This past week Kerry and I took our first Latin Dance class at the Old Town School of Folk Music in Lincoln Square. We had a blast. The guy teaching the class is named Saladeen Alamin, and he is awesome to watch. I don’t know for certain, but I think he looks to be in his 50s, and he’s in incredible shape. As we were shuffling our feet back and forth learning the basic steps to the mambo and the cha cha cha, Saladeen was leaping up and down, back and forth, adding flourishes to every step pattern as he called out, “BA! — BA! — BA! — BA! — left foot up on one and down on two, now move!”
You can’t learn to dance if you’re worried about your dignity, in fact, it’s hard to learn pretty much anything if you’re overly concerned about what other people think of you. Learning requires an openness of heart and mind and an acknowledgement that we are not already perfect — that we still have things to learn. Stated like that, it seems kind of obvious. None of us would say that we’re perfect, or that we know everything, but our actions… well, they tell a different story.
After a month of telling you that we’re in a sermon series this summer following the semi-continuous set of texts from the books of Samuel and Kings in which the Hebrew scripture reading is disconnected from the gospel text, today we get two stories about dancing — one from 2 Samuel and one in the gospel of Mark.
In the gospel story, set during the reign of King Herod and the ministry of John the Baptist and Jesus of Nazareth, the king gives a feast in honor of his birthday at which his daughter dances so masterfully that Herod promises to give her whatever she desires — which ends up being John the Baptist’s head on a platter.
In the older story, from 2 Samuel, King David is bringing the ark of the covenant up from its previous home to the new capital, the city of David: Jerusalem. Along the way he and the honor guard he’s brought to accompany the ark to its new resting place dance frenziedly before the caravan in a show of ecstatic devotion. As he enters Jerusalem, David dances in front of the ark and before all his people, dressed only in his undergarments, not afraid to expose himself to God and to the world. His dancing angers his wife, Michal, the daughter of old King Saul and drives a wedge between them.
How did you discover what you’re good at? Whether you’re a teacher or a lawyer, a student or a grandparent, how did you first discover the kinds of gifts God has given you? Maybe it was a natural talent you’ve enjoyed since childhood. Maybe it was a passion you discovered in school. Maybe it was the quiet pride you nurtured as you raised your children and found that you liked them, and that you were good at being a parent. However it happened, can you remember the joy and delight that came with the discovery that God gave you a gift, a talent, a knack, a calling?
Over time, as your gifts became known to you and to others, you likely found yourself being asked to use them. If you’re lucky, someone offered to give you a job doing the thing you love most. I say “if you’re lucky” because so many people don’t get that opportunity. Many labor away day after day for years, wishing for a way to join their vocational role with their God-created soul. But even those who find work that connects them to their native talents can come to feel alienated from the sense of joy that once came with discovering their gifts.
When your gifts become your bread and butter, it’s hard to hold on to the joy that comes with exercising them. I remember deciding in my early twenties that I didn’t want to follow my parents into a career in music because I never wanted to have to rely on the thing I loved to make a living. I wanted to be able to keep on loving it in a much simpler way. Instead I became a pastor, which still comes with many of the same risks. Once you are “on the job,” it’s hard to allow yourself to make mistakes, to risk looking like a fool, to learn. In fact, your professional success, sadly, may depend on you conveying the appearance that you don’t make mistakes.
But there’s no growth without learning, and there’s no learning without risk. Whatever gifts God has given us, none of us has perfected them yet. If we want to grow as people, as professionals, as a community, we have to be willing to try things out, expose ourselves, and make some mistakes.
That willingness to be exposed is really what differentiates the two kings in our two tales of dancing today. In the gospel of Mark, King Herod has been keeping John the Baptist locked up in prison for calling into question his decision to marry his brother’s wife, Herodias. The scripture here describes a situation I think most of us understand on some level. It says,
“[Herodias] had a grudge against [John], and wanted to kill him. But she could not for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him.”
Even though Herod was the king and John was a radical repentance-preaching prophet crying out in the wilderness, “make straight a way for the LORD,” Herod liked to listen to him.
When I picture the scene in my mind, I think about the way that a child throwing a tantrum actually wants an adult to step in and restore order. Herod has been spoiled by his power, and he needs to hear a Godly critique of his life. He is perplexed to discover that someone as powerless as John can hold his attention, and so he protects him. But John continues to expose Herod and Herodias’ relationship as unlawful, and so — in a scene so dramatic it has spawned an opera — the girl we’ve come to know as Salome dances before her father Herod and secures the right to ask for John’s death.
King David, too, has made a mistake — though it’s been expunged from this morning’s reading. You might have noticed that we skipped over some verses in the reading from 2 Samuel. They tell the story of Uzzah, who was named in v. 3 as one of the sons of Abinadab who accompanied the ark as it journeyed toward Jerusalem. In the missing verses, Uzzah reaches out to touch the ark of the covenant, perhaps to keep it from falling, and is struck dead. It’s a story that deserves a sermon of its own, so I wont’ go into it too much, but for the purpose of this morning’s worship, it served to remind David that the power he enjoyed as king was secondary to the power of God, which placed every good gift in him and brought him to this place in his life.
Unlike Herod, David recognizes his mistake and is able to make the course correction. He seems to grasp the danger of his own pride… though this first glimpse of his personality flaws foreshadows the troubles waiting for him just around the corner. As the ark of the covenant enters Jerusalem, bringing the visible sign of the invisible God before the nation, David strips off all his royal finery and dances before the LORD with all his might. Without saying a word, David communicates to the people that there is one LORD before whom we are all naked.
When I was a child, learning to play the violin, I had to give a recital at the end of each year. Recitals made me a little bit nervous. Standing before all the other kids and their parents, and my parents and my teacher, I felt exposed. I felt naked. Somewhere along the line I learned that trick for dealing with my nerves where you imagine everyone else in the room in their underwear. I never made the connection before now, but I think the reason that trick works is because it levels the playing field, at least in our minds. We’re all exposed.
Decades later, having mastered my anxiety in most situations, I find that the price I’ve paid for some mastery of one set of skills is that I’ve lost the sensation of truly learning something for the first time. That’s part of the reason behind the Latin Dance classes with Kerry. I’m taking guitar lessons at the Old Town School as well, and I have to tell you that at the end of the first lesson, when all I’d accomplished was blistering my right thumb and bruising the fingers of my left hand, when the music I made could have been pleasing to no one but the LORD, I almost broke down and cried. Not out of embarrassment or frustration, but out of joy. It felt so good to be so exposed, so open, to be learning, to be growing.
Dear friends, I hope you’ve got spaces and places in your life where you get to be wide open like that. I hope there are people and communities in which you still feel free to try new things, to make mistakes, to learn, to grow. I hope you are able to be vulnerable with your family members and honest about your failures and limitations with your co-workers. Closer to home, I hope we are being and becoming the kind of church that creates opportunities for you to discover and use your God given gifts and talents in a spirit of joyful discovery instead of dutiful obligation.
As hard as it may be to remember, in our overly professionalized lives, in our cultures of competition, we are not called to be perfect. Paul says to the Ephesians,
Blessed be the God and Parent of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, just as God chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before God in love. God destined us for adoption as God’s children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of God’s will, to the praise of God’s glorious grace freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of God’s grace, lavished on us.
We are blameless not because of our performance, but by the grace of God’s love. It is that love that allows us to live our lives like baby Isla did this morning, dressed in not much more than a linen ephod, squirming her first little dance before the LORD as she was washed in these baptismal waters and adopted into the forgiving family of God.
Perhaps as we come forward, as we pass this baptismal font on our way to the communion rail, we will follow in her footsteps and we will dance as well.