I know several of you watch “Dancing with the Stars” religiously, rush home to see the latest episode or record it to watch later. I have watched it enough to understand the appeal. I thought of it when I read today’s Bible reading, with Herodias’ bewitching dance, her beautiful, convincing dance.
When I was in college, I was required to take an arts sequence for the Honor’s Program I was enrolled in. As part of that I had an improvisational dance class. There is nowhere I felt more out of place, but there we were a group of nerdy honors students, moving our bodies with another person, responding to music and touch and gravity and story and emotion and imagination. Like other art forms, it was one in which I lost my sense of time and of self. Thankfully in that class there was no audience and there was no performance.
Unlike today’s Gospel reading which has quite an audience of very important people. With the performance, we add lights and costumes and then the attitude and experience and expectation of each audience member. Dance can express any emotion. We may think of it expressing joy and hope, but it can express anger, fear, lust, and even hatred. Those last emotions must have been well hidden in Herodius.
Herod had likely taken John the Baptist into protective custody, to save him from an “accident” that his wife Herodias might have ordered against him as he wandered about baptizing in the wilderness and challenging Kings and governors and all in authority who didn’t live up to God’s laws. Some take this reading to mean that we should point out to others their sexual sins—that they are especially egregious. However, I think it is more that Herod has taken his brother’s wife to hurt his brother, out of jealousy or hatred. That is the damaging part to Herod. His hatred and fear show that he is vulnerable, weak, susceptible to circumstances such as these in which he is embarrassed and shamed into doing something he regrets, something like beheading John, something extreme and evil.
Herod took John into protective custody because there was something in Herod that responded to John’s honesty and integrity. It says in the scripture, “When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed, and yet he liked to listen to him.” I suppose most of the people who talked to Herod were not up front with him. The likely told him what he wanted to hear whether or not it was the truth. Also, most people likely wanted something from Herod, so they could never have a real conversation. It would always be about how he could use his power to help them and never about who Herod was or what life was all about. So I can easily see how Herod would be puzzled as well as intrigued, interested in conversation with John who refused to treat him special or different, but would give him the truth with no thought about John’s own head.
This Gospel is absolutely Shakespearian. It starts out by saying that Herod is disturbed by his guilt and fear at having John beheaded, he is haunted by the thought that John has come back to accuse him of murder, but really it is Jesus who is reminding him of John. Then we flash back to this story which Herod must have replayed again and again. He must have asked himself how this dance had so mesmerized him. He must have asked how he came to boast and pledge before everyone, how he could have so misjudged this innocent young Herodias, and how much hatred his wife and daughter had toward him to choose to destroy this relationship he held with John. He must have asked himself over and over how he had come to sell his soul, to give up what was most precious and important to him, and how he had fallen so low, embarrassed himself, and ruined his Birthday and probably all parties from then on. I say that, because who wants to go to a party in which the one who invites you is so unpredictable as to promise anything to the entertainment? Who wants to go to a party of someone who might on a whim serve up any one of his guests’ heads on a platter? Who wants to go to a party of someone whose party went from this high of an enchanting dance, to the low of the beheading of a prophet? I don’t think Herod’s parties were too well attended after that.
Some dance is intended to express the beauty and truth of life, the preciousness of life. Consider the rescue of the boys’ soccer team in Thailand. What a dance of cooperation, of timeliness, of equipment, setting, costumes, drama, lighting. We all understood the dance, no matter our language or country. We all felt the fear, the danger, the guilt, the forgiveness. And we all felt the rush of emotion when we heard the boys were out of the cave.
We do a kind of dance here, each Sunday. We have the music. We have participants, different dancers expressing the moves brought to us through time. Some is improvisation and some is choreographed. Some is ancient and some is modern. And each week Jesus makes an appearance and we dance the supper dance, even getting up to move forward, to receive, to ponder, to be nourished. And we dance from this room to our separate dances, sometimes joyful, sometimes painful, some a routine we’ve been working on for years. And next week we dance back here again to participate in a new dance, based on a very old dance that has inspired dancers through the ages and given hope and new life to a scraggly group of followers dancing in the footsteps of our King.
Some dances distract us from what matters, some mesmerize us and seduce us. There is a popular dance that tells a story that we are powerless, that we can’t do anything in the face of injustice. That is a lie that distracts us from the truth that whatever we do for the least of these is noted and matters to God. There is a popular dance that tells a story that we are alone, that no one can understand us. This is a seductive lie that we get mesmerized by. There is a greater truth, a dance we can join with others, even though they might not dance exactly how we do, together we can express something beautiful and truthful and perplexing. There is a popular dance that tells a story that it matters most what other people think of us. That is a lie. There is a greater purpose, a greater law, a bigger dance that we are part of, and we must forsake the distracting lying dances of this world and listen to our choreographer. We must look to our neighbor to our left and right, we must listen to the inspiring music and respond to the voice of God in order to effectively join this dance. Yet everyone is forgiven our missteps and invited to try again when we fall.
We practice together, week after week, so that when our dance requires leaps of courage and hope, and when our dance requires acrobatics and strength we didn’t know we had, when we must stand up straight like a plumb line, or get up when we fall, we have the faith to try and try again, and so we have the courage to fail. God does not call us to perfection, God calls us to dance. I read the thing about the plumb line and I panicked. I cannot be perfect as much as I would like. I don’t measure up and God has a strict measurement. But God does not require perfection. But God does require us to keep measuring ourselves and making course corrections when we aren’t making the mark, because God doesn’t want us making crumbling walls, or wasting our time building up if we aren’t going to try to make something sound and strong. Finally, God does call us to fall and crumble. When we dance Jesus’ dance, we end up ridiculed, executed, failing. We end up like John, interesting but beheaded, a failure. Herodias in this story is a success. She dances beautifully. She gets what she wants. She takes down a powerful man. There is more to life and dancing than success. There is failure, and Jesus goes there and God asks us to go there, because we’re going to learn more from going there, we will be strengthened going there, we will recognize our need for God and each other going there, and we won’t be praising ourselves or selling our souls to get there. Christians are failures by all the world’s standards: We give away our money, we listen to each other, we do works of charity, we fast, we make sacrfices, we die for what we believe in. We hold ourselves up to the plumb line of love. Love is weak, it doesn’t cost anything, anyone can have access to it. But love is our law, it is our dance, it is our life, and even if we fall on our face, we are not alone, and we will continue dancing until everyone finds themselves dancing the dance of love.