This is a sermon for the third Sunday of Easter, given in the “church up the road.” The Scripture it references is Psalm 30.
You have turned my mourning into dancing…
I’ve been thinking a bit about dancing and its relationship with worship lately. This week I was having an online discussion with a Hindu woman (as you do), about dance and yoga and meditation and how – in her religion – dance is something which allows you not just to know about God with your mind, but to know God in your body. And that led me to reflect on how Christianity has for so long really been very uncomfortable about our bodies and their potential to know God; we’re much more likely to see our bodies as an obstacle or a nuisance which the mind needs to “manage” through discipline. Perhaps we can thank St. Paul for some of that…
But anyway. That meant that when I saw this verse in the Psalm it stood out to me as something worth exploring. What was going on for the community who first used this Psalm in their worship, and what does it have to say to us today?
It turns out that this Psalm is one which is very intimately connected with the temple-based worship of the ancient Jews. The introductory information tells us that it is a Psalm which was written for or used at the dedication of the temple, and later on it was included in (and continues to be used in) Hanukkah liturgies, which celebrate the rededication of the temple after its desecration.
This gives us some context for the expressions of joy and praise and thanks. For the ancient Jews, the temple was a focus of their distinctive identity as the people of God, and for their unity as a people. The temple was the place where God dwelt among God’s people, and so it was the place of most profound sacred encounter, and the place for the most solemn and most joyous acts of worship.
So this is the context in which the people’s mourning is turned into dancing; pilgrims would dance in procession on their way to the temple, and their dance celebrated everything that it meant to be one of God’s people, a grateful recipient of God’s shepherding care, and awed worshipper in the place which was the closest thing to heaven on earth.
And the reason I’m making a point of that is that I think that sometimes verses like this one about our mourning being turned to dancing become quite well known, perhaps because they’re used in worship songs or otherwise popularised, in a way which is removed from that original context; and sometimes that means their meaning gets distorted for us.
Here’s what I mean; if we take this line about God turning our mourning into dancing on its own – and I’ve seen Christians do this kind of thing – then you can think that maybe mourning isn’t a normal part of the Christian life. You can think that maybe Christians are meant to be happy all of the time, full of the joy of the Lord, and that the full range of human emotion isn’t something that’s meant to be part of the healthy Christian experience. It’s even sometimes pushed to the extreme where Christians who live with depression or anxiety or other similar mental health issues are told that they do so because of their sin, or – in one particularly memorable conversation I had when I was depressed – that it’s because of demonic activity in their life. (Way to freak someone out!)
This is, I think, something like an emotional version of prosperity theology (the idea that God wants to bless us, and that therefore a lack of success somehow indicates a problem in your faith). And it’s a mistake to get caught up in that kind of thinking, which is more about blame than about hope.
So it’s important for us to read verses like this and realise that while celebration is an important part of life, it’s not something which we need to expect from everyone all the time. Grief is normal, the full range of our emotions is normal, and we need to be able to bring all of that with us to worship without being ashamed of what we feel, or thinking that it is in some way a barrier between us and God.
So if that’s what we don’t do with a Psalm like this, what can we take from it?
Think back to what I said about how this Psalm was (and is) used in Jewish worship. That it was a celebration of their identity as the people of God, their unity as a people, and of their ability to encounter and worship the living God in their midst.
Well, we also have those things to celebrate, do we not? We also know our own identity as a people of God – an Easter people – and songs of praise are an intrinsic part of that. We know that – as the community of all the baptised – even though the church is administratively fragmented, we have a deeper unity; one based on the presence of the Holy Spirit which is at work in each of us, and through all of us. We know that as we gather for worship, Christ is present with and to us, and we are able to encounter and worship the living God in our midst.
This is as much a part of the fabric of our religious lives as it was for the ancient Jews who wrote this Psalm and preserved it as part of their regular worship. And these are things worth celebrating, worth expressing our joy over!
So yes, God turns our mourning into dancing; he overcomes our alienation from him and from one another and builds us back up into relationships in which we can truly experience joy.
Have a look at the pictures up on the screen (for readers of the blog, they are attached below); what you have been looking at so far is a detailed view of part the interior of the Episcopal church of St. Gregory of Nyssa, in San Francisco. Here’s a bit more of a big-picture view. All around the walls of that church, the saints of all ages and cultures are shown dancing together, led by Christ at the head, in a bright and bold visual statement of what it means to be the Church. I wonder what it would be like, to gather for worship surrounded by all those dancing saints? And did you notice that there are some animals in the picture, which suggest that all of creation and nature joins with us in our praise?
This is where statements of God turning our mourning into dancing take their proper place, for us; not in trying to narrow the range of acceptable Christian emotion, but in providing a deeper understanding of what it is that we have to celebrate as we come together. We may not always feel like dancing, but we can know that we always have something worth holding on to and treasuring as being worth celebrating; something to turn back to even in our darkest times, which can give us comfort and hope that our struggles will pass. So that, with the psalmist, we can say with confidence that we too will give thanks to God for ever.