Sermon; 5 Pentecost/Proper 9A; Matt. 11:16-19, 25-30
Today's gospel passage gives us two distinct stories separated by a commentary on the refusal to repent and corporate responsibility to do the right thing. Today I want to look at the first story we are given.
This generation is like children sitting in the marketplace and calling to one another: We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn. For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, “He has a demon.” The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, “Look, a glutton and drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.”
There are, as you would expect, a lot of interpretations to this parable. After all, a good parable is open to multiple interpretations. But the one I'm drawn to is that this isn't a parable at all, but an allegory regarding John the Baptist and Jesus.
John, a prophet in the Hebrew tradition, issues warnings about the coming judgment. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” – “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee the coming wrath?” And then there was that whole bit about preaching against Herod and his abuses which eventually got him arrested and executed. John was the voice of one crying (wailing) out in the wilderness. In this allegory, the accusation here is that John wailed but nobody mourned. John called us to repent, but nobody performed penance.
In this allegory, Jesus the one playing the flute. He is the bridegroom. He is the one coming to celebrate new life and a new relationship between God and his people. He is the one for whom the feast is given. Jesus called us to dance, but nobody did.
This calls to mind that no matter who you are, people will find ways to discount you. No matter who you are, people will find ways to discount your message. You weren't stern enough. You weren't playful enough. You were too political. You weren't political enough. You focused too much on history. You only focused on us. And on and on and on.
We have this allegory from Jesus about children playing particular games – funeral and wedding to be specific – in which there are specific roles. But as he points out, the people around John and Jesus are not willing to play the game, so to speak. They are not willing to listen to what each of them has to say. Instead, they are dismissed for a variety of reason.
It's easy to look back and condemn people for being dismissive of what we see as important, or for not understanding what we think is obvious. But how does this story affect us now? Where are the times and places we are being dismissive? Where are the times and places we do not repent or do not dance?
John is asking us to repent of our past sins and make a new start. We have much of which we need to repent. Everything from personal actions or inactions to corporate greed and theft to our abuse of the environment to our participation in systems designed to keep the marginalized on the margins. But too often our response is to dismiss John's call to repentance. Too often we justify our sinful actions by saying it's not such a big deal or claiming everyone does it or telling people they are being too sensitive.
How long will we keep dismissing John? How long will we keep avoiding difficult conversations or actions that could lead us to repentance and healing? If you haven't been paying attention or have forgotten, the answer is, “A very long time.” It seems we would just rather forget the whole thing and move on. But those whom we have harmed can't forget. And dismissing an honest call to repentance, dismissing our complicity in favor of just moving on or getting over it, is a form of cheap grace that avoids the hard work of healing and restoration.
Jesus is inviting us to dance and celebrate. He is calling us to a new relationship with God and God's people (hint: that's everyone). He is calling us to recognize the joy in the kingdom of heaven.
But here again we dismiss Jesus like we dismissed John. One of the things Jesus, and God for that matter, does is to continually expand the circle. God said, “No Moabites until the tenth generation.” And then there was David. God said, “No eunuchs.” And then Philip baptized one. Jesus at first said, “Israel only.” And then it was Israel, Judea, Samaria, and the ends of the earth. God said, “Nothing unclean.” And then Peter had a vision describing everything being clean. God is continually expanding the circle.
This would seem like a good thing. It would seem like the more people we invite in the better it would be. But we tend to not want more people, we tend to want more people like us. Jesus, however, is asking us to open up, welcome, and celebrate with people specifically not like us – tax collectors and sinners. But here again we are dismissive of what we are being called to do, only this time it's not out of denial, it's out of fear.
We dismiss John because we think our sins can't be that bad, or are not as bad as some of those other people. We dismiss Jesus because we are afraid to include others. We dismiss Jesus' call for inclusion because we wrongly believe our piece of the pie will shrink, or we claim that those people are dangerous and scary.
But here's the thing: John is not asking us to compare our sins to the sins of others, he is asking us to repent of our sins because the kingdom of heaven is at hand. If we can't or won't do that, then we'll probably spend all our time focusing on the flaws of others while trying to convince everyone around us how great we are. And that is some serious lack of self-awareness.
And Jesus is asking us to dance with him. He is asking us, like he asked the older son over in Luke, to join the party of inclusion. He is asking us to expand the circle. He is asking us to find the joy in God and in others.
So let us not look for excuses to dismiss either John or Jesus, but let us look for reasons to participate. Let us be honest in our reflections so that we may repent and restore. Let us be joyful in our proclamation of Christ so that we may welcome and dance with the unexpected.
For it will only be in our honest acceptance of both of these that we will be able to move forward.