Sunday, July 18, 2010

"Dance": A Sermon

It may seem to us an unlikely moment to break into dance. After their God had unleashed ten plagues on the Egyptians, culminating with the deaths of the first born, the Israelites had escaped into the wilderness. All their worldly possessions on their backs and in their arms, they had just shed the shackles of slavery and fled from the avenging army of the Pharaoh. They had been pursued to the shores of the Sea of Reeds. Horrified to be caught between the Egyptian chariots and the sea, seeing only death before them, they’d turned on Moses, their leader, with vicious accusations. “They said to [him], ‘Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness?’” ~ Exodus 14:11

And then, Moses had demonstrated God’s power with what was very possibly the most visually spectacular supernatural event to be described in scripture: the parting of the sea. The Israelites walked through, as it says in one hymn, “with unmoistened foot,” while the pursuing Egyptian army looked up in horror to see the walls of water closing in, utterly obliterating them.

It may seem to us an unlikely moment to break into dance. You might think the Israelites would simply collapse in relieved tears on the far shore. Instead, Miriam, the prophet, Moses’ elder sister—the one who’d watched over him all those years before, as he cried until his face got red in a basket down by the banks of the Nile—Miriam picked up a tambourine, and led the women of Israel in a triumphant, no-holds-barred dance of pure joy. It was a dance of praise to God, whose power is so utterly amazing. It was a dance of sheer gratitude for their lives.

Dance. It’s an odd thing, in some ways, for a Presbyterian Church to be considering dance as we worship together on a Sunday Morning. But contained in our hymnal is the wonderful, “I Danced in the Morning, ” whose essential theme can be found in its refrain:

Dance, then, wherever you may be;
I am the Lord of the Dance, said He,
And I’ll lead you all, wherever you may be
I will lead you all in the dance, said he!

“He” is Jesus Christ: the hymn is a first person account, from his point of view. It is Jesus who is the Lord of the Dance. And as we sing through the verses, it becomes very clear: Jesus, as he is imagined in the hymn, sees all of existence—from God’s creation in the beginning through the events of his life to his resurrection from the dead and his promise to us for our lives—he sees it all in terms of a marvelous dance. And it is a dance to which we are invited.

I have to say it again: it might seem an odd thing for Presbyterians, of all people, to sing of a “Lord of the Dance.” After all, we are the church that owes its existence to John Calvin, the great reformer who approached the bible from the point of view that, if it isn’t expressly permitted, it’s forbidden. (Luther took the opposite view, by the way: to him, if it wasn’t expressly forbidden, it was permitted!). This reading of scripture resulted in Calvin claiming that dance was entirely too frivolous an activity for Godly people. Never mind that King David did it before the ark, that Miriam and all the women of Israel did it, that the psalmist invited us all to do it—for Calvin, no dancing.

In some critical ways, Calvin’s position is inconsistent with a truly Reformed worldview. Here’s how one writer expresses the inconsistency:

Reformed folks praise, value, honor, and make central the sovereignty of God [that is, God’s supreme and independent power]. The theological giants of the Reformed tradition—[including Calvin]—have put God's sovereignty at the center and heart of a Reformed "world- and life-view." God is the Lord of the cosmos; God is free from having to meet our expectations…

This writer goes on to claim that a truly Reformed world-view would “take the sovereignty of God so seriously [as to expect that you] might actually be surprised by God every once in a while. You [would be] open and expectant that the Spirit of God is sometimes going to surprise you, because God is free to act in ways that might differ from your set of expectations.”

It’s all about how God, in God’s supreme and independent power, created us. And therefore, it’s all about embodiment—the fact that we are flesh and blood creations of God’s. And embodiment is something that Christians have struggled with from the beginning. In fact, some of the defining heresies of the early Church had to do with exactly how embodied we are, and Jesus is. Though the Church affirmed wholeheartedly—Jesus is fully human, as well as being fully God—remnants of another idea remained, and those remnants are with us still: the idea that we are spirits trapped in bodies. And that somehow the spirit is the part of us that is good, the body is the part of us that is bad, and all of life is a struggle to see which will gain the upper hand.

The life and teachings of Jesus do not fall into the trap of this mindset. Jesus’ feet got dusty as he walked the roads of Galilee and Jerusalem. Jesus sat at table and ate with gusto and enjoyed wine. Jesus fed the hungry multitudes. Jesus laid his hands upon people to heal their hurting bodies—restoring sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf, the ability to walk to the lame. Jesus cast demons out of people whose bodies were tormented by possession. Jesus raised children and adults from the dead—never once did he say to someone, “Oh, don’t fret. Your little girl is with God now.” No. Jesus valued life, bodily life, a life of both pain and pleasure, and one he sought to make better by taking people’s hurting, hungry bodies seriously.

As we should. And taking our bodies seriously includes the serious engagement with those things that God created to give us pleasure. For instance, dance. What does it mean that life is a dance—that the life of faith is a dance? Well, what does it mean when we dance in the first place?

Think of those times you’ve either danced, or you’ve been present when others danced. A wedding, for instance, when the bride and groom and all their families dance the night away. Or, in the end zone at a football game—when the running back does a little dance after making the touchdown. Or, those moments when children hold hands and swing themselves in a circle, letting the centrifugal force spin them faster and faster. We dance because we feel good—because we’re happy, we’re celebrating, we’re feeling so full of life and joy we can do no other. Or maybe we dance all alone in the kitchen, because we know it will help us feel better, in the face of some setback or disappointment or heartbreak. Dancing comprises celebration of or breakthrough to joy.

Jesus, by calling himself the Lord of the Dance in this hymn, invites us to a life of faith that is filled with joy. Interestingly, the English songwriter Sydney Carter chose to set these lyrics to an old Shaker dance song, “Simple Gifts.” The Shakers were famous for a spirituality that took the body so seriously that their worship centered around ecstatic dance—sometimes, spontaneous, sometimes, choreographed. In choosing this tune Carter emphasizes his point: the life of faith is a joyous dance.

I read this week that Reformed worship “often treats human beings as if they are brains-on-a-stick.” We who spend our weeks living in our bodies—digging in gardens, or caring for our aging parents, or feeding our children, or riding bikes, or kissing, arrive in worship on Sunday morning and expect to do no more movement than standing and sitting and, occasionally, singing. Don’t panic. I am not proposing we adopt the Shaker order of worship. I am suggesting that we have something to be joyful about in our faith, in the love of the God who created us, for we are fearfully and wonderfully made. And our worship should in some sense be a dance of pure joy. It should be a dance of praise to God, whose power is so utterly amazing. It should be a dance of sheer gratitude for our lives.

I know one place that kind of joy will be on full display this week: South Bend, Indiana, the home of Purdue University, which is hosting this year’s Presbyterian Youth Triennium. Between 3000 and 5000 young people from all over the country will gather there for worship, study, service and mission projects that will move them—literally as well as figuratively—that will invite them to join in the great dance of faithful lives. If the past is any indicator, it will change their lives. So join me as we first pray for and commission our youth participants, and then as we sing “I Danced in the Morning.” And join me, as together we seek to live a faith that is on fire with the joyful love of the one who calls us to the dance. Thanks be to God. Amen.


James K. A. Smith, “Teaching a Calvinist to Dance,” Christianity Today, May 2008 []


John Lofton, Recovering Republican said...

John Calvin, the great reformer who approached the bible from the point of view that, if it isn’t expressly permitted, it’s forbidden.

Wrong. If it wasn't expressly COMMANDED it was forbidden.

John Lofton, Editor,
Communications Director, Institute On The Constitution
Recovering Republican

steve said...

I really enjoyed reading this. Thank you for sharing it.

I've always been a bit amused by the puritanical tradition within some Christian circles that finds dancing so objectionable. Somehow I think it bespeaks a deeper discomfort with human sexuality.

Anyway, peace to you, my friend.