The dance of the liturgy heals and transforms us: but to receive its gifts, we must participate. (Listen.)
One of my happiest childhood memories were church barn dances. Once or twice a year on a Saturday night, we’d gather in the hall with a dance caller and bush band; and off we’d go with a do-se-do and twirl your partner! Adults, teens and children stepped and galloped, wove and spun, stumbling and laughing and moving down the line. Towering blokes swung little kids around; teenagers dominated the Nutbush; and the oldest folk clapped along from the sidelines. Some of us were wonderful dancers; most of us were not: but the dance held us all.
At the end of the night, a magnificent supper would be laid out, and we’d eat and drink together, and laugh some more. Then dozing toddlers and yawning children would be carried to waiting cars; adults would stand in the street, chatting for just a few more minutes; until eventually, we’d all head home.
In tonight’s story, we hear of another dance troupe: the people of Israel and their new king, David. It had been a tough few years for David. He’d been living as a fugitive from the wildly jealous and fearful Saul, and forced into guerrilla warfare. His beloved Jonathan, with whom he had a covenant relationship and a love surpassing that of men and women (or so the Bible says), had been killed in battle. A wayward general had slaughtered an unarmed peace broker from a rival faction; and violence was endemic in the land. David’s heart was heavy indeed.
Yet here we find him, newly established as king, at the head of a procession. He is dressed in the finest priestly garments, and he is dancing and shouting mightily before the Lord. He and all the house of Israel are bringing the ark of God to Jerusalem in an exuberant liturgical parade. Some people are playing instruments; others are carrying the ark; still others are leading animals for sacrifice; while David is doing priestly work.
This work takes several forms. Back when he was on the run, David had spent time with Samuel and the prophets of Ramah. When God’s Spirit fell upon them, these prophets would enter ecstatic frenzies and speak God’s word. And so when David is dancing mightily and shouting to the Lord, we can understand it as a prophetic act: he is communicating between God and the people.
Once in Jerusalem, David continues with the priestly work. He makes offerings for atonement of sin; he makes offerings for the well-being of the people. He blesses the people in the name of God; he distributes food to the whole multitude, both men and women; and then he sends them home.
I suggest that David’s procession, Box Hill Baptist barn dances, and group dancing in general, are potent metaphors for public worship. People come together and, just for that moment, lay aside their cares and yield themselves to the spirit of the dance. Because corporate dance is not about individual egos, but about people emptying themselves and letting the spirit fill them. It’s not about performance, but participation. It’s not about limitations, but about responding to and embracing the possibilities. It’s not about brains in vats, but about bodies, minds and spirits working together in harmony. We arrive at the dance as individuals, but through the shared rhythms and practices we are formed into one body. And when our dance is worship, this body is, of course, the body of Christ.
But for us to receive these gifts of the dance, for us to be filled with a bigger, bolder, more generous spirit than our own, we need to show up. In order to move beyond our limited selves and be drawn into the wider body, we need to place our own body among other bodies. For worship is not simply about exchanging ideas; it’s not just about the sermon or whatever else appears on the website. Instead, it’s about wholeheartedly and bodily engaging in those practices where Christ has promised to be present: namely, to listen together for the Word and to eat together at the Table. For when we do these things with open hearts, Jesus has promised that his Spirit will unite us, fill us, transform us, and make us whole.
Of course, we’re not always up for this. The story tells us that David served ‘the whole multitude of Israel, both men and women’—then he went home to his wife. She had not come out to join the parade. Instead, she had watched from her window, filled with scorn for his enthusiasm, his wholeheartedness, for the ways he had revealed himself to the crowd. And I am sure there were people who stayed home from the Box Hill Baptist barn dances, or who sat on the sidelines, unwilling to risk the folly of the dance.
Because to join the dance is to give up your dignity and self-importance. It’s to entrust yourself to dance steps set down by other people. It’s to bend and turn in response to others, rather than moving always to rhythms of your own. It’s to relinquish control to the Spirit. It’s to participate even when you have no skill; it’s to trust that you’ll learn by doing; and it’s to risk looking foolish, even contemptible, to scornful judgemental eyes.
I know this all too well, because as an anxious awkward person I have often sat on the sidelines. Too many times, I have been so full of myself and my fears and failings, so afraid that I am unworthy, that I have refused to join the dance. Instead, I sneered from the sidelines, nursing my resentful, barren, shrivelled little heart.
So I am grateful for the remembered joy of the Box Hill Baptist barn dances, which drew me in. I am grateful for the ways that God has kept yanking me into the dance and thereby healing my shrivelled heart. And I am grateful for the many wonderful moments of connection and transcendence we have shared together through the dance that is worship here at Sanctuary: through the Word, through prayer, through sharing food and through belly laughs.
But, my friends, the best way to understand a metaphor is not to talk about it, but to enter into it. So after we have sung and prayed together, we will move to the communion table, there to be physically bound together through bread and wine … and a circle dance. And when we come to the actual dancing, I hope you will not make my mistake. I hope you will bring the fullness of yourself—your body, mind and spirit, your two left feet, your capacity for foolishness and your capacity for joy: I hope you will bring them all, and join me in the dance. Let us pray:
Lord of the Dance,
help us to live wholeheartedly in your sight.
Help us to celebrate the good with everything we have:
may we never be ashamed of our faith.
Set our feet dancing to the rhythms of your Spirit
and fill our hearts with song
as we take our place in your sacred dance.
In the name of Christ, we pray: Amen. Ω
Reflect: What blocks you from joining the dance? Tell God about it; then imagine Jesus’ hand stretched towards you, inviting you to dance with him.
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