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image: dancing saints from icon at St. Gregory of Nyssa, San Francisco

2 Samuel 6:1-5 & 12b-19

Pentecost 7, June 11, 2021

St. Martin North Vancouver

“Why We Dance”

Dance, then, wherever you may be.

I am the Lord of the Dance, said He.

I will lead you all wherever you may be,

I will lead you all in the Dance said He. 

I have a fear of ballroom dancing.  It was bad enough in school, when the teachers used to pair off students regardless of size or ability for gym periods.  There was the social awkwardness. The very real possibility of having one’s foot crushed or a sweaty hand slipping into an unwanted place. Movement through coercion: we participated because we had to in order to pass the class.  Other than that formal instruction, dancing was something that I did (badly) at youth events or family weddings.  So when my spouse professed a long-held desire to learn how to waltz, I was terrified.  But because of him, I began researching the possibility of adult group classes in our area.  Thankfully, the beginning of the pandemic shut down community centres and studios shortly after, and the idea got put aside.  Now, however, I have to ask myself whether I am prepared to face the possibility he may still want to do this with me.  This is not something I would do to express myself, as I did not grow up in a culture that naturally celebrates through movement and song.  It would be a way to show my love, if I can get up the courage. At least, I think that is my motivation to dance.

In two very different Bible stories that we hear this morning, two very different people are dancing for different and complex reasons.  King David dances with the people of Israel to bring the holy symbol of the Hebrew people into Jerusalem.  King Herod’s daughter (or in some versions, niece) dances before the royal court to win the King’s affection and the head of John the Baptist.  The onlookers who are witnesses have all sorts of reactions to the performances. They judge why these individuals make public spectacles of themselves.  But the only One who really knows what is going on in their hearts is God.  

In the Hebrew Scriptures story from the books of Samuel, David is made king in place of Saul.  After battles and intrigues, his army recovers the holiest symbol of their faith which had been taken by the Philistines.  This is the ark of the covenant.  It’s not quite the Indiana Jones version, but we learn that this symbolic seat of God’s power on earth is dangerous to those who don’t take the Jewish deity seriously.  David needs to show the people that he is the anointed king and has the authority to rule in God’s name over them.  So he arranges for the ark to be brought into his capital at Jerusalem with great ceremony.  However, he and the people need to be purified so that this city is acceptable to God.  He apparently strips down and dances as one with the priests and the people.  

This is a roaring success to his followers.  But his wife Michal, who is watching from a window, despises the display.  We don’t know why.  Is she embarrassed, ashamed, resentful, jealous, furious?  After all, David is popular and in power and her father, Saul, is defeated and dead.  She does not join in the dance, perhaps because she has already seen her husband make so many bad moral missteps in his life.  Only God knows the reasons David dances and she does not dance.  In the Bible story, the ark of the covenant processes into Jerusalem to lead the people of Israel into the way of righteousness.

There is a different sort of dancing going on in the gospel from Mark.  In the royal palace, a solo performance for the Jewish ruler Herod signals the death of Jesus’ kinsman John.  The messenger who had come to proclaim the kingdom of heaven is undone by a young woman.  She doesn’t seem to be dancing for the glory of God.  She does not dance in the company of others to celebrate or praise.  She is alone and vulnerable before the hungry gaze of the court.  Her bid for attention pleases Herod and he promises her earthly reward. Is she motivated by the politics of the day or the necessity to please those who could protect her?  We never hear what happened to her afterward, only what happened to John.  His life is forfeit, and his head is delivered on a platter.  Israel is led away from the way of righteousness.

The great dance of life is always larger than one person.  What an individual does affects everyone around them, even if he or she feels like the only one on the floor.  The effect of John the Baptist’s death shifts the public ministry of Jesus with his disciples.   He starts preparing them for Jerusalem.  If they are to commit to the work of the gospel, they must follow him and join the dance.  

One thing that dancing with others does is keep you honest.  Together, you have to listen to the music and respond.  You have to be attentive to each other, to anticipate the call, to watch where your feet go, to recover from the missteps and mistakes along the way.  With different partners, you get more practice in matching movement and being generous in give and take.  In the reality show, “the Battle of the Blades”, ice-dancers and hockey players were paired up to try and learn choreography on ice.  Sometimes the combination of strength and grace resulted in spectacular performances.  Other times it ended in tangled heaps.  The most wonderful moments were when the surge of the music and rhythm of their partner blended together to become one joy.  It reminds us of why we dance at all.

It is now time for me to step out of this parish as the interim priest-in-charge.  The music has not stopped.  The dance is not over.  It is simply time for you to change partners.  Listen to the music and you will know the right moment to reach out draw your next clergy leader into the circle.  At the ground level, you can see the stumblings, and a few toes may get stepped on.  You may wonder at the motivations of others or even of your own.  Try to judge each other with kindness and leave room for practice and adjustment.  Invite those who are standing around the edges to risk looking foolish and laugh at yourselves as examples.  The loving eyes of God see the whole pattern even if we cannot.   If we value heaven, we dance on.  

So how can you see what your life is worth or where your value lies?

You can never see through the eyes of man:

You must look at your life through heaven’s eyes…

No life can escape being blown about by the winds of change and chance,

And though you never know all the steps: you must learn to join the dance.

- lyrics by Stephen Schwartz, from the musical film "Prince of Egypt"