And David Danced before the Lord in a Lightweight Kilt

Sermon preached on 12 July 2015 – (click here for video)

Are you dancing?

And is it the dance of life or the dance of death?

Is it dancing in the streets with the people or dancing in palaces to please the tyrant?

This week’s pairing of Old Testament and Gospel has always seemed to me to be particularly fortuitous. You get two dances and they shine light on one another. Two sets of royal palaces. Two dancing figures. One figure skipping about the streets in his linen ephod to the scandal of the decent and well to do and the other shimmying about Herod’s palace casting all decency aside to bring a good man to his death.

The dance of Life or the dance of Death. Which will it be?

Well, inevitably, I want to come back to the dance that seems to me to be more filled with life than with death and so I’ll return to David’s dance in a minute or two.

Let me first though meander back almost 20 years in my memory to a particular dance – a particular ceilidh that I have in mind this morning.

Just over twenty years ago, I found myself at a ceilidh. I was a young man in my first job in the church and I was working in University Chaplaincy – a ministry in the church that I’ve been involved with a few times.

Now, those who are University Chaplains get invited to a big conference every couple of years. It is ecumenical and diverse. You get people from all kinds of traditions but who happen to be in University Ministry turning up. And they are an eclectic and quite interesting bunch.

Anyway, there I was at the Higher Education Chaplains conference. And on the last night there was a ceilidh band playing for a ceilidh or a barn dance or whatever you want to call it.

Now at that time, as I suspect is the case even today in England, University Chaplains were quite often people who had not fitted in, or more likely had been nudged out of parish ministry for one reason or the other – usually the other.

And it was the case at that dance that a number of the gentlemen chaplains wanted to dance with other gentlemen chaplains and a number of the gentlewomen wanted to dance with other gentlewomen.

And gradually over the course of a few dances it because obvious that people were just dancing with whoever they wished to dance with and a good time was being had by all.

A good time, until someone noticed. A grand old time was being had by everyone present until the leader of the dance band who was calling the dances noticed what was happening right under his nose and stopped the band and gave us all a bit of a ticking off. Except that rather than telling us that what we were up to was in contradiction with the book of Leviticus, he took humbrage at us because we were offending against the principles of the English Folk Song and Dance Society.

“Men dance with women and women dance with men” he said in exasperation as the dancers began to argue back.

“If men want to dance with men, they shouldn’t be doing it at a social dance” the poor man cried. “It is allowed in ritual dance but not social dance – you should all go off an become Morris Dancers”.

I suspect he grew up to become a bishop.

And as the floor of couples erupted in indignation asserting that they either wanted to dance with whoever they wanted to dance with or arguing even more loudly and more indignantly that they didn’t mind the fact that some people wanted to dance with whoever they wanted to dance with, I realise now that I was having two epiphanies.

Firstly, I can see very clearly in that incident some of the origins of me seeing that the struggle for equality between people was the part of the justice jigsaw that I wanted to be able join in with to help put the world back together in a way that made more sense than the way we’ve received it does.

And secondly – the realisation that some hierarchies just need to be broken down. Sometimes the people on the dance floor need to tell the caller what they need to hear in order to have a good time. Things don’t always need to be the way they’ve always been.

Hierarchy gets things done. At its best it can allow us to help one another – making laws that protect and encouraging us to collect money to providing welfare and nourishment for those in need. (Taxes are a good and godly thing remember!)

At its worst and most brutal though, hierarchy doesn’t just make the trains run on time, it kills prophets like John the Baptiser and threatens all who sing the songs of justice and dance the jigs and reels of freedom and love that the Lord of the dance would have us dance in the great heavenly ceilidh to which every child on earth is invited.

Let us take ourselves back to David dancing in the streets. What’s going on?

There are two standard interpretations of what was going on and they are both about hierarchy and I have a particularly Scottish interpretation of one of them that depends on how you translate “Linen Ephod”.

The first is to say that what’s going on here is that King David has divested himself of the royal paraphernalia and gone into the street in a linen ephod which was the standard wear of a priest of the temple. He’s chosen to rejoice in a religious way rather than a royal way and that somehow this is indicative of a king putting aside his majesty and being one with the people. (A bit like the story of the Queen and Princess Margaret sneaking out of the gates of Buckingham Palace on VE Day and dancing in the crowd without anyone knowing who they were). This interpretation would work for me if it were not for religion’s capacity for taking hierarchy and worshipping hierarchy itself rather than taking hierarchy and using it to enable people to worship. (And when you work in a job like mine with a pantomime title you need to work particularly hard at knowing the difference).

So I rather favour the second interpretation of all this which is that David’s wife scolded him for dancing in the street because he was dancing practically naked.

Such is the way hierarchical societies work. (“It is OK for the common people to have fun your Majesty but such things are not for you – and look you ruffians and rapscallions, the King doesn’t dance in the street so why are you causing such a rumpus”).

This works particularly well when you realise that perhaps the best interpretation of linen ephod for a Scottish audience is “lightweight kilt”.

David was dancing for joy and didn’t care who saw what he looked like. He was dancing before the Lord and didn’t care that he was letting his dignity slip a bit. He was dancing with such joy that care itself dropped away.

And I love him for it.

I’ve always said I’d rather be a priest who risked getting into more bother with God for saying yes to people than saying no to people. My vision for this place is something of the same. And that sentiment makes me forgive all David’s vulgarity and love him for all his joy.

If we are ever accused of being slightly vulgar in daring to care about things that real people care about, slightly over the top in our exuberant worship, slightly too ready to take to the streets to bring in the kingdom of justice and joy then we will find ourselves accused of dancing in good company.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Lord of the Dance.



  1. Angela Millar says

    Really missed your blogs – glad they are back on line – thank you!

  2. Yes, I’ve missed your blogs too. Welcome back.
    David got into a bit of trouble with his wife for dancing in the street – I think she was more concerned about his dancing in front of other women than concerned about his dignity. Marriage can be like that. Still a great institution though.
    In certain situations dignity can be important. But I agree that our Lord doesn’t care if we let our dignity slip, he wants authenticity. By the way, as a mother of four children I can reveal that birthing suites in hospitals are no place for dignity!

  3. Ender's Shadow says

    I’ve never heard any explanation other than the idea that David was letting it all hang out. As such it is a challenge to all of us from a strict liturgical tradition: is it really providing space for us to express over the top enthusiasm for God? Of course for some people it does; Thomas Merton’s excitement at being allowed to say Mass THREE TIMES on Christmas Day is… different. But in a culture where noisy dancing is the norm for a ‘night out’, it should be no surprise that the likes of ‘Hillsong’ make a major impact. Is there space for that in our churches, or are we marginalising such people?

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