Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas
The Reverend Neil Alan Willard, M.Div.
Proper 10, July 11, 2021
Jesus, Savior, may I know you love and make it known. Amen.
I don’t know exactly how it started. But I do know she had left her mother’s side for just a moment as beautiful music sung by many voices washed over me from behind and continued toward her as she stood in the center aisle.
I think this little girl was dressed up as a ballerina, although I realize that sounds more like a dream than something real. But this was definitely real, a scene from my previous congregation in Minnesota, and I’m pretty sure she was dressed as a ballerina. I know without a doubt that she started her dance while I was preparing the Table for Holy Communion.
Her mother, as I recall, was a little embarrassed by the whole thing, but she shouldn’t have been. People there were watching that graceful dance as the bread and wine were placed “just so,” awaiting the prayerful dance of words that would ask the Holy Spirit to descend, in that hour, making ordinary food holy and ordinary people holy, not through anything we had done but through what God has and continues to do for the world.
All I can say is that most of us saw a little girl at home in the House of the Lord, dancing in the presence of the glory of God, giving thanks in her own way for the gifts that were about to be shared with everyone who had walked through those doors and been washed and refreshed and forgiven in the waters of baptism. Perhaps we were jealous, too, of the freedom she seemed to embody naturally and the joy and wonder she expressed. Those things sometimes get slowly squeezed out of us as we grow into adulthood.
But I’d like to think that growing into our Christian identity, as children of God, gathering together in this place, roots us continually in that kind of freedom, in the joy and wonder that the words of the Book of Common Prayer ask God to give to the newly baptized — to most of us here, whether we were baptized a few months ago, several years ago, or perhaps now many decades ago. And if you haven’t been baptized but want to be, talk to me today right after this service. We’ll make sure you get baptized.
In our Old Testament reading from the Second Book of Samuel, there’s dancing too. (And, yes, I’m well aware of the fact that there’s also dancing in our reading from the Gospel of Mark, but that would be a very different kind of sermon.) Here we see David, already anointed as king over Israel, dressed not as a ballerina but in a linen ephod. That was a kind of sleeveless garment which was worn by the priests. It would have looked something like the chasuble our own priests wear to preside at the Table.
We’re told not once but twice that David “danced before the Lord with all his might.” It wasn’t filled with the delicate and graceful moves I was trying to describe to you earlier, the ones I had seen in Minnesota. This was a total emersion in the sense of belonging to God, unrestrained, even scandalous, according the standards of the old guard.
Hence the reference to Michal who “despised [David] in her heart” after looking out a window at him “leaping and dancing before the Lord.” She knew a thing or two about royal dignity because she was the daughter of the former king, Saul. But what makes Michal’s reaction really sting is the fact that she was also the first wife of the present king. Yes, she was married to David, who wasn’t acting with a shred of dignity in his jubilation.
Here we can see the enactment of the words of Hannah, mother of the Prophet Samuel, in the First Book of Samuel. Hannah sang a song to proclaim that “[the Lord] brings low, he also exalts. [The Lord] raises up the poor from the dust . . . to make them sit with princes.” And remember that David had been a shepherd, and the youngest son of Jesse, someone who was obviously never meant to be a king in the eyes of the world.
To be sure, David was no saint. As I’ve said before from this pulpit, David was unfaithful, unforgiving, and unmerciful. Yet he was also an unlikely vessel of God’s grace, which, of course, means each of us can also be an unlikely vessel of God’s grace. It has been said that God, transforming our countless mistakes, writes straight with crooked lines. And that’s certainly true in the pages of the Bible whenever we read about King David.
But there’s another character in today’s story. Well, it’s really an object — the ark of the covenant. This wooden box held the stone tablets on which were written the ten words, the ten commandments, the self-revelation of God to Moses at Mount Sinai. Atop the lid were two angels, cherubim, and the glory of the Lord was enthroned above their outstretched wings.
Attached to two wooden poles, the ark could be carried to accompany God’s people. But it had been separated from them, having been captured in battle by the Philistines. After the Philistines encounter some bad luck with the ark, it gets parked somewhere for about 20 years. That’s when David finally shows up with his entourage of thousands and the equivalent of an old coat check ticket to take the ark to its new home in Jerusalem.
So this wild parade into Jerusalem, known as the City of David, represents a different and much longer journey than the actual number of steps from the metaphorical coat closet where it had been left behind. The real movement, invigorating the whole scene, including David’s “Saturday Night Fever,” is the movement from despair to joy, from what seemed like the absence of God to an overwhelming sense of the presence of God.
It’s a preview of the journey the Israelites will experience in being sent into exile and then being brought back home. It’s a preview of the journey the followers of Jesus will experience in the disappointment of Good Friday and the surprise of Easter. It’s a preview of the journey we’ve made over the past year as Palmers, together with the rest of humanity, from separation to reunion within the walls of this church and around this Holy Table.
The reality of homecoming and our belief in the resurrection ought to overwhelm us like a flood with a sense of “the greatness, and the power, and the glory, and the victory, and the majesty” of the Lord. It ought to wash over us like the waters of baptism, like the music that washed over me in Minnesota, inspiring a little girl to dance before the altar.
There’s dancing taking place right now too. The children who processed out of the church before the sermon are talking about this story and dancing to music. And there was dancing last night, too, across the street in Hermann Park. Palmer’s own Carol Streatfeild and her son Theo were both dancing at McGovern Centennial Gardens. They were with a group of dancers in that public space performing art to the sound of a cello and other instruments. It might not have been the “lyres and harps and tambourines and castanets and cymbals” or “the sound of the trumpet,” the shofar, that accompanied the ark as it made its way toward Jerusalem. But it captured the attention of those walking by, causing them to stop, if only for a moment.
They danced across the grass to the pool of water in front of the pavilion, pausing there before continuing their journey to a new location where people gathered to watch and listen and ponder. Now I don’t know what any of that meant to Carol and Theo and the other dancers and the musicians and those who experienced all of this. For me, the pool resembled baptismal waters and the rest was an announcement of peace to the City of Houston.
I believe peace and beauty and community are gifts that flow, like a dance, whether slow and graceful or fast and jubilant, from the presence of God. And I believe this is where we learn how to dance in the world, in response to the overwhelming mercy and forgiveness and acceptance we receive through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, the Christ, the Messiah.
So today I hope you’ll notice other Palmers, other Christians, other people created in God’s image and filled with the Spirit, dancing the world and not despise them in your heart but rejoice with them. In the words sung by country music star Lee Ann Womack:
Give the heavens above more than just a passing glance,
And when you get the choice to sit it out or dance,
I hope you dance.
1 BACK TO POST The Book of Common Prayer (1979) 308. This is the prayer which is said by a priest or bishop over those who have just been baptized:
Heavenly Father, we thank you that by water and the Holy Spirit you have bestowed upon these your servants the forgiveness of sin, and have raised them to the new life of grace. Sustain them, O Lord, in your Holy Spirit. Give them an inquiring and discerning heart, the courage to will and to persevere, a spirit to know and to love you, and the gift of joy and wonder in all your works. Amen
2 BACK TO POST II Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19.
3 BACK TO POST Mark 6:14-29.
4 BACK TO POST II Samuel 6:5, 14.
5 BACK TO POST II Samuel 6:16.
6 BACK TO POST I Samuel 2:1-10.
7 BACK TO POST I Samuel 4:1-11.
8 BACK TO POST II Chronicles 29:11. This is the translation in the Book of Common Prayer (1979), and here is the complete offertory sentence which a priest said at today’s worship services before the people’s gifts of bread and wine were placed on the Table for Holy Communion:
Thine, O Lord, is the greatness, and the power, and the glory, and the victory, and the majesty. For all that is in the heaven and in the earth is thine. Thine is the kingdom, O Lord, and thou art exalted as head above all.
9 BACK TO POST II Samuel 6:5, 15.
10 BACK TO POST The words of this signature song of country music singer Lee Ann Womack were written by Mark D. Sanders and Tia Sillers. Womack also sang this song in Wait Chapel on the campus of Wake Forest University, which is my alma mater, during the funeral for Wake Forest’s Reynolds Professor of American Studies Maya Angelou.