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Can Christians Dance?

Sermon
Water Won't Quench the Fire
Sermons For Sundays After Pentecost
A few years ago, I was asked to serve as the worship leader at a regional church conference for teenagers. The enthusiastic recruiter told me about the wonderful experience I could expect from the gathering. "Every summer," she said, "the conference brings together about a hundred or so young people at a camp that has no swimming pool. We gather during the dog days of August. The conference is so much fun, nobody misses the pool!"

My assignment was to preach sermons, lead some singing, and pray. Upon my arrival, however, I was given a second job by the camp director. She had a smirk on her face as she reminded me of the developmental characteristics of late adolescents. Then, with a twinkle in her eye, she said, "It is the worship leader's job to preserve the high moral standards of the camp." That explains why, about midnight each night, I was handed a high intensity flashlight, pointed to the bushes, and instructed to search for teenagers whose hormones were working overtime. The camp staff called it "Smut Patrol."

On Tuesday night at curfew time, I began to make my rounds. I had dressed in black clothing and carried my trusty Ray-O-Vac flashlight. Fortunately it was a quiet night. It was early in the week and few romances had begun to bloom. Suddenly I heard loud rock and roll music. Coming around the edge of a meadow, a dreadful sight came into view. About a hundred teenagers had gathered beneath a picnic pavilion. They were moving to the rhythms of the music. "My God," I thought, "this is church camp! What would John Calvin think?"

The camp director had been clear. My job was to preserve decency and order. Running to the pavilion, I climbed up a picnic table and shouted, "Wait! It's curfew! It's the wrong time to dance." But the music kept playing. The teenagers kept dancing. Much to my shock, one of them moved toward me, her arm outstretched, inviting me to move to the rhythms of the night. I didn't know what to do. Should I stick to my guns, and unplug the music? Or should I join in a dance which broke all the rules?

It was not a new dilemma. In fact, this issue lies at the heart of these two stories from Mark. Some people in the time of Jesus struggled with the same problem. They probably did not dress in black. They did not carry spotlights. They certainly did not consider themselves Presbyterians. But they were gravely concerned about keeping the rules.

One day, they saw Jesus and his disciples waltzing in the fields. Apparently Jesus gave his friends permission to pluck and eat the grain. Now, what did the rules say about that? On the one hand, it is always proper that the hungry be fed. The book of Deuteronomy says if someone is hungry and traveling through a neighbor's field, it is legal to take your neighbor's excess food. That's what neighbors are for: to keep one another well-fed (Deuteronomy 23:25).

On the other hand, that particular day was the Sabbath. And everybody knew the rules concerning the Holy Day of God. "Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God; you shall not do any work -- you, or your son or your daughter, or your male or female slave, or your ox or your donkey, or any of your livestock, or the resident alien in your towns" (Deuteronomy 5:13-14).

So the Rule Keepers questioned Jesus, "Why are you letting your followers break the rules?"

Jesus said, "There is a precedent for this. Haven't you read about King David in the Bible?" Of course, they read the Bible. The Bible was the Rule Book, after all. It was full of statutes for every sticky situation. This Galilean upstart was disrupting a time-honored tradition, and justifying it with a minor footnote to a wayward king. And if that jab wasn't annoying enough, they heard Jesus ask them, "Would you like to dance?" The Rule Keepers glared at him.

They kept watching as Jesus danced into the sanctuary of worship. There was a person in that place with a crinkled-up hand. Nobody doubted Jesus had power to heal him. But it presented a tougher situation. In the Bible, there are no obvious rules about healing crinkled-up hands. So what should be done? It is true that human need demands a compassionate response. But it is also true that the worship of God should never get "out of hand." The assembly of the faithful should be a holy and pious occasion; isn't that right? Most people have learned the three rules about worship, namely, "Sit up, shut up, and pay up." But along came Jesus, ready to help a crinkled-up man do the fox-trot. It broke all the rules anyone cared to remember.

Which is more lawful: to tend to someone in need, or to keep the Sabbath rules? Which is more expedient: to save someone's withered life, or to squelch a troublemaker? As Jesus made his decision to heal, the Rule Keepers decided to kill. According to the Gospel of Mark, they said, "It's time to stop Jesus from dancing." They plotted his assassination, and they were successful. They unplugged the music. As a familiar hymn speaks for Jesus,

I danced on the Sabbath and I cured the lame;
The holy people said it was a shame.
They whipped and they stripped and they hung Me high,
And left Me there on a cross to die.1
(Sydney Carter. ©1963 by Stainer & Bell Ltd. Used by permission of Hope Publishing Co., Carol Stream, IL 60188. All rights reserved. Used by permission.)


Scholars have observed that the conflict between Jesus and these Pharisees lies close to the heart of Mark's Gospel. It reflects a cosmic battle that began as the Strong One of God announced the gracious reign of God. The forces of evil and oppression can only respond with the language of destruction, saying, "What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us?" (Mark 1:24). Someone notes, "Jesus' actions are so opposed to what the authorities accept as God's laws that they conclude Jesus could not be acting on God's authority."2 Therefore, presuming they were acting on God's behalf, "The Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him" (Mark 3:6).

What these Rule Keepers did not know, however, is that Jesus learned his dance steps from the Lord Almighty, the giver of every good and perfect rule. What the Rule Keepers also did not know is that God never allows his music to be unplugged for longer than three days. They destroyed Jesus, but the stone was rolled away. The tomb was found empty. Ever since, Jesus has danced a Resurrection Two-Step, inviting us to join in the dance as we are able. The hymn continues,

They cut me down and I leapt up high;
I am the life that will never, never die;
I'll live in you if you live in Me:
I am the Lord of the Dance, said He.

Dance, then, wherever you may be;
I am the Lord of the Dance, said He,
And I'll lead you all, wherever you may be,
And I'll lead you all in the dance, said He.3
(Sydney Carter. ©1963 by Stainer & Bell Ltd. Used by permission of Hope Publishing Co., Carol Stream, IL 60188. All rights reserved. Used by permission.)


There is a scene in the popular children's book, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, where the evil White Witch discovers that her power is slipping. The beloved land of Narnia has been under the deadly grip of a perpetual winter. Yet as Aslan the Lion comes to Narnia, the snow begins to thaw. Suddenly the grass turns green, the sky becomes azure blue, and primroses blossom.

"This is no thaw," said the Dwarf to the Witch. "This is spring. What are we to do? Your winter has been destroyed, I tell you! This is Aslan's doing." The Witch can only respond with venomous threats. But the coming of the Christ-figure Aslan signifies that a whole new creation is at hand. The good news prompts another, more joyful response.4

According to the writer of Mark, this is the essence and invitation of the Gospel. God has begun a new age by sending Jesus Christ into our world. The dance continues, when deserts rejoice and dead flowers blossom. The music swells, as steel hearts are broken open and hardened ears begin to listen.5 The rhythm invites us to get in step with God's activity in our world, regardless of our preconceived notions and legislated limitations. The music of Resurrection demands a response. It also makes a response possible.

When Rhoda went to the nursing home, nobody ever thought she would walk again, much less dance. She spent her days watching game shows and soap operas, an endless cycle of Jeopardy and General Hospital. She could hardly move down the hall to the television. When she got there, she could barely see the screen. Everyone thought her days were numbered.

One day the activity director announced, "Rhoda, we're going on a bus trip."

Rhoda said, "I don't want to miss my television shows."

The activity director said, "Don't worry. We'll be back in plenty of time." She was lying, but it got Rhoda on the bus. Rhoda allowed herself to be carried aboard. They put her walker by her side, although nobody thought she would use it.

Soon the bus carried Rhoda to a huge arts and music festival in a nearby city. Attendance at the festival that day numbered over 100,000 people. It was an ambitious task to take 25 nursing home residents to a place like that. It was also a nerve-wracking experience, when the activities director counted 24 heads at the end of the day. Rhoda was missing. They looked high and low. They couldn't find her. In time, they located her aluminum walker near a bandstand in a circus tent, but not Rhoda.

Suddenly someone spotted her. Thirty feet away, she was dancing with a man half her age. "Rhoda," shouted the director, "what are you doing?"

Rhoda said, "It's the polka!"

"But what about your legs?"

Rhoda shouted back, "When I heard the music, I couldn't stop my toes from tapping."

Wasn't that something? She was so caught up in the dance, the life-giving dance, that she forgot the rules which hemmed her in. It was a glimpse, perhaps, of what God requires of us.

So there I was at summer camp, shrouded in black, mouth agape, wondering what I should do. This is the truth: there was no time to think about it. Someone moved toward me with an outstretched arm. Then she grabbed my hand and yanked me into the circle. A curious thing began to happen. My toes began to tap. My knees began to bend. My feet began to bounce. I couldn't help myself. The music swirled around us like a powerful whirlpool, swallowing us up in its wake.

Come to think of it, as I first looked around the edges of that pavilion, I noticed some of you had gone there with me. Let's see: you were there . . . and you . . . and you. Yes, I am sure of it. There we were, standing for a minute as wallflowers around the edges of the life-giving dance. So why did we go to that makeshift dance floor? Did we go to move to the rhythms of the night? Or did we go in a futile attempt to unplug the music?

Whatever the case, the daring dance of Jesus and his kingdom continues, with us or without us. So which shall it be?6
____________

1. Sydney Carter, "I Danced in the Morning," The Presbyterian Hymnal (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1990), p. 302.

2. David Rhoads and Donald Michie, Mark as Story: An Introduction to the Narrative of a Gospel (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1982), p. 81.

3. Carter, ibid.

4. C. S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (New York: Collier Books, 1970), p. 118.

5. In many ways, the Gospel of Mark may be an exegesis of Isaiah 35:1-10, a new "homecoming" that is manifest in Jesus Christ. Note, for instance, that in the presence of Jesus, even the desert turns "green" (Mark 6:39).

6. For an assessment of this sermon as it was preached in its initial setting, see my article, "The Sermon That Flew," Journal for Preachers 16.3 (Easter 1993), pp. 34-36.

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