As long as I can remember there have been some constants in my life especially in the world of the arts: music, art, and dance. Music- I love just about any kind; jazz, rhythm and blues, church music (the hymns and especially Gospel), opera, and show tunes. I can’t play a note save being able to hold a few steady rhythms on my bass conga drum and my voice; well, I think I can at least hold a note. Art-growing up I spent so many hours drawing, painting, sketching and then during my discernment period, three years of teaching it in the St. Louis Public School system. Then there is DANCE! Give me a good beat and I am reading to soar (at least in my mind’s eye these days)! A little tap, a little ballet, a little modern, but most of all Dunham Technique. I didn’t begin to dance until my college years when I became enthralled by the movement and expression taught in the extra curricular courses at Webster of this technique born from the vision of world renowned Katherine Dunham. Some time in the first semester of being moved by the beat of conga drums and the sway of a unique mixture of jazz, ballet and American, Caribbean, South American, and African movements I was indeed hooked. Dance was my thing six days a week, several hours of the day. Those were long and sometimes grueling hours at SIU-East St. Louis under the watchful of Dunham instructors and even Miss Dunham herself on many occasions. I went from student to instructor over a span of several years until the realization that I needed a REAL job kicked in.
It is just my humble opinion that just about anyone can be artistic. You can at least appreciate music if you can’t hold a tune. You really don’t have to be able to draw a straight line to create art. And anyone and everyone can dance! Some of us may not know a je`te from a plie` or how to tap or even do the moonwalk but all of us in this room are capable of some form of movement from the swaying of one’s body or to a steady nodding of the head or to the tapping of one’s toes.
In today’s first reading from the 2nd Book of Samuel we heard of David’s expression of joy and praise to God. His dance was a form of religious rejoicing as David had triumphed over the Philistines and he was now bringing the Ark to the city of Jerusalem. We are told that “David and all the house of Israel were dancing before the Lord with all their might”, with songs and with instruments. They indeed, brought a joyful noise unto the Lord! David was able let go of himself, this king before his people, with great abandon in praise for what God had done. There in the Psalms, attributed to David, are songs of praise songs that speak of letting go and giving God the praise due in God’s name. Psalm 149 verses 1-3 read:
“Hallelujah! Sing to the Lord a new song; sing his praise in the congregation of the faithful. Let Israel rejoice in his Maker; let the children of Zion be joyful in their King. Let them praise his Name in the dance; let them sing praise to him with timbrel and harp.”
According to Strong’s Concise Concordance of the Bible, dance or the act of dancing can be found in both the Old and the New Testaments. Dance can also be found in Christian art. For instance, there is fresco painting by Fra Angelico, an early Italian Renaissance painter and Franciscan friar, of saints and angels doing a round dance. If you look on the website of St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco you can find a wonderful glimpse of “The Dancing Saints” by iconographer Mark Dukes. This 3,000 square foot painting wraps the entire Church rotunda and features 90 larger-than- life saints and a 12 foot dancing Christ together dancing in the space above the congregation. King David, Teresa of Avila, Thurgood Marshall, Mahatma Gandhi, Thomas Becket, Francis of Assisi, Anne Frank and Sojourner Truth are just a few who are among the very diverse people of various faiths and backgrounds beautifully illustrated and they are linked hand in hand in an amazing celestial dance joining with the congregation who are also moving below without abandon in that sacred space.
To experience dance in worship is not a foreign thing for me. I have to admit at this point that I was reminded of my first experience of dance in a House of Worship during my college days. We were preparing for a production of James Baldwin’s “Amen Corner”. The director thought it would be a good idea for members of the cast to experience a bonafide, Bible-thumping, ‘get caught up in the Spirit’ church service in the city. Well, the preacher got to preaching and the choir began to sway to and fro and before too long two or three of them had danced themselves until they fell out. I said to myself “What in the world is this?????” And after I saw a child let out a hoop and fall into the arms of someone I thought was her mother, THIS child was ready to go! That experience may have helped me in my role but I really did not understand what it was that I had seen. It was a long, long time afterward that I understood that something really SACRED had happened. It wasn’t until I had been missioned to St. Alphonsus Rock that what I had experienced many years before and was experiencing at the Rock that people, people who looked like me, were bringing all that they were to the worshipping experience. Like some of our Native American brothers and sisters, some African American congregations and I truly suspect there are others; we bring all that we are into our worship experience-our songs, our stories, our joys, our frustrations, our tears, our shouts, our thankfulness, our AMENS and especially our dance to our Creator. Each Sunday at the Rock, the processions are led by someone bearing a bowl of incense. The incense blesses the space while the entire processional party dances down the aisle. And when the choir sings a great song (and there were many), the whole room is engaged-visitors as well as members, clapping and swaying and sometimes a dance or two-I imagine just like David did. Those kinds of services only remind me of the joy of knowing, really knowing and remembering what God can and will do; of worship that is truly communal, joyful, Spirit-led and very REAL!
Now, before some of you get a little nervous, I am not saying that I am expecting to introduce liturgical dance here at the Cathedral in the very near future. And for the record- my heart, like your hearts perhaps, gets glad in a different sort of way these days. The point is that today’s lesson, David’s dance of joy before God, causes us to ponder our own “dance” with the Divine.
The truth be told, we do indeed, “dance” every Sunday in our worship time together. In our liturgies there is movement that is all at once sacred, emotional, physical and intellectual. The moment we step into this space we are engaged with one another in movement. Our processions with voices raised high gathers us as one into this place to give God glory and our processions take us out into the world to act as God’s hands and feet in the world. The Book of Gospels takes center stage, if you will, for the hearing of God’s word in our midst. We partner as we clasp hands or embrace one another as we share a sign of God’s peace. Our offerings, our gifts are brought to God’s Table where they are blessed, broken, and shared. As David and his people shared a meal of cake, meat and raisins, we share in a different type of meal, a meal that sustains us within, as we come forward to receive the precious Body and Blood of Christ. And as we leave this place, our dance is meant to continue in witness “to the praise of (God’s) glorious grace that (God) freely bestows on us in the Beloved” as Paul said in his letter to the Ephesians.
From time to time there are occasions when our “choreography” steps out of the box for us Episcopalians. I am mindful of a Eucharist during this past Holy Week when toward the end of our liturgy we were invited to join in a round dance, just the twelve of us-some of us a bit nervous and shy and some of us who relished in the very notion of linking ourselves one to the other in a rare but precious moment of religious rejoicing, in this very room. I think of ‘Mass in the Grass’ in Tower Grove Park a couple of Sundays ago when roughly three hundred of us swayed beneath those trees with arms uplifted singing “Here I Am, Lord” and “We Shall Overcome.” In fact, I do remember the last time we sang “We Shall Overcome” in this space- a cappella, and the dance was divinely organic as it began in somewhere within these rowed chairs. I just know God was smiling on that day!
David’s dance of celebration is OUR dance for God continues to do marvelous things for us and through us. There may be times when we feel like there is nothing to celebrate. We may feel lost or afraid or very much removed for what ever reason. But God always invites us to “leave ourselves, to leave our pain behind for a moment and to share in the divine dance of love, which is the true liturgy in which we know God.”*
“Shall we dance?” God asks of all of us. Dance with me! Not SOME of us but ALL of us. Everyone is invited to participate-from Oslo to Ottawa, from Cape Town to Cape Cod, from Assam to Anaheim! No matter what race, class, gender or barrier someone decides to throw up- we are all linked one to another in God’s amazing celestial dance of life!
May we never be afraid to offer our voices, our bodies, our very lives for the glory of God. And let all who have breath praise Him! Amen!
*taken from a sermon by the Rev. Abel Lopez, All Saints Church, CA