by Ellen Sims
Exodus 15: 19-23
When the horses of Pharaoh with his chariots and his chariot drivers went into the sea, the Lord brought back the waters of the sea upon them; but the Israelites walked through the sea on dry ground. Then the prophet Miriam, Aaron’s sister, took a tambourine in her hand; and all the women went out after her with tambourines and with dancing. And Miriam sang to them: “Sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously; horse and rider he has thrown into the sea.”
Shall We Dance?
Last Sunday we discovered young Miriam, the sister of Moses and Aaron, waiting silently among the river reeds, a compassionate presence. Today we meet the adult Miriam on the other side of the Reed Sea, a very vocal leader among the liberated people. All those chapters and years later, Miriam’s ministry of presence has morphed into a ministry of prophecy. Her infant brother has grown into the hero of the Hebrew people, has famously parted the Red/Reed Sea to lead his people safely across as Pharaoh’s chariots pursued. But it is Miriam’s song that punctuates the celebration after their dramatic exodus. Moses led the escape; Miriam led the worship that followed.
Because Miriam is called “the prophet Miriam” in this passage, the text assumes she had been prophesying for some time when this episode occurs and thus had already been known by this title. Remember that biblical prophets were not fortune tellers but pronouncers of truth, indictors of injustice, guides to paths of righteousness and liberation. Perhaps while Moses negotiated with Pharaoh, Miriam was preparing the people for the journey they would be making toward freedom. Perhaps as Moses was herding the Israelites out of town, Miriam had been voicing encouragement. Interestingly, she apparently danced and sang this particular sermon—and maybe all sermons would survive for thousands of years if they were as brief and poetic.
According to today’s story, Miriam found her voice. But according to some biblical scholars, her voice was later muted and nearly extinguished by biblical redactors. However, scholars believe her story was too beloved to be completely eradicated by patriarchy. Miriam’s brief song is one of the oldest passages of the Hebrew Bible and so verses 20-21 are thought to be the original core of this episode. You’ll notice that the first part of chapter 15 attributes these same words to Moses. Then in verse 20, Miriam and the women seem to repeat Moses’s words. Likely the later writers attributed her words to Moses to minimize the women’s role and to elevate the figure of Moses. But a vestige of the Miriam cult remains in this story. Why does this history of the Bible’s construction matter? It matters when biblical literalists offer unexamined details to silence some people and elevate others. It matters.
As we look at this particular sermon sung and danced by Miriam, let’s not appropriate one snippet of poetry as a blueprint for our worship life all these centuries later. But perhaps this ancient verse can springboard us into our own reflections on the life of this worshiping community. I’ll share some of my thoughts now and invite yours during Sermon Talk Back. The worship wars of the last few decades prove there are very fiercely held opinions on the features and purposes of Christian worship. Much of what we prefer in worship is obviously rooted in our personal histories and psychologies. We’ll move into this topic with openness, gentleness, and a hope that Open Table, with its beautiful diversity of backgrounds and beliefs, can always maintain what W. Paul Jones calls “internal ecumenism” (32).[i]
Through Miriam we can explore worship as a response to God’s activity through an embodied and artful spirituality. Miriam’s dance just may teach us about the choreography of our own worship life.
One function of worship is to name the Spirit’s past and present activity in the world. We come together to point to that which is of God (That Which Is Loving and Life-giving). Miriam sings because her people have been saved from slavery and death. Imagine the emotions surging through a people who narrowly escaped the pursuing charioteers, emotions rushing through them like the rushing waters of the Sea! Imagine how Miriam quickly took advantage of that surge of feeling to point the people to the work of God in their midst. Imagine how she channeled those powerful emotions into a ritual of worship and led the other women in dance! Imagine all that astonishment and relief and thanksgiving flowing out in song and movement. Imagine Miriam taking up her tambourine to proclaim: “Sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously!”
As worshipers, you and I must sing and dance–at least figuratively. Even if we are tone deaf and graceless, well, we praise if not with music, then in our hearts. Worship allows us to match our liturgical movement to God’s movement in something like a dance. Be assured, you won’t catch me dancing out any sermon. But there’s a rhythm or pattern to worship that is dance-like: the liturgical year, with its major movements in the advent/Christmas and lent/Easter cycle, repeat Christian themes predictably, so that all may participate. There’s a dance in the pattern of our worship elements that we repeat each week as we move from a call to worship through songs and prayers and sermons to the benediction. Like music and dance, worship requires a predictability so there’s a familiar, repeatable pattern, and yet a certain variety or unpredictability so there’s interest and expressiveness and freshness.
Like the women Miriam led in song, you have come together today and perhaps you feel your own troubles chasing you like menacing charioteers to the very edge of this sanctuary. You have come here perhaps to find some respite from all that is pursuing you. It is in worship that we give authentic expression to our thanksgiving—and to our pain. Here we can recall the ways we ourselves have likewise escaped perils, large and small.
But I hope we are a little troubled by this particular song of Miriam. I hope we would feel free to refuse to join the chorus when she gloats over so many deaths. I hope we would be grateful for our lives without rejoicing over others’ deaths, even the deaths of the oppressors.
And I’ll go further to express some reservations about imitating her unthinkingly. And here I may step on some toes during my own sermonic dance.
The very words praise and worship are troubling to some folks. And I get that. I, too, am wary of God Talk when it is glib. I am a little uncomfortable when folks spout “Praise the Lord!” as if it means “God has bent the universe in MY direction!” or as if they think the Source of Life and Love really demands our admiration or approval. I agree with the Prophet Isaiah who understands God as spurning the fawning devotion of temple worshipers and commends instead those who “seek justice, encourage the oppressed, defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow” (Isaiah 1:17). Although deserving of our love and gratitude, God is surely not a power-hungry potentate who wants obeisance. So much of praise music is theologically problematic for me and others who can’t think of God as a king demanding veneration, who can’t celebrate Jesus’ death as if God demanded a bloody sacrifice. The favorite hymns of some are deeply troubling for others. To those for whom worship connotes a posture of groveling, to those for whom praise words ring phony, I say that I have been able to find my own posture in the presence of the Sacred. I think you can, too. Maybe thankfulness, a cousin to praise, is closer to what you hold in your heart as you walk this earth. Maybe love. Maybe dumbstruck awe at all the beauty and terror. Maybe we as a congregation can find a different word for worship. Call it what you will.
But worship we must. Because at its root meaning, worship is the practice of evaluating what is worthy of our lives. To worship is to recognize what has worth in your life. To worship, in its deepest sense, is to respond to “the Eternal Reality” (Evelyn Underhill)—and what human creature does not need to worship in that sense?
Finally, Miriam helps us explore the question of worship styles. With her artistic and emotive praise, Prophet Miriam reminds us that worship is not simply an intellectual evaluation of what is important in our lives. Worship is an integrated experience of body, mind, spirit rooted in an embodied spirituality. Worship includes but goes beyond the intellect. That is why the weekly feast at the Open Table is so important to us. It allows us to experience the Sacred through bodily participation in Holy Communion, just as Miriam’s congregation experienced the Holy through physical song and dance. Our bodies and spirits are often “understand” before our heads are engaged. I love the way Miriam found expression for her joy! This is a place where we can give authentic expression to our feelings. Here are a people with whom you can share your heart. We are not afraid to laugh and to cry together. We are fully human here.
And yet we must be cautious about sheer emotionalism that passes for religion. There’s too much of that kind of religion. It smacks of manipulation and superficiality and phoniness and frenzy that borders on abuse. We will not prey upon fragile souls. Even as we value the expression of our joy or anguish or repentance or grief—we should be careful never to manufacture emotion.
Here’s a cautionary tale that I share with my husband’s permission. When George was in 5th grade, he was a French horn player in his middle school band. He remembers the band performing for a school assembly at the end of the school year. At the assembly’s close, the charismatic band director invited the rising fifth graders to come forward if interested in band for the next year—as the band played its final song. So the band kept playing. And from the bleachers of the gym, 4th graders began streaming down to the gym floor, eager to sign up for band.
To appreciate what happened next you need to know that George grew up as a Baptist preacher’s kid, and he had probably attended more than his share of revivals by then—and heard more than his share of altar calls or “invitation hymns.” Maybe George detected a familiar tremulous quality in the band director’s ardent invitation to “come forward.” Maybe the music was particularly moving. Maybe there was an unusual earnestness about the way his cohorts began moving toward the front. But George admits that as he watched those peers walking forward, emotions began welling up in him—and he started to cry—so happy was he that they were making this decision.
I’m sure he checked that tear just as quickly as he could. Probably no one noticed. But HE had. And even as 5th grader, George knew that his Pavlovian response did not match the situation. George recognized in that moment that he had been somewhat programmed by similar stimuli in church to respond emotionally—even when there was no worshipful context or content. He would, thereafter, be wary of group emotionalism.
Too many times people’s emotions have been manipulated by religious leaders as a substitute for sound theology. Too easily something like mass hysteria can overcome a group. We always want to engage our heads and hearts in worship. The Good News is Good News—and no prompting but that of the Spirit is needed to express that Good News. Certainly Miriam’s response was genuine.
I recommend we focus on a sound theology of worship and not a particular worship style. Stylistic questions are secondary to theological ones. There is no single style of music or preaching that is best; there is no one pattern of worship that honors God. Drawing an analogy from my former life as a writing teacher, I observe that good writers start with the question of WHAT to say and then decide HOW to say it—not the other way around.
Of course, worship is a communal experience we create collaboratively, and so it requires give and take. Worship must be at the heart of our life together, and as a new church we need some time for experimentation and conversation about this central piece of our communal life. What I can promise you is this: I will welcome your thoughts and suggestions about our worship life. I will strive for variety in our worship experiences. And I will try to make our worship language and practices expansive enough to include and nourish a theologically diverse congregation while still maintaining my own theological integrity. We are just beginning our worship dance together. We’ll need some time to practice our steps, to synchronize our rhythms, to move together with grace and beauty. I’m so thankful for dance partners like you.
Ever present God, may we recall your saving work in our lives. Let us, like Miriam, attribute that mercy to you. May our gratitude be genuine. May our dance together be full of grace. We pray in the name of Jesus, with whom we try to match our movements. Amen
[i] Jones, W. Paul. Worlds With a Congregation: Dealing With Theological Diversity. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2000.