“A Dancing Revolution”
A sermon preached by the Rev. Douglas M. Donley
May 14, 2017
University Baptist Church
“If my revolution does not allow dancing, I want no part of it”, so reportedly said Emma Goldman a hundred years ago and repeated by creative activists ever since.
I think of the revolutions out there. They are often bloody and filled with pain and hardship. I think of the revolution that appears to be happening in our own country. As Woody Guthrie sang, “some rob you with a six-gun and some with a fountain pen.” On one side, there is a stern, fear-based revolution going on. It’s full of scowls and furrowed brows and firings and fear and tweets. On the other side, it is the pussy hats, the flamboyant parades, the street theater, the people who have found their voices and have said, you don’t speak for me. They may be motivated by anger, but their dancing and demander shout “joy.” Both are vying for the soul of the American people. I find the dancing entrancing and a whole lot more pleasant to observe than the scowls and rage and tweets of the current occupiers. I want a dancing revolution.
Four years ago today, so my Facebook feed reminds me, I was at the state capitol surrounded by 10,000 of my closest friends. There was singing and dancing as the MN Senate voted 37-30 to approve marriage equality in the state, starting a tidal wave that wiped out restrictions on the freedom to marry the partner of your choice across this great land. I found some old pictures of me and a bunch of other clergy singing at the top of our lungs in what we called “the thunda in the rotunda.” It was a dancing revolution.
This warm weather makes you want to dance outside, doesn’t it?
My former pastor and mentor George Williamson was an anti-dancer. Partly because he was awkward and partly because he was a good Southern Baptist boy who was taught that dancing can lead to all sorts of licentiousness. It was his totem. It’s what made him stand out in all of his pubescent righteousness. But when he got to college and was exposed to a different kind of theology, he left behind his not dancing for God, for God. It’s symbolic of his leaving behind an old kind of theology based in rules and limitations. He now embraces a life of improvisation and grace. It takes a different kind of courage to dance the dance of grace, especially if you’re not especially graceful. He is still awkward, but he celebrates life and expresses himself with abandon, instead of the cooped up, stuck up ways of his youth. And yes that can lead to exultant dancing. That’s my kind of revolution.
At the Baptist Peace Fellowship’s summer conference, a dancing tradition has emerged. It usually happens toward the end of the week. After days of learning how to address injustice in all its forms, someone starts singing “We are Marching in the Light of God”. Before long a conga line starts and we dance toward a new reality. We are singing, we are dancing, we are praying in the light of God. It’s a welcome release of energy and makes us more able to face the world.
Sometimes I break into song during my sermons. Don’t worry, I’m not going to break into dance.
I was never a very good dancer. I have always been a bit stiff in my movements. My Mom actually taught me to jitterbug. One of the best reasons to go to weddings—to get on the dance floor with your mom. I don’t dance nearly enough these days. Do you?
There’s something about exuberant dancing and swaying to music that is transporting. We have celebrated our musicians today and we can boast of a robust and internationally recognized music program. Not too shabby for our humble little church.
There is something revolutionary about dancing to some music, either explicit or implicit.
We need some dancing, don’t we?
Chris Williamson sang a generation ago, “Love of my life I am crying. I am not dying. I am dancing. Dancing along in the madness there is no sadness only a song of the soul.”
The people of Judah in the time of Jeremiah had been kicked out of their homeland like so many Syrian refugees. They were sent away against their will, pushed out by conquering armies, told that their kind was not wanted there anymore. They would have perished, and many did, were it not for the reminders of the prophets about their homeland and the hope that they could return again.
The choir just sang of the wilderness. It’s a place of fear and drought and insecurity. But it’s also the place where the imaginings of a better life are put to words. The Psalms come from the wilderness as do the longings of the prophets. Many of us feel that we have been in the wilderness. We feel left behind. We feel misunderstood. We feel burdened by unrealistic demands. We feel abandoned. And we feel hopeless. And here’s the rub, those who benefit from us being in the wilderness are equally invested in keeping us there. They don’t want us to dance or sing. They want us to hunch our shoulders down and not make a fuss. They want to hold us down. They want us to graciously submit to our plight in the world.
But there is a song in our soul. There is a tap in our toes that longs to break free. There is a narrative of return and blessing.
Most of the book of Jeremiah tells of how Israel has lost its way and that it is to blame for its plight. Jeremiah laments the exile and points the finger at the many ways that the people have turned away from God. But right in the center of the book, chapters 31-33, Jeremiah surprises us and tells of what will happen on their return. Eventually the price for sin will be paid and the people will return and make a new life. And the God who was always there will be their dance partner.
Hear again what the prophet Jeremiah has to say to the people in exile.
At that time, says the Lord, I will be the God of all the families of Israel, and they shall be my people.
2 Thus says the Lord:
The people who survived the sword found grace in the wilderness;
when Israel sought for rest, 3the Lord appeared from far away.
I have loved you with an everlasting love;
therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you.
4 Again I will build you, and you shall be built, O virgin Israel!
Again you shall take your tambourines,
and go forth in the dance of the merrymakers.
5 Again you shall plant vineyards on the mountains of Samaria;
the planters shall plant, and shall enjoy the fruit…
8 See, I am going to bring them from the land of the north,
and gather them from the farthest parts of the earth,
among them the blind and the lame,
those with child and those in labor, together;
a great company, they shall return here.
9 With weeping they shall come, and with consolations I will lead them back,
I will let them walk by brooks of water,
in a straight path in which they shall not stumble;
12 They shall come and sing aloud on the height of Zion,
and they shall be radiant over the goodness of the Lord,
over the grain, the wine, and the oil, and over the young of the flock and the herd;
their life shall become like a watered garden, and they shall never languish again.
13 Then shall the young women rejoice in the dance,
and the young men and the old shall be merry.
I will turn their mourning into joy.
It’s a reminder not only of their homeland, but also of the fact that God had not forgotten them. And you notice how many nature images there are: a watered garden, grain, wine, oil, newborns in the herds. Just yesterday, we planted our vegetable garden at home and later on today, we’re going to mulch in the perennial garden. It’s what Kim wants for Mother’s Day and we will obediently comply.
But here is what leaps out to me from this scripture:
“Again I will build you…again you shall take your tambourines, and go forth in the dance of merrymakers.” We probably should have used this scripture on May Day. Then later he adds, “then shall the young women rejoice in the dance, and the young men and the old shall be merry. I will turn their mourning into joy, I will comfort them, and give them gladness for sorrow.”
This was revolutionary. Remember, it was written to the people who were at their lowest point. It was written to people who had given up. It was written to people who had seen their temple destroyed, their crops burned, their homes looted, their God mocked. They could very well have died in the exile. But Jeremiah reminded them that dancing was in their future. This awfulness is not the last word from God. There will be a revolution coming and in it you will dance. So keep your faith, keep your hope alive. Find a way to dance.
Bruce Cockburn and Ken Medema sang, that we must dance in the dragon’s jaws.
We celebrate music at UBC. Wouldn’t it be great if we celebrated dancing, too? I know too many of us are intimidated by the thought of dancing, but move to the music of your soul and see if it doesn’t make you a bit more hopeful.
Henri Nouwen wrote a book many years ago entitled, “Turn my Mourning into Dancing”. Here’s one of the paragraphs from the book:
“Hope is not dependent on peace in the land, justice in the world, and success in the business. Hope is willing to leave unanswered questions unanswered and unknown futures unknown. Hope makes you see God’s guiding hand not only in the gentle and pleasant moments but also in the shadows of disappointment and darkness. No one can truly say with certainty where he or she will be ten or twenty years from now. You do not know if you will be free or in captivity, if you will be honored or despised, if you will have many friends or few, if you will be liked or rejected. But when you hold lightly these dreams and fears, you can be open to receive every day as a new day and to live your life as a unique expression of God’s love for humankind. There is an old expression that says, “As long as there is life there is hope.” As Christians we also say, “As long as there is hope there is life.”
My friends, I hope you find ways that you can dance. And if you don’t think you can dance, then at least entertain the idea of dancing. Enjoy some music. Make Merry. For there is enough bitterness in the world. We need hope and joy. Don’t be defined by the bitterness. Embrace an awkward dance step. Sway to God’s soundtrack. Remember that God has not left us even in the wilderness. And our dancing reminds us of who we are.
Let’s create a dancing revolution.
As the old song said, “I danced on the morning when the world was begun I danced on the moon and the stars and the sun. I came down from heaven and I danced on the earth. In Bethlehem I had my birth. Dance then wherever you may be. I am the Lord of the Dance said He. I’ll lead you all wherever you may be I will lead you all in the dance said he.”