward I was usually in the band, so I wasn’t dancing then either! But any and all excuses aside, the fact remains that I just was never very good out on the dancefloor, and the last thing I wanted to do was to embarrass both myself and my daughter on her wedding day!
The good news here was that my daughter Sarah – the dancer, the dance teacher, the dance choreographer (!) – offered to give me a few lessons so that at the very least I would have a few “dance moves” ready for the reception; and so for several nights the week before the wedding, together with Sarah’s Matron of Honor and my wife Lisa, we practiced hard in our living room – Oillie barking at us the whole time (!) – just to get those moves down! And you know what; come the reception, it actually all was pretty good! The father/daughter dance went very well; Lisa and I enjoyed being on the dance floor together; and though I’ll never be confused with anyone who’s ever been on “So You Think You Can Dance,” it was a whole lot of fun… and it was fun again – and, might I add, a whole lot easier (thank you, Sarah!) – at our son’s wedding reception last month!
But having said all that, here’s the thing that I’d like to say about dancing: the ultimately, you get nowhere doing it! Understand, I’m not speaking here of the choreographed dances that Sarah teaches at the studio, or the routines you might see on “World of Dance.” No, what I’m talking about here is what happens when the music starts up, and you step out on to a dance floor and you start moving to the music: no matter how long the music plays or how long you keep dancing, at the end of it all you end up pretty much at the same place as where you were when it began! But there’s nothing wrong with that; because dancing, you see, is not about reaching a point of destination; it’s about the dance itself! It’s all about the promise of the moment; the rush of your heartbeat; the joy of casting aside inhibitions for just a little while! Dance is about celebration, about laughter shared with a caring partner; about the freedom to be who you really are! And the best part is that when it’s all done, even when you’ve ended up where you started, all you can think about is that you want to go again!
And so it is with the “Dance of Life” that David Steele was talking about there. It seems to me, friends, that so much of the comfort and joy that comes with faith is in what happens along the way.
There are a whole lot of people, you know, who approach their spirituality as though it were for them an intended destination; that is, they approach faith with the attitude that once certain objectives have been met, special goals have been achieved, and specific disciplines are maintained, the will have finally reached that one specific place they wish to be with God, whatever they conceive God to be. Indeed, this is not a terribly alien concept; it’s the focus of many Eastern religions including Buddhism and Taoism, and truth be told, it was a central concern of the Pharisees in Jesus’ time: the idea that the full purpose of life is in discipline directed toward the end of reaching a state of some sort of personal and spiritual perfection.
This is what I mean when I speak of faith as a destination, and a goodly number of Christians knowingly (or unknowingly!) live unto that rule; but understand me when I say to you that it is not a faith stance in which many people find satisfaction and fulfillment. In fact, it’s been my observation as a pastor that for people like this, the ultimate destination always seems to be just a few steps beyond where they are; that perfection, whatever that means always seems to waiting beyond the next horizon. God’s righteousness, his acceptance and his love; for them it’s always somehow dependent on that “that one more thing” they need to do, that final change in behavior or lifestyle or identity that’ll make everything alright.
I had a parishioner many years back who I would consider and did consider to be a very faithful man. But he also never seemed to be all that comfortable or even happy in his faith; because where faith was concerned, by his own admission he’d never felt as though “he gotten there.” It’s not that he was brand new to things related to faith: he’d in fact grown up with a strict religious upbringing that belied an unsettled home life; and once he was old enough to be out on his own, he’d abandoned the church completely for years. Only when he was on his second marriage and his youngest daughter was born did he make a cautious reentry into a relationship with God.
The interesting thing is after so many years away from the church, he jumped right in. He became very active in the congregation I was serving; he was one of my chief cheerleaders for a lot of projects, led Bible Study, and eventually even took a two year course in lay ministry. He was a pilgrim in the best and truest sense of the word: but he was never happy. In one way or another, he was always struggling with faith; not so much about having faith, but rather about what it meant to have faith, and being faithful. Maybe it was his upbringing that held him back; perhaps it was his own lack of self-esteem or a lingering fear that God was judging him for who he was or for what he’d been in the past; I was never sure, and neither was he. But I will say he always used to say to me, usually with a touch of sadness in his voice, “I’m a long way from where I was, but I have a long way to go.”
At one point he went out and bought himself a very nice, leather-bound Bible; one that he went on to read cover to cover, a chapter at a time, a couple of times over; and one that he asked me to inscribe for him. And though even to this day I’m not always sure what to write on the inside of a Bible (I always get this looming sense of impending posterity when I think too long about things like that!), I knew just what to write for him: I included a couple of verses that I knew held some meaning for him, but then below those verses, I wrote the words, “Remember that faith is a journey, and not a destination.”
Faith is a journey. Faith is the dance borne out of love received and acceptance given. It’s about being claimed by the God who loves you for who you are right here and right now. It’s about freedom from the worldly powers and values that shackle us and hold us back; it’s being freed to truly be the people that we’ve always been intended to be. Faith is about being led in God’s Dance; where you live in the world, but you’re not of the world and because of this the music of Life pulsates through every fiber of your being; it’s what sets your feet to motion and makes your spirit soar; it’s the music of that proclaims that the kingdom of God is dwelling within you!
Or, as Peter wrote to those early Christians who themselves wondered where their faith was taking them: “…you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.”
The good news, beloved, is that God loves us! God really does love us as we are, and where we are! And that’s even considering that God has already seen our awkwardness as we’ve tried out our various “life dance” moves with some modicum of grace and dignity. Oh, yes, God sees our failures and our rebellion, to say nothing of our self-imposed moral lapses,; and yet God is not embarrassed to call us daughters and sons. Even as we’re struggling with how we can dance without looking like a fool, here’s God coming take our hand and so that he might lead us in in the dance; helping us not to stumble, but picking us up when we do; lovingly reassuring us so that we might understand that sometimes even a little foolishness is the way we learn!
But here’s the best part: God loves us so much that he wants us to know that we’re not going to be dancers someday – that is, if we ever learn the right steps, or if we ever get the rhythm right in our heads – no, God loves us so much that he assures us that we’re dancers now! We’re dancers of light, beloved; we’re God’s own chosen people, sent forth in love with the promise that whenever in faithfulness we dance the Dance of Life to the music of the Kingdom of God, it will be a beautiful thing indeed!
“Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people.” That’s who we are, beloved, and as God’s people we are also dancers, each and all; and it’s good that we take a moment to remember that. Truly, we are as The Message has translated this passage, “God’s instruments to do his work and speak out for him.”
So… in the words of the hymn we’re about to sing:
So, dance then, wherever you may be.
I’ll lead you all in the dance, said he.
I’ll lead you all wherever you may be.
I’ll lead you all in the dance, said he.
“Lord of the Dance,” words by Sydney Carter
Praise be to the Lord of the dance, and may our thanks ever and always be to God!
AMEN and AMEN!
c. 2018 Rev. Michael W. Lowry