Toorak Uniting Church

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Dancing attention

1 Samuel 6: 1 – 5, 12b – 19   Psalm 149
Rev. Anneke Oppewal
16 July 2006

Assembly held together! Those of you who are into Church politics will probably have followed the news from General Assembly with some trepidation; with human sexuality and leadership as a hot topic on the agenda anything could have happened, splits, fights, spin, media stirring up things, passionate debate or the silencing of one or other group in the church.

But no, where last time the media were all over it nothing much surfaced now, and it looked like a lot of talking and reasonably harmonious debate had held the Church together, even where some did not accept the decisions that were made (or rather not made) whole heartedly. The media did not stir up anything, there were no public fights or mud throwing, and the Church seemed to have kept its dignity. That might, in no small measure, be due to another brawl about leadership issues catching the limelight this week.

However, on Friday, tucked away on page 7 what had been dreaded was reported to be happening nevertheless: Those who are dissatisfied with the decisions of General Assembly have decided to start their own Church within the Church and are hoping hundreds of congregations will join with them. Our president Gregor Henderson has told them that this is unconstitutional but I doubt that will deter them from doing what they feel their conscience compels them to do.
I don’t envy Gregor Henderson or any of the other leaders in our and other Churches their role at this point in time. The issue of human sexuality and leadership is a divisive one, with passionate views blocking the way to a harmonious and peaceful solution on both sides of the fence.

It will not be easy to hold the Church together over this.

Our prayers for Christian Unity, started some 50 years ago by ecumenics enthusiasts who were looking for ways to bring the mainstream Christian denominations together should perhaps at this point shift their focus from praying for unity between the Churches towards more unity within the Churches. We all face the same issues, and we all are divided in the same factions, Catholics, Anglicans, and Protestants.

And does it help the Church? Does it support the message of good news? Does it make love, peace, and justice grow? Is it really that important in a world that is still full of war, hunger and suffering? Is this what we should be doing with our time and energy in the name of Christ?

Some will say we do. Because it is important and at the root of what determines our faith. Because it’s got to do with the authority of scripture and the integrity of our beliefs.

I am not one of those, but that may be because I haven’t thought deep enough or understood far enough what is so problematic about people who love each other and practice that love in faithful relationships.

I’ll stop here. I have said more than enough already! No divisive issues from the pulpit, no politics, nothing that could upset any one party or another! We certainly don’t want any splits in this Church!

Now when I read about David I thought of Assembly and of those in leadership positions at this time.

After Sauls death David has come into a prickly position. Saul had never been able to bring the tribes of Israel to unity. For 40 years there had been fighting, division, warlords and gangs competing for land rights and leadership of the people. One covenant would be made and somewhere the next eruption of violence would already be happening. And Saul, however much he tried, had not been able to do anything about it.
So when David comes to the throne the first thing he needs to do is get as many of the warring warlords behind him as he possibly can and then try to somehow cement unity between them and instil a loyalty in all of them that will bind them to him and to each other so they will be able to operate as one.

Somehow David manages to do that. He brings together all the tribes and somehow gets them to unify and recognise him as his king. I am sure they spent a lot of time talking and debating before it came to that, and perhaps they were all a bit tired after so many years of discord, but David manages to make it happen.
To celebrate it and to further bind them together David invites them all to worship together. He sets up a worship event for them where the prowess and power of David and his soldiers figure in a big way, showing off to the neighbours just how wonderful and strong this new alliance is. A venture that ends in absolute disaster (I preached on that 3 years ago, the sermon is on the website for those who are interested): one man dead and the whole project abandoned half way.
A tough lesson for David where he discovers that religion, God, is not something that can be used at will, as a tool to cement covenants and show off to the neighbours, but that religion, that God, is a power to be reckoned with that will only accommodate human vanity and exploitation to a limit.

David discovers there is a power there that is greater than he, a power that goes beyond his petty party politics and tribal covenants. And he repents. That probably is one of the things that made David such a great King: the ability to face his faults and repent, to acknowledge his mistakes and change his ways.

So David repents and after he’s done repenting he picks up where he was forced to leave off and tries again.

He may have written Psalm 149 in that time. Or he may not, it is well possible that someone else wrote it at some other time. But it catches the mood. Dance, music and the intent to use his influence and fighting power to promote justice and peace among the nations.

Exuberant dance. Over the top really. David strips himself of all his garments and dances in his undies in front of the arc and of his armed forces as well as his people. He lets himself go completely expressing his joy, gratefulness and praise to the Lord and invites others to do the same. The Toronto blessing, some 3000 years back!
His wife does not approve and I am sure there will have been a few others who will not have agreed with such immoderate behaviour. Just as you would not approve if I took all my clothes off and danced down the centre isle praising God for what he has given this congregation and how wonderful his love and grace has been for us.
Raised eyebrows at the least!

We like our religion nice, polite and considerate, but not too far out and not too much over the top. We like our religion to be cerebral as well. Bodies are such awkward things and you never know what will happen if you let them go.

I thought of the whirling dervishes who whirl their way to God. I thought of Jews moving with those swinging movements at the wailing wall, deeply sinking deeper and deeper into prayer while they move their bodies back and forth. And it occurred to me that perhaps we are only half there when we come to God in our minds and hearts, quietly and without too much upheaval and leave our bodies out.

There is something about dancing with abandon, as there is something about skying down a steep slope and surrendering to the speed, as there is something about running as fast as you can, and giving it all you have got without holding back. A single-mindedness and elation that one can not come to in any other way but in the togetherness of body and soul in one direction.

But in worship? In our tradition it certainly is not something that is encouraged, and I would expect most of us wouldn’t quite know how to go about it. The generation that has grown up clubbing and disco dancing may have a little bit less trouble giving themselves over to dancing frenzy, but they would probably never associate that in any way with God or Church.

And yet. David’s dancing before the arc, in his undies, stripped of his dignity, completely losing himself in movement we would probably all accept as a sign of complete surrender and humility before God. Appropriate for a great King, moving in the extreme, showing deep and absolute faith in someone who is called to lead Gods people.

Dancing like a dervish for David all sense of time, place, politics, issues, worries, even gender will have disappeared as well as for those who dare to dance with him. And letting go of all that they come to a new togetherness before the Lord. Pure, simple, without any of the attributes they walked around with before they stripped themselves naked. Dancing attention only to the Lord and the joy and gratefulness they feel towards him.

There is a lesson in that, especially on a Sunday where we celebrate communion. I will not invite you to take your clothes off and dance down the centre isle. That would not be appropriate. But what I do want to ask you is to go into communion and pay attention to your body. Go into communion this time mind heart and body together in single-minded focussed-ness on God. And even if you are not literally dancing, to imagine yourself to be all dancing attention to God in gratefulness and joy for the great things he has done for you, for this congregation, for his people through the ages, in and outside the Church.

© Rev. Anneke Oppewal, 2006

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