A Community United in Praise

Location: Community United Church of Christ (St. Paul Park, Minnesota)

Scripture: 2 Samuel 5:1-5; 6:1-5

I’m not sure if this is proper for a pastor to admit or not, but I really love to dance. I’m not talking about a genteel waltz, nor have I any idea how to do a spicy tango. What I’m talking about is club dancing, to the kind of thumping bass music that’s on offer most nights of the week at establishments of ill repute. You might not recognize it as dancing, per se. It looks like a cross between jumping in place and flailing after bees. There’s nothing synchronized, structured or planned about it. Nothing especially beautiful either, at least in the classical sense. This is why I keep my eyes closed or look down most of the time, particularly if there are mirrors around. What really captivates me is the beat, and the feeling of complete release that comes from being lost in the music. When Javen and I arrive at a place where the beat is going strong, I go directly to the dance floor. It doesn’t need to be crowded, or to be playing Lady Gaga (though both help). But if I’m in the right head and heart space, dancing without any purpose beyond the joy of movement brings me into a place of adoration. “Alive, God! I’m alive, and moving, and grateful to you! Praise you, praise music, praise artists, praise beats, praise talent, praise life!”

It turns out I’m not the only one who finds dancing a spiritual experience. Oprah’s had a series called “Belief” on television every night this week, looking at faith practices around the world.[1] On Thursday night the program profiled Karen Cavanagh, a Catholic woman with a traumatic brain injury. Part of this woman’s path to recovery included the spirituality and movement of the Whirling Dervishes. Dervishes are a mystical sect of Sufi Islam whose most notable practice involves dancing in circles for long periods of time. For devotees, spinning opens an inner spiritual portal through which one communes with God. I understand that this is much the same for Native Americans who practice the sun dance. Movement, action, physicality and rhythm—rather than meditative stillness—is the path for some to find their way to the divine.

Something of that spirit has gotten into King David by the end of today’s Scripture passage. The Bible spends chapter after chapter describing the activities of David’s life, including his birth as the descendant of Ruth (whom we heard about last week), his childhood fight with the Philistine Goliath, his battles to unite the kingdoms of Israel and Judah, his great faith and his great infidelities. In the sliver of David’s story that we just heard, he is a young and successful warrior. Saul, the first king of Israel, has died, leaving David as his most successful general (and occasional threat to the throne). Upon Saul’s death, the twelve Israelite tribes send delegates to David and declared their allegiance. Where he had been a commander just in the region of Judah, he was now the undisputed political and military leader of a unified Israel. This is the beginning of a forty-year reign which sets David up as the greatest king that Israel ever had.

Faith and politics were combined in ancient times, so David acted as a spiritual leader for the nation as well. There was no temple in Jerusalem yet, no permanent holy sanctuary for sacrificing and praising God. Instead, the spirit of God was understood to be especially near to the ark of the covenant, a container which held the Ten Commandments and other sacred relics. Therefore, one of David’s first acts as king was to bring the ark of God’s presence to David’s capitol city, Jerusalem. He called together righteous men from all over Israel to form a great festival procession. Before we ever had Burning Man festivals, thirty-thousand guys gathered at Baale-judah for carefree, even frenzied dancing and praise to God. They accompanied the ark of God’s presence on an oxcart from Baale-Judah to Jerusalem, with songs and all the musical instruments they had: lyres, harps, tambourines, castanets and cymbals. They’re in the mood to “throw your hands in the air and wave them like you just don’t care”. They might have been calling out in the words of Psalm 150, “Hallelujah! Praise the Lord!” David and all Israel were partying for God with everything they had, “dancing before the Lord with all their might.” It sounds like a mighty commotion, a whirling, dancing, chaotic, holy celebration for God. All Israel and King David, dancing at the discotheque.

Have you ever been to worship services like this? There are Pentecostal churches where this happens every Sunday! Even in our relatively low-key UCC, we know how to let go and praise God. At the General Synod in Cleveland this past summer, opening worship ended with a dance party on the plenary floor. Sometimes the best way to praise God is to let our hands, feet, and instruments take the lead; let our minds take a break to follow the beat.

But even if you’ve got two left feet, and boogying for God sounds like a bad idea, King David sets the example for us of praising God however we can. Praise God in whatever you’re doing with your body, your hands, your heart. Praise God not just in the sanctuary at church, but when you’re out wherever you go. Praise God as you tie your shoes or get dressed in the morning. Praise God when you walk, and run, and bike, and drive. Praise God when you stumble to the bathroom in the middle of the night. Praise God when you’re on hold talking to the credit card company. Praise God in your raking of leaves. Praise God in the garden. Praise God at the grocery store. Praise God in the cafeteria. Praise God in every way that you know how. Let everything that breathes praise God, the psalmist says.

It doesn’t have to be perfect, or always come out right. I’m certain that all the musical instruments the ancient Israelites had didn’t sound great together. But what matters most to God is that the people united in praise to God, using all the forms of praise available to them.

Today we don’t have an ark of the covenant to follow. We have the Holy Spirit of God, which is not in any one place, but goes with us throughout the whole world. Let that Spirit of joyful, dancing praise fill us and guide us. After all, in the timeless wisdom of the person who wrote the Hokey Pokey, we put more than just our head, our left hand or our right foot in. We put our whole selves into worship, into praise, into service of God and neighbor in Jesus’ name.

Let us pray: God of the dance, fill us with your Spirit of exuberant, joyful praise. Let all that we have, all that we do, and all that we are give honor and glory to you. Amen.

[1] “Oprah Presents Landmark TV Event Belief Premiering Sunday, October 18 on OWN”, article online at http://www.oprah.com/belief/Oprah-Winfrey-Presents-Landmark-Television-Event-Belief.

2 thoughts on “A Community United in Praise

  1. Carole Weatherby

    hi Oby! I am just now “jumping in” to your daily readings. Also just read your “seed” sermon –
    excellent! Thanks for doing the Bible in a Year!


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