From Mourning into Dancing

John  11:17-44                                   5.22.22

Ailey, A. (1960) Revelations. [Kaufman Concert Hall, NYC. 1960]

Every year in early May, Union Presbyterian Seminary brings in well respected scholars and preachers for a 3-day lecture series.  The speakers always stretch and challenge us.  This year was no exception.  I used three days of my two week allotted study leave and went to Richmond for the lecture series so that I could meet and learn more from Dr. Wil Gafney, a Hebrew Bible professor and scholar at Brite Divinity School in Texas.  We have been using her translations most Sundays as we work our way through her Women’s Lectionary for the whole church, which assigns her selected passages from the Old and New Testaments for each Sunday of the year.

I came away from Richmond with COVID, but also with a new appreciation for the importance of Biblical translation.  Translation matters.  All translation carries a slant.  You can’t help it.  You translate from one language to another using your own perspective, your cultural experience, your place or role in society, your world view. And it is no secret that translators of the Bible have been white males from the get-go, translating from a white male perspective.  Not until very recently have there been any people of color or women included on translation committees.  They had no reason to pay any attention to the women in the background of the Biblical story.  Throughout the Old Testament, even when the Hebrew words are inclusive of all genders and ages, usually only males are mentioned.  Why?  Multiple reasons. Custom.  Chauvinism. Diminish value of women. Historical precedent. The lack of other voices among translators.

Gafney is insisting that it is high time we begin to use translation that takes into account all of us, not just the men and boys, not just people with white faces.  All of us.  A product of African American Christianity, ordained in the Episcopal Church, viewing Scripture from a womanist (Black women’s feminist) perspective, with the knowledge and expertise to compare ancient texts, Gafney reaches for the cultural significance of the stories, the poetry, the emotions, the relationship between humans of all kinds and the Creator of all, restoring translation to where it should have been all along.  She is committed to staying away from using the title LORD as it carries slave-holding connotations.  Why use a name for God that is oppressive of anyone?   Instead, she creates a wide variety of names for God that reflect the multiple characteristics and roles of God.  Perhaps you have noticed that we have begun using these titles in our liturgy here at Hunting Ridge.  Names like FAITHFUL ONE, LIVING GOD, or MOTHER OF ALL deepen our connection with God who can not be boxed in to being a Lord or master.  Gafney also is committed to describing God with feminine pronouns, which are not the practice of most of us, but are helpful in broadening our image of God.

During the lecture series, Dr. Gafney shared with us the historical and current practice of many Black preachers who love to imagine deeper than what the words on the page say to us, filling in the characters in the story, exploring what might come next, or what someone’s life was like or what she or he might have been worried about or proud of.  She refers to this practice as ‘sanctified imagination’, or holy imagination– using inspired imagination to make the Scripture real for the listeners in the congregation. 

Ailey, A. (1960) Revelations. [Kaufman Concert Hall, NYC. 1960]

I want to use some of my sanctified imagination this morning as I wonder with you about what happened after Lazarus was called out from the tomb by Jesus.  He and his two sisters, Martha and Mary, had a very close relationship with Jesus.  Mary was the one who had previously washed Jesus’ feet with perfume and wiped them with her hair.  The sisters know that Jesus had the power to heal their brother, and even in her grief at the poor timing of Jesus’ arrival (he was too late in their minds—Lazarus had been in the tomb for 4 days!), Martha indicates that she believes Jesus will receive anything he asks of God.  In my sanctified imagination, I am wondering if she did have a glimmer of hope that Jesus would raise Lazarus.  Maybe the disciples who were traveling with him had told her when they arrived that though Jesus knew Lazarus was already dead, he was still intent on going to him, and had told them that Lazarus would be all right. What did Jesus mean by “all right”?  All right with God?  Safe in heaven? Free from illness? Coming back to life?  But when Jesus tells her that her brother will rise again, she is thinking he means a future resurrection which Jesus had alluded to earlier, something to anticipate upon his return.  Earlier in this same gospel, Jesus taught that “the hour is coming when all who are in their graves will hear the voice of the Son of Man and will come out—those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of condemnation.” But that future resurrection is not what Jesus means here.  He is about to show her (and anyone else who was there to comfort the sisters in the loss of their brother) that he is indeed the resurrection and the life, that those who believe in him will live even though they die, actually that they will never die.  Martha tells him she does believe this, that she understands him to be the Messiah, the Son of God, the coming one they had all been waiting for. 

In my sanctified imagination, I am wondering about the reaction of the community.  These are the neighbors, the friends, the Jewish people who mourned together with Martha and Mary,  surrounding these sisters with their support, their comfort.  You know, bringing casseroles by the house.  Coming just to sit awhile, or to sing together, or to pray.  There are the ones who just stepped in to pick up the chores, to feed the animals or do the washing.  We did not use Gafney’s translation this morning, but in her translations through John in particular, she translates what is traditionally translated “the Jews” as the Jewish folk, or Jewish community, or Jewish people.  The negative connotation connected to the opponents of Jesus, the line between Jewish neighbors and Jesus’ followers is blurred.  Gafney points out that it is important to remember that these are people just like Mary and Martha and Lazarus.  And, they are people just like Jesus.  Mary and Martha are among their own community. Clearly Martha and Mary are counted as disciples of Jesus, believers that he is truly the Messiah, but these neighbors are not opponents in any way.  This is their community who surrounds them and loves them and comforts them in their time of grief. They are their own folk.

When Jesus called them to open the tomb, and then called to Lazarus to come out, I can just see the faces of the Jewish folk, including Martha and Mary.  They are incredulous, amazed, exchanging glances with one another with wide eyes.  “What?”  The tears had stopped.  I imagine that they began to dance.  I can see Martha and Mary starting it off and their neighbors and friends following suit.  Any mournful music that might have been playing has shifted.  This is now a joyful celebration instead of a sad goodbye.  Mourning has turned to dancing. They were jumping up and down, grabbing a dancing partner and twirling one another in excitement and happiness.  Lazarus was NOT dead. Best of all, Lazarus himself came and danced with them.  Pass the wine, dance the night away, and go tell others.

Revelations by Alvin Ailey | Alvin Ailey Repertory
Ailey, A. (1960) Revelations. [Kaufman Concert Hall, NYC. 1960]

We have so much to mourn these days.  We have our own personal reasons to mourn, the illness or death of a loved one or friend, the rising number of COVID cases AGAIN, the end of a particular stage of life, the onset of dementia, the end of independence—you can make your own list.   And we have communal reasons to mourn—the high incidence of homicides in our city and others, a war in Ukraine, conflict among Taiwanese that leads to violence, deplorable life situations which make immigrants clamor to enter our country, the loss of a simpler, less fearful daily life when respect of others was the norm, and, if you are a person of color, fear of walking into a grocery store or a church or any other routine part of daily life.  The racially motivated hatred and fear that is gripping individuals and entire communities is reason for all of us to mourn.

How does mourning turn into dancing for us?  How does violence turn into peace?  How does hatred turn into respect and acceptance?  What has to shift?  What has to change?  For Martha and Mary and their neighbors, the dancing was due to Jesus’ presence and Jesus’ action.  Where does Jesus intersect with our mourning?  Where does Jesus upend our mourning so that it can turn into dancing?

Our neighbors in Buffalo and in Laguna Hills are mourning, and dancing is a long way off right now.  Too many Baltimore neighbors are mourning a senseless death by gun.  A prom goer was shot last weekend.  Or it is a senior citizen on her own porch.  Or a middle school student walking down the street caught in crossfire. Grief can explode in any neighborhood, at any grocery store, in any church.  It could be that we have to learn to sit with the grief for awhile.  To surround the mourners with our presence, being the hands and feet, being the arms and hearts of Jesus, being a living presence of Jesus in the midst of sadness.  Jesus does come.  Jesus grieves.  Jesus acts.  Despite how things seem, some day there will be dancing again. Listen for the music.  Look for a partner.  Find a reason to move and stomp and wave your hands.

I think about a song written by Sydney Carter in 1963 that I loved to sing as a teenager: Lord of the Dance.  It is from Carter’s sanctified imagination, describing Jesus as the Lord of the dance, the one who leads the dance of life that can never be snuffed out, never stopped completely, the never ending dance of hope even in the face of hatred and violence, grief or fear.  Listen to the last verse and the chorus:

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.

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.

Life is a dance. It certainly has enough mourning, sickness, hatred and a long list of -isms that cause pain, angst, fear and more. That we can not ignore.  But neither can we ignore the promise of the Lord of the Dance who can turn mourning into dancing, the promise to lead us all, wherever we may be.  Amen. 

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