2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19
“Is it Appropriate to Dance?”
A few weeks ago, I looked ahead at the lectionary readings that would be coming up for this Sunday as the congregation of First Church began to return to the sanctuary to worship together in person. When I saw today’s text from 2nd Samuel, I thought “How appropriate!” King David is taking the ark of the covenant – the holy box containing the tablets with the ten commandments from God – and he’s processing them into Jerusalem, the City of David, with singing, dancing, and exuberant joy.
Of course, there’s no temple yet in Jerusalem. That isn’t built until David’s son, Solomon, is king after him. But as David brings the ark into the city that will be the centre of his kingdom, the place where all the tribes of Israel will meet under his leadership, there is a sense that God himself will be installed here. This will be a special place where God will be present, and God will be worshipped, and all the people will gather here to worship, and praise, and learn to follow the one true God of all the world.
And this building, this sanctuary is a special place for us too. It’s a place where so many people have gathered over the last 96 years to worship, to praise, and to learn to follow God who has been made known to us in Jesus Christ our Lord. This has been a place where we have shared love and laughter, sorrow and grief, made promises and experienced blessing. Sitting in these pews, many of us have pondered the meaning and purpose of our lives, laid down our burdens, and been encouraged and empowered to live every day as disciples of Jesus.
We have certainly sung a lot of songs of praise in this sanctuary, perhaps not with quite as many percussion instruments as David had on that day when he brought the ark up into Jerusalem. Where he had songs and lyres and harps and tambourines and castanets and cymbals, we use pianos and organs and voices, and sometimes a guitar.
And I suppose it’s been pretty rare to see the Presbyterians at First Church actually dancing. Maybe a little gentle swaying to the rhythm of a lively song, clapping carefully on the beat when singing “The Lord of the Dance”, or just subtly tapping a toe inside a shoe. We’ve been called the “frozen chosen” by some, and certainly in generations past worship was a very formal event requiring proper attire and dignified singing, sitting, listening, and praying quietly.
In some communities where liturgical dance has been introduced as an offering of praise much like a “Ministry of Music” or anthem, some Presbyterians have struggled to accept it asking, “Is it even appropriate to dance in church?”
Which takes us back to our biblical text for today. Second Samuel chapter six provides us with a picture of the majestic elements of worship, all of which add to our imaginations and sensations. There are instruments to celebrate God’s presence among this people, often used in Israel’s worship. And there is dancing – this physical expression of great joy and gladness, with human bodies giving expression to the indescribable delight of being in the presence of God.
Yet the narrator of 2nd Samuel interrupts this celebration with a stark image: the picture of Michal, identified as the daughter of Saul, looking out a window, watching “King David leaping and dancing before the Lord” and despising “him in her heart.”
This raises the question of “why?” What upset the daughter of Saul so much that she hated to watch David singing and dancing in the procession with the Ark of the Covenant? Well, if you read a little further in the chapter, the narrator suggests that Michal’s disdain was due to David’s shameful display. She complains about his nakedness, pointing out that there were young girls watching him. She calls him “vulgar.”
But Michal wasn’t only the daughter of David’s predecessor, King Saul, who had long been an enemy to David, but Michal was also one of David’s wives. And she had been treated like a pawn in the conflict between Saul and David. Commentator Wyndy Corbin Reuschling summarizes what we know from the Scripture stories about Michal:
“She was given by Saul in marriage to David, and we are told ‘she loved David’. She protected David when Saul attempted to kill him, lying to her father. And perhaps as punishment, again Michal’s father gives her away, this time to [another man] Palti. However, this abusive treatment of Michal is not over, when David demands her return as a spoil of war. The scene is wrenching: she was taken from her husband Palti, one who truly loved her, [and he] ‘went with her, weeping as he walked behind her all the way’ until he was commanded, like a dog, to go home.”
Although Michal’s stated objection is to David’s shameful display, I wonder if it was more than just his nakedness that made his dancing seem inappropriate to her. I wonder if his lavish display of joy and gladness magnified her experience of abuse and suffering. I wonder if she really wanted to shout that he was a hypocrite – that while he was worshipping God with such glee, he was ignoring God’s demands for justice, dignity, and love for God’s children.
Reuschling puts it this way: “The God to whom worship was given in this most visual way as the ark was brought into Jerusalem is the same God who expected justice, something that was denied to Michal by David, a leader of the worship procession.”
Reading that sure puts the pressure on those of us who lead publicly in worship. Is it appropriate for us to rejoice, sing, or even dance for joy because of God’s blessings? Or might someone look at us with contempt also because our lives do not measure up to God’s expectations for goodness, righteousness, and justice for all people?
This morning’s service is something of a celebration for us. It’s not that it’s a special feast day for the church or anything, but it’s the first Sunday since last Fall that we’ve opened our church building for public worship as the Covid-19 Pandemic tapers off (and hopefully doesn’t come back in another wave). But we know that there are many others who are not able to gather, places where the pandemic continues to rage, where vaccines are not available, where poverty and other challenges will extend the crisis for many months to come.
And if we pay no heed to the communities and populations that are having trouble accessing vaccines, and if we do not advocate and give from our resources to share what we have with others… then perhaps they would be right in calling us hypocrites for our selfish celebration of privilege.
Over the last few weeks, much of the public conversation about celebration swirled around what we should or shouldn’t do on Canada Day. Would it be appropriate to dance and sing and wave our Canadian flags at this time, given that so many Indigenous people in our country are actively grieving and lamenting the discovery of so many unmarked graves at former residential schools across Canada?
Would it be appropriate to rejoice and celebrate this great nation of Canada, or would that make us hypocrites who were ignoring the reality of our shared history of colonization, injustice, and even genocide?
Although the debates raged in the media and on social media about whether we should be wearing red or orange on July 1st, I think that most communities found ways to mark Canada Day while commemorating and honouring the children whose graves have been discovered. There were learning events, opportunities for reflection, and vigils to pray together and support those heavy with grief and anger.
I believe that there will come a day when we can simply get together for a joyous party once again, but I think it’s good that most Canadian communities allowed for an interruption in their plans to pay attention to the need for truth-telling, repentance, and change in our society.
As you know, many churches across the country were also impacted by acts of vandalism in the last few weeks. I wonder if you heard about Grace Presbyterian Church in Calgary, where in the early morning of July 1st, two sets of doors at the church had red paint splattered on them. The church described the paint as “an act of protest and expression of grief regarding the recent discoveries of numerous unmarked graves at the sites of former residential schools in Kamloops, Cowessess, Cranbrook, and other places in Canada.”
In a Facebook post, the church said, “We do recognize that the red paint may be of great concern to you, and we share this concern. However, the plan is to allow the red paint to remain on the doors of the church until July 8th and possibly beyond. Our reasoning for leaving the paint is to allow for further conversation and engagements with the community about the history of residential schools in Canada and the involvement of The Presbyterian Church in Canada.” And of course, they linked to further information on their website.
Yesterday, when we arrived at our church, we found a teddy bear sitting on the step by the 14th Avenue Door. We don’t know who put it there, but it was not discarded or tossed out. It was clearly placed in that spot… perhaps to remember and honour a child, perhaps to honour the many children who died. I wonder if it was also placed there to remind me, and to remind us as we gather to worship God today, of our collective responsibility for this tragic history and our call to change the ways we live together in this country and on this land.
Imagine if King David had known the pain and anger that his celebration was prompting within the heart of his wife, Michal. Imagine if he had looked up and noticed her expression of anguish, and if he had paused to find out what was troubling her. Imagine if she could have been honest with him about her anger, pointing out his cruelty and injustice. Imagine if he had listened to her concerns, not just dismissing them as ancient history, but looking for a way to make things right and do better from now on.
I don’t think that our history in this country means that we must never again celebrate Canada Day. And I don’t think that our history in the church means that we cannot rejoice in God’s goodness and give thanks for the blessings in our lives.
Is it appropriate to dance? I believe so. But it’s a dance that is inspired not by our privileged circumstances, but by our gratitude for God’s grace to us, our faith in God’s plan to gather up all things and all people in Christ, and our hope that God is equipping us with the power of the Holy Spirit to be a blessing to others as we become instruments of justice and love in the world.
On June 15th The Presbyterian Church in Canada published a statement in response to the devastating confirmation of unmarked graves on the grounds of former Residential Schools in Canada. The statement makes many commitments for the church to act upon, and we are beginning to do so, with careful listening to the affected communities and in line with their wishes, and in consultation with the National Indigenous Ministry Council.
The Assembly Council also established the Honouring the Children: Reconciliation and Residential Schools Fund. This fund will support initiatives associated with searches for unmarked burial sites in communities where schools were operated by The Presbyterian Church in Canada.
This work begins with listening. We continue to live out the covenants made in the 1994 Confession , be led by the principles articulated by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada and seek the guidance of Indigenous people and affected communities. Responses may include searching for graves, responding to trauma and supporting healing initiatives. All work will complement efforts to address systemic racism against Indigenous people, both in the church and Canadian society, and the ongoing healing and reconciliation work being done in the ministries of the National Indigenous Ministry Council.
To begin, the church has committed $1 million from national funds, and invites congregations and individuals to make additional contributions to this important work.
In a few minutes, after we pray together, we will sing a song of celebration called “Worship the Lord.” And maybe we will even move a little to the rhythm of the song as we sing: “Worship the Lord, worship the Father the Spirit, the Son, raising our hands in devotion to God who is one!”
And even as we sing our praise, we will be reminded that our worship and our work must be one. With God’s help, may it be so, as we seek to glorify God in our worship and honour God through our commitment to justice and healing in our society.