Dancing Before the Lord

Sunday, June 18, 2017

A sermon preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli at Foundry UMC June 18, 2017, the fourth Sunday after Pentecost.

Text:  2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19


Last weekend, many of us participated in a parade or two.  The annual Pride procession through our neighborhood was full of pageantry, dancing, and joy.  But as Dr. Phil Wogaman reminded us last week in his sermon, the freedom and joy of the Pride movement was borne out of deep tragedy, the tragedy of centuries of exclusion, oppression, and violence against God’s LGBTQ children.  Pride is a profound form of sacred resistance, to celebrate the gift of our God-given, created nature rather than appropriate the projected labels of others.  It is a great gift to claim the freedom to be who you are without apology. 


Today in our scripture from 2 Samuel, we encounter another great procession, full of pageantry, dancing, and joy. The backstory of this parade has its share of tragedies as well. King Saul and David’s beloved Jonathan have been killed; there is confusion and division in the new monarchy of Israel, and the ark of the covenant had been captured by the Philistines—which, at that time, was tantamount to the abduction of God.  It was a tumultuous time in the history of Israel.  But in the moment captured in the lines we heard this morning, David, the new king, is moving the recovered ark to his new capital and, thereby, placing God back at the center of communal life.  He is also making a shrewd political move; Jerusalem was neutral territory, not part of any of the twelve tribal lands—an important detail for a king who sought to unite the tribes of Israel.  The procession we read about today is the public celebration and culmination of all of this and is a moment of extraordinary joy and historical significance. 


In this moment, David is free and fierce and proud!  He dances with all his might!  But there is at least one person who can’t deal with David’s display of liberation and joy.  In the verses that follow our text for today it reads, “David returned to bless his household. But Michal [David’s wife] the daughter of Saul came out to meet David, and said, ‘How the king of Israel honored himself today, uncovering himself today before the eyes of his servants’ maids, as any vulgar fellow might shamelessly uncover himself!’ David said to Michal, ‘It was before the Lord, who chose me in place of your father and all his household, to appoint me as prince over Israel, the people of the Lord, that I have danced before the Lord…’” (2 Sam. 6:20-21)    In that moment, in the face of disapproval and discomfort with his display, David claims his identity, his call, and his freedom to dance “before the Lord.”  God is his witness—that is the gaze that matters most.  //


How do we bring ourselves before the Lord?  One of the things I hear with some regularity after worship are things are things like, “That anthem made me want to dance,” and “There were times during the sermon when I wanted to say ‘Amen!’—but I didn’t.”  I have heard that some folks struggle (for a variety of reasons) to rise for all the hymns, responses, or for the Gospel but that they feel they have to do so since that is the invitation.  I’ve heard that people enjoy kneeling at the prayer rail, but sometimes worry that if they come forward, others will look askance at them.  I hear about what “works” for folks and what doesn’t.  All this has led me to reflect on how we come before God in worship and how or whether we allow ourselves to participate.


I’ve had the privilege of participating in worship across a wide variety of cultures.  From a capella chanting to praise music with a full band, from silent prayer to the lively and loud Korean Tong Sung Kido, from sitting still to dancing in procession, from “smells and bells” to no candles or images at all...  The rich variety of spiritual expression is really quite beautiful.  It speaks to the diversities of culture, value, temperament, and aesthetic preference within the human family.  In all of these ways of worshipping, there can be extraordinary energy and beauty and a profound opening to the presence and power of God.  Some forms of worship will resonate with you, and others not so much.  That’s OK.  Just remember that what doesn’t work for you may be the way others encounter God most powerfully.


Christian philosopher Søren Kierkegaard’s describes worship using the image of the theater.  Kierkegaard says that often folks assume that, in worship, the actors are the clergy, musicians, and worship leaders, the director is the Holy Spirit, and the audience is the gathered congregation.  In this scenario, worship leaders perform for the audience, the congregation.  Kierkegaard challenges this by suggesting that the actors are the congregation—you!—the directors are the clergy and musicians, and the audience is God.  God is our witness.  The stage is set and each of us has a role to play as we offer ourselves to the God whom we worship.  In this metaphor, the One whose gaze matters most is God’s.  Whatever we are doing in worship, what we are thinking, how we are responding, all of it—is our offering to God, is done before God and for the glory of God.  David claims this in his response to Michal: “I danced before the Lord.”


There are at least two things for us to ponder here.  First, how worried are we about what other people think and how does that help or hinder our own presence and response to God in worship?  Are you more worried about what other people see or think than you are about what the Holy Spirit may be inviting you to do?  If David had worried about what Michal thought—catching a glimpse of her disapproving look from that window—he might have held in his exuberant dance before the Lord.  And that dance was what the Spirit—and the occasion—prompted.  Perhaps there were other times when David’s exuberance was expressed in a different way—in a different time, place, or circumstance in his life.  My point is that when we come into worship, we can come just as we are—and we are invited to respond to God with authenticity and freedom.  There is not just one right way and you may feel very differently from week to week or in different settings.  Some weeks you may feel like dancing and others (perhaps most of the time) I imagine that for many of us it’s like one of my favorite scenes from the movie The Birdcage, in which Armand, the character played by Robin Williams gives direction to a rather ambivalent actor who says, “Am I just supposed to stand here like an object?”  In response, Armand says, “No! You do an eclectic celebration of the dance! You do Fosse, Fosse, Fosse! You do Martha Graham, Martha Graham, Martha Graham! Or Twyla, Twyla, Twyla! Or Michael Kidd, Michael Kidd, Michael Kidd, Michael Kidd! Or Madonna, Madonna, Madonna!... but you keep it all inside.”  And here’s the thing:  that is OK as long as keeping it all inside is done from a place of freely offered worship to God and not out of fear of others’ judgment.


I don’t know about you, but there are times when I need and want to just “be” in the midst of the congregation—not speaking or singing or moving very much.  There are other times when I feel moved to respond, to participate in everything that is happening with full voice and body.  There are times when I want to fall on my knees before God at the prayer rail or to raise my hands in praise or surrender.  There are times when I feel drawn into conversation with a preacher and want to respond with my “Yes!” or “Amen.”  Other times, the Word spoken quiets and settles me into a resonant silence.  There are times when I find myself in tears rising up from deep within. 

If you ever have these kinds of spiritual impulses or responses, my hope is that you allow yourself to respond and to be moved without worrying whether someone will think you’re being inappropriate—even if your response is different from what is invited or from how others are responding.


This leads to our second part to ponder:  Are we judgmental or unkind when others worship differently than we do?  As I thought about these issues and questions, I was aware that the point here is NOT that we don’t have any order or expectation in worship.  In fact, one reason to offer a variety of services is in order to create space for different expressions of praise and prayer.  Here at Foundry we are planning to eventually offer a weekly contemplative service (like our Lent compline) and alternative worship through the coffeehouse ministry.  But even with the two unique worship experiences we currently offer, my hope is that we give permission to do or to be in worship as the Spirit nudges…without judgment or fear.  In order for that to happen, we need to be very thoughtful and careful about how we respond to others.  Sometimes, after a deeply moving anthem, you may want to just hold the energy of the piece in silence—but someone else may need to jump to their feet in applause.  It is true the applause will keep you from having your worship moment, but the person responding exuberantly, may know no other way of expressing how moved he feels and may desperately need that moment of joy.  If someone comes forward to pray at the altar and you find yourself noticing, lift a prayer for that person, entrusting them to God and giving thanks that God is present and active their life.  This, INSTEAD of thinking something like “I wonder what’s wrong with them?”  or “She must really want attention to go up in front of everyone like that.”  Whether someone chooses to clap or not to clap or to sing during the hymns—we can choose to trust that folks are doing and being right where they need to be that day.  Sit, stand, sing, move, be still, laugh, cry…be and do what you need to do.  AND be mindful and thoughtful about creating space for others to be and do what they need to do.  


Part of what prompted the Methodist movement was John Wesley’s observation that Anglican worship felt spiritually dead—like folks were just going through the motions and were not connecting with the living and loving God who had the power to transform their lives.  He set out to help folks reclaim their relationship with God—and to show up in worship expecting God to be there and for something to happen.  Spiritual power and resonance and “aliveness” comes in so many forms—in a quiet that is so still and deep that you can feel the energy snapping all around AND in an exuberant, rhythmic outpouring of speech and dance that wrings you out and fills you at the same time.  Regardless of where your spirit lives most of the time, I hope that we will learn to honor and respect the beautiful diversities of worship and prayer and praise.  And I really hope that if John Wesley joined us for worship on any given Sunday he would be proud of the ways that Spirit is living and moving and transforming lives in the people called Foundry United Methodist Church.