The Purpose of Liturgy: 2. The Divine Dance

March 8, 2020 Lent 2

Last week we began our Lenten series on our Sunday worship. We spoke about the idea of liturgy: a structured pattern of action and meaning that forms our hearts and our values as we participate in it. We are shaped as people not so much by the ideas we talk about, but by the things we do together. Our daily lives are shaped by many different patterns of behaviour, from family dinners to curling night to a visit to the mall. Each of these is more than just a practical or fun thing to do; each of them also works to shape our attitudes and our desires about community, ourselves, and the world. Thinking about it that way, church is just one more kind of social ritual, an activity we participate in because it shapes us and trains us in the values of Christian faith. It trains our hearts: here is one place we learn to love the ways of God.

This week I want to begin to think about the concrete shape of our liturgy, what we do here.

The 19th century Christian philosopher Soren Kierkegaard was very critical of the staid Danish Lutheran church of his day. He talks about people coming to church like they were going to the theatre. They would come to be seen; and they would come to see a show. The pastor, the organist, and all the ministers of the service were responsible for putting on a good show; and the people in the pews were just the spectators, not really participating, but sitting back and consuming the spectacle from a critical distance – and then scoring the sermon over Sunday roast.

Well, I think we would agree with Kierkegaard that that’s a pretty inadequate way of looking at church. If you in the pews are just spectators, non-participants, you are not likely to be changed or formed much by what happens here. Fortunately, most of us understand that that’s not enough; we have come to understand that we are all participants here, that liturgy is something we do together.

Kierkegaard said that his fellow Lutherans needed to flip this idea of the theatre on its head. The church full of people is not the audience; we are all the performers, and the show we put on is for an audience of one: God. We go through the liturgy (our script) – the back and forth of prayer and response, the hymns, the ritual actions – in order to bring worship to God, who is the true audience on Sunday morning. This idea that we are here to put on a show for God is a pretty dominant one in the church today.

And I say, that’s still not quite it. It’s better than the attitude Kierkegaard was criticising, thinking of it as a show put on for the congregation’s benefit, but that’s still not it.

Thinking of what we do here as a show we put on for God fits for some things we do on Sunday morning, but not for everything. It fits the idea of worship, of the hymns we sing and the prayers we say, the ways in which we speak to God. It fits the attitude of worship, the emotions of love and gratitude we bring towards God on a Sunday morning.

But God is not just an audience; God is also an active participant in what we are doing here today. Sunday morning is not just about us speaking to God; it is – at least as importantly! – about us listening to God, allowing God to speak to us through the Scripture and the sacrament and the promptings of the Spirit in our hearts. It is a two way conversation we are involved in here, a back and forth, a dialogue.

So perhaps the metaphor of the theatre is itself the problem: there is no division between performers and audience. What is going on here is a dialogue, and conversation, a back and forth. Or, to use a metaphor that involves our whole bodies: what we do here is not theatre but more like a dance, a dance between two partners, God and ourselves, where first one, then the other partner takes the lead, in a kind of gentle courtship.

We begin this dance, this conversation, with an invitation from God. Think of the first words of our service, “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, be with you all.” It’s a reminder that it is the love and grace of God, before anything else, that calls us together and opens the conversation, begins the dance.

We respond to this invitation with a prayer, then an act of praise, a hymn, or the Gloria. And then again we let God take the lead, as we sit back to listen to the Scripture readings. We end each reading with “Hear what the Spirit is saying to the church”, to remind us that what we are doing is part of a living conversation; we are not just dutifully getting through a number of assigned verses, but actually listening to allow God to speak to us and move us.

After the sermon, we once more take the lead. We confess our allegiance to God in the creed; we offer our needs and the needs of the world in the prayers of the people. Then we come to the confession: again, there is an invitation from God’s side, then we confess our brokenness, then we receive absolution.

We make our offering, and then, in the eucharist, God takes our gifts of bread and wine (symbols of everything we give) and gives them back to us, transformed into the sacrament of Jesus’s self-giving for us. We are fed by God, we respond in prayer and praise, and then we are blessed and sent out to be God’s ambassadors in the world.

This is the pattern of our worship, Sunday by Sunday, and every step is like a step in a dance, every word is part of an intricate conversation. Taken as a whole, it teaches us how to relate to God – teaches us a practical lesson, as it leads us through the relationship, the dance, again and again. What the liturgy wants to impress on our hearts is the shape of a Christian relationship to God. That shape is rooted in what we call grace (the first word in our liturgy!). As Christians, we don’t come before God with burnt offerings to try to win God’s favour. We come in the knowledge that we are loved and valued by God, and that that love is the basis of our relationship. God loves us as caring parents love their children.

That is where the relationship starts, but it doesn’t leave us there altogether. God not only loves us, but invites us to respond in love, to grow into partners in love. And so the liturgy rehearses with us week by week the way we respond to God’s love: with awe and praise, with thanksgiving, with contrition for our failures, with compassion for the world, and with a renewed commitment to walking God’s path. The genius of the liturgy is that it helps us to get the balance right, the balance between what we are called to do and be, and what we receive from God as pure gift and grace.

The pattern that we rehearse here week by week, this intricate dance between us and God, is not just the pattern of the liturgy alone. It is really the pattern of the Christian life as a whole. We come to faith not out of fear or duty; we come to faith because we experience the grace of God, we know ourselves loved and blessed. And so we live by trying to respond to this grace we have experienced, to live lives of love, and gratitude, and caring, and praise. We can’t do it alone – only by finding ways to go back and let God’s grace touch us anew, do we find the inspiration to love and serve in return. Again, it’s about the balance in our spiritual lives, about living our whole life as a conversation with God, as a dance of call and response.

And that is what the liturgy does for us: it leads us through this dance, this conversation, week by week, so that its deep patterns sink into us, our mids, our hearts, our bodies, till they become second nature to us.

In the Lenten study group we are discussing a book entitled the Divine Dance, by the Franciscan friar and mystic Richard Rohr. It is a book that challenges us to find a new image to think of God, more in tune with our understanding of God as vulnerable love and force of life. The image he suggests is actually not a new one at all, but very old: it is the Trinity, a doctrine we confess in words, but which often seems to have little effect on the way we imagine God. Rohr talks about the Trinity as an eternal dance of love between Father, Son, and Spirit, in which each turns towards the other in mutual love and service. This eternal dance of energy was so great that it overflowed, creating the world and us as a fourth partner in that dance, so that we could join in this dance, receiving the love of God and loving back in return. Again, the idea sounds modern, New-Agey even, but it is rooted in the ancient theology of the orthodox theologians of the fourth century.

If this is an accurate and helpful metaphor for God, then how much more is it a good metaphor for our worship. Our very existence is rooted in an invitation to the dance, to join in the dance of love and joy that exists eternally, and that is the foundation of the universe. Here is a place we come to refresh our awareness of this invitation, and to join, however tentatively, in the dance of love with our Creator, Redeemer, and Spirit.