Sermon, Eight Sunday after Pentecost (July 15, 2018)

Fifty-eight miles south of Oklahoma City, you will find the Town of Elmore City. In 1861, James Oliver Elmore opened a wagon repair shop, in what was then still Indian Territory, to service settlers traveling the area. In 1890, a supply store followed and gradually a small community began to form so that in 1898 Elmore City was officially incorporated. Like so many towns, Elmore City has had its up and downs in these past 130 years; today the city counts 736 residents, living in 351 homes (50 homes are currently vacant, according to realtor statistics). Its local high school has about 200 students, drawn from Elmore and the surrounding towns and communities of the local school district.  

Yet, this small community made headlines in the early eighties when students from this school challenged a local ordinance and petitioned the city leaders to overturn a ban on dancing, so they could have a real prom at graduation. See, ever since the early days when Elmore City was formed, Elmore was the only town in the U.S. ever to officially outlaw dancing. Despite the resistance of a local preacher, decrying the familiar evils of dancing and that ‘one thing leads to another’, the students were victorious and got their prom that year. We know their story today as Footloose, the Hollywood blockbuster with Kevin Bacon, that has kept generations boogying to “Now I gotta cut loose, footloose, kick off my Sunday shoes. Please, Louise, pull me off of my knees. Jack, come back, come on before we crack…” 

This Sunday, the lectionary presents us with the two most famous, most notorious dancers to be found in Scripture. First, we encounter David, who “danced before the Lord with all his might.” (2 Samuel 6:14) Second, we meet Herodias, daughter of King Herod, who infamously dances in front of her father and his guests on his birthday, for all the courtiers, and officers, and the leaders of Galilee to see. (Mark 6:21) Though both are royal and both are dancing, David and Herodias, their stories function as contrasts. 

David’s dance is an act of worship: girded in cloth, he dances in front of the Ark of the Covenant, the visual proof of presence of an otherwise invisible God. Dancing, they process into the City of David, Jerusalem, where the Ark will rest in a tent until finally a sacred temple will be built by David’s son, Solomon. David’s dance is not perceived well by all: Michal, daughter of Saul, and thus a royal princess herself, looking out of her window, she witnesses David leaping and dancing, “and she despised him in her heart” (2 Samuel 6:16) We sometimes assume, from our own more reserved backgrounds, that Michal’s reaction is to the chaotic, uncontrolled nature of David’s dance; an act of worship without the decorum and solemnity we treasure so dearly. Perhaps, Michal despises David because his dancing in front of the Ark is ultimate proof that David has replaced her father Saul as the anointed king of Israel, thus also displacing her own standing in life.

Herodias’ dance is an act of seduction and manipulation, or, smart political maneuvering. John the Baptist, a well-established and well-respected prophet at this point has been critical of King Herod, for marrying his brother’s wife, also named Herodias. Now, marrying a brother’s wife was not uncommon. In fact, Levitical law mandates that one marries one’s brother’s wife, when the brother dies, leaving the widowed woman childless. Herod glosses over this particular restriction of the commandment to marry, a defined circumstance that did not apply to his case, and John is not about to let him get away with it. Due to his outspoken criticism of the improper marriage, John has been imprisoned but Herod is afraid to kill his political foe. Enter daughter Herodias, with her dancing she pays tribute to her father and his esteemed guests. Beguiled by her performance, Herod grants her a wish: “whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom.” (Mark 6:23). Mother Herodias seizes the opportunity and instructs her daughter to ask for John’s head on a platter. Next, Herod does what the powers-that-be always do: they proclaim themselves captive of their circumstances, and out of a sense of ‘duty and honor,’ bound to their solemn vow, accomplish great acts of cruelty, that, not surprisingly, serve their own causes rather well. I’m afraid too many examples can be found in our world today.

Today, as David leaps and jumps and dances in front of God’s Ark, we witness dance as a medium of worship and praise. On a few occasions, The Episcopal Church has experimented with liturgical dance as part of its own worship service. For some it can be a great way to express the overwhelming spiritual joy and exuberance they feel inside themselves, lifted by music and movement beyond the constraints life generally puts upon us. For me, personally, I must admit, it is a confrontation with the uncomfortable knowledge that God has blessed me with the limberness of a rusty gun, and a sense of rhythm that betrays a deep, white European, Nordic, inheritance. So, I take great comfort in stories that show how dance has been influential in the lives of others.

Two brief stories, first an interview with CJ Butler, a dancer from Geismar, Louisiana. During the auditions for the dancing competition So You Think You Can Dance, he shared how, as a young teenager, he witnessed how his stepdad murdered his mother in front of his own eyes, following years of domestic abuse. He tells how dance has helped him cope with his feelings of anger, and grief, and guilt. Emotions he, and many of us, struggle with to express in words, he has been able to express through dance. For him, dance has been healing, redeeming, restoring. It serves to remind us that we all need to find and cherish those things in our life that heal and restore us. Yes, it could be dance, but it can also be prayer and meditation, a hike in the woods, a day on the lake or in the streams and rivers of our area; it can be a cup of coffee with a friend, or sharing a good meal; it can even be the joy of a tidy and clean kitchen. Redemption comes in many ways, shapes, and forms. My prayer is that our weekly worship may help you find yours.

A second dancer I want to lift up is Maedeh Hojabri, a young Iranian woman, nineteen years old, arrested last week for making videos of herself dancing. In Iran, it is illegal for woman to dance in public, or to be out in public without a headscarf. Both, rules she has broken, and violations for which she has been arrested and, most likely, tortured. To support her, some Iranians have posted their own videos of themselves dancing in public, on social media. To them, dance is a way of resistance against an oppressive system.

In witness to these dancers, and in thanksgiving for all the dancers of this world, and all who use their artistic gifts and talents to work towards healing, resistance, redemption, and worship, I offer this prayer from the Book of Common Prayer: O God, whom saints and angels delight to worship in heaven: be ever present with your servants who seek through art and music and danceto perfect the praises offered by your people on earth; and grant to them even now glimpses of your beauty, and make them worthy at length to behold it unveiled for evermore; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.(BCP, 819)