The theology of the tango (sermon)

Text: John 9:1-41

I’ve been thinking about dancing a lot. I don’t mean that casually: every day for the past few weeks, I’ve used a significant chunk of brain space for dancing, because I was rehearsing for a showcase that my studio held this week.

For the record, trying to write a sermon on the Gospel of John is hard enough without that small but insistent voice that keeps suggesting that watching replays of Dancing with the Stars would practically be like doing homework.

All of this information is by way of explanation for why it is that I’m about to try and use dance as a metaphor for what’s happening in this morning’s gospel story. (For those of you who don’t like dancing, may I suggest martial arts as an alternative metaphor? There’s a lot of flow between the two.)

In partner dancing, one person is the Lead and the other is the Follow. (If you can do both, you can call yourself “ambidancetrous”!) The Lead’s job is to come up with all the ideas for what happens next in the dance, and the Follow’s job is to make them look good.

The word we use to describe ourselves as Christians, “disciples” of Christ, is drawn from a Latin word that means “student” or “follower.” As a church, we have a very long tradition of thinking of ourselves as followers of God’s cosmic lead.

That’s certainly the way that the Pharisees thought of themselves, especially the ones in this morning’s gospel. Did you hear what they said when the man whose eyes were opened asked them if they wanted to be Jesus disciples? “You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses.” For the Pharisees, God’s lead was passed down to them on Sinai; there are 613 commandments in the Hebrew Bible, and the Pharisees believed that if they could memorize the footwork of each one, then that would be enough to make each of them as good a Follow as God desires.

When I started learning my routine for the showcase a couple of months ago, I asked my instructor (who was also my dance partner) if I could tape us dancing so I could study the footwork at home. He said no, because of something about choreography and copyright, and then said, “Besides, it’s not about how well you can do the footwork. It’s about the partnership.” In other words, learning the moves would only get me so far. To get really good, I had to learn how to follow his lead.

The Pharisees learned the choreography for a beautiful dance on Mt. Sinai. I picture a waltz: something with a strong frame and beautiful lines, graceful, seamless movement with a timeless quality. And they got really good at it. For every situation (lead), there was an appropriate response (follow):

A man was born blind? Clearly either that man’s parents sinned, or the man himself did, even while he was yet in his mother’s womb.

It’s a Sabbath day? Then no work can be done, not even work like mixing spit and clay together to make mud to smear on a blind man’s eyes.

A man did so? Clearly he was breaking Sabbath law. And was also being kind of gross.

The man who did so healed the man born blind? But wait—a miracle like that can only come from God, and God doesn’t listen to sinners.

Uh oh. Here we run into a problem.

The Pharisees had the footwork of the Law flawlessly memorized, but look what happens when they receive contradictory signals from the Law’s lead. This is a long gospel lesson, my friends, and the miracle part of it is only two verses long. Two verses of healing, immediately followed by 30-some verses of the Pharisees trying to prove that the healing could not possibly have happened. A divine healing whose very occurrence defies God’s lead as expressed in Sabbath law? Inconceivable!

The dance that the Pharisees have memorized is very beautiful, but it doesn’t take into account that the music that they were dancing to might have changed. And it did. It changed on a dark winter’s night in a little town called Bethlehem. Didn’t you hear the angel choir?

It’s as though the Pharisees are determined to continue their slow, solemn waltz, even though the Son of God breaks into the scene to a sounding trumpet—playing a sassy Latin solo—and is all, “C’mon guys, let’s salsa!”

“Dancing in the Streets” by John Henderson. Used under Creative Commons “Attribution” license.

Ironically, the Pharisees have studied so hard to be good followers of God’s Law that they’ve ended up looking like Leads. And they didn’t even notice until God started throwing out some new moves, like becoming flesh and healing people born blind and doing it on the Sabbath, and they couldn’t follow.

It’s not that the Pharisees in this gospel don’t want God as their dance partner. They desperately do. But they’re more desperately afraid of joining a dance where they have to let go of control, where they can’t know what happens next, where they have to trust God to lead them into steps where they might stumble, and be graceless, and look less than perfect.

I can sure sympathize with that. But that’s what following is.


Times change, the music shifts, but the beat goes on, and the struggle of the Pharisees becomes our struggle as a church. How do we deal with it when the Holy Spirit leads us into unfamiliar choreography? How do we manage to keep up when God starts doing a new thing?

Every time we face these question it feels like the first time, and the tension in some of the situations that cause the question to be asked can be so powerful that it feels like it will rip us apart. And sometimes it feels like it has.

Like when the very first churches started welcoming Gentiles into their congregations.

Like when the church patriarchs got together to figure out what, out of the multiplicity of things people were believing, was divinely-inspired, and what was heretical.

Like when some uppity Wittenburg scholar nailed 95 Theses to a church door.

Like when some churches started ordaining women.

Like when some churches started ordaining gay clergy.

Learning new footwork is difficult, and can involve some toes getting stepped on. It can be painful, as muscles move in ways they never have before. We wonder what was so bad about the old dance. We wonder if change is really necessary.

And the answer is yes. Or maybe it’s that change is not so much “necessary” as “inevitable.” And it’s those of us who are attuned not to the footwork, but to the One who is leading us, who are best equipped to keep on dancing.

The man who was healed in today’s gospel provides a model for what that looks like. Unlike the lame man whom Jesus heals in chapter 5 of John, the blind man doesn’t get asked whether or not he’d like to be made well. Jesus just goes right ahead and gives him this amazing gift, so that “God’s works might be revealed in him.” It reminds me of the way God gives us the gift of the Holy Spirit in baptism, so that our light may shine brightly before others, reflecting God’s goodness.

And much like the infants we baptize, the man doesn’t really seem to understand the full import of what’s happened to him. He’s questioned three times about his healing, and each time he tells his story, he reveals a little bit more about Jesus. First, he says what Jesus does. Then, he calls Jesus a prophet. And finally, frustrated by the Pharisees, he declares:

“I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.”

The Pharisees then turn him out of the Temple. He was throwing off their rhythm. And on the street, the man runs into Jesus, who was looking for him: “Do you believe in the Son of Man?”

The healed one has gone from merely recounting his story, to calling Jesus a prophet, to declaring that he’s come from God. He doesn’t know everything. He doesn’t know whether Jesus is a sinner, or how he did what he did. After all, it takes some time to fully understand and verbalize what God has done for us. But he’s ready to dance: “And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.”

Jesus extends a hand. “You have seen him. The one speaking with you is he.” May I have this dance?

And he said, “Lord, I believe.” And he danced, following the lead of the one sent by God.

Amen.

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3 thoughts on “The theology of the tango (sermon)

  1. Hello Victoria,

    Outstanding sermon today, (Sunday, March 30, 2014) you managed to tie your experience with dancing with the scriptures very well! You indeed have a great gift. Please do continue to allow God to mold and shape you so that you can continue to be a great blessing to others. It is indeed a great joy to listen to your sermons.

    Your brother in Christ,

    Joseph

  2. This is a really great metaphor! I’d never thought of discipleship as a dance before, but you’ve planted the idea in my head. I may have to use it myself!

  3. An excellent use of the metaphor of Ballroom Dance to bring new Lenten life to the Healing of the Blind Man on the Sabbath, John 9:1-41.
    Your creative crafting of the use of exegesis and current contextual situation is as excellent as any I have experienced. Your sermon writing rivals only one parish pastor in my 42 years of ordained ministry. Pastor Blair Morgan, now with the ELCA in the southwest Pennsylvania Synod.
    You danced the dance of Law and Gospel, of Jesus and the religious establishment, of risk and rigidity, and ultimately new life and old death. You accomplished the Gospel Proclamation brilliantly. You are as gifted as Pastor Blair Morgan when you leave seminary. The highest compliment this retired pastor can offer!
    Oh, I had seven wonderful years listening to Blair preach.

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