Holding lightly – May 6, 2018
“We have to hold our choreography lightly.” This is one of the many lessons I learned in my dancing life. You see, I was discipled in a dance studio. It’s where I learned much of what I know about God and being a Christian. One day I’ll write the book: “Everything I know about God, I learned from dancing.” But in the meantime, lessons learned in a dance studio simply pop up every now and again.
This week I’ve been thinking about holding our choreography lightly. The phrase and the idea behind it came about in a process of developing a dance show at Crossings Dance. It is a dance studio grounded in Christian faith that holds community as one of its core values. Along with regular dance classes, it has a performance division that creates full shows. The process of creation includes a team who discusses the overall vision, direction, or story for a complete show and the details of choreography for individual dance pieces with dancers of varying ages. Along the way, there is a necessary interaction between grand vision and overall direction with specific dance steps, costumes and a whole variety of details… not only for the Artistic Director but for everyone involved at every level.
As a teacher and choreographer, I might arrive in the studio with a great plan… a great dance to teach… and then realize that it won’t work with the 8 year olds before me. I can grumble “the people in my head can do it!” but ultimately we work with real people, real bodies, real circumstances. On the other side of the creative process, I might have an amazing idea as a choreographer, maybe I’ve even worked on it with dancers, only to find out that the focus or needs of the overall show mean that my great idea has to be changed, adapted or shelved all together. In team choreography, there is an even more constant give and take of offering ideas, building on someone else’s ideas, and letting go of our own ideas as someone else builds on what we have started.
To work together in a community of faith, we had to learn to hold our choreography lightly. We had to trust that in the end, the show reflected the best of what everyone had to offer… dancers, costumers, choreographers, tech designers, director. All of us were represented. We all had some of our work included and some discarded, ideas and movements built upon and deconstructed, usually in ways none of us could have imagined on our own. Creating wasn’t the hardest part. The hardest part was learning to let go of what we created… what we held dear… to hold our work lightly… so that as a community, we could honour God together with the best of each of us, beyond what any of us could do alone.
In our Gospel passage today we hear about community from part of Jesus’ farewell speech in the Gospel of John. It continues directly from our passage last week and its core metaphor of vine and vine-grower and branches. Jesus said: “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine-grower.” Along with this description of his relationship with God, Jesus defines himself metaphorically in relationship to us: “I am the vine,” he says, “you are the branches.” Without the connection to this core metaphor, we could easily misunderstand today’s Gospel by focussing too individually, instead of hearing a summary of the Christian life in community. The figurative language of the metaphor is completely integrated into “language that speaks directly of Jesus and his disciples.” (NIB, 756) It is not just about “me and Jesus.” Rather, Jesus is speaking to his community of friends about what it means to be Christian community.
Today’s Gospel begins with a swirl of the themes of loving and abiding in love and keeping commandments… as Jesus has done, so are we to do, that we may know the fullness of joy. Jesus says: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” It is a re-statement of the new commandment Jesus gave the disciples on that fateful night of the Last Supper. It was only 2 chapters ago but it seems like a lifetime. In between our Maundy Thursday remembrance of Jesus’ gathering with his closest friends, when he first spoke those words, and today, there has been a whole lot of water under the proverbial bridge. Betrayal. Crucifixion. Denial. Grief. Resurrection. Disbelief. Fear. Joy. And here the words are again… remembered through the fog of our memory of that distant night before the world changed… Jesus’ instructs: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”
Jesus laid down his life in love. Jesus chose to meet the power of violence with the power of vulnerability. Jesus chose to forgive, even those who caused him pain. Even those who betrayed him. Even those who crucified him. Jesus laid down his life and calls us to do likewise. Laying down our lives for the sake of love means giving up those things we hold most dear. It means letting go of our wants so someone else can have their needs or wants met. It means holding our choreography lightly. Choosing vulnerability instead of violence means sharing in community our time, our talent and our treasure… our ideas, our hopes, and our dreams… our contribution to our common life… our dance steps… even when we know that some of them won’t make the cut. That the branch that is “me” may be one that is pruned. Laying down our life for the sake of love means risking being fully ourselves, bringing ourselves to the table in community, contributing to the whole, with the willingness to let go. It’s holding our contribution lightly, so that it can be changed, adapted, built upon or discarded altogether, for the sake of a greater good.
On that night oh so long ago, Jesus spoke of love and laying down one’s life for love in the context of washing the disciples feet. It was the act of a servant after which Jesus explained: “I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master…” Afterwards, Peter promises: “Lord… I will lay down my life for you.” And Jesus questions: “Will you? Will you lay down your life for me?” No… you won’t. You will deny me. So much has happened since. Repentance. Resurrection. Disbelief. Fear. Joy. So much has changed. Jesus has held nothing back, not even his life. “You are my friends if you do what I command you.” Jesus continues: “I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father.” Jesus has held nothing back. The intimacy of the relationship has developed from one of master and servant to one of friendship marked by mutual love and living with the common purpose of following Jesus’ commandments. Following Jesus.
It is so simple and yet it is so hard. One commentator reflects on the challenge Jesus’ words pose to the contemporary church, writing: “To live according to this model, then, the church would be a community in which members are known for the acts of love that they do in common with all other members. It would not be a community built around individual accomplishments, choices or rights, but around the corporate accountability to the abiding presence of Jesus and corporate enactment of the love of God and Jesus.” (NIB, 760) It’s a mouthful but it means, basically, that in the Christian community of the church, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. It’s about honouring God together with the best of each of us, beyond what any of us could do alone.
Here at St. Andrew’s, it means, for instance, supporting our upcoming spring concert series not to “support Claire” per se but to participate in a corporate act of love towards the broader community. In other words, it’s something we can do together, for others. Claire of course plays a very important role and I appreciate her initiative and commitment, but this concert series is not about Claire, just as last year’s Grounds Renewal project was not about Pat or Dick. It wasn’t “their” project that we supported… it was “our” project, to which we were all called to participate in different ways. We each have different roles and responsibilities, but we’re in it together. And we’re at our best when we all bring our best to the table while holding our part lightly for the sake of a greater good… a greater love… than any of us could have asked or imagined.
In the metaphor guiding our passage today, that greater good is called “fruit.” And today Jesus reminds us not only about the quality of self-giving love to which we are called in community, but also about the ultimate purpose of such love-filled community: “I appointed you to go and bear fruit,” Jesus says, “fruit that will last…” The purpose of love-filled community… community marked by love in action… is about creating something beyond what any one of us is capable of on our own. It’s about the whole of the dance show – theologically known as the kingdom of God.
May we love one another as Jesus has loved us. And may we lay down our lives for the sake of this love, by bringing ourselves fully to the community while holding our contribution lightly, that together, we might bear fruit that lasts.