Some Christians believe that God does all the work, that God forgives, redeems, and restores us as God chooses, that human choices effectively don’t matter. Other Christians disagree. They say that God invites us into relationship. Then it is up to us to accept God’s invitation or not.
Episcopalians tend to fall into that second group.
We believe that God’s love and grace and saving work in Jesus Christ are the necessary first step. Only God can make our relationship with God possible. The Bible is pretty clear on that point.
But the Bible also says that we bear some responsibility for our relationship with God, that our choices matter, that how we respond to God’s love matters.
This may seem like a strange way to say it, but I think of our relationship with God as a kind of dance.
Now, I am about as good a dancer as I am a singer. But I have watched how good dancers respond to each other’s moves. Something similar happens as relationships form and grow.
When I meet people with whom I think I could be friends, the dance begins, that sequence of move and counter-move that may lead to a real relationship.
So I invite the person to join me at some event. That is my first move, my offer of friendship. Now the next move is up to him. Is he also interested in becoming friends?
At that point, he has a few options. He can accept my invitation, in which case we take a step towards friendship. The dance continues.
That is how I first became friends with Benjamin’s godfather. I met him through a mutual friend. I immediately liked him enough to invite him to a party I was attending the next weekend. I didn’t really think he would come, but he did. He responded to my move with a move of his own. One thing led to another, and we became great friends.
But it doesn’t always work that way. Sometimes the person refuses my initial invitation. Then it gets more complicated. I have made my move. The next move needs to come from the other person. If he responds in some way, we may still become friends. The dance can continue. If he does not, if he simply refuses my invitation and does not make any kind of response, no counter move, then, probably, that particular dance is over before it ever really began. We are not going to become friends.
That, too, has happened to me. Last spring, I was at a conference. I met a woman I liked. At the next meal, I noticed where she put her stuff, so I sat at that table. That was my move towards her. After she got her food, she picked up her stuff from my table and moved to another table. No counter move there, or at least not a move towards me. So much for that friendship!
Our relationship with God works sort of like that.
God makes the first move towards us. Really, God makes a whole series of moves, beginning in creation, extending through the incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, continuing in the work of the Holy Spirit in the Church and in our individual lives. God keeps extending an invitation of friendship to us. God keeps moving towards us. God keeps inviting us to dance.
But at some point, we have to respond. We have to accept God’s invitation. We have to move towards God. We have to join God in the relationship dance.
We can see that process in our gospel reading. Pay attention to the moves and counter moves, and notice how it works like a kind of dance.
As the reading begins, Jesus enters a village. That is God coming to us, meeting us where we are, making the necessary first move.
The lepers in our story respond to Christ’s initial move. They approach Christ. But not too close. This is still an early move. They keep their distance, but they call out, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” They have taken the next step.
Now it is Jesus’ turn again, and he takes another step towards them. Jesus sees them. Jesus speaks to them. But, at least at first, Jesus does not seem to answer their prayer. Instead Jesus gives them a command. “Go and show yourselves to the priests.”
Now it is the lepers’ move again. They obey, and as they obey, they are healed.
Our relationship with God is like that. God comes to us in the person of Jesus Christ. God makes Himself available to us so that we can bring our wants and needs to Him in prayer. Then it is our turn. We respond to God’s invitation every time we pray.
God may or may not answer our prayers right away. But as we respond to God’s invitation, as we begin to dance with God, we get guidance on how to live, guidance that may not have anything obvious to do with our prayers but that invites us to take the next step, to enter into deeper relationship with God, to allow God to direct our steps, to help us dance a little better. And so the dance with God continues.
There is one more twist in our gospel reading. Nine of the healed lepers go on their way. One comes back to Christ to offer his thanks and praise. One takes yet another step towards Jesus. One keeps dancing with Christ, even after his prayer has been answered. And he, the only foreigner in the group, is the only one of the ten whose faith is commended.
God comes to us, inviting us to relationship, to an ever-deepening friendship, to an ongoing dance. Our task is to respond to God’s invitation, to keep coming back to God’s feet, to spend time with God in prayer and in service and in worship, to do whatever we can to cultivate our relationship with God, always following God’s lead.
But at no point does God force us to dance against our will. In our gospel story, Jesus does not chase down the other nine lepers. Apparently they have stopped dancing, at least with him and at least for now. We can do the same. We can stop dancing with God. We can turn away. We can move to a different table. We can find another dance partner.
When we do turn away—and we all do turn away sometimes—when we do turn away, God keeps dancing. God keeps inviting us to dance. But God will let us go if that is our choice.
But that would be a terrible mistake. So, this week, I invite you to pay particular invitation to the ways God is inviting you into a deeper relationship. Mostly likely it will be simple things: a beautiful sunset, a good meal with people you love, a chance to help another person. One way or another, it will happen. When it does, pay attention. Like the faithful leper in our reading, say a quick prayer of thanks. Take a small step in your ongoing dance with God.
On this morning, I give thanks to God for Jesus Christ, who makes our relationship with God possible. And I say this in the name of Jesus Christ, Lord of the Dance. Amen.