Everybody Dance Now

Everybody Dance Now
The Sixth Sunday of Epiphany
Rev. Jim Keat
John 1:1-5, 9-10 • Jeremiah 17:5-8

Today is the sixth Sunday in the season of Epiphany and so for this sermon we’re going to spend some time talking about what exactly the season of Epiphany is, we’re going to spend some time with trees and turning on lightbulbs, but first we need to start with a song. Chances are you know this song but you might not know the story humming just below its iconic hook.

What song, you ask? This one.

See, I told you that you knew the song. It debuted in 1990 by C and C Music Factory. It was a worldwide hit produced by Robert Clivillees and David Cole–  that’s the “C” and “C” in “C and C Music Factory” — and while the song was played on the airwaves pretty much everywhere, the music video was also a hit on MTV. Only this is where things get interesting.

The woman you see singing? This is a model turned singer named Zelma Davis. Only that’s not her voice that you hear in the song. The song’s real singer is Martha Wash. Here she is on the Arsenio Hall Show. Same voice from the song. But a completely different person from the music video for the song.

What’s going on here?

When C and C Music Factory had the idea for this song they new they needed a powerful singer for the hook and they ended up asking Martha Wash, who was a member of the Weather Girls and the voice behind this other top hit: .

So Martha records the hook with her voice that RuPaul says “merged a gospel voice into pop and dance music seamlessly,” C and C produce the song, and it’s a hit. But when it came time for the video, Martha is nowhere to be seen. They asked Zelma Davis to step in front of the camera because Martha supposedly didn’t have the body type that would get the song much airplay on MTV.

Martha eventually sued both C and C and the label, Sony, for fraud and commercial appropriation, and it wasn’t until three years later, in 1994, that Sony was forced to request that MTV add a disclaimer to the music video and give Martha credit for the vocals.

And so Martha Wash is left to very likely be the most famous unknown singer of the Nineties.

Martha is in the song and though the song became a worldwide hit because of her, the world did not recognize her.

Do you see what I did there?

Because this is what Epiphany is all about — not the “not recognizing” part, but an epiphany is that moment when you suddenly see or understand something in a new or very clear way. The lightbulb goes off and you can now see what previously you did not recognize.

And in the church, the season of Epiphany is the time between Christmas and Lent, beginning with Epiphany Sunday when we remember the magi seeing a star in the sky in a way that no one else could, following it and visiting the toddler Christ child and continuing with stories of Jesus being revealed and seen in new ways, the one who turns water to wine, the one who fulfills Isaiah’s prophecy of bringing good news to the poor and proclaiming release for thee captives, the one whom a few fishermen change the course of their lives to follow after their most successful catch ever.

It is a season of lightbulbs going off and that which had been previously unrecognized to be made known.

And this is where today’s gospel text comes in – John chapter 1. Most people get caught up in the Genesis-esque language in the opening verse: “In the beginning was the word and the word was with God and the word was God.” But it’s when we get to verse ten that we find ourselves set up for the epiphany moment: God was in the world and though the world was made through God the world did not recognize God.

Yep, God knows what Martha Wash felt like.

You see, Epiphany is a season where we are invited to open our eyes and tune our ears to notice what’s been right here all along , the divine in the daily, the Christ in the common, the sacred in the mundane, the singer in the song. We need Epiphany ears to hear and Epiphany eyes that can see, otherwise we might miss out on what is going on just below the surface.

Which brings us to our next topic: trees and the text from Jeremiah. But for this one, we’re going to have to go outside.

This is a tree…

Right over there we have a small creek.

And this is the image we see in today’s Hebrew scripture lesson, Jeremiah 17:8 — “…a tree planted by water, sending out its roots by the stream.”

Because that’s how a tree works, right? The branches up above and the roots down below.

Now, you probably think that’s the Epiphany angle I’m after here, the roots below the surface that give the tree the nourishment it needs. But there’s so much more than just roots below the surface. There is an entire forest beneath the forest, causing not just this one tree, but every tree around to thrive.

Let’s listen to this clip from the podcast Radiolab where I first learned about this:

All these trees were sharing their food underground. Like if you put a food into one tree over here, it would end up in another tree, maybe 30 feet away over there. And then a third tree over here. And then a fourth tree over there. And a fifth tree over there. Sixth, seventh, eighth, ninth, 10th, 11th, all in all turns out one tree was connected to 47 other trees all around it. It was like, it was like a huge network.

And we were able to map the network. And what we found was that the trees were the biggest and the oldest were the most highly connected. And so we, you know, we identified these as kind of like hubs in the network.

And when you look at the map that you see your circles sprouting lines and then connecting to other circles also sprouting lines and it begins to look a lot like an airline flight map, but even more dense.

It’s just this incredible communications network that, you know, people had no idea about in the past, because we couldn’t, didn’t know how to look.

There is so much more going on below the surface than we can ever see and more than I could ever even imagine. It is not just the tree roots that support and nourish the tree, but it is this “wood wide web” of feeder roots, little white threads smaller than eyelash. These feeder roots nourish the tree and the tree nourishes the feeder roots. Some go on for seven miles. They’re hollow tubes, more fungus than plant, and when a tree in one part of the forest needs help, whether it’s low on nutrients or under attack from insects, this fungi freeway sends the necessary chemicals and minerals to help.

This root system is everywhere, right under the ground, and though our ecosystem is sustained by this system, most of us don’t even recognize it. And it connects trees for miles around, a perpetual epiphany,  a reality just below the surface, sustaining so much life above the surface,  that too easily and too often goes unrecognized.

God was in the world and though the world was made through God, the world did not recognize God.

Let’s end with one more story. This one is about lightbulbs.

Simple question: who invented the lightbulb?

Your first instinct is probably “Thomas Edison,” which is technically correct. But you’re probably thinking that this is a trick question. Which it kind of is.

Because we have to clarify the question: what kind of lightbulb?

While Thomas Edison is credited with inventing the first affordable alternative to gas-lit lanterns, his lightbulbs didn’t always have the longest lifespan. And that’s where Lewis Howard Lattimer comes in. Lewis was a Black man and son of formerly enslaved people, and began work in a patent law firm after serving in the military for the Union during the Civil War. HE eventually ended up at the U.S. Electric Lighting Company, the company in direct competition with Edison. And it was here that Lewis Latimer patented a new filament for the lightbulb, using a longer lasting carbon filament instead of the more incendiary matrials, like bamboo, that were commonly used by Edison and others.

So who invented the lightbulb? You can give that credit to Thomas Edison.

But who invented the carbon filament that made the lightbulb work? Lewis Howard Lattimer.

And this is really the most perfect Epiphany story, both because it’s about lightbulbs which are the ubiquitous symbol for having an epiphany, and because it’s another story about the truth lying just below the surface, often going unknown and unrecognized. The lightbulbs were in the world and though the lightbulbs were able to shine because of Lewis Lattimer, the world did not recognize him.

God was in the world and though the world was made through God the world did not recognize God.

This is a season where we are invited to open our Epiphany eyes and tune our Epiphany ears to notice what’s been right here all along, the divine in the daily, the Christ in the common, the sacred in the mundane, the singer in the song,  the forest beneath the forest, Black history in every month.

You see,  season of Epiphany reminds us to have epiphanies all year long. And in the same way, Black history month reminds us to celebrate black history the other eleven months as well.

Because both the season of Epiphany and Black History Month are a rhythm, a root, a beat, a pulse that permeates every season and month of the year, a dance that cannot be contained by 28 or 29 days of the shortest month of the year or seven weeks in one of the shortest seasons in the liturgical calendar. Because when we open our epiphany eyes to see and tune our epiphany ears to hear, when we discover God to be the ground of being out of which all life can grow, when we  truly recognize and believe that Black history is American history and every month of the year must be filled with Black history, a history that is not just for some of us but for all of us, we cannot just stand still but we have to move, we have to do something differently because we have become someone different, we feel the beat, we hear the music, this moment is electric and charges the  Arvin filaments that light every moment, and we hear the call of that great prophet, Martha Wash, everybody dance now.