“Dance in the Joy of Uncertainty”
Rev. Phillip Blackburn
June 21, 2020
The Trinity. Sigh. Most of us who have been in the church a long time have heard lots of talk of the Triune God; Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The Trinity has been a bedrock theological doctrine for around 17 centuries or so, give or take. And yet the Trinity is not something easily understood or explained. What is it? Do we believe in 3 Gods? Does this mean we aren’t monotheists? There are a million questions one can ask about the Trinity, and if you are interested in those I strongly advise you check out Tasha’s Sunday School class today. I am going to try to keep our conversation out of the weeds.
This means a couple of things. First, I am going to simplify. A lot. But second, I am going to try to tell you about the doctrine of the Trinity with a story…or stories. This summer we are focusing on the power of stories. The idea was that we would use personal stories of experiences we have had with our faith to unpack key theological doctrines. For this particular doctrine, however, telling a personal story is difficult. I don’t have a personal story about the Trinity per se. At least, not one that words can adequately capture. So I am going to tell you a story that, at first blush, may not sound all that Trinitarian. But in the end I hope it’s utility will be evident.
My story begins 18 years ago. Tasha and I were concluding our year in Edinburgh, Scotland. It was August and we were due to return to the states very soon. Since January we had been working at a little church in the working class neighborhood of Edinburgh called Leith. The church, St. Margaret’s, had been in that location in some form since around 1100 AD. Welcome to European Christianity. But now it was a wee thing, as the Scots might say. About 40 people gathered each Sunday. They met in the church hall because someone had set fire to the sanctuary the previous summer and it was under repair. But Tasha and I had loved them. So on this particular night they were throwing us a going away party…a Ceilidh. What is a Ceilidh, you ask yourself? Well, it is a traditional Scottish festive event which is built around song, poetry, and this is the tricky bit, dancing. If it helps, you can think of it as a Gaelic square dance. So we were having an honorary Ceilidh.
Now, a couple of things about this. First, I had to wear a kilt. I had no kilt so one was loaned to me. If you come to my house there is a photo of me in said kilt tucked away, you can look for it if you like, but I won’t be pointing it out. And second, and this was the real trouble for me on the night, I had to dance. It should surprise none of you to know that I am a terrible dancer. And yet on this night I suspected that sitting the festivities out would not be an option. So I recall going into the church hall with some trepidation. Was my kilt on correctly? What would happen at this ceilidh? And most importantly, would I have to dance.
In short, the answers turned out to be, in order: 1) Yes. 2). Awesomeness. 3). Regrettably yes. When the dancing began I was pulled onto the floor and enveloped in a whirl of bodies. People young and old, mostly old, whipped past me with flourishes. The little band up on the stage belted out what I later understood as the ceilidh playlist, rife with 100 year old ditties. In the meantime, kilts spun, I stumbled, and the dance continued.
It was the synchronization that was the most remarkable to me. The ways in which people seemed to instinctively know what to do, where to go, when to bounce, that left me in awe. People who I had only witnessed in repose were now whishing around the church hall, leaping from one partner to the next. And I was doing my best trying to learn on the fly; simply trying to keep my head above water. So as the night wore on, and the poems were recited, and the hugs and well wishes were made, it was the dance itself that held the whole thing together. Without it an evening full of warmth and energy would have been rendered rote and perfunctory.
I have never danced at another ceilidh, but I am glad I danced at that one. I didn’t know what I was doing, but everyone else did, and they drug me along. And now I feel it is my obligation to tell you the point of that story. Way back in the seventh century, as theologians tried desperately to explain the trinity, they came up with a Greek word: perichoresis. Roughly translated, it means to dance around. The theologians imagined that the relationship between Father, Son and Holy Spirit was an initiate dance, performed perfectly over the millenia. They saw the Triune God moving in harmony within Godself, dancing gracefully, doing the work of creation, redemption and sanctification. The perichoresis, a dance that spans the ages, capturing the grace of God.
The word Trinity never appears in Scripture. But nowhere is the doctrine more evident than at the end of Matthew. The risen Christ charges his disciples to go into the world and make more disciples, and then to baptize them in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This baptismal formula has been used by the Church since the beginning. It was uttered as water was splashed on my head and yours, and your great grandparents, and their great grandparents. And in it we are baptized and brought into a new relationship with the Triune God.
We are, in essence, pulled onto the dance floor. The Father, Son and Holy Spirit flitting around us, showing us the steps, helping us to keep up. Over the course of our lives there will be moments, and you know them in your own life or else you would not be listening to this sermon, there will be moments when you feel as though you are in step, in sync, finally with the dance that is happening around you. These moments are moments of grace, where in that instant our hearts, souls, minds and bodies seem to join into the flow of eternity.
When we were on sabbatical in Scotland a few years ago we walked past the village hall in Plockton. Inside we heard music and we looked in and we saw a class happening. There were a couple of adults and a bunch of junior high kids, and they were being taught the songs and dances of the ceilidh. I would love to tell you they all looked thrilled to be there, but they were teenagers so you know better than that. But what I can tell you is that as we watched you could see their limbs beginning to move, their feet lighten. They were learning the dance. They were yet another generation being pulled onto the floor, learning how to join the dance. Amen.