Sunday, July 12, 2015

Shall We Dance?

Proper 10b 2015 • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
David danced before the Lord with all his might; Michal daughter of Saul looked out of the window, and saw King David leaping and dancing before the Lord, and she despised him in her heart.

Anna Harriet Leonowens served for a time in the 1860s — just about the time this church was being built — as the governess to the children of King Mongkut of Thailand — the land known in those days as Siam. She wrote a memoir of her experiences which was adapted into a novel, Anna and the King of Siam, which then became a film, and finally a Broadway musical — The King and I, which also became a film, and later a short-lived TV series. As so often happens when history moves into historical fiction and then into musical theater, film, and TV, the story moved further and further away from the truth. For example, in the novel and the film based on it, the character of the king’s prime minister is very noble and serious; but by the time the story made it to TV this noble character has become a buffoon suitable only for comic relief.

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The king himself fared similarly, moving from nobility and grace in the memoir to a kind of tyrannical, short-tempered stiffness in the musical — who can forget Yul Brynner — that stiffness only charmed by the winsomeness of Anna the governess. There is no evidence that the King of Siam and Anna were romantically involved — but that doesn’t suit a musical very well, so Rodgers and Hammerstein introduce a significant romantic theme, summed up in one particular song, “Shall We Dance.” As Anna and the king dance together, the stern tyrant begins to relax a little bit, and become less forbidding, less off-putting. This is fiction: but as with all good fiction, there is a grain of truth. Dancing can make for loosening up, growing closer — whether dancing on a bright cloud of music, or on a very terrestrial dance-floor. Dancing can be a way to break the ice, to warm the heart, even to spark a budding romance.

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But what if you are not a good dancer, if you dance with two left feet, or step on your partner’s foot? Or what if the dancing is going on in the apartment above you at two o’clock in the morning? Then the dance can be more annoyance than joy. Instead of singing a chorus of “Shall We Dance?” some might sing a number from a different Hammerstein musical — you might have seen the movie with Fred Astaire — “I Won’t Dance, Don’t Ask Me!” If the dance doesn’t lead to joy, what, after all, is the point of dancing?

In our Scripture readings today, we see two dances: and both of them also involve kings — not of Siam, but of Israel and Galilee, King David and King Herod. In each case the monarchs are having a grand old time, until someone rains on their parade — David’s wife Michal, Saul’s daughter,

and Herod’s daughter, in Mark’s Gospel named for her mother, Herodias. (We might call her “Herodias Jr.)

Our reading from Second Samuel stops short, so we don’t get to see David’s wife Michal greeting him in the doorway, a little bit like Hyacinth Bucket (it’s Bouquet!) when David comes home, and she confronts him in the doorway. A few verses later in the tale when she greets him, after having watched his dance from the window, despising him in her heart, as the Scripture says; and she greets him with words of contempt and sarcasm, “How the king of Israel honored himself today, uncovering himself today before the eyes of his servants’ maids, as any vulgar fellow might shamelessly uncover himself!” Can you hear Mrs. Bucket saying, “Richard!” No, Michal is not amused, she has despised David in her heart, because he danced — in his underwear! — and this dance has far from warmed her heart: this dance, disgraceful in her eyes, has frozen her heart in contempt. We doen’t get to hear the reading, but a few verses later David curses her for her coldness of heart, and the Scripture goes on to tell us that she was barren to the day of her death. So much for raining on a dance that is danced for God’s glory!

But what about that other king, King Herod — does he get an unpleasant surprise, on his birthday no less! His heart is warmed with the wine and the birthday banquet and his dancing daughter, Herodias Jr, so much so he is willing to give the dancer anything she asks — only to be asked for a blood-chilling horror, a murder and a grisly prize. Did the music stop as his face fell, grieved (for he respected John the Baptist, visited him in prison, liked to listen to him)? Did he suddenly feel a coldness enter his heart as his daughter asked for the head to be brought to her? But he is also deeply embarrassed in front of his guests because he’s sworn an oath, and he can’t afford to lose face — even if it means John will lose his entire head! So, reluctantly, he grants her desire, and John meets his untimely and horrific end, as the voice of the great prophet is silenced, his head served up on a platter.

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So the question remains: Shall we dance? As Anglicans we are fortunate not to be stuck with the contempt for dancing that is common among some fundamentalist Christians. We Anglicans don’t think dancing is sinful. How many churches have dinner dances? What matters, for us, is the reason for the dancing, the motive and the intent of the dancers.

The dance before Herod — here is a dance with wicked motives, a means to incite Herod to make a poor decision after he’s had a few too many birthday drinks, to trap him in an oath that he just as soon would have broken, were it not for his guests. The motive for this dance is anger, resentment, bitterness, and the result is gruesome.

But to dance joyously before God — what a wonderful thing for David to be able to do, his heart full of joy that the Ark of God, the visible presence of the invisible God who rides upon the cherubim, should be restored to the tent of God’s presence, given a hallowed resting place, as God promised would be the case. Only an angry prude like Michal would find fault with such a dance in honor of God, and to the glory of God.

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Now, I’m not suggesting we start dancing in church; although there is a parish out in California where the congregation dances in church each week. Their church — and it’s an Episcopal church — has two large rooms, instead of a single worship space: in the first room the congregation gathers to worship for the liturgy of the Word, the Scripture readings, sermon, and prayers. Then, at the offertory, the whole congregation forms a line and dances its way into the adjoining room for the Holy Communion, as they dance to the altar and offer their gifts. I’m not suggesting we do that — although we get a bit of that flavor here at St James when we have our special Gift Offering, as we do today and on one Sunday each month; so please feel free to shake it a bit as you come up the aisle to make place your thank offering in the basket. We can dance; we can dance!

In this way we reflect something of what King David did when he danced before the Lord — with no other motive than to express his joy and to give thanks and glory to God who had so blessed him and his people, delivering them from their enemies, and deigning to dwell among them in that Ark of his presence, brought to the Tabernacle as the place chosen by God for God’s name to reside.

For we too have an Ark of presence and a tabernacle, there on our altar. And we too trust, as we sang in the hymn, that God himself is with us, as we worship in this place. So let us dance, my friends, in our hearts and minds if not with our feet — but even with those feet if the Spirit moves us to give glory and praise, not only with our lips, but in our lives, to the one who moves the universe, in the great cosmic dance of creation; in whose Name and to whose glory we rejoice: the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

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