I have a confession: When it comes to dancing, I have the proverbial two left feet. I trip on linoleum. Susan is filled wih grace from her ballet and jazz dance days.
Way back when, those junior high mixers, the high school prom–they were sheer torture. I did best at slow dances where you just hold on and try to move together in a circle, though it made me a little dizzy. With faster songs I just tried to move my feet and arms in some kind of animated way, Thankfully, I’m no longer required to attend dances like that. But I do admire those who are able to move so gracefully–whether because of their training at the Bolshoi Ballet, or on the Broadway stage, or at Arthur Murray’s Dance Studio. And yes, there are times when I want to move to the rhythm of God’s Spirit. Sometimes I just want to let loose and dance before God as David did in our Hebrew Scripture lesson this morning—at least with more clothes on than he was wearing.
Our scripture texts today focus on two dances, both of them really quite provocative. First is King David’s dance. Israel had won a huge victory–after the holy ark of the covenant had been captured and kept for twenty years in a foreign, godless land, the Israelites were returning it to the city of David. Glorious! This was the most sacred object in the Israelites’ worship, because it signified the presence of God Almighty in their midst.
They were so excited about their victory that they couldn’t help but dance as they moved along the highway to the capital. As they carefully carried the sacred ark on a new cart back to its home, the text says, David and all the house of Israel were dancing before the Lord with all their might, with songs and lyres and harps and tambourines and castanets and cymbals. It sounds wild–and it must have lasted a long time.
So, David brought the ark of God to the city of David with rejoicing, and lots of sacrifices. And lots of dancing. Again the writer says, David danced before the Lord with all his might; David was girded with a linen ephod. So, David and all the house of Israel brought up the ark of the Lord with shouting, and with the sound of the trumpet.
They are going crazy! And that linen ephod–what the writer is telling us is that David wasn’t very well covered. In fact, David’s wife Michal sees him out the window leaping and dancing before the Lord in this tiny ephod, and she despises him in her heart. Michal is so embarrassed by her husband’s uninhibited, unrestrained, unencumbered dancing in praise of God that she hates him. Well, there’s some relationship baggage between them, too. In the verse after our passage today, she castigates him for his lewd dancing–that’s the way she saw it. David defends himself–he considered it simply dancing without shame before the Lord, dancing with all his might.
What might that have been like, to dance before God so openly? Without inhibition or shame? What if we worshiped God with all our might? Oh, I’m not saying we should leap and dance like David did. But… what if we opened our hearts fully, without reservation to our loving God in worship?
The other dance we read about today–also no doubt considered lewd by many who witnessed it–is recounted in Mark 6. It’s quite melodramatic and grisly, a story of political intrigue and manipulation. It’s not unlike something we might watch on television–on House of Cards or Game of Thrones or even a telenovela.
And here Barbara Lundblad provides some background: Jesus is on the loose. He’s been performing miracles and teaching hard truths. He’s been challenging the status quo and its all-too-easy agreement with a culture that presumes might, or wealth, or status, or fame makes right. Of course, there are costs to pay for his doing that. That’s the way of the world–then and now.
Mark tells us that King Herod has been hearing all these stories about Jesus casting out demons, curing the sick. That’s Herod Antipas, the son of the Herod who was the crazy king at Jesus’ birth. So, Jesus is getting famous, and gossip and rumors are spreading too–some say he is John the Baptizer raised from the dead–or else Elijah or a prophet of old come back to life. Herod hears all this gossip, but he latches on to the rumor that this healer is really John raised from the dead. And he is scared. Because he is the one who’d had John beheaded.
Then Mark gives us a flashback answering the question, Hey, whatever happened to John the Baptizer? Turns out Herod had arrested and imprisoned John at the urging of his wife Herodias, who had been his brother Philip’s wife. Now Philip wasn’t dead, but King Herod took his brother’s wife Herodias as his own and John was outspokenly opposed to it–Herod, you are breaking the law. So, his wife Herodias, as Mark puts it, had a grudge against John. He was annoying her with his prophetic rants. She wanted him dead. But Herod feared John and refused to have him killed. Mark says Herod knew John was righteous and holy, so he protected John.
Mark indicates that Herod actually liked to listen to John’s sermons–they confused him, he was greatly perplexed, and yet it says, he liked to listen to him. It’s all quite dysfunctional. Delmer Chilton says Herod is a perplexed seeker, a dabbler in the mysteries of God. He believes just enough to keep him awake at night, but not enough to change his way of thinking or living all the rest of the time.
So, Mark continues the story, on his birthday Herod gives a banquet for all the high mucketty mucks. His stepdaughter comes in and dances for the partygoers. Now, this daughter was probably actually Herod’s niece, the daughter of his illegal wife and his brother, and she ended up marrying another of Herod’s brothers, her uncle–it all really does sound like a bad soap opera. Later tradition and legend name her Salome and tells us she wore seven veils.
So, what happens? Mark says, She pleeeeeased Herod and his guests. You can imagine how. But don’t, because this is part of worship. Herod is so thrilled and enthused by her performance that he promises her anything–even half his kingdom. She has no idea what to ask for, so she runs to her mother who immediately responds, ask for the head of John the Baptizer. The girl runs back to the king and adds a little detail to the request–I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist… on a platter. As though it were another course in the meal. Yikes!
Herod is deeply grieved at this, but he is between a rock and a hard place. He really doesn’t want to kill John–he was intrigued by this rustic preacher–but he’d promised her anything and didn’t want to look bad before all the officials and guests. So, he orders it done.
What might this dance have looked like, with choreography that thrilled Herod so much he’d give anything to her, even have his pet prophet put to death? It may have looked very much like the way David was dancing, with all his might, scantily clad. But these two dances were oh-so-different.
The wonderful United Methodist minister and poet Steve Garnaas-Holmes offers us some wisdom on the contrast between them:
Two dances: one is soaked in depravity yet praised;
the other is an honest act of worship, yet scorned.
One is entangled in secret desires and schemes, in
bitterness and revenge;
the other is offered freely and simply.
One dancer reveals too much fear, too much of the palace’s corruption;
the other dancer reveals too much joy, too much of
One dance is caught up in calculations for getting what one wants;
the other is a pure gift to God.
One is designed to please others;
the other is offered without regard to what others think… it is offered solely to God.
And, here’s the rub: the one that becomes murderous is the one that fits in to our culture, that follows the rules, that functions as an acceptable tool of those in power. It’s the dance of the system. But the dance that is pure worship, the dance of the heart, somehow that dance becomes a scandal, at least to some.Fitting in to get what we want in this world is usually rewarded, often by something no less awful than exactly what we wanted. And then by being used by someone else to get what they want.
But pure love, pure joy, pure devotion, pure openhearted, uninhibited worship of God never fits into this world. It exposes us, it makes us look foolish. It comes from a place where who we are, our naked self, is lovely, and it is offered without reservation. It breaks rules, and it often evokes resistance, even hatred.
The truth is, life is a dance. We’re going to dance. All of us, whether we feel we have two left feet or have been trained for the ballet. The question is not whether, or even how we’ll dance. It’s why. Do we dance for the nefarious, scheming reasons Salome danced? Or do we dance for the pure, unadulterated joy of worship, opening ourselves to God and God’s will, as David danced?
We dance every day in this world, in our interactions with our family, our loved ones, our coworkers, our neighbors, even strangers. We dance to the tune Jesus gives us, in worship, in seeking to fulfill his will for us in this life, in serving others wherever we may be.
Yes, we’re all going to dance. Some of us will perform the steps better than others, but all of us can seek to dance joyfully, exuberantly, worshipfully, meaningfully. May God give us good reason–and courage–to dance with all our might. Right there in front of God and everybody.
One other thing looking at the Epistle this morning from Ephesians. This is an English teachers nightmare. The blessing from St Paul to the Ephesian community is just one long sentence. It is a message of reassurance that God loves them. Not just loves them – but loves them as a parent loves a child. Not just as a parent loves their birth child, but as a parent loves an adopted child – a child that they have chosen and have chosen to love. Paul cannot tell them enough how much they are loved.
Take a moment to think about your relationship with God. Do you feel as secure as a young child, wanted, chosen, blessed? Would this make you want to dance for joy?
Blessed be the God who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. We didn’t earn it or deserve it, but we are part of the great dance of God’s dream — the dance which has been kept up for a long time, from before the foundation of the world. Dance then, wherever you may be, as Christ leads us in the dance.