Text: Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30
Purpose: the purpose of this message is to encourage ‘connection’ through communion with God, care of the ‘other,’ and national unity.
Do you remember what it felt like, when you were young, to want to play a game, but have no one who would play it with you? “Do you want to play ‘catch?’” you may have asked, only to be met with blank stares or, “No, we don’t feel like it.” Perhaps you countered by offering, “Well, I’ll play whatever you want,” only to be silenced by, “No, we really don’t feel like playing anything right now.” It never feels good to be cut off from those with whom you are trying to connect.
I wonder if that is what Jesus had in mind when he said, “To what will I compare this generation? It is like a child sitting in the marketplace calling to others, ‘We played the flute for you and you didn’t dance. We sang a funeral song and you didn’t mourn.’ Perhaps it is his way of saying, “God has been trying to get your attention for generations, but nothing God tries, from invitations to the party to warnings of lost opportunity, makes any difference.”
In his own explanation, Jesus expands, noting how religious leaders dismissed both John-the-Baptist, who lived a Nazarite vow of self-denial, and Jesus, who celebrated life through social interaction, as demon and gluttonous friend of ‘sinners,’ respectively. “No matter how the message is packaged,” Jesus observed, “It will not be received by those who refuse to listen.” A made-up mind leaves no room for dialogue, growth or God’s priority.
The context of this observation by Jesus is significant. John-the-Baptist, imprisoned for speaking truth to King Herod, sends his disciples to Jesus to inquire if he is truly the Messiah, the ‘real deal,’ if you will. Why would John ask this? He baptized Jesus, saw the Spirit-dove descend, and heard God’s words of confirmation, “This is my Son, my beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” Why, then, would John ask if he is truly the One?
I suspect that he asks because there is one part of the prophecy, Jesus hasn’t fulfilled. Yes, Jesus gives sight to the blind, makes the lame walk, cleanses the leper, restores hearing to the deaf, raises the dead and offers good news to the poor, but there is one conspicuous promise missing: deliverance, setting the prisoner free. In his human circumstance, this is important. Why has Jesus not set John free?
With theological perspective, we know that Jesus does set prisoners free: demons banished, sins forgiven, addictions bound and dispatched, dead raised through Easter resurrection, but that doesn’t rescue John in the ‘then and there,’ does it? John’s only way out physically is beheading, martyred to the cause.
Like John, we, too, look for a particular kind of deliverance. We want God to heal our problems the way we want them to be healed, but God’s deliverance is more expansive than our limited perspective can conceive. And because God comes to us in a way we don’t expect or perhaps even want, we choose not to play ball. Perhaps we aren’t much different from the scribes and Pharisees who refuse to dance to Jesus’ tune or mourn with the convictions of a John-the-Baptist.
There is an interesting, ancient parallel to the ‘children in the marketplace’ parable Jesus tells. Aesop (of Aesop’s Fables which you can purchase from any book distributor) was a real person who lived during the time of King Croesus, in Sardis, in what is now modern day Turkey. Aesop was a wise counselor in King Croesus’ court who wrote a collection of fables with hidden meaning and simple moral. Though written several centuries before Christ, they were part of Hellenistic culture like “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” is for us.
It is possible Jesus was familiar with Aesop’s stories, including a less-familiar fable of a fisherman who went to the seashore to play a melody on his flute, hoping to coax fish to jump out of the sea on to the land. When the fish do not respond, the angry fisherman catches them with a net and drags them to shore where they flip and flop as they die. He rebukes the fish, “I played the tune for you and you did not dance, and now all you can do is dance.”
From Garden of Eden, through Noah’s Ark, call of Abram, giving of Torah, Davidic covenant, succession of prophets, John-the-Baptist, and Jesus, the biblical story renews God’s invitation to kingdom life. With each rejection, the cost of redemption escalates, finally driving Jesus to the cross where he, too, will generously release his life for the redemption of the world. God does not turn a blind eye to the rejection, for in the verses which our lectionary skips over, Jesus vividly describes the consequences which result. Still, the grace of God persists, and Jesus renews the invitation, “Come to me, all you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
Is our generation is a better posture? Do we dance to God’s tune and mourn with those who weep? Are we doing any better with growing God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven? When we had ready access to our sports arenas, cinemas, restaurants, concert venues, theme parks, bars, casinos, fitness centers, solons and churches, were we truly happy and in harmony with God’s purpose and design? Were we dancing the melodious love of God and neighbor? Were we truly one nation, under God, indivisible, championing liberty and justice for all? Were we a light to the nations?
And what about now? Do we mourn with those who mourn? The other day, my wife recalled how devastated her hometown was over the tragic loss of a young man who had just returned from Vietnam. So much promise cut short! And here we are in the midst of a pandemic which has claimed the lives of over 130,000 Americans, and over half-a-million souls world-wide. Where are the national and global candlelight vigils for those no longer in our midst? No doubt many grieve in isolation, but isn’t there a way to grieve together without putting ourselves and others at risk?
We need one another now more than ever. We are ‘our brother and sister’s keeper,’ and each of us has a piece of the recovery which is ours to live out. Masks, for example, are not Independent, Republican or Democrat. They are simply masks—one layer of resistance against Coronavirus for the preservation of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. My son, Elliot Frost, offered a perspective on them with which I would like to close:
“I’m flexible and adaptable; these masks haven’t bothered me the way they seem to many others. Being adaptable is something I’ve practiced. It starts with a decision to find the good in things beyond your control and to recognize/surrender to things beyond your power to change. I choose to like my mask. You can choose that, too!
I found a mask that was comfortable, I figured out a routine that worked for me so that my mask would always be soft and fresh smelling. I considered what was good about the mask—how it helps me practice being compassionate, how it helps me consider how I judge and perceive others, how it helps me emote with my eyes and focus on my body language. I can feel a little safer when the social anxiety hits as it gives me a barrier. I can express myself with the patterns on a mask. It makes mealtime feel intentional. It has forced me to consider how often I touch my face. It helps me feel connected to strangers in my community. It makes me feel part of a team, and reminds me to appreciate health and breath. It grounds me. Masks are great. We should wear them.”
What might happen if we become the generation that dances together, mourns together, masks together, taking on the yoke of Christ for the transformation of the world?