It’s a gift to be simple it’s a gift to be free. And oh to be simple and free! till by turning and turning, we come round right. This hymn makes faith sounds like dancing, doesn’t it? It’s a good hymn to sing on a Sunday when Jesus might seem to be saying, Get up and dance with me.
In our neck of the woods, dance is something mostly done outside the church. King David may have danced before the Ark, but by and large we keep our dancing away from holy places.
And here’s an old story you may have heard before: back in in the 1940s, the Episcopal Church of the Nativity decided to host occasional dances for soldiers stationed over at Ft. Rucker. At that time Nativity was a small wooden structure on Main Street facing The First Baptist Church on the other side of Main, the biggest church in town, red brick stories high with Corinthian columns. When word of the dances got out, the pastor of First Baptist decided to cross the street and pay a visit to his Episcopal colleague, one pastor to another.
Reverend, he said, y’all can’t be hosting these dances. One of our girls is liable to end up in trouble.
To which the priest said, What do you mean by trouble?
And clearing his throat, the pastor prompted, Well you know, in the family way.
Oh, the priest said, You Baptists must dance differently than we do.
It’s easy to laugh at that story. I always have. I confess there’s something not right about that, though – not fitting, not good. What strikes me as misstep is how determined that story is to find us laughing at people who worship on the other side of the street. I’m guessing Baptists tell jokes on us, too. There’s something so human about making fun of each other. Makes a mockery of the Gospel, but hey, ain’t it fun?
Today Jesus reminds you how people mocked John the Baptist for being puritanical. And how those same people turned right around and mocked him for being foot loose and fancy free. As he tells it, John neither ate nor drank, and a crowd of sideliners called him crazy. And though he came eating and drinking, they named him a drunk who hung out with the wrong sort of people.
It’s easy to think of Jesus as an Episcopalian, and John the Baptist as, well, a Baptist. We like to think Jesus is one of “our own.” Today we talk down less and less about other denominations, and more about people who don’t go to churches. Our Lord’s answer to any mockery of his gospel is to say, “Wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.”
Wisdom is the holy learning you can only get from experience, from bruised knees and wounded egos. Every tradition has its wisdom. Whether learning how to cook or how to pray, how to swim or how to drive, wisdom comes from practice. And practice comes with risk.
Wisdom comes when you leave the side you’re holding onto and move toward the center of life, not tuning your ear to what people have to say about you, or what you have to say about them, but tuning into something simpler and freer, your own heart dancing the voice of God, till by turning and turning you come round right with God and other people.
Another word for coming round right is Copacetic. Bill Robinson, also known as Mr. Bojangles, used it so much, he came to think he’d made it up. Whether he did or didn’t, he owned it: Copacetic. It’s a wisdom word about landing in the place just right. It also means Satisfactory, Fitting, Hunky Dory. Bill Robinson was among the greatest dancers of the 20th Century, largely forgotten today outside the world of dance. He began in the minstrel shows, and landed as the king of Tap. Copacetic!
In 1934, a Hollywood studio hired Bill to teach Shirley Temple how to dance his famous staircase dance. He’d always done it alone. But now he had a seven-year-old partner. In the words of Shirley Temple, He shortened his stride to accommodate mine. Robinson knew there was no way to teach a 7-year old how to dance his steps in a matter of days. So he adjusted the dance and taught Shirley to kick the riser of each stairstep with her toe. He also simplified the complexity of his own steps to fit the range of what she could do. On film it appeared she was keeping up with his greater experience and skill. 
You could say he met her where she was on the dance floor rather than judged her inadequate from the sideline. According to Shirley, when Bill taught her how to dance the stairs, he invented a system of hand signals: “three quick squeezes to tell her they were coming to a hard part, one long squeeze to tell her, really good, darling.” Eventually she didn’t need the signals, and then passing on the wisdom of all dance, Bill told her, “Copacetic! Now let’s get your feet attached to your ears.” 
Jesus is saying the same thing in our gospel today. He’s after wisdom vindicated by deeds.
Though it’s tempting to imagine Jesus and John lined up on opposite sides of the room, the truth is they both took the floor in their own way. John dared to dance the Word of God into the wilderness. Jesus met him there and danced the Word he was straight through Golgatha to Easter. I often line them up on opposite sides because that’s where I often land: sitting on the sidelines with clever opinions.
Jesus is against taking sides today. He’s after something more important. The sidelines are for those who like to mock what other people are up to. Sidelining is an easy move. In fact it’s not really a move at all. It’s more a stance.
Jesus is after something riskier than a stance. Or a posture. After more than an opinion, too. He’s after the whole dance, the whole work of being human, made in the image of God. He’s after how you make your way onto the dance floor of life: how you risk asking for help, how you hold each other up, how you work it out together, and how, tuning in to the music in the room, you find a way to come round right with other people. He’s after wisdom vindicated in the doing of it.
The Gospel is copacetic work. Made holy when you get your feet attached to your ears.
- Joan Acocella, Twenty-eight Artists and Two Saints, Pantheon Books, New York, 2007, xii; and Acocella, “Not a Pink Toy”, The New Yorker, http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/culture/2014/03/not-a-pink-toy.html
- Mindy Aloff, Dance Anecdotes: Stories from the Worlds of Ballet, Broadway, the Ballroom, and Modern Dance, “Main Squeeze”, Oxford University Press, 2006, 96.