We Are the Dance, and We Still Go On

i danced in the morning

This is the sermon I preached on Sunday, October 14, 2018, at First Church Simsbury. The service had an Easter in October theme, with the prayers, hymns and sermon all lifting up the new life that God makes available through Jesus.

John 11

Our church, like many Protestant and Catholic churches, follows what is known as the Lectionary. The Lectionary provides recommended reading for each Sunday.  Each year, the Lectionary readings follow Jesus’ life and ministry from the anticipation of his birth in Advent, through his teaching and healing ministry, to his arrival in Jerusalem on what we now call Palm Sunday, into Holy Week and his betrayal, persecution, torture, crucifixion and death on the cross, to the empty tomb and experiences of his resurrection, to his ascension to heaven, and the birth of the church at Pentecost!

The Lectionary is a great teaching tool, helping us understand the narrative arc of the gospel story, knitting the themes of our faith in a way that makes sense. And celebrating Christmas and Easter once each year helps us recognize how special each is to our life of faith.

But there is a down side to worshiping and studying the Bible with the Lectionary. It could lead us to conclude that experiences of God through Jesus occur in a fixed order, one at a time, once a year, and that we have to wait until the appropriate time to experience the birth of Jesus, the power of the Holy Spirit, or the resurrection. And nothing could be farther from the truth. Everything of God is present and accessible to us all the time.

If I were to locate myself in the gospel story these past few weeks, I would land squarely in Lent, those weeks leading up to Jesus’ crucifixion on Good Friday. I am a pretty hopeful and optimistic guy, it’s just my nature. But boy, I’m telling you, there is much in the world these days that recalls Jesus’ persecution and suffering, and I confess, it got to me. In fact, I learned a new word to describe my state of mind last week. I have been feeling Weltschmerz (VELT-schmairtz), depression caused by comparison of the actual state of the world with an ideal state.  For several days this past week I took a stroll through what the 23rd Psalm calls the valley of the shadow of death until, round about Thursday, I came across 100 daffodil bulbs for $15.99, and right there is the Costco aisle, I caught a glimpse of Easter.

It has been popular for some time to celebrate Christmas in July. As far as I can tell this is largely an excuse for a party with Christmas decorations, carols, Santa Clause and more. If we can celebrate Christmas in July, why not Easter in October? Why wait for the first Sunday following the first ecclesiastical full moon that occurs on or after the day of the vernal equinox for an experience of resurrection? If everything of God is present all the time, and it is, let’s wrest resurrection from death, and exit the tomb today!

As we are reminded in this morning’s reading from the gospel of John, Jesus’ is not the only resurrection story in the gospels. Here, Jesus’ friends Mary and Martha ask him to come quickly because their brother Lazarus is near death. Jesus delays his departure and by the time he arrives, Lazarus has been dead four days. Mary and Martha are overwhelmed with grief, and Jesus begins to weep. Jesus directs that the tomb be opened, but Martha warns Jesus that Lazarus’ decomposing body stinks! Still, Jesus insists, and in a loud voice, cries, “Lazarus, come out!” And out comes Lazarus, his hands and feet bound, and his face wrapped with strips of cloth, but fully alive!

In the version I read, Jesus says, “Unbind him, let him go.” But in the New International Version, this verse reads “cast off the grave clothes.” I find this language especially compelling; to claim the new life Jesus offers, we must cast off our grave clothes.

Last week Saturday I posted this invitation on Facebook: Name one small thing that makes you happy every time. I’ll go first. KFC coleslaw.

Over 100 people responded. Here are their answers to the prompt, name one thing that makes you happy every time.

Time with family, clean sheets, good cup of java, comfy pajamas, October, running, ice cream sandwiches, a greeting from my little dog and my daughter, licorice flavored tea, Crayola crayons, seeing my granddaughter laugh, Hot Doughnuts Now (a Krispy Crème reference, I believe), a good night’s sleep, good sushi, water, boxers (the dog not the underwear), a cup of tea and a good novel, PF, great friends, playing in the dirt, my cat, Nutella, little children wearing hats that look like animals, bedtime with the kiddos, McDonalds sausage and egg biscuits, shave ice, regatta days, dancing in the kitchen, a pedicure, tomato sandwich—mayo, sourdough, a little salt, some basil if I’m feeling fancy, the sound of falling rain, chocolate, there is nothing, that first barefoot step in the sand, walking into our home after a vacation, crisp air and sunshine, cannoli, creative writing, rocky hill dog park, fresh crepes, hugs, beautiful music, mountain bike ride on a cool, crisp Colorado morning, a walk alone in the woods, first snowflake of the season, M&M’s plain, when my students tell me I’m the best teacher, real maple syrup, freshly baked grape pie with a scoop of vanilla ice cream, Jesus is coming, yarn, waking up to the snow, marijuana, a Red Sox win, walking in Stratton Brook Park.

One happy experience does not resurrection make, but I would suggest that collectively, this is the raw material of resurrection, the goodness which survives even when death’s shadow falls across our path.

I draw attention to two responses in particular.

One person said, “there is nothing.” They were feeling so Weltschmerz that they could recall nothing that consistently makes them happy. This is why resurrection can only be a communal experience. Just as Mary and Martha tell Jesus that he is too late, Lazarus is beyond all help and they are inconsolable, so there will always be times when it is impossible to believe, to access the hope and happiness that follow sorrow. At these times we depend on others to call us forth from the tomb and unbind us.

The other response I want to lift up is, dancing in the kitchen. It seems to me that there is something uniquely celebratory about dance. Dance engages our whole body. And to dance in the face of death is a bold assertion of life. We are demonstrating with every part of our body that we are alive, even as Weltschmerz threatens to overwhelm us.

Following the sermon, we will sing I Danced in the Morning.

Written in the first person, Jesus begins by describing dancing at creation and at his own birth.

In the second verse, he dances for the scribe and Pharisee, those who reject him, as well as his followers the disciples.

Even as he is being persecuted and crucified, Jesus continues to dance.

And with the devil on his back, in the fourth verse Jesus reveals that he is the dance, and the dance continues even beyond his death.

Finally, the triumphant fifth verse:

They cut me down and I leapt up high;
I am the life that’ll never, never die.
I’ll live in you if you’ll live in me:
I am the Lord of the dance, said he.

In each chorus, Jesus commands us:

Dance, then, wherever you may be.
I’ll lead you all in the dance, said he.

We can’t dance when we are bound up with death. Dancing requires us to cast off our own grave clothes.

But unbinding doesn’t just happen. Resurrection is a choice we make, an invitation we accept, a command we obey, an action we perform. There is something defiant about choosing resurrection. The dance of resurrection is literally death defying!

New life is always present, but we must claim it, we must perform it, and we must invite everyone into the performance.

Resurrection is an act of resistance in the face of Weltschmerz.

I invite you to not just sing, but dance as an act of resistance against all death.

Congregation sings, I Danced in the Morning

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