I have a confession: I've got no rhythm. When it comes to dancing, I have the proverbial two left feet. A few years ago, Time magazine reported that scientists had confirmed that this is an actual condition. I quote: "A 23-year-old man named Mathieu has been identified as the first documented case of beat deafness, meaning he cannot feel or move to music's beat. Mathieu moves to music at a pace unrelated to its actual rhythm." The story says he's not tone deaf, he can sing in tune and recognize familiar songs. Scientists think with further study, "beat deafness" may join "tone deafness" as a music-specific disorder. It could also explain the phenomenon known as "dad dancing."
Well, I may not have beat deafness, but for me, 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, but I'm sure I looked like Elaine on Seinfeld--do you remember that episode where she dances to great ridicule from her friends? Yeah, that 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.
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. He was not "dad dancing." 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, and if I started doing that right now you would be glad that this is not video. 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 a religious program. 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 himself.
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.
Dear Working Preacher, "Tell the Truth Twice," David Lose, July 8, 2012
Lectionary Lab, Year B-Proper 10, Delmer Chilton, July 2, 2012
Barbara Lundblad, "Two Very Different Banquets," Day1, July 12, 2009
Barbara Lundblad, "Truth and Consequences," Day1, July 12, 2015
"Two Dances", Steve Garnaas-Homes, Unfolding Light blog, adapted