January 15, 2017
Sermon: “Dancing to God’s Beat” —Rev. Steve Anderson
Mark 6:14-29 & Ephesians 1:13-14
I was born in Centralia, which is in southern Illinois. They call that area “little Egypt” because the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers come together much like the Nile delta. That area is also similar to ancient Israel in the sense that both have “shame” cultures. We still see this in part of the Middle East when a daughter does something that brings shame on her family and they retaliate by beating or even killing her. Southern Illinois may not be that severe, but there was a lot of concern for how families were perceived in the community. Every time I touched the front door to walk out of the house I would hear my father, “Don’t embarrass the family”.
Today I want to think about why we do things that we later regret and the relationship between our values and our actions. Mark’s gospel gives us a flashback of the death of Jesus’ cousin John. Herod was the Jewish ruler in Israel and was allowed a lot of kingly privileges, as long as he did not challenge Roman rule. On the one hand, he had a lot of power among his own people, but he could always be trumped by Pilate and the other Roman rulers. The beheading of John was not simply a whimsical execution by a violent leader, but a deeply conflicted act that evolved from guilt and shame and which produced even more guilt and shame.
We all know what this is like. We do something that we know we should not do, and then we feel worse for doing it. John was arrested because he was a political threat because of his popularity among people which the religious leaders thought might lead to some sort of rebellion. Intermarriage among royalty was a matter of politics, necessary for building and consolidating power. Herod’s first wife, the daughter of Arteas IV, king of Nabataea, created a strong military alliance. Divorcing her to marry his brother’s wife Heroridas was seen as an insult, creating tension not only between the two rulers, but also between their countries.
Herod’s action was also unpopular in Israel. Under Jewish law, Herod was guilty of both adultery and incest. But no one was going to tell the Jewish ruler how wrong it was; no one that is but John, who was very vocal and very public and eventually very beheaded. This was easier for Herod than dealing with his own behavior as the problem; easier to silence John than to consider that he might have made a mistake. John had also offended the new queen, saying that she should not be married to her brother-in-law. Since she rather enjoyed being the queen, she decided that John had to go. Arrest was insufficient for Herodias as she demanded John’s death for exposing her scandalous marriage.
We read that Herod was caught in a dilemma since he recognized John’s holiness and was intrigued by his teachings. He did not like what John was saying about him, but he was interested in other parts of John. There was something compelling about John and his strange habits and even stranger actions. Something drew Herod to John and he hoped to learn from him. We read that all the leaders of Galilee were at Herod’s birthday party. It was the who’s who of the Jewish elite. Always doing things to excess, Herod gets very drunk. Now in those days, the parties were segregated by gender. Over in the male room, things were getting out of hand. In order to impress his male guests, Herod invites his teenage step-daughter Salome to dance for them. We are not talking about her latest Shirley Temple tap dance routine. We are talking about a dance that would be the equivalent of a first century Gentleman’s club.
But really, what was Herod thinking, asking his wife’s daughter to entertain his friends in this way? Would any of us do something like this? After she had entertained the men with her dance, wanting to show his extravagance and wanting to show off in front of his guests, Herod rashly promises the girl anything she wants, even half of his kingdom (which he didn’t actually “own” but just managed for the Romans). Being an obedient daughter, she asked her mother for direction and mom took the opportunity to settle the score with John. When Herod’s step-daughter put words to her mother’s request, whether as a puppet or a co-conspirator, the deeply grieved Herod knew that if he went back on his offer he would look like less to his cronies. If we were in Herod’s palace would we have had the courage to say, “you know that offer I made was kind of dumb. It was the liquor talking and granting your wish is something that I can’t and will not do”?
His search for importance, his lust and his unfaithfulness had caught up to him. Have you ever talked big? Maybe as a child you told other kids that your father was the strongest, smartest dad around and you dared other fathers to test this declaration. Do you remember taking dares that we shouldn’t have? I dare you to jump off the garage roof, or eat this worm or sneak out and TP houses and trees. At some point didn’t you have to do it or risk losing status within your peer group?
Have you ever noticed how those in power are threatened by the powerless? Psychologist Heinz Kohath describes what he calls a “vertical split” in the psyche, where grandiosity and low self-esteem co-exist. A person may have fantasies of greatness but also have a “shame and humiliation-prone ego”. This is what was happening in Herod. John died because of human insecurity and to appease a guilty conscience, a malicious grudge, and the desire to eliminate that which makes us uncomfortable.
The same could be said about the death of Jesus. In the end, Jesus simply could no longer be tolerated by those with power. Too often our response to truth-tellers is top squelch them. We cannot handle the truth and so we ignore or eliminate it. I’m sure that if we are honest with ourselves, we can understand Herod. Doesn’t it feel good to seem important; to show off a new car? And don’t we make decisions sometimes not on the basis of what is right, as much as what will look good to those who are watching?
We have all made promises in the heat of the moment or at a time of desperation that we later regretted. Herod’s big talk caught up with him and ours does too. That is the challenge of the gospel, to feel guilt for our part of the problem and then to do everything we can to act differently. This is not always as easy as it sounds. Doing what God wants can sometimes bring us discomfort. Challenging popular forms of injustice and immorality invites disdain and persecution from those who prefer unjust and immoral lifestyles.
John’s example is relevant to our task as stewards of God’s message of love. Not all ministries require the same model of confronting culture John demonstrated, but all require the same faithfulness of seeking and proclaiming God’s design and desire for our world. Yet, we find ourselves in a struggle to do what God calls us to do while we are tempted to do what brings us pleasure. Even if none of us have ever stolen our brother’s wife, making choices and setting priorities is challenging. We know that we need to hear Jesus’s message, yet we’re not sure that we are ready to act on all of it.
The good and bad news is that we were all created with free will. God allows us to make choices, both good and bad. We can walk away from God and yet God is still walking behind us. God holds us in his heart no matter what we do or say. As free people, we choose how we are going to live in response to God’s actions in our lives.
I want to suggest that our lives in Christ should be a dance. Some people count when they dance. 1, 2, 3, 4. I have found that I am happier when I don’t count and just let the music flow through me and move me in my own tempo. I match the beat of my heart with this tempo and then I kick in my feet.
Sanchel Paige was the oldest rookie to ever play major league baseball, playing for the St. Louis Browns from age 42-47. He started his baseball career in 1926 playing in some of the all black leagues of that day and eventually playing in the major league all-star games of 1952 & 1953. Beyond his incredible career was his wisdom when he said, “Work like you don’t need the money, love like you’ve never been hurt, dance like nobody’s watching, and live like there’s heaven on earth.” This is what happens when God permeates your life. We close our eyes and God moves us as God chooses. We dance to God’s beat and melody.
When God’s spirit fills our lives, it’s like waking up to a new dawn. The night is turning into day, tears are replaced by dancing. It’s like the driver that pulls up to you and they are hopping up and down in their car as music fills their vehicle and their soul. When God’s spirit fills us, it shows up in our actions and our words. It moves our feet and works in us as we make our world God’s world again.