July 5, 2020
14th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Old Testament - Psalm 145:8-14
New Testament - Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30
Dancing and Mourning
INTRODUCTION: So in Jesus’ day children were no different than the children of today. From hide-and-seek, to freeze-tag, to their own version of checkers, the children of ancient Palestine did what all kids do - they played games.
Why, sometimes they even played at make-believe. Wanting to act older than they really were, the children of ancient Palestine played at being grown-ups. Except rather than be, say, a doctor, or a lawyer, or play at being a married couple, the children in Jesus’ day liked to recreate the drama of weddings and funerals - both pretty important social rituals back in their day.
Of course, there were always kids that didn’t like to play at such games, right? Too cool (and perhaps self-conscious) for such silliness, they would refuse to participate in such make-believe games. You can hear them being chided by the other kids in the little jingle from verse 17 in today’s reading: “We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not weep.”
Yep. Even in Jesus’ day, there were kids that found make-believe games to be anything but fun. While the other kids recreated the joy of a wedding and the somberness of a funeral service, other kids preferred to just watch. Aloof, they would stand off to the side while the other kids played. “We played the flute for you, and you did not dance,” pipe the kids wanting to play at make-believe, “we wailed, and you did not weep.”
But notice, please, Jesus uses the jingle as a way to make a comparison. “To what,” asks Jesus, “am I supposed to compare this generation?”
You see, people, as far as Jesus is concerned, can be just like children who refuse to play at make-believe. Rather than engage life, rather than make the most of their time on earth, they can sit on the side lines idly watching as the world passes by them.
Sure, that old Latin phrase from the Roman poet Horace carpe diem (seize the day) gets thrown around in movies and on greeting cards, but how many of us can say we really live by the motto? Most us, Jesus seems to be saying, just sort of blithely float through life. “The truth is, we do not respond to life,” says one man, “the tragic fails to trouble us, and of joy we are suspicious.”
In Walker Percy’s acclaimed novel The Moviegoer, Binx Bolling just sort of drifts through each day. He daydreams constantly, can’t maintain any lasting relationships, and finds scenes from movies more meaningful and memorable than his own life. Or as Binx puts it at one point in the novel:
“Other people, so I have read, treasure memorable moments in their lives: the time one climbed the Parthenon at sunrise, the summer night one met a lonely girl in Central Park and achieved with her a sweet and natural relationship...What I remember is the time John Wayne killed three men with a carbine as he was falling to the dusty street in Stagecoach, and the time the kitten found Orson Welles in the doorway in the The Third Man.
And so it goes for Binx Bolling. Detached and removed, he just sort of glides through life unaffected and untouched. “We played the flute for you, and you did not dance, we wailed, and you did not weep.”
Of course, here’s the obvious problem for people of faith like us.
Jesus was hardly detached and removed from life, right? Nope. Jesus was anything but untouched by existence. Instead, he laughed and danced at weddings and even provided extra wine to keep the reception going.
And when dining with others, he wasn’t a big fan of protocol and cool etiquette. Stuffy and sedate affairs with the correct place settings and all those different forks and spoons and knives turned in the proper direction weren’t really his cup of tea. A copy of Emily Post’s Etiquette was probably not in his satchel.
What’s more, Jesus happily ate with anyone and when someone of questionable character showed up for a meal, Jesus warmly slapped them on the back while telling folks already at the table to squeeze together so another chair could be added.
But Jesus also cried and wept and lamented, right? Whether in the Garden of Gethsemane, or standing outside Lazarus’ tomb, Jesus also ached for the world. And so when people came to him hurting and in pain, well, Jesus was hardly a stoic. So along with partying, he also suffered with others and shared in their sorrows and loss.
And what about betrayal. My God, Jesus knew about betrayal too, right? From disciples who claimed they had never met him to Judas and that deadly kiss, Jesus knew about disloyalty. He not only saw the beauty and tragedy that is life, he also lived it. Jesus was most assuredly not afraid to play the flute and to dance, nor to wail and mourn.
Of course, that’s what happens when we love, right?
Yep, get to loving, really loving, and it’s impossible not to be affected by the world. For it is love that allows us to be open to the beauty, mystery, wonder, and yes, tragedy that is life. Live with love, and it’s impossible to go through life untouched and unconcerned. Live with love, and dancing and mourning are simply unavoidable. Just look at Jesus Christ’s own life for proof.
The preacher and professor Fred Craddock liked to tell a story about his father, who was not a big fan of church people - even though Fred’s mother was one and frequently dragged him along when he was a youngster. But Fred’s father, well, it was easy for him to see the worst in church folk.
So when the minister would show up to pay a visit to Fred’s parents, his Dad’s reply was always the same: “I know what the church wants. Church doesn’t care about me. Church wants another name, another pledge, another name, another pledge. Right? Isn’t that the name of it? Another name, another pledge.” Craddock says he must have heard his Father utter that complaint over a thousand times. “Church doesn’t care about me.”
Toward the end of his life, though, Fred’s father got sick - really sick. Laid out at veterans hospital he was down to 75 pounds. His throat had been removed and his skin was burned to pieces because of all the radiation.
With the end near, Fred flew back home to see his dad. Walking into the room he couldn’t help but notice all the flowers and potted plants. They were stacked on the windowsills, on his food tray because he was no longer eating and didn’t need it, and around his bed. And the cards...Craddock says there was a stack of cards inches thick. And all of it - the cards and potted plants and the flowers - from people and groups from his mother’s church.
Unable to talk anymore, his father grabbed a kleenex box and wrote a message on the side of it. It was a line from Shakespeare: “In this harsh world, draw your breath in pain to tell my story,” wrote his Dad. “And what’s your story, Daddy?” asked Craddock. To which his Dad wrote back on that Kleenex box, “I was wrong.”
CONCLUSION: Well, it’s true, isn’t it? We can find it hard to respond to life. Tragedy often fails to move us and we can be distrusting of joy.
“We played the flute for you, and you did not dance, we wailed, and you did not weep.”
But Jesus? Good heavens did he respond! For he danced and laughed and wailed and wept. From the Galilee all the way to that cross, he was fully engaged with life. But that’s the way it goes with love, right? Because when it comes to love, the last thing we’re allowed to do is stand idly by so life can quietly pass by us.
And now to Jesus Christ, who loves us and freed us...and made us to be a kingdom, priests of his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.