To Dance, To Mourn, or Sit This One Out

A Sermon for the 4th Sunday after Pentecost

Proper 9 – Year A – July 6, 2014

Kim Baker Glenn, Master of Divinity, Union Presbyterian Seminary


 Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

Jesus said to the crowd, “To what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces 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 a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.”

At that time Jesus said, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.

“Come to me, all you that are weary and are 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.”

 Open our ears, Lord, that we might hear your word for us. By your grace, open our minds and our hearts to receive it. By your mercy, open our eyes that we might perceive your presence among us, today and all days. Amen.

 It was not long ago that I sat right there in the pews where you are today listening to preaching from the voice of our beloved rector, John Miller, or our beloved then associate rector, Christopher Brookfield. I didn’t know it then but I was learning from the best how to do what I am doing here today. Thank you, John, for the opportunity to come home to preach. I treasure this time to be with you.

I learned a lot from both John and Christopher, but something John taught me without even knowing he was teaching me is about connections between Holy Scripture and our seemingly unholy culture. He is a master at connecting experiences of today to experiences of the ancient world. He is especially adept at film references. I am not sure how he is able to know so much and keep it right there at his fingertips! But he does, and we are grateful.

My style is not the same as John’s or anyone else’s for that matter. Our job is to learn from our teachers and then make the learning our own. My own approach is to connect music and songs to scripture. Can you guess what song from our modern culture jumped out at me when I read this morning’s gospel text? No, it wasn’t Teach Your Children from Crosby, Stills and Nash– though that ran a close second. Instead, what jumped out at me was a song from Loggins and Messina, Your Mama Don’t Dance and your daddy don’t rock and roll. Remember that one? Well, if you aren’t familiar with that song let me say it again – your mama don’t dance and your daddy don’t rock and roll.

The question is not whether they can dance. Anyone can dance, right? I mean, you can be as goofy as a marionette on strings or as skillful as a ballerina but anyone can move to music. Presumably, they are capable of it. The question is why they are choosing not to dance. In the gospel text this morning, children are inviting other children to dance. No one is accepting the invitation.

In the Gospel reading, we hear Matthew craftily describing the people in his audience as children playing in the market. Don’t be diverted by the idea of children playing in the marketplace, it was a safe and normal place for children to play. The market was, and still is, the place where society met and mingled in ancient Israel. Focus instead on the game they were playing. The scripture reads, “We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.” Each group of children was attempting to lure the other group into a game of role-play – one was using mournful, sad tunes and the other was using joyful, glad tunes.

There is much scholarly debate over precisely who the two groups of children represent. They basically agree that what is represented is John the Baptist’s style of preaching and Jesus’ style of ministry. John preached the mournful message of repentance and Jesus spoke the joyful message of acceptance and inclusion. Neither the message nor those who delivered them were popular. John the Baptist came wearing animal skins and eating locusts. Mind you, that was NOT the fashion of the day. Frankly, he just looked and acted weird. His message of repentance seemed like the pot calling the kettle black. Jesus, on the other hand, came looking like everyone else. He fit in, by all appearances. But he crossed all kinds of social boundaries by hanging out with sinners and eating in the homes of tax collectors.

Matthew tells us that the people of the first century weren’t buying either of those messages. They didn’t want mournful music or merry melodies. They wanted to choose their own music, so to speak. They were choosing not to dance to the tunes that John and Jesus played – not because they didn’t like the songs but because they didn’t trust that the lyrics, the message, was from God. Well, Matthew wanted them to realize that God had specifically chosen these two to carry out His will. Matthew wanted his listeners to realize that the deeds done by John and Jesus in their midst had proven that God had called them. “Wisdom,” Matthew said, “is vindicated by her deeds.” God, who is all Wisdom and the ground of all that is, had empowered John and Jesus in their actions. He wanted them to join in the dance that was part of God’s unfolding drama.

Let’s return for a moment to the Loggins and Messina illustration. Maybe mama and daddy don’t dance and rock and roll because they don’t think they are invited to the party. Maybe it’s because they don’t like the music that is playing there. Or maybe they don’t dance because they are waiting to be invited to a better party. Could there be a better party than the one that God has created just for us?

Now imagine with me that it is we who are invited to the dance, invited to take part in the rhythmic movement that is the coming of God’s kingdom. Just being here today and participating in the life of St. Mary’s church is evidence that all of us are accepting or at least considering accepting God’s invitation. Indeed, we symbolically accept the invitation each time we affirm the baptismal covenant. We accept God’s invitation and do all we can to respond to God’s call on our lives until…

Until we realize that we are not as good as we could be; Until we recognize that there are others who dance better than we do; Until the burdens of just sustaining life in a crime ridden, disease ridden, dog-eat-dog world overwhelm us. Given the circumstances of human life, living out God’s invitation to us is incredibly hard work. God knows that and that is why God gave us a partner, someone to go through it all with us.

Oh I know, sometimes it is easier to work alone, at least we think it is. Sometimes our partners get in the way. They can step on our feet and trip us up, or cheat on us or make a decision we don’t agree with. But in Matthew’s understanding, this invitation that God is giving us requires a partner of a different type, a spiritual partner. In the text this morning, we get not one but two invitations, or maybe an invitation in two parts. The first is God’s invitation to join in the dance so we can listen and move in sync with God’s rhythm. The second is the invitation from Jesus who in his humanity understood how difficult it could be to take part in the dance and to keep on with it once we’ve started.

Jesus offers his yoke to us. His yoke is fitted for two, to lie right across his shoulder and ours to join us together as a team. The yoke keeps the team in line, moving in the same direction. Have you ever watched animals pull a wagon? Their steps are in sync, they seem to know what the other is doing. People imitate each other that way, too, like in rowing a boat. They are working efficiently together, it doesn’t really matter where they are going or what they are pulling. God’s work, no doubt about it, is not easy.

The work of bringing in God’s kingdom of justice, peace and love is hard work. It requires strength and focus, patience and perseverance. It is always a work in progress and will be until, one day as we pray, God’s kingdom will come. We need Jesus, our Christ, to help us get there. And we need each other. I looked up the original Greek text of those verses concerning Jesus’ yoke. My translation reads, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you relief. Pick up my yoke and put in on you.” The “you” is plural. That means all of us. Together. “Pick up my yoke and put it on you and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in my inner most self, my heart. You will discover relief deep within you for my yoke brings ease and my burden (what I bring to our team) will not weigh us down.”

Christ’s yoke is light, it’s hardly a burden at all for us. The thing is, we realize that we should pick up that yoke but we know that when we join Jesus and others on that journey we can no longer be in control of our destinies. Taking up the yoke means turning the control of our lives over to our triune God. We have no choice but to give up ego and self-sufficiency to follow Jesus and learn his ways. German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer says, “Only Jesus Christ, who bids us follow him, knows where the path will lead. But we know it will be a path full of mercy beyond measure. Discipleship is joy.”[1]

Some of us have given over control of their lives to substances, some have given over control of their lives to their work. Jesus waits for them, ever patient, ever available whenever they are ready to see. And for others of us, by grace, Jesus is offering to take control, ease the burden of our life’s journey. Are you ready yet to take up Jesus’ yoke and learn to live by living his way? Are you ready to join in God’s rhythm and dance?


[1] Discipleship (Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Vol. 4), p40