Playing the Game

Sermon for Proper 9, Year A, July 5, 2020

Scriptures: Genesis 24:34-38; Psalm 45:11-18; Romans 7:15-25a; 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!’”

I need to tell you a secret about preaching: sometimes you don’t preach the sermon you’d LIKE to preach. There will be a lot of sermons today on the last part of the Gospel – you know, the part that ends “…you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” That’s a nice scripture. It’s easy. It’s comforting. But sometimes the easy, comforting stuff is not what grabs you. Sometimes you start writing one sermon and end up with something completely different. And that’s part of the burden of preaching. 

So instead, I’m going to talk about the first part of the Gospel. The part that’s a bit less comfortable. The part where Jesus is upbraiding the crowd for wanting him to follow their whims.

Jesus seems to be a bit put out by the way people see him – and the way they saw John the Baptist. Jesus describes the crowd as being children playing a game, each group wanting the other to play by their rules.

John was an ascetic, so he must have had a demon. Jesus is not an ascetic, so he must be a drunkard and glutton. No matter which way Jesus behaved, they could find a way to put him in the wrong. He was, in words of the stock phrase, “damned if he did and damned if he didn’t.”

The thing is, we like our religious figures to be…domesticated. We like them to play by the rules. We like them neat and pretty — certainly not hairy, wearing camel hides, and eating bugs, like John. Or telling us things we don’t want to hear, like Jesus. So we gloss over the parts we don’t like, the parts that make us uncomfortable. We focus on the nice bits, like the last couple of verses of today’s Gospel. And that’s why I think it’s important to talk about this first bit.

See, John and Jesus didn’t play the game.

Now, I will fully admit I don’t like to be made to feel uncomfortable. It might be listening to someone talk about some topic that I really need to pay attention to you — a matter of conscience, a matter of justice, something I really need to listen to. Sometimes it makes me uncomfortable. I don’t like people to make me feel uncomfortable. Then I notice that the person saying it isn’t perfect. They have flaws in their characters. Now I have an excuse to discount what they say.

Very often we know we should be listening. We actually want to listen. But those little voices and doubts creep in. “Hey, that guy sounds like a socialist.” “But what about this other thing he said?” “Who does he think he is?” We ignore the message and find fault with the messenger. Sometimes we have to work really hard to find reasons we shouldn’t listen, but we seem to be willing to make the effort. It helps keep things tame and comfortable.

The problem is, there’s a lot of stuff in the Bible that should make us uncomfortable, if we’re honest with ourselves. All that stuff about “love your enemies” and such. That makes me uncomfortable because it means I have to actually care about their welfare. And believe me, with some people it is hard. But it’s one of those bits of scripture we just can’t seem to tame.

In C.S. Lewis’ “The Chronicles of Narnia”, the great lion Aslan, who is actually Christ in the Land of Narnia, is often described with the words “He’s not a tame lion, you know.”

We need to stop insisting that Jesus be tame, that he’ll “play the game.” Because I’ll let you in on another secret: he isn’t going to, no matter how hard we try. And by trying to tame him, we’re only stunting our own spiritual growth.

We can always find excuses not to do things we don’t want to do, not to listen to ideas that are uncomfortable to us, whether they’re coming from scripture or by someone else. Especially when they’re things we know we should do, things we should pay attention to. The we can take the safe, tame path.

But Jesus is not tame. He’s not safe. And when we follow him – really follow him, we may end up doing quite a few not-so-tame and not-so-safe things ourselves. And that is where the Kingdom of Heaven is. 

What urgings of the Spirit are we ignoring because they don’t seem safe? Because they don’t fit into the rules of the game? Because they’re too wild?

Becoming a Dominican did not seem safe or tame to me, raised as a Southern Baptist. In fact, it felt incredibly wild and scary. I wasn’t totally sure what I was getting myself into. It kind of meant becoming a religious fanatic. I’ve always been a churchgoer, it was how I was raised,  but…structure my entire life around my faith? That’s crazy! It’s not playing the game! At my age I should focus on my career and heading toward retirement, not starting a new life of praying and preaching!

The strange thing is, once you give in to those wild, crazy things the Spirit is prompting you to do, you do get a reward. Once I had made the decision to approach the Dominicans, all the doubts vanished and I felt peace. I have a friend in Montana who used to be a verger. She is now a deacon. When I told her of my final decision to become a Dominican postulant, she said something to the effect of “You feel better now, don’t you?” Evidently something similar happened to her when she made the decision to work toward ordination.

Let’s not play the game. Let’s not be what people expect. Let’s be those “crazy Christians” that Presiding Bishop Curry talks about in his book. Let’s be the ones who listen to what the Holy Spirit is trying to tell us. Let’s be the ones who always follow Christ instead of playing the game. Let’s be the ones who speak up for the poor and the oppressed. Let’s be the ones who don’t seem to worry about what the neighbors think.

Let’s not be tame lions.

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