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Fourth Sunday after Pentecost

Robert Kelley
Sun, Aug 17

Text: Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

The central image of the first half of this week’s gospel passage from Matthew chapter 11 is a puzzling one, which becomes even more puzzling the more one examines it. Jesus invites the listener to compare the state of the current generation, his generation, as akin to two groups of children sitting “in the marketplace,” bitterly complaining about the other. Scholar Wendy J. Cotter highlights two particularly peculiar features of this scene. First, that the children are in the agora, or what the NRSV renders as “the marketplaces.” The ancient agora, an important feature of any city found throughout the Greco-Roman world, was, of course, a “marketplace,” but that does not fully convey the nuance of what transpired there: it was a vital and open area of public life, where not only goods were exchanged but ideas as well. For example, it was to the agora of Athens that Paul goes in Acts 17 to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and that scene suggests more than commercial business occurred there. Though there is no perfectly analogous public space to the agora familiar to us today, I suggesting it was something less like Faneuil Hall and more like Harvard Square.
So, consider this scene playing out in the Square today, whose contemporary equivalent groups in all likelihood were on display yesterday, on a gorgeous Saturday after a period of heavy rain: musicians playing their instruments, hoping to inspire some passersby in a moment of spontaneous revelry; nearby, a group of protesters chanting in a sonorous drone that, in the context of the deplorable fate of Tibet, sounded like a dirge, a wail of mourning. It would be strange enough a scene if the musicians and protesters were children, a scene that would be poignant to the point of hilarity, or even parody. But the parable’s outlandishness does not stem merely from the fact that it is children engaging in activities typically in the domain of adulthood: the other odd feature that Cotter points out is that the children are sitting in the public square, presumably after the fact, talking at each other about how dim the other group was for missing the point of their performances.
Imagine the absurdity of it, of a bunch of children sitting at the tables outside of Au Bon Pain, airing their complaints to each other. As Cotter points out, part of the absurdity lies in the fact that children are not naturally inclined to sit in a open space, where there is room to move about, and much less do so to complain. These two incongruities here in the scene form a stinging critique by Jesus concerning his peers: these oh-so-serious adults, with their righteous complaints, are like children who are play-acting the role of the well considered and wise, in a fashion so blind to their own ignorance and naivety, that they are ridiculous.
There is a specific kind of ignorance that this scene conveys, suggested by the fact that, in verse 16, the two groups are calling out their complaints “to one another.” Now, whether you hold in your mind the scene playing out with children or adults, there is an irony here worth highlighting. Neither group is complaining about the random crowd milling about the agora, be it engaged onlookers or the largely indifferent folks moving along from these public performances; rather they are complaining about each other. Naturally, the wailers did not dance, nor the flute players mourn, because each came with a specific purpose incompatible with the other’s desired outcome. We would think it more than a little daft if a band, jamming out to the latest danceable song of the summer, complained afterwards that the protesters would not join in on the fun, precisely because common sense tells us that a group hoping for a restoration of Tibet’s autonomy is simply not in the mood. One need not know anything about the situation in Tibet, to understand this: we would laugh at the gormlessness of their complaining, and wonder how the musicians could be so blind to the protester’s situation and motives. In turn, even if one is sympathetic to the protesters, one perhaps may think it a little odd that they expected a busking musician, who is depending on creating a happy mood in order to get some tips, to stop their show to mourn.
On its face, this scene may seem too bizarre to be real, but consider for a moment a common occurrence that happens around this time, every Fourth of July weekend. For some, it is a time of celebrating all they love about America, while for others, it is a day of mourning over all they find deplorable about it. And if you are like me, it’s a time where one anxiously does a little of both, never quite committing to one mode or the other. Of course, one can do both, and one should do both, and we are called to do both well. As Mary Luti wisely pointed out in a UCC Daily Devotional from July Fourth 2013, where she meditates on this tension, “You can't redeem what you don't love,” and exhorts us all to do both: to love America through celebrating what is good and working towards redeeming that which needs mending.
A similar truth can be said about the Kingdom of God that both John the Baptist and Jesus celebrated and worked toward. Throughout scripture, it is attested that the arrival of the Kingdom marks a time of mourning and a time of celebration; some have felt then, as some do now, that it’s one to the exclusion of the other, or at the very least, it will be a happy or a sad day for some, but not others. Of course, it could be both, for any such momentous change from one state to another, even a glorious one, means that something is lost and something is gained. We know not yet what the Kingdom will be; however we see, back in Jesus’ day, that John, for his part, and Jesus for his, both understood that it could be both; and it seems that Jesus’ generation was woefully missing out on the message. In verse 18, John, the ascetic in the wilderness whose prophetic sign-act of fasting signaled the wrath of the Kingdom to come, was construed as something sinister. Then, in verse 19, here comes Jesus, with a complementary, yet compatible, approach to the same message, who celebrated the all-inclusive nature of the coming Kingdom through feasting with all; yet is called out for not showing the restraint the same folks decried as diabolical. Jesus is very careful in the Gospel of Matthew to point out that John and Jesus are on different parts of the same page, and I posit that the “wisdom” that will be vindicated here is that the Kingdom of God can be both a time of mourning and of celebration.
I do not feel entirely unsympathetic to the people Jesus lampoons here, for I grant that the nuances of what the Kingdom is, will be, and even means, are not easy ones to comprehend; they are certainly beyond my capacity to resolve here, if ever, with anything coming close to a satisfactory conclusion. Yet, experience has taught me that one can make an attempt at getting a little closer to the truth that John and Jesus spoke about. Jesus hints at an important way to orient oneself when wrestling with complex theological topics in verse 25, where he contrasts the wisdom of adults with that of the knowledge of “infants.” I am not sure why the gospel writer uses the word “infants” here, though I am assuming it is a rhetorical flourish best read as “children in general” and not limited literally to just babies. Whatever the case, this verse resonates with my experience teaching Godly Play with first through third graders over the last academic year. In the Godly Play teaching method, children are invited to explore the meaning of Bible stories by asking wondering questions. I found that, at least for the age group I taught, actual children are far better in real life at getting at the nuances of things through a slow, careful consideration of the subtleties presented than the ones found in the gospel passage for today. Parents of young children probably know this already, but it was a revelation to me that elementary school aged children have a built-in mastery for seeking out the incongruous features or peculiarities of a story. In all the stories I told, or heard others tell, during my time as a Godly Play teacher, the children would come up with the most wondrous and interesting perspectives on our shared Christian heritage. So much so, that it rivals my experience in seminary as a time of rich theological growth. If you want to have a taste of seminary education, but do not want to commit to three years of it, I highly recommend taking Sarah up on the opportunity to teach Sunday school at First Church, if you get the chance.
But that is an opportunity that only a few can partake in, so let me close with a suggestion that is open to everybody on this, or any, Communion Sunday. In the Godly Play version of the Exodus story, the storyteller invites the children to learn about the unleavened bread baked for the journey and informs them that this special bread, matzo, can be found in the supermarket today, and that “whenever you taste it, you can still taste this story.” The story of the Last Supper, which we commemorate during the sacrament of communion, is a complex mixture of sadness and joy, betrayal and solidarity, endings and new beginnings. When we come together for the feast, we enter into the story of Jesus, and become an active part of God’s story for us, through the act of eating and drinking. We hold a space, perhaps for just a moment, in the present, which makes room for the Kingdom now, and points to the Kingdom of the future, the mysterious and hopeful Kingdom of God, the God who redeems us, and loves us all. Amen.

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