Sunday, September 25, 2011

Pentecost 15A, 2001: Dancing with God

Lectionary: Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32; Psalm 25: 1-8; Philippians 2:1-13; Matthew 21:23-32

En el nombre del Dios, Padre, Hijo, y Espiritu Santo.

Recently, Steve and I went to the first ever clergy-spouse-partner retreat hosted by our Bishop and his wife at Kanuga. The first night after we shared dinner together, we did something radical for a group of priests – we danced! Yep! We danced – some of us well, some not, but we danced – and had a ball.

Dancing has always been important in my family of origin. My parents were amazing dancers – they could do the fox trot, the rhumba, the Lindy, the waltz – and they did it all with such style! My three sisters and I all learned and practiced these dances at every wedding and family celebration (and with our big family, we had a lots of practice!).

My father was a great dance partner. He never criticized us while we were learning. I remember being little, maybe 8 years old when Dad invited me onto the dance floor to learn the waltz. He put his hand out to me and said, “Come on. This is a waltz. It’s time for you to learn it.” I was hesitant because I’m the sort of person who would rather learn something in the privacy of my home rather than in public. But Dad, whose confidence in himself and in me was unwavering, simply waked me out to the middle of the dance floor, put my left hand on his arm which wrapped around my waist, and took my right hand into his up high. He leaned in close and with a smile I loved so much, said to me, “Just relax, lean back into my arm, and follow me. Look only at me. I will lead you. Trust me.” I did exactly what he said. We glided around the floor in what felt like a fantasy to me. When the music ended people were applauding. I looked around and noticed that everyone had cleared the dance floor. They were all standing around the edge applauding and cheering us! My Dad was beaming.

For me, the journey of life as a child of God is like dancing with my Dad. God, whose love for me is unwavering, will lead. All I need to do is relax, lean back into God’s arms, and trust. “Lead me in your truth and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation.” (the refrain from our chanted psalm)

In the gospel lesson today, members of the Sanhedrin, a group of high court judges who were the most learned, “faithful,” and powerful in the Jewish community, want to know by what authority Jesus is teaching and ministering. Is it by God’s authority or his own? Jesus offers them a trade: I’ll answer your question if you answer mine. If you can tell me by what authority John baptized, then I will tell you by what authority I teach and minister.

The question put these judges in a quandary. If they say John the Baptist acted on God’s authority, they condemn themselves for not following him. If they say John baptized on his own authority, they risk the wrath of the crowds who believe John to be a prophet of God. Finding themselves between the proverbial rock and hard place, they answered, “we don’t know.”

Fair enough, Jesus says. Then I won’t answer your question. Many commentators and readers of Scripture love to applaud Jesus for out-smarting the chief priests and elders, but I really don’t think that was his goal. Jesus wasn’t about winning intellectual contests. He was – and still is – always about reconciliation of the whole world to God, which he accomplished in all humility and obedience “to the point of death - even death on a cross. (Phil 2:8)

The members of the Sanhedrin, however, were not of that same mind. They were concerned with their own interests, namely, their power, authority, and reputation – like many of us are. The stories of people who put others’ needs before their own, or people who are humbly obedient, are rare. I think of the news story last week about the people who risked their own lives to lift a burning car off of a young motorcyclist and drag him to safety.

Then I tried to remember the last time I saw a news story about someone who was humbly obedient. How many shows currently on TV or in the movies extol the virtues of humility or obedience? How many paparazzi follow celebrities who are humble or obedient? Are there any celebrities who are humble and obedient?

So it isn’t just the chief priests and elders – it all of us. Humans have to work at living humbly and in true obedience to God. That’s one of the reasons we do this thing called “church” together.

Back to the gospel: we need to remember that the chief priests and elders are not Jesus’ enemies. They are, like us, people of God and part of God’s plan of redemption. So Jesus responds to them as he responds to all of us who struggle to live faithfully: with respect, with a teaching, and with an invitation.

“What do you think?” Jesus asks them, honoring that they are learned in these things. A father (a common reference to God in rabbinical stories) asks his two sons to work in the vineyard (a symbol for the kingdom of God). The first son refuses to obey his father, but later repents of that choice and goes to work in the vineyard. The second son agrees to obey, but fails to follow-up. Which one, Jesus asks, did the will of his father? The answer is obvious to the listeners: the first son.

Then Jesus concludes his teaching with one of the most comforting, inclusive statements in this gospel: “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you.” (Mt 21:32)

How is that comforting? Well, notice that Jesus does not exclude the second son (that is, the members of the Sanhedrin) from the kingdom of God. Instead, he invites them to lay down the burden of their own authority and rest in the mercy of God.

Jesus says, “Truly I tell you…” which is Scripture-code for “Listen up. This is important.” The ones you, who claim to have authority, have judged unworthy - the tax collectors and prostitutes, those whose sin is out there for all to see like the first son in the parable - these will be the first ones into the kingdom of God because they know they are sinners, and they are willing to repent.

But you who believe you have it all right and don’t need to change, you who pretend to obey while you sin in secret, you will find yourselves bringing up the rear, where you surely will learn humility.

Notice that no one is being booted out of the kingdom of God for being wrong or arrogant or misled. That isn’t God’s way. As God reminds us through the prophet Ezekiel: “I have no pleasure in the death of anyone… Turn, then, and live.” Turn and be humble. Turn and be obedient. Return to God and live. (Ezek 18:32)

When we gather each Sunday for worship and Christian formation (and we should ALL be gathering for worship and Christian formation), we come to know God who is revealed to us in Scripture, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers – sung or said. We come to be in the presence of the One who assures us that we will not be booted out of the kingdom for having made a mistake or losing our way.

We come to be freed from the burden of carrying our own authority; and we come to rest in God’s mercy.

We come to dance with God.

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