2 Samuel 6:2-5, 12B-15, Psalm 149:1, 3
“Dancing feet and praying knees do not belong on the same legs.” I will pause if you want to write that down. Words like those gave me problems. I believed them far too long.
Though I was never attracted to dancing, I wanted to go to dances to be with my friends. But, I also wanted to be “a good boy.” The two desires clashed with each other. Repeatedly my parents told me never to “hurt my Christian influence.” I was easily manipulated by guilt.
The pastor in the church in which I grew up warned me about dating Judy and contemplating marriage because she regularly attended square dances and danced. In my early days here in Northminster, numerous times I thanked God that my childhood pastor had never seen Susan Curry, Craig Henry, or Vickie Krutzer dance.
Well, “What did the Bible say?” I felt cheated. Why in Sunday School had I never seen or heard the text that is one of our lectionary readings for today—2 Samuel 6:14. Listen: “David danced before the Lord with all his might.” Did the Bible make a mistake? King David was dancing for God; not just dancing, he was dancing ecstatically. Then I found the music of the Psalmist (149), “Praise the Lord . . . praise his name with dance.”
Through the years I have grown and made discoveries that prompted questions and forced new understanding about authentic spirituality. If dancing feet and praying knees do not belong on the same feet, I finally asked, what are we to think about people for whom dancing is a form of praying? During the Civil Rights march in Selma, people screamed hostility at Rabbi Joshua Heschel telling him he needed to be praying not marching. I have always remembered the great Rabbi’s response, “Our march was worship. I felt my legs were praying.” On a visit in Cappadocia, Turkey, I came to love watching the disciplined Whirling Dervishes dance their prayers with incredible beauty and spirituality. At the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC, Northminster Church’s Choir accompanied by two dancers brought people to a hush in their souls.
What was going on with David?
The Ark of the Covenant was a wooden box considered as a sacred chest built by the Israelites by specifications given to them by God. Spiritually, the Jews considered the Ark virtually identical with the presence of God, the God who had pledged to dwell with the Israelites and guide them with mercy.
The Ark of the Covenant was a movable alter. Remember, there was no temple at that time. So, when the Ark was set down in the desert, that place in the sand became holy ground where people gathered for worship around the Ark that came to be known as the “tent of meeting” or the “tabernacle.”
David’s dancing day was inspired by King David’s decision to move the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem to indicate the nation’s openness to the leadership of God and, to be fully honest, also to nationalize God and make God the exclusive possession of Israel. I don’t have to tell you that through out all of history David was not the only political leader who tried to create a national deity and claim God’s favoritism.
Finally, I shed my guilt and made my peace with dancing, no longer fearful that a dance step or a swift swirl through the air could send me to hell and understanding that a dance could be as favorable to worshiping God as singing, playing a flute, making a sacrifice, or praying. Across the years, as I pondered the image of David dancing around the Ark, it occurred to me that a church house is a symbol of God. That thought created in me a picture of people “dancing around the church.” That was followed by a difficult question. What about a church would fill people with irrepressible joy and cause people to set aside decorum and dance around the church ecstatically?
Now you can easily guess the follow-up inquiry. Are we that kind of church? What kind of church are we?
I encourage each of you to answer that question for yourself and elaborate your answers. Something important can come from that. Of course, you need time to do such thinking. So, allow me please to mention a few of my answers to that question—answers that shape my view of church, expectations of the church, my understanding of personal and professional decisions about ministry in the church.
What kind of church is this?
A Welcoming Church
One afternoon an excited reporter from the News Star asked me for an interview. “About what,” I asked. “Just about the church,” she said, “and the people who come here.” I knew better; I was well aware of a hot controversy growing exponentially over whether or not churches should welcome and accept into their fellowships people whose sexual orientation was not heterosexual.
“Does this church have a policy on sexual orientation?” she asked. My response was, “I want to be sure you that know that Northminster is a Christian Church. Do you know that?”
“Of course, she said.”
“Then you should know that we welcome anyone who wants to worship with us or to be a part of our congregation,” I said.
Seemingly bothered by my statement, the press person said, “So, do you have gay people in this church?”
“Yes, we do,” I answered, “I know that because some of our members have told me about their gender and sexual orientation.”
“How many do you have?” she asked while making notes.
“Honestly, I have no idea,” I responded, “When people come to our church, we welcome them and say we are glad they are here. No one stands at the front door of our church to ask people if they are gay or lesbian, a Republican or a Democrat, or what their take-home pay is. This is a church in which everyone is welcome. I have always thought that followers of Jesus wanted the church to be that way. Do you consider that a news story?”
I enjoyed the conversation as well as the reporter’s frustration over the lack of an argument. She seemed disappointed as, before she left, I asked her, “What does sexual orientation have to do with God’s people?”
A few weeks ago, a teenager named Stella Keating became the youngest transgender person ever to speak to the United States congress. On State of Belief that week I did a commentary on Stella and what she had said to congress. A few days later, I received an email from Lisa Keating, the young woman’s mother. Two or three lines in her letter made me sad and made me happy. “Your piece astounded me,” the mother wrote. Lisa and her husband were surprised that a Christian minister would support her daughter. That troubled me. The last lines of her letter brought tears to my eyes. “The influence and ripple effect of your willingness to write it will literally help save lives and families across our country. For us, we know what courage it takes to take a stand for humanity in the face of ignorance and even bigotry.” What happens to trans is not about conservatives and liberals, it is about life and death. Are we supposed to condemn God for creating transgender people?
Repeatedly, I thank God quietly and passionately that I am so closely associated with a church that, in God’s name, welcomes all people.
A Church that Prizes Liberty and Justice
Last Sunday on the Fourth of July we praised freedom and were reminded again that freedom is not easy. We dare not forget the immortal words of abolitionist Wendell Phillips, “The price of liberty is eternal vigilance.” That reality is also a biblical truth.
Following Jesus with real religion is never a form of bondage; it is always a matter of freedom--for our selves and for others. We teach and seek freedom from an obsession of what is material, from fear, from enslavement to culture, from a preoccupation with popularity, freedom from habit, prejudice, ignorance, and guilt.
Northminster is a church in which people are free to think, question, and argue. For years I have urged people who come to this church to engage my sermons and never lazily accept my words but listen and find their own words and beliefs not as they respond to me but as they respond to the words of God.
Any church that will give up on freedom for its own good or for freedom for anyone else—freedom of conscience, expression, compassion—is not worthy of claiming the name “church.” Conversely a church committed to freedom and actively involved in the work of liberation is a church that can inspire singing and dancing.
One day when I got off the plane here in Monroe a young man stopped me and asked, “Are you the pastor of that church in town that really cares about justice?” A chill ran down my back. “I am the pastor of Northminster Church in Monroe,” I said. Before I finished my sentence the man said, “Yes, that’s it. Not many churches do that,” he said, “thank you all for what you do.” My heart and soul were dancing.
There are so many more characteristics of a church that evoke at a minimum justice, hopefully grace, and, if you can’t help it, dancing.
When a church’s vision and ministry merge, that church and its pastor are committed to a ministry of truths of the gospel and love for the world, a ministry of comfort and disturbance, a ministry that understands weeping as well as laughing, a ministry preserving tradition and not fearing change, a ministry of calling for repentance and readily offers forgiveness, and a ministry of working for justice and embodying grace.
Northminster tries to be such a church. Sometimes we don’t get in a hundred miles of that vision and commitment to ministry. Most of the time, though, we come very close. And there are moments when “we nail it” and vision becomes reality. When that happens there is nothing like it.
A Church Filled with Passion
I must name one more characteristic of a lively, worshiping, and ministering church. There is no substitute for passion. From passion flow love, risk, justice, generosity, and grace.
Passion is both the promise of love and a derivative of love! It is passion generated by love that fuels the energy that is devoted to changing the world and to caring for individuals. Passionate love knows no end to its expressions of care even if the recipient of that love neither understands nor appreciates the gift of love or the passion.
Caution is in order. Passion is often hurt because it is contradictory to conventional wisdom or classic reason. All too often the strongest of passions are met with rejection that hurts like hell. Passion is virtually always considered somewhat suspect. It happens between people and in churches.
Interestingly, impassioned people do not know how to give up. They will not be stopped or stilled by anything other than a full, multi-faceted expression of their passion. Their life is never about convenience, timing, political correctness, or social acceptance; their life is about sharing.
Passion is what motivates a congregation to commit themselves to worship characterized by a ritual excellence and spiritual intensity that reflect absolute reverence and adoration for God. Passion is also what inspires a congregation to go against cultural mores and community opinions to embrace in its fellowship people at whom other religious institutions look with scorn. Passion is the source of fidelity to a church that sees inconvenience and conflict related to participation in it as opportunities for a demonstration of one’s commitment to the church.
Passion is to a meaningful life what blood is to a healthy body. Passion is what takes us into the relationships, institutions, and actions that define who we are and demonstrate who God is to us. Passion shapes a way of life unthreatened even by death.
A Personal Story
I want to tell you a personal story that I have shared with only a few people. I could not have told you this story five years ago. Only after wading through a lot of thoughts and reflections, can I now tell the story.
Not infrequently people have asked me, “What was your most fulfilling experience when preaching at Northminster?” It’s a tough question, though I have numerous answers to it. It was fulfilling when two or three times someone has said, “My whole life I have waited to hear that sermon” or “Thank you for making me think.” I will always remember baptizing two people in the GLBTQ+ community who thought they would never be welcome in a church. The look in their eyes as I raised them out of the water--sincerity, affirmation, pride, acceptance, human, and joy--embodied spirituality.
Now you may think this strange. One of the most special moments in this pulpit for me and in my life you may not understand.
A few days after nine people were killed in Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in South Carolina and members of that congregation who had lost friends and family members forgave the killer as he stood before a judge. Changes for the good happened. I knew I had to talk about what happened there from this pulpit. As I planned my sermon, I knew I had to end the sermon with “Glory”--that music from the movie “Selma.”
One day when the glory comes
It will be ours, it will be ours
Oh one day when the war is won
We will be sure, we will be sure.
A week or two in advance, I asked Debi to find someone who could present that song at the end of the service, but she was unable to engage the people she wanted. Debi said, “I am sorry we can’t do the song.” No sooner were those words out of her mouth than I said, “I will do it. I will sing “Glory.”
I asked DH if he would help me learn the lyrics. I think he asked, “You know that is a rap?” “Yes,” I said, “That’s why I need you. That song has to happen in worship that Sunday.”
If anyone had ever told me that I would perform a rap in our pulpit or anywhere else, I never would have believed it. A time or two while rehearsing, I asked myself, “What if I make a fool of myself?” But not once did I consider not doing what I promised to do.
What had I said? What was I doing? My passion took me miles away from my risk-control caution. My nature has always been to not do anything I can’t do with some degree of expertise. But that was gone. I worked on that rap more times that I can count. I felt it had to happen. And it did.
I have preached in some great pulpits where heroes of mine have stood before. But as I finished the rap in that service I felt inordinately, inexplicably fulfilled. I have thought about that experience many times. I felt good about what I had done. Later in my life, I was proud that for the good of the church and the power of the gospel--that’s why I did it--l did something I thought I could never do.
Only two or three times in my life have I felt like I completely let myself go so something important could be done. Passion prevailed. Love gave me strength. The church heard “Glory.”
Either with passion and commitment, I got out of myself or, for a moment in time, I got totally into myself.
I am not the only one who has done that here. Scores of other people in this church have done for this church what they never thought they could do.
What kind of church is this? It’s a Church that can move people out of their comfort zones to do what needs to be done and do it with passion. It’s a church that can stretch one’s theology and cause people to hug someone they would have run from before. A Church that can transform people is a church that can inspire people to dance like David.