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Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Liturgy of the Dance

Texts: 2 Samuel 6.15; 12b-19; Ephesians 1.3-14; Mark 6.14.29

I’ll never forget the first time that I went to one of those massive dance parties that the gay community organises here in Melbourne around Easter.  Having agreed to accompany a friend of mine, I soon learned that there was more to dancing than just dancing, for the whole event unfolded according to the rubrics of a long-established ritual.  As with any half-decent liturgy, the preparations for our participation began well before the event itself.  At 3 o’clock, I assisted my friend in removing his excess body-hair and then moisturising.  At five o’clock we showered, shaved, re-moisturized, and applied the golden tanning-lotion that would make our bodies look tastily Latin.  Then we donned our vestments—loose jeans and muscle-shirts—all the while making our way through a sumptuous bottle of red. 

Having prepared ourselves thus, we made our way to a tasty little pad in Fitzroy for what I have come to see as the Gathering Rites and the Liturgy of the Word.  Arriving at 7.30 pm precisely, my friend and I were greeted at the door with smiles of recognition, hugs and kisses, and an introduction or two.  Climbing the stairs, I remember entering a room which can only be described as  . . . soothing.   You know, the lights were low, and the music was gentle.  I was new at this, but the gathering tribe greeted me kindly.  Everyone was smiling.  Everyone had a drink in their hands.  Over the four-hour dinner that followed, I was gently questioned about who I was and why I had come.  They discovered I was a minister, so I spent the evening listening to confessions and homilies from lapsed Catholics, Anglicans, Presbyterians and atheists.  Very spiritual it was, very spiritual indeed.  In the background, the pace and the volume of the music seemed to rise with the spirits of the people.  There was laughter, the telling of stories, even some singing—a kind of longing or supplication for that which had not yet arrived or come together in our lives. 

At 11.30pm, the Liturgy of the Sacrament began.  Handing over their offerings, each received from the host a half-tab of ecstasy.  (As a mere catechumen, I did not feel I could accept).  Asking why the ecstasy was strictly necessary, I was told that it was all part of the experience.  If one did not take the ecstasy, it was more difficult to give oneself to the dancing, to be taken out of oneself by the music.  The ecstasy, they said, helps you to lose yourself, so that yours fears and anxieties slide away into irrelevance.  It also gives you the stamina to dance until dawn.  “You’re not going to make it without this stuff,” they told me.  So, off we went in our taxi to the dance. 

From the moment we started across the tarmac to the warehouse, there was a buzz in the air.  People were excited, very excited.  From all around, from every angle, bodies were pouring into this huge cathedral-like warehouse where the heady concoction of electronic rhythms, dazzling lights, and writhing bodies was beginning to work its magic—the magic, that is, of turning 9000 individuals into a communion of bodies which moved as one.  In there, you see, it was too loud for talk or conversation.  Here the words shared earlier in the evening had to take on other forms, mainly the form of The Dance.  In the Dance, everyone communicated with everyone else through the presence of another, the presence of music.  Music became the great mediator and host.   Everyone moved together, at once initiating and responding to the impulses of the bodies which were nearest.  As the night went on, I drank deeply of that music, at times even feeling that the Music and I had merged to become the same entity and that, in the same movement, a genuine communion with these other human beings (usually very different to me) had become possible as well.  I was intoxicated.  

But my friends had been right.  By about 3 am I was running out of puff, so much so that I was barely able to register the arrival in my personal space of a celebrity, a real celebrity.  Magda Zubanski!  (She’s very short!)  By four, I was completely whacked and ready to leave.   So I said my farewells and left, while my new friends continued their ecstasy-enhanced worship.  As I left the rhythms behind and set out on the long walk back to Clifton Hill, the chill morning air brought me back to myself.  The sense of being intoxicated subsided.  And I found myself asking a question, of myself or God, I do not know. Was this Dance I’d encountered just an escape from the pain of life, an escape into the drug-assisted nothingness of an egoless communal; or was it, rather, the arrival of a more divine Self, a Self which puts to death, for a moment, the ego’s self-obsession, so that we are enabled, if only for a moment, to catch a glimpse of what Love might make of us?

That question returned to me again as I read this extraordinary passage from 2nd Samuel, the story of David’s dancing before the Ark of the Lord.  For David, like so many young men and women in our community today, had a great deal of pain in his life.  Snatched from the simple and, well, un-complex, life of a shepherd on the hillsides of Israel, David became embroiled in the complex personal and social politics of his time.  On the basis of his miraculous defeat of Goliath, captain of the enemy Philistines, Israel’s King Saul had taken David to himself as a mascot for the fighting men, a symbol of the presence of Yahweh in their midst.  Indeed, Saul came to love David as his men did.  Yet, as David took to fighting in more conventional ways, and succeeded more and more as a leader of men, Saul grew jealous and afraid.  What if David grew hungry for the throne?  What then?  So Saul began to plot against David’s life, timidly at first, but more madly and boldly as time went by.  Eventually, David had to become a fugitive from the very King he had loved and honoured.  In his distress, he found a loyal and loving companion in Saul’s son Jonathan, who helped David to escape Saul’s net on more than one occasion.  The love between them was sealed with a covenant, we are told; indeed their love for each other surpassed the love between men and women.  We are told that too.  So when David is finally forced to a guerrilla war against Saul, and Jonathan is killed along with his father, David is shaken to the core.  In reading this story of David’s early life, one cannot help but think that he was caught up in events over which he had very little control, even to the point of being forced to do that which he dreaded most.  So, as David dances ecstatically in the midst of this wild and musical procession to Jerusalem, it is possible that he dances as a man would if he wanted to escape his life.  Could it be that he dances in order to forget the pain of his conflict with Saul, and the grief of his loss of Jonathan?  Could it be that he dances, like so many of our young people today, in order to escape himself?  Maybe so.  Maybe so.

Yet we are told by the authors of this passage - indeed, David says it himself - that he dances “before the Lord,” before Yahweh the God of Israel.  The authors want us to understand that the dance of David is a form of divine worship, a dancing which was not unusual in Israel, particularly if one belonged to the traditions of the prophets.  Earlier in the story of David we are told that he spent considerable time hiding out with a particular order of prophets who lived at Ramah under the leadership of Samuel.  It was common at that time, we are told, that the prophets would fall into ecstatic trances when the Spirit came upon them.  Their bodies would convulse as a sign that it was God who directed their speech as well as their bodies (1 Sam 19.18ff).  The dance of David owes something to this, I suspect.  Those who saw him would have understood that he danced as an oracle would, that the movement of his body and the cries of his rejoicing should be taken as a word of encouragement for the people from God.  As the Ark was processed into Jerusalem, so the Lord’s own favour would return to his embattled people, to undergird and support his servant David in all that he did on their behalf.  All the more so because this prophetic message is presented within a priestly and liturgical framework.  David danced in an ephod, we are told, which is amongst the most sacred garments of a priest.  He also offers sacrifices for sin and well-being before the Ark, as a priest would have done.  The message is clear.  David’s dancing is, at one and the same time, an act of worship and a message from God.  In the priestly persona he prays to God on behalf of the people.  He cries out with their longings for peace and prosperity.  In the prophetic persona, he becomes at the same time an oracle for God, one who addresses the people with a word of assurance and promise. 

Dancing, I suggest to you tonight, is therefore a potent symbol of the gospel covenant as we experience it in our worship.  It can become, for us, the double-performance of both human prayer and divine address.  On the one hand, the Dance can expresses our deep desire and longing to be free of conflict and grief and sorrow and oppression.  I believe I witnessed that longing in the dancing of the gay community that night in the docklands—the longing of a people still deplored and feared, not least by many of our churches and the families who inhabit them.  One can also see something of that spirit in the dance scene from The Matrix Reloaded, when the whole of the people of the city of Zion dance out their longing for salvation from the machines that are coming to destroy them.  On the other hand, the Dance can become an icon or oracle of God for us, a material and fleshly way by which God calls us to turn, in repentance, to accept with empty hands God’s gracious offer of mercy, forgiveness, and healing.  In the image and experience of the dance, then, God shows us a profound mystery.  The mystery that theologians call Christ, or the Paschal Mystery.  In Christ the man, you see, all the pains and griefs and longing of human beings are lived out in a life of total prayer, a prayer offered to God as one who hears, and loves, and saves.   Yet, in Christ, we also learn that the griefs and longings of human beings belong to God first of all.  For Christ is God amongst us, living our griefs and dying our deaths, that we might also die to our fears and our sins, and be reborn to a new kind of live altogether.   Christ, in his Spirit, continues to live amongst us in the church, living our prayer and praying our life until earth and heaven are reconciled, and all are finally free as Christ is free.

The Dance of David, then, is an important symbol of both our Christian gospel and our Christian experience.  Like all good symbols, it should be taken literally.  That is, it should be lived in the body as well as spoken about in conversation.  For when I go dancing with my friends, I experience something of my own pain and longing.  I long for a world in which, for example, gay Christians are accepted not only as priests and ministers, but more importantly as human beings, capable, and worthy of, the giving and receiving of love.  Yet, when I go dancing with my friends, I also hear and experience something of God’s good news.  That despite everything, Christ has died our death that we might die his.  In the experience of the Dance, God invites us to leave our selves, selves full of pain and bitterness and malice, behind: to nail that self to the cross with Christ, that we might rise into the joy of the children of God and share in the ecstasy of the divine dance of love, which is the true liturgy of the redeemed.

Of course, dancing is not always unambiguously good, as the gospel reading shows.  There the child Herodius loses herself in the dance, only to be possessed by the evil intentions of her mother toward the prophet, John the Baptist.  In a similar way many of our young people, in losing themselves to the dance, make themselves the victims of unscrupulous people and their sordid intentions.  Still . . .   I would witness that the Dance, if it is a dance before God and in the power of the Spirit, really can save us.  If we can lose ourselves in the worship of Christ, then Christ will come to fill our emptied egos with good things, with his own self, a self which has passed through the waters of despair, and now dances in the freedom of God.  In this new ballroom of grace and promise, we join the dance of God’s own self—forever ceding ourselves for the other’s sake, and yet receiving truer, kinder, more loving selves from the other in return.  And so I say to you, finally, tonight.  Lose yourselves in the Dance, and the Dance will become the source of your rejoicing. Both now and in the life to come. Amen

This sermon was first preached at South Yarra Baptist Church in 2003.