July 15th – 7th Sunday after Pentecost

One of my favourite inspirational poems is called Footprints. I am pretty sure that most of you are familiar with it, but I am not so sure that you may have heard this version, so bear with me.
Imagine you and the Lord Jesus walking down the road together. For much of the way, the Lord’s footprints go along steadily, consistently, rarely varying the pace. But your prints are a disorganized stream of zigzags, starts, stops, turnarounds, circles, departures and returns. For much of the way it seems to go like this. But gradually, your footprints come more in line with the Lord’s, soon paralleling His consistently. You and Jesus are walking as true friends.
This seems perfect, but then an interesting thing happens: your footprints that once etched the sand next to the Master’s are now walking precisely in His steps. Inside His larger footprints is the small ‘sand print’, safely enclosed. You and Jesus are becoming one.
This goes on for many miles. But gradually you notice another change. The footprint inside the larger footprint seems to grow larger. Eventually it disappears altogether. There is only one set of footprints. They have become one.
Again, this goes on for a long time. But then something awful happens. The second set of footprints is back. And this time it seems even worse. Zigzags all over the place. Stops. Starts. Deep gashes in the sand. A veritable mess of prints. You’re amazed and shocked. But this is the end of your dream.
Now you speak. “Lord, I understand the first scene with the zigzags and fits and starts and so on. I was a new Christian, just learning. But You walked on through the storm and helped me learn to walk with you.”
“That is correct.”
“Yes, and when the smaller footprints were inside of Yours, I was actually learning to walk in Your steps. I followed You very closely.”
“Very good. You have understood everything so far.”
“Then the smaller footprints grew and eventually filled in with Yours. I suppose that I was actually growing so much that I was becoming like you in every way.”
“Precisely.”
“But this is my question. Lord.. Was there a regression or something? The footprints went back to two, and this time it was worse than the first.”
The Lord smiles, then laughs. “You didn’t know?” he asks? I shake my head, sadly.
He says. “That was when we danced.”
That was when we danced. Two of today’s readings are concerned with dance, but in each reading, the dance served a very different purpose. Before we talk about them, though, I would like to share with you some of my own experience of dancing. First of all, you should know that I am not a good dancer. It’s not for want of trying, and not for want of appreciating the art of dance. I’m just not good at it. I have had to accept that, and live with it.
But I have had many experiences of dance, and I’m sure that most of you will be able to identify with at least some of them. To quote Sophia from the Golden Girls: Picture it. But not Sicily. Picture, instead, a school gymnasium, decorated for a dance. The girls stand on one side of the gym, and the boys on the other, neither one daring to make the first move. Often, there isn’t much dancing happening at these dances, but, for many of us, it was the first introduction to couples’ dancing.
Jump with me now to a dance recital. If it is typical of many I have seen, we will see classical ballet, tap, and jazz, each with its own beauty. The ballerinas – no matter their age – move in the timeless, graceful movements that ballet has used for generations. The tap dancers click their way rhythmically across the stage, culminating in a sweeping bow. And the jazz dancers move with an amazing energy, as the music flows from the speakers into their very bodies. If you’ve ever attended the Irish show in Shannon for St. Patrick’s Day, you will have also seen Irish dancing, which is often a combination of all three types, with a special little Irish accent.
Later in my life, I studied two different kinds of dance, and was surprised to find that, when I didn’t have to depend on another person, I wasn’t that bad. I did country line dancing, as a kind of exercise programme, and found that, if I concentrated, I could actually do it. I was never really good, but at least I didn’t fall over my own feet, which I can easily do. Then I did belly dancing. I wasn’t as comfortable with that as I was with line dancing, but by the time the course ended, I was actually sorry that it was over.
I used to love ballroom dancing, but was useless at it. I couldn’t master the art of counting, listening to the music, moving my feet, and following my partner all at the same time. The only time I ever looked good with partner dancing was with my father. He had the ability to make a log of wood look good on the dance floor. Other than that, my experience with ballroom dancing consisted of watching it in movies, with people like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.
And now we come to today’s Old Testament and Gospel readings. In the Old Testament, David danced for joy. This is in stark contrast to the man who, just a couple of weeks ago, was grieving the deaths of Saul and Jonathan. Here was a man who was capable of great emotion, and who was not afraid to show it. Compare this, if you will, to people of today, who have been encouraged not to show emotion, who are being urged to keep calm and carry on. Today’s passage about his joy gives us another side of his passion, his profound gratitude and praise for God’s work in the life of the Israel, bringing the people together, uniting the kingdom, strengthening them in common cause against the enemy Philistines, establishing the people and their land and the Davidic dynasty to the glory of God, fulfilling the promises of God right before their eyes, in their own lifetime.
He wore only a linen ephod, which was a kind of apron, and we are told that he danced before the Lord with all his might.
It was important, both in a religious sense, and in a secular one, that David establish himself as being faithful to God and to the religious traditions of his people. By doing this, this dancing in public, David reassured the people that, even though they were establishing a new city, it would be balanced by the stability and orthodoxy of the Ark of the Covenant. It is difficult for me to picture any of today’s secular leaders doing something similar.
The dance described in the Gospel story is very different from this one. Salome, the name we have given to the daughter of Herodias, danced seductively before Herod and his guests, in exchange for a gift of her choosing. Herod, who no doubt had been indulging heavily in wine, made this promise, assuming that she would ask for jewels or clothes or property. He probably never expected her to ask for John the Baptist’s head. But she did. And she asked in front of the assembly, so that Herod would have no choice but to give it to her.
Here, then, we see two contrasting images of dance – much more contrasting than the types of dances I shared with you at the beginning of this sermon. And, of course, we can see the difference easily, and easily discern which of the two is right, which of the two honours God, which of the two is destructive. But what is not so easy is to determine what kind of dance – if any – we do here at St. Andrew’s, or what kind of dance – if any – is done by the Presbyterian Church in Canada.
Let’s look at the dances I already talked about, starting with the one in the high school gym, which is characterized more by non-dancers than by real dancers. A congregation or denomination at this kind of dance is one which is immobilized. There is no dancing happening, no real living, no serving, no real worshiping of God. This congregation or denomination is afraid – afraid to take risks in case of failure, afraid to self-invest, afraid of being hurt by caring for others. If you will remember, the theme of this year’s General Assembly was On The Edge, but as long as we stay on the edge, we will not be dancing. It is time to move beyond the edge, and to trust that God will guide our steps, and that we will dance together with him.
Maybe we are the congregation of the dance recital. We know our steps; we know what is expected of us – in our lives and in our worship. But are we ready to step out of the formal steps? Are we ready to dance exuberantly, as David did? Can we wear jeans to church? Well, no, it really isn’t appropriate, is it? How about guitars and drums in church? Well, no, we have a lovely organ, and, besides, we DO use the bagpipes once in a while, don’t we? Is it time to change? Well, no, we’ve always done it that way, and if it was good enough then, it is good enough now. Visitors have told me that our worship is beautiful, and it is. But, like the dancers in the recital, we are bound by our traditions. We make the appropriate motions at the appropriate times, but true worship and fellowship are sacrificed for the sake of the product.
I am not saying that our way of dancing is wrong, just that it can be so much more. When we dance – like the students in the gym, who are afraid to dance or the participants in the dance recital, who follow a rigidly proscribed ritual – we are striving to be faithful, but we are depriving ourselves of something truly special. Henry Brinton has compared our “frozen chosen” worship, especially in Euro-American churches, to a modern dance solo by Paul Taylor, the dancer/choreographer who “simply stood motionless on stage for four minutes.” Like Taylor’s dance, our worship is often motionless.
Of course, I am not talking about physical dancing. While some places do this, it isn’t something that many of us would be comfortable with. But there is interior dance, a dance which transports us, and one which we all can do, regardless of age or ability. We come together each week to worship God, and the point of this worship is twofold. Of course, we are commanded to praise God, and this is how we do it. But the other point is that we are to leave this place each week somehow changed, somehow renewed, somehow filled up for the week to come. If this doesn’t happen, then we are going through the motions.
Each week, we sing hymns in praise of God. Even though sometimes these hymns are unfamiliar to you, each one was chosen for a theological meaning – either they match with the Scriptures, or they are for a specific purpose. For instance, the our opening hymn today – Take My Life And Let It Be – was chosen because on this day we welcomed Martin as a member of this congregation. But while you were singing – this or any other hymn – were you reading the words? When you sing a hymn, do you ever apply the words to your life? Or, if you DO read the words, do you somehow cringe from what they are saying?
Most Sundays, we call the children forward for their special time. Oh, and by the way, there will be a change in that soon. In the future, even if there is something special happening, like a Baptism or Communion or a reception of new members, the children’s story will continue. I know that many of you really like the children’s story, explaining as it does, some part of Scripture in an accessible way, but when it comes to the children, do you nourish them? Do you encourage them? Are you willing to give up one Sunday a month to take the Sunday School? Young people have long been called “the church of tomorrow”, but I tell you that they are the church of today. And we have the right AND the responsibility to hold them up whenever we can, to support them in their plans for this church.
Every Sunday, we offer our time, our talents, and our treasure to God. And I ask you if you are giving all you can. I am pretty sure that – for most people – the fact that they put money in an envelope each week absolves them of any responsibility for any other kind of giving. But we have a prayer chain here, and we need people who are willing to pray. We need people to read Scripture every week. We need people who are willing to prepare the things for fellowship after worship. We need people who are willing to support the church when there are other events happening here – like the flea market which is being planned for September, like the Tartan Tea, which will take place in November. And the list goes on. Are you giving in proportion to what you have received from God?
Every week, we gather together to worship God the Father and Creator, God the Son and Redeemer, God the Holy Spirit and Counselor. Are we dancing before God with all our might?
If we are not, then we must ask ourselves why not. I remember a few years ago, attending a conference in a church which had a sign posted. The sign read: Ladies wearing pants may not enter the sanctuary. One of the guest speakers saw this sign, and was not impressed, so she sought out the leaders of this church to find out why such a sign was posted. He found them worshiping together, singing the old hymn: Just As I Am. She said, “My friends, you must change either your sign or your song.”
We should not change our song. It is a good one, blending as it does, grace, hope, and praise. Maybe it is time to change our sign – our outward expression of our inward song – by changing the way we dance. There has been a cartoon circulating on the internet, which shows a person dancing. The caption reads: Dance as though no one is looking. Let our dance say that we can come – just as we are – to worship God. Let our dance say that we are not afraid to take risks in the name of Christ. Let our dance say that we can take leaps of faith because we want the church to grow. Let us dance in a way that shows the depth or our relationship with God and the joy with which we praise God. Let us dance with all our might, as though no one is looking. Thanks be to God.

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