Sermon; 5 Pentecost, Proper 9A; Matt. 11:16-19, 25-30
The gospel passage for today is, in my opinion, misplaced. It has no context in which to place it. And it is a chopped up version of Chapter 11 that makes one wonder just what the lectionary committee was thinking. So let's see if I can put a frame around it.
First, it follows the missionary passages/instructions we heard over the past several weeks. Those missional instructions were given to both Jesus' original twelve disciples and his disciples of today – us. They were to go and proclaim, cure, cleanse, and restore in a world that is hostile to our cause, welcoming those who welcome you, and remembering to give cups of cold water to the little ones you meet.
Unlike Luke, though, Matthew never tells us how that mission turned out. Instead he moves Jesus into the cities to teach and proclaim the message. While doing this, word of Jesus gets back to John who is now in prison. His disciples are sent to Jesus to ask, “Are you the one?” Jesus answers by reiterating that the blind see, the deaf hear, and the lame walk. Jesus also chastises the crowd for not understanding who John was.
And that brings us to today's passage.
But then next week, as the lectionary moves on, it totally skips Chapter 12 in which Jesus has several run ins with Pharisees, performs a few healings, foreshadows his Passion, and turns away from his family in favor of his mission. Instead, next week begins in Chapter 13 with a three week focus on kingdom parables
So, again, we have this passage between mission and parables, with no connection to either.
That said, I want to focus on the first half of today's passage. This generation is like children calling to one another, “We played the flute, and you didn't dance; we wailed, and you didn't mourn.”
There are a lot of ways to go with this, and I want to focus on a dual allegory.
We played the flute, and you didn't dance. This can represent Jesus and his excitement, eagerness . . . passion . . . for the coming kingdom. With Jesus, the deaf hear, the blind see, the lame walk. With Jesus there is joy. It was Jesus who turned water to wine at a wedding. It is Jesus who is referred to as the bridegroom. Jesus plays the flute, but the people are unwilling to dance.
We wailed, and you did not mourn. This can represent John and his end-time focus. He was called by God to prepare the way of the Messiah. He was called to bring people to repentance. He was called to bring about a major change in the advent of the coming storm. “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” John has no time for frivolity. He wailed, but the people were unwilling to mourn.
The flip side of this dual allegory is that the children represent this generation and are the ones calling out to Jesus and John. They are the ones playing the flute wanting John to dance. They are the ones wailing wanting Jesus to mourn.
In either case, we, the children of this generation, are trying to make Jesus bend to our desires. Jesus is playing the flute and asking us to dance, but we refuse because it is beneath our dignity. We would rather spend our time wailing.
Or Jesus asks us to notice the hurt, neglected, alienated, disposed people of this world. He asks us to wail over their plight and mourn their predicament. He asks us to change. But we would rather turn a blind eye and continue to dance as if nothing were wrong.
I think this dancing and wailing story, more than anything else, may be a cautionary tale. First, as I've already pointed out, it cautions us against trying to bend Jesus to our will. There are times when we are asked to dance for Jesus. That might make us uncomfortable because we Episcopalians like to do all things decently and in order. But there are times we are asked to dance. Let us do so.
But let's not get so caught up in our dancing that we neglect to mourn. There are plenty of social ills that should cause us to mourn. We are each involved in plenty of activities from which we need to repent. Into what difficult situation are we being called? Where are we called to shed tears with those in pain? Let's not forget that Jesus isn't all happy clappy, 700 Club prosperity. There are times we need to mourn. Let us do so.
Second, and finally, this is a cautionary tale as to how we treat others. John was attacked for being too serious. Jesus was attacked for being a party animal (he eats with sinners and drunkards). They were both attacked for not living into the expectations of those around them.
We need to be careful we don't fall into that same trap. Parishioners attack clergy because they never leave the office; or that they are never in the office. People attack others for being too liberal or too conservative; for being too rigid or too loose; for being too lax with rules or for being too persnickety in following them.
I had a conversation the other day with a lady from another church. I told her I couldn't meet Monday morning because I was out making visits. She began complaining that her pastor, unlike me, never made outside visits and she wished she could make him understand how important that was. I said, “You know, this is the only job where a person is expected to be all things to all people. Why don't you look for what he does well?” We need to be careful about our expectations.
Today's passage isn't connected with the previous missional passages or the upcoming parable passages. It has no context in which to frame it. But maybe that's not the point.
Maybe the point of this chopped up, unrelated, non-contextual passage is to caution us before we get too busy. Maybe it's to caution us against seeing Jesus as only dancing or wailing, but to look for times when both are appropriate. Maybe it's to caution us about using our own expectations as litmus tests for others.
As we work to proclaim, cure, cleanse, and restore those out there in Hagerstown and those in here at St. John's, let's look for times to both dance and mourn as we participate fully in the kingdom of God.