Proper 15 – 8-18–2019 – St. Paul’s
Ballet is a form of performance dance whose roots are in fourteenth-century Italy. Over the centuries it has become globally recognized and has formed the foundations of many other kinds of dance. It became shaped by French terminology and technique after Catherine de Medici became Queen of France in 1547. The heart of ballet and the centre of every dancer’s training lies in the five positions in which it is standard to place one’s feet on the floor. First position means pointing the feet flat, touching and turned out; second position is the same, with the feet twelve inches apart; in third position the feet are placed adjacent but in opposite directions with the toe of each touching the arch of the other; fourth position is the same, with one foot twelve inches in front of the other; and fifth position, which is the really difficult one, is similar to third position, but with the two feet entirely overlapping one another. If you can do all five positions, you’re well on the way to being trained in ballet. The point, of course, is not to know what the positions are, but to reproduce them as second nature.
When you first come into contact with Christianity, it can feel a lot like ballet. Not because its practitioners are lithe, talented and disciplined, or because the result is usually melodious and beautiful; but because there’s a lot of technical jargon, much of it in a foreign language, because people seem to be passionate about it and have never got time to explain why, and because it hits you somewhere so deep and so visceral that quite quickly it starts to shape the way you think, and move, and live.
When you read the absorbing roll-call of people of faith in Hebrews chapter 11, it’s like being inducted into a hall of fame – a catalogue of the great ballet dancers since 1400. It makes faith exotic, because it involves conquering kingdoms, shutting the mouths of lions, quenching raging fire, escaping the edge of the sword, being stoned to death, and being sawn in two. But it can give the misleading impression that faith is for superheroes. In fact, the opposite is the case. Like a ballet teacher, I want to walk through the five steps of faith, to explore what it means to join what we could call God’s dance.
First position is, there’s a reality that’s deeper, truer and more permanent than this one. Before about 300 years ago this was a largely uncontroversial assumption. So much of life was unexplained, everyone took for granted it was controlled by unseen forces. But in recent centuries the chain of cause and effect has linked so much of the known universe that it’s become tempting to think it can gobble up everything. When we use the phrase people of faith, this sense of a beyond is pretty much the only thing all such people can agree on. Of course, a lot of people don’t share this conviction. It’s pretty much impossible to prove or disprove. But even ardent atheists in practice often operate out of an aspiration to see beyond appearances, take life further than face value, and live in the light of eternity rather than simply the realm of the five senses. This is the appeal of profound music, love, beauty, poetry: it reaches something beyond mere life. When it’s considered an end in itself it tends these days to take the name spiritual but not religious.
Second position is, that deeper reality is a personal being who has a single overarching purpose – to be in relationship with us. This is a large step from the first one, and quickly dismantles the rather fanciful idea that people of faith all fundamentally believe the same thing. For Christians, first position doesn’t count for much: true faith begins here. Here lies the reason for creation, the sense of a story with advances and setbacks, and a possible ending, when that relationship is completed, celebrated, and enjoyed forever. Here also, more poignantly, emerges a context for love. After all, you can’t love a deeper reality; you can only love one with whom it’s possible for you to be in relationship. This is a vision you can shape your life around.
Third position goes a step further again. That personal being, who constitutes that deeper reality and has that single purpose, is fundamentally shaped to be with us in human form in Jesus of Nazareth, a first-century Jew who dwelt among us, showed forth his glory, died as an outcast, and rose again. This may seem to many a breathtaking leap. Interestingly the gospels, which you’d think would have an interest in taking us gently through first and second position and breaking the news when we were in the right mood to hear it, actually skip first and second position and come right in here. The first words of Mark’s gospel are, The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. No messing there. The resurrection isn’t an optional epilogue to the gospels: the gospels are accounts, written for those who know about and trust in the resurrection, of who this person was and how he came to be crucified. The resurrection is the central moment when our past is redeemed and out future made eternal.
Fourth position maintains that in Jesus we can see the foundation of a new community with God, with one another and with the new creation. The resurrection and the sending of the Holy Spirit are a declaration of God’s faith in the world, because if we were worthless God wouldn’t have given us this opportunity. This means God really intended the church – as an experiment in hope that people could embody and share the resurrected life of freedom, justice, peace and joy – but God also set forth the kingdom, surprising and redeeming the church by letting glory also spring up elsewhere.
And fifth position is that there’s a place in this story that only you can fill, and is waiting for you to step into. All these previous steps remain perfectly valid in their own right, but they only take effect for you if you’re open to this fifth step. And this is where the litany of the faithful in Hebrews chapter 11 comes in. The writer gathers this cloud of witnesses in order to say, here are those who took up the mantle, stepped into their destiny, and entered the story, with remarkable results. There would have been a story without them – God would still have found a way – but how glorious to be one of those who answered the call and fulfilled the purpose of your creation.
Each of us is different and, like a ballet dancer with their own stomach muscles, legs, ankles and feet, each of us is challenged by a different one of these five positions. I don’t think there are many people who move logically through the five positions like a deductive problem-solver. Instead we wonder what our life is for and we want our lives to make a difference and go straight in at number 5 and perhaps work our way back from there. Or we’re captivated by the person of Jesus and move back and forth from position three. Or maybe we believe deeply that there needs to be something more or less like the church and we start working out the rest from position four. And over the course of our lives we can change which of the positions we’re most drawn to and which we find a stumbling block. When people lament that fewer people go to church in this country than 50 years ago, what they’re seeing is that in our generation people seem to find fourth position more problematic than they used to; those people are not necessarily much differently aligned in relation to the other four positions. Perhaps a more general trend is that increasing numbers of people want to keep the first and fifth positions while bypassing the middle three.
The truth is, none of the five positions make a whole lot of sense on their own. How can you want your life to make a difference if you don’t have any notion of the story of which you think you are a part? What’s the point in believing there’s a reality deeper than this one if it makes no difference to anything else you think or do? The phrase ‘blind faith’ is often used as a criticism but it could be a description for holding tightly to one of these five positions while losing contact with the others. By contrast the term ‘simple faith’ is usually used as a compliment but it could be a way of saying that you really connect with one of these positions and you’re happy to let the other four coalesce around you.
The amazing thing about the constellation of the faithful in Hebrews 11 is that even they didn’t uphold all five positions. They all predated Jesus, so they didn’t have number three, or, arguably, number four. But they still went ahead and shut the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, were stoned to death, and sawn in two. And that shows us what really matters about faith. Faith is fundamentally trust in God’s faith in and faithfulness to us. There’s a truth deeper than our being, a love truer than our knowing, a life beyond our comprehending, a community more significant than our experiencing, a purpose more wondrous than our discovering.
Hardly anyone has perfect posture when it comes to all five positions. You’d doubt whether it was genuine if they did. But that’s not the point. Faith isn’t in the end about adhering to certain doctrines, any more than ballet’s about keeping balanced and still. We weren’t made to be sure and right and certain: we were made to dance – to dance with God. And God doesn’t want us to wait like a wallflower until we’re confident of all five positions. God says, Bring what you’ve got onto the dance floor – and I’ll do the rest.
Lord of the vineyard,
we ask for your presence
and your guidance.
In your holy wisdom,
tend the vines of our hearts.
Teach us your righteousness,
that our lives may flower with justice.
We come as wild grapes,
yearning to grow fruitful in your love.
Show us the way, through Jesus your Son,
to discern your will, hear your word,
and grow in your ways,
as we deepen the roots of our faith.
Call to Offering
Instead of wild grapes,
let us instead bring forth our first fruits today
– the best of our best from our pockets and ourselves.
Jesus came to bring fire to the earth.
May our living faith burn like a flame.
May we not lose sight of Jesus
who has taken his place at God’s right hand.
May we turn aside from the easy way,
and always persevere in our decision to follow Christ.
And may Almighty God,
our Creator, Redeemer and Giver of Life
bless you,……. AMEN+