“The Lord of the Dance”
a farewell sermon preached by
The Reverend Donna J. Larson, Interim Priest
At Trinity Episcopal Church
in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania
The Eighth Sunday after Pentecost
July 15, 2018
Anyone who knows me well, knows this: I love to dance. I mean I LOVE to dance. Anyone who has seen me dance at wedding receptions and other public events, knows that I put my whole body and heart and soul into dancing. So you will not be surprised to know that when I read our scripture lessons to prepare for writing this sermon, it was the dancing that leaped out at me.
Our Hebrew scriptures tell us the story of King David who brings the Ark of the Lord back to the Israelites after a long absence. David will give it a permanent home in Jerusalem and God’s presence will once again be in the midst of his people. Now this is a huge, historic moment for the people of Israel. It calls for an all-out celebration. Our reading from Samuel tells us that “all the whole house of Israel brought up the ark of the Lord with shouting, and with sound of the trumpet.” And, oh yes, with something else: dancing! We hear that “David and all the house of Israel were dancing before the Lord with all their might; with songs and lyres and harps and tambourines and castanets and cymbals.” And as David leaps and dances holding the ark of the Lord high above his head, biblical scholars tell us that he is also dancing naked. Why? Well, some biblical scholars suggest God is also, in a sense, naked in that Ark, because the covering has been removed from the Ark. That means God is completely present with the people. They can no longer hide from God, nor will God be hidden from them. And for believers, this is a “right, and a good and a joyful thing.”
Well, as you might guess, I love this image of David dancing with all his might, putting his entire body and soul into this moment of joy and celebration in thanksgiving to God. And I believe that God was also there, dancing with David in the midst of the multitude. Because from our ancient beginnings, religious traditions have employed sacramental dance of various kinds in worship—some worship God with highly stylized and dramatic bodily interpretations of scripture, some with grand movements and flamboyant gestures, some with discreet holy gestures inspired by prayers and other liturgical forms, and some moving or swaying to the pulse of inspiring rhythms in music. We need only to think of a few of the kinds of dance in done by Whirling Dervishes, Native American Indian, Native African, Pentecostal, and mainline Protestant to name a few. In fact, my daughter-in-law teaches and choreographs liturgical dance performed by children and youth in her Methodist Church in New Hampshire. All are rooted in the biblical culture of dance. And for those who believe dancing can only be done by the feet, let it be known that dance has become popular in our secular world for people in wheelchairs, and people who can only make gestures with their hands, faces and other parts of their bodies. This includes people in liturgical traditions like our own, where bodily movement and gesture are sacramental, if not very discreet.
But back to David. When the dancing is over, David blesses the people and then he invites the multitude, both men and women who are gathered there, to share in a feast of rich and plentiful food. And then, when the celebration is over, the revelers simply go home. But you can be sure of one thing. This story and others continue to inspire and generate the joy of the dance in religious traditions throughout the world.
I wish I could say the same for the story we heard in our gospel lesson today. This is also a story of celebration and dance, but the dancing in this story comes to a cruel and vindictive end. The event is King Herod’s birthday, and he has invited his courtiers and officers and the leaders of Galilee to a banquet in his honor. His daughter, Herodias, better known as Salome to us, provides the entertainment. Now, it is obvious that Salome is a very good dancer. She pleases her father and his guests so greatly that Herod vows to grant her anything she wishes if she will continue to dance for them. He even offers her half of his kingdom. And he makes this vow publicly to impress his guest. Well, Salome dances the dance of her life, but her father is shocked and “deeply grieved” by her request for payment. She wants John the Baptist dead, his head brought to her on a platter. And Herod feels compelled to comply because it is a point of honor that he grant this request to save face with his important guests. Now, we all know how this story ends. Most of the sermons you will ever hear focus on the beheading of John the Baptist and the devastating effect this has on his cousin, Jesus. But today I want to focus on the importance of dance in our scriptures.
In both stories we heard from Samuel and Mark, David and Salome dance for good purpose, but with very different reasons and very different ends. The difference is that David dances a mighty and joyful dance of life, in thanks-giving to God, while Salome dances a mean and seductive dance of death. David dances to please the Lord; Salome dances to please her father and mother.
In our gospel account Herod and his wife manipulate their young and innocent daughter for selfish purpose and evil intent. Herod seizes the opportunity to use Salome to gain favor and status among his honored guests. Herod’s sense of pride, his need to be honored by his guests, and his need to please his wife at any cost, all require him to keep his vow to Salome, even though the price he must pay seems too high. It is clear that Herod does not want to have this prophet killed; because, in fact, Herod is fond of John the Baptizer; he knows he is a holy and righteous man and, if anything, Herod has been his protector. He only wants to put John in jail for a time to diminish John’s popularity with his followers. Herod’s wife, on the other hand, wants John put to death for publicly accusing Herod of being married to her unlawfully. So, while Herod seeks familial and public peace by putting John in jail, his wife seeks revenge for the public shame and humiliation John has subjected her to. And now Herod has no choice; he must have John beheaded, because this is the most convenient solution for his dilemma.
So, one important question we might ask about our gospel lesson today is this: Where do we find ourselves in this story? Where do we see ourselves in these characters? We might remember a time that, like Salome, as a child or a vulnerable adult, someone used our talent or abused our innocence for personal pleasure or gain. The “Me, too” movement comes to my mind. We might recall a time when, like John the Baptist, we had our own head taken off—figuratively speaking— saying or doing the right thing and for the right reason, but it was also the unpopular thing. This always happens to people like John who “speak truth to power.” Or to stupidity. But it may be a little more difficult for us to see ourselves in the person of Herod who seems to function with a “conscience of convenience.” Herod makes us look at those times we have conveniently denied our conscience for some self-seeking good or self-serving end; when we could have done the right thing, but we didn’t. It may be even more difficult to see ourselves in the person of Herod’s wife, because her actions make us recall times when we planned strategies to manipulate or control others our self-seeking desires and our self-serving ends. Like Herod, it was too easy it was too easy for us to decapitate our conscience for the sake of a convenience.
I think we can agree, this story is hard on us when we see ourselves in the mirror these characters reflect to us. We might remember or admit that in the dance of our own life we have also danced the dance of Salome, the dance of Herod and the dance of Herod’s wife, feasting on our compliance with evil, feasting on the convenience of our pride and privilege, feasting on our hatred for people who are not like us, and our desire for revenge for people who hurt or betray us until we realize that, in the end, the food that we eat becomes poison to our own life and our own souls, and the dances we dance are dances of death.
But thank God we hear this story of David in our readings for today. Thank God we get to see what it is like to dance with the Lord of life; this Lord who has come to be called the “Lord of the dance.” Because we know that David dances his dance to glorify God. And he takes so much joy in serving God’s purpose for his him in this moment that he leaps and dances with all his might. Thank God, because today David invites us to see ourselves in his story, as well. As a people of faith, we also remember moments of joy and celebration in serving God’s purpose for our own life as we dance the dance of worship and service to God with all our might. Moments which transcend the limitations of language to express our enthusiasm; moments that move us to shout, clap our hands, wave our arms, gesture with our movements, or just plain dance for joy.
Thank God for David who helps us remember our gratitude for God’s blessing us in this dance of life. Gratitude which spills over into generosity and makes us a blessing to others and a blessing to God. David’s limitless joy in leading the dance of the Ark of the Lord into Jerusalem; his limitless spirit of holiness in blessing his people, and his limitless generosity in feeding them shows us something about the ways we express our own joy, and blessing, and thanks-giving each time we come together to celebrate the Eucharist. At the invitation our celebrant says, “Lift up your hearts,” and that’s our cue to respond; not just with a cerebral response, but with a heart that leaps and dances for joy in Eucharistic thanksgiving.
This morning, like David and his people, we also celebrate the presence of God in our midst in this Ark of the Lord we call our church. We dance the dance of worship each Sunday with music and song which glorify God. And while I am not David, and we might not consider ourselves a multitude, I’d like to believe that God called me to lead you in this dance we do each Sunday as we worship the God of David. I believe that God also blesses us by our participation in our liturgy of Word and Sacrament as we, too, are fed by the abundance of this table before we leave to go home. Like David, we know when we have put our whole body, and mind and spirit into worshiping the “Lord of the dance.” We know by the blessing we receive in the music of our hymns in the rhythms of our prayers, in the gestures and movements we make as we approach this altar in holy expectation of the gifts we will receive here.
Today, I would like each of us to imagine that we are the multitude, dancing mightily with David as we approach this communion table; think of ourselves as David’s burnt offering, purified by the fire of the Spirit who brought us here today. I would like us to think of ourselves as so very blessed that we can’t help being a blessing to others.
And know that this eucharistic banquet we regularly enjoy enables us to dance the dance of life, even as others around us in our world dance the dances of evil and death. But remember this. David did not dance this dance of life alone, and we cannot dance this dance alone. We need willing and able partners who will dance with us through this world. Most of all we need to be God’s partner in the dance of our life, God’s partner in the dance of our worship and service to others, and God’s partner in all the dances we have with others not like us in a world God made for our common good. We need to follow God’s lead; try not to step on God’s toes; be willing to learn new dance steps; not give up or walk away in anger or frustration. And so, as I take my leave from the good people of Trinity Church, and as you prepare to greet Pam, your new dance partner at Trinity, I believe God has a message for all of us:
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.
And I’ll lead you all in the dance, said he.
To view the entire text of “The Lord of the Dance,” here is the Insert to our Bulletin from this past Sunday: “The Lord of the Dance”–Insert for the Bulletin for July 15, 2018 (PDF)