Lent 4: Never Miss An Opportunity
A sermon preached by The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the Fourth Sunday of Lent, March 30, 2014
When I woke up yesterday morning, I did not know that a mere four hours later I would be dancing the samba with complete strangers in a café in Peekskill. In fact, when I woke up, I didn’t know how to samba! Here’s how that came about.
A little more than a year ago I received a phone call here at the church from Sarah B. who was inquiring whether the church had space for Professor Cabação Teixeira to teach classes in capoeira. Capoeira is an Afro-Brazilian art form combining traditional dance and music, martial arts without physical contact, communication, improvisation, and gymnastics, as well as some rudimentary Portuguese. I had never heard of Capoeira, and being interested, once the arrangements were made for classes to be held at the church on Sunday and Tuesday evenings, I began visiting the Church House to see what it was all about. Eventually my son August developed an interest as well, and after Christmas he began his training.
Capoeira is very interesting to watch: it involves a number of kicks, swings, sweeps, spins, acrobatic flips and cartwheels, all built around a basic dance move called ginga, a shifting back and forth from foot to foot in balance and rhythm. Capoeira originated in Brazil among slaves during the 16th century as a form of cultural expression, self-defense, and training for resistance. Because of its vast territory, Brazil received more than 40% of the black Africans who were transported into bondage as part of the Atlantic slave trade. Capoeira was a fighting style “disguised as dance in order to prevent its capoeiristas from punishment or execution for learning how to fight and defend themselves, which was forbidden to those who were legally defined as property.” Today it is considered part of the intangible cultural heritage of Brazil. To the extent that it still contains a fighting style, it remains hidden within the dance.
It was important to Noelle and I, as parents, that there is never any contact, only communication, between those who today “play” capoeira; each partner announces their own and anticipates the other’s actions, all through bodily movement, in an improvisational choreography rather than “fighting.” Participants stand in a circle, called a rota, dancing ginga and clapping along with African drums and the berimbaus (a traditional single-stringed instrument), waiting their turn to come to the center of the circle and “play capoeira” with one partner or another. Tag-team style.
Like other forms of martial arts there is today a colored belt, or cord, system, which demonstrates one’s physical and mental achievement. As practitioners develop skill and agility, they may demonstrate their progress for their professor in an event that, for new students, is called a batizado, literally a baptism. Yesterday morning, children from as far as Manhattan and Danbury and from both sides of the Hudson River gathered at the Arts Center in Peekskill to dance the ginga and play capoeira for their professor in order to show what they have learned and to earn a new colored cord. My son August earned his turquoise cord, the first step of advancement for children.
I tell you all this because my interest in capoeira began with my desire to know the people who spend time in this building. Our facility here hums all week long. We host Zumba classes six days a week, nursery school five days a week, Capoeira, Alcoholics Anonymous, Overeaters Anonymous and a host of recovery groups, black business women, Local 1199 SEIU (United Healthcare Workers), as well as clergy meetings, two other congregations, the strategic planning team of the Presbyterian Camp in Holmes, a thrift shop, our own church meetings, ESL Classes, Farm CSA, and soon community gardeners. Community is being formed through shared activity all the time as people, dance, sing, plan, share, learn, grow and play together. Our church is a place of encounter where people meet one another. I like getting to know the people with whom we share this building and our outdoor grounds.
But I want to tell you about capoeira because I am impressed with the way it forms community. Imagine what practicing our faith would be like if:
- We understood our baptism to be a commitment to life-long rigorous training, both physical and spiritual, and as preparation for resistance to all that threatens life;
- We prized the engagement and not just the result;
- We looked at not only what we were doing, but how others were responding;
- We anticipated (like the slaves who originated capoeira) both acclamation and resistance to how we live our lives of faith and prepared ourselves spiritually and physically to be nimble and to keep moving.
I think about the strength required to play capoeira. The muscles are formed, however, by practicing over and over – not by lifting weights or supplements – but by encounter in one another’s space, by leaving just enough room for each of us to breathe, by allowing each other to practice with one another without ever hurting the other – that we are always practicing not performing…
I think about the way different people rotate in and out – no one controlling, everyone required to interact with everyone else, all sensing and responding to the skill and focus of the other.
The tag-team nature of the play is that you play with everyone, you cannot have a safe partner who you know well but must learn to move and play with many kinds. The adults play with the children, making themselves as small as possible so a child can sweep their leg over the adults head, or laying flat on the ground so a child can do a cart wheel over their back. And the children learn from and aspire to the strength of their elders.
After the rota event yesterday the entire group of children, parents, and adult learners walked down the street to the Beanrunner Café in Peekskill. Food was ordered, a group of African drummers appeared, space was cleared and together everyone in the café learned to Samba. See, I told you I’d get back to that! I tried to stand back with my cup of coffee, but was told that coffee was simply not permitted. I was pulled into the circle. I learned to move my feet, and jump in time, and swing my hips, and many other things; and then I was pushed into the circle with first one, and then another person. I was way out of my comfort zone. But I was having an encounter with other people. The moment, the meeting, mattered. And it felt great.
As I mentioned to the children (in the children’s message), there is much to be done here at the church over the next couple of months. There is tag sale to prepare for and cleanup from; a sacramental soup luncheon on Emmaus Sunday, sponsored by the deacons who are themselves a bit shorthanded right now; two anniversary celebrations. Many hands do make light work. And we need many hands. But the reason to come together at the church is not to get work done but to have an encounter with one another. We should never, never, gather to do the work of the church and miss the opportunity to learn something new about those we have gathered with. Or to miss the chance to play and dance. To samba – literally or figuratively. What I have most enjoyed about the way we have been sharing in the Lenten education classes sponsored by our green team has been hearing Leslie say that she never knew Barbara Barnes was a small-town girl, or the several people who said that they had never seen Wanda Van Woert laugh so hard or smile so much as when she was talking about her travels in Peru, or the realization during our conversation about ‘stuff’ that the teachers among us both have the most stuff and the most organized stuff. That is how we form community. And there are many occasions coming up to do so.
In our gospel text today, Jesus healed a man born blind. They are the only two who actually have an encounter. It should have been an occasion for giving glory to God, and for strengthening the community of family, neighborhood and religious association as they all participate in the miracle in their midst. But with the exception of Jesus and the blind man, everybody fails to meet the situation. The family fails. The community fails. The religious authorities fail. Everyone has another agenda – to play it safe, the avoid controversy, to protect their traditional notions of faith. All fail the encounter because they cannot see who is in their midst, either the divine presence or the human neighbor. They cannot make themselves available to what has been made available to them in Christ. They will not acknowledge the vulnerability which alone ushers in the new world of God’s making. May we never miss such opportunities.
Holy God, why is it that we look, but do not see?
Bring us again and again into your light
until your ways become visible to us,
and bear fruit in us.
Touch us so that we are utterly changed,
a “before” and “after,”
a “now” and “then”;
that we may also say,
“one thing I do know,
that though I was blind, now I see.”
In Christ’s light, we pray. Amen.
 Deborah J. Kapp in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Year A, Volume 2 Lent through Eastertide. Edited by David Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor. (Westminster John Knox Press, 2010).
Feasting on the Word Worship Companion: Liturgies for Year A, Volume 1 (Westminster John Knox Press, 2013).