May 3, 2015
Rev. John Watts
Nampa First UMC
LORD OF THE DANCE
Matthew 9:9-17, 11:16-19
The song we have just sung, and the song the choir sang for us earlier is called “Lord of the Dance”. It’s a song that tells us that the proper response to the Good News of Jesus Christ is to dance. It’s to celebrate. Because the Gospel is good news. It’s not bad news. So we should respond with joy, not with long faces.
This is one of the less traditional hymns that found its way into our 1989 hymnal. It was written back in the 1960’s when churches were experimenting with new music. It was not supposed to be in our hymnal. It was not a favorite of the trained musicians who selected the approved hymns. It was not in the version of the hymnal General Conference was asked to approve. It was added by a motion from the floor. Bishop Woody White’s sermon the night before referenced this hymn. It was a great sermon. Everyone was still caught up in the energy and excitement of the moment. So it was easy to persuade the delegates that “Lord of the Dance” belonged in the new hymnal.
Some have regarded that vote as a good example of the Holy Spirit inspiring people to do the right thing. Others have regarded that vote as a good example of the regrettable mistakes the democratic process makes possible.
I got a request that we sing “Lord of the Dance”. So we sang it recently. And we sang it again today. Before that I had not selected it for a long time, because the last time I did, it was requested that we never sing that hymn again. So I just want you to know I pay attention to your requests. I don’t always follow them, but I always pay attention to them. This hymn, loved by many but not loved by all, fits the scripture we read today. Especially those words: “I danced on the Sabbath when I cured the lame, the holy people said it was a shame.”
You notice, it rhymes. But just because it rhymes doesn’t make it great poetry. It isn’t great poetry. It isn’t even good poetry. It was written by an Englishman, Sydney Carter in 1963. Wednesday of this week, May 6 will be the 100th anniversary of his birth. He set the words of this hymn to the arrangement of the American Shaker hymn, “‘Tis a Gift to be Simple.” The Shakers would dance in worship, so the tune fits the words. Even that unfortunate line, “I danced on the Sabbath when I cured the lame, the holy people said it was a shame.”
The point is that what Jesus did was often considered shameful by the holy people of his day. These holy people believed that religion should be more like mourning than dancing. Religion, after all, is about judgment and doom, not joy and celebration. That’s what they thought.
We read today about the calling of Matthew. He is a tax collector. The Romans were the ones who collected taxes, so Matthew was working with the Romans. The Romans were hated, which made Matthew hated, too. He was an outcast in the Jewish community. He was shunned. He was considered unclean. He was not allowed in their Temple. No good Jew would even sit down and eat with him.
So if you know anything at all about Jesus, it should come as no surprise that Jesus ate with him. And with his friends, too. “As he sat at dinner at Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and sinners were also sitting with Jesus.” The Pharisees were shocked. They couldn’t understand it. “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” The way this is written, they didn’t intend for Jesus to hear this. But he heard it and he answered: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous, but sinners.”
So what is Jesus saying here? There’s a layer of meaning that may not be obvious. There is something called the Messianic Banquet. This is a belief that goes way back that God’s faithful people will sit down with the Messiah in heaven and enjoy a fabulous banquet. Some take this literally. Some take this symbolically. Basically, the point is that when we get to heaven there will be a
In the communion ritual there is a reference to this.
“. . . until Christ comes in final victory and we feast at his heavenly banquet.” So communion is a foretaste of the Messianic Banquet. Communion is a small celebration in anticipation of the bigger celebration that we have to look forward to.
Why is this important? Because Jesus, by eating with tax collectors and sinners was saying something shocking. He was saying that tax collectors and sinners are not excluded from the Messianic Banquet. The holy people didn’t like this one bit. They said it was a shame. They thought they had earned a privileged seat at the table. They didn’t want those who weren’t as holy as they were anywhere near that table. They were offended that Jesus didn’t understand this. But they were the ones who didn’t understand. They didn’t understand God’s grace.
It’s important to add that Matthew’s life changed. He repented of his sins, he left the tax collecting business, he followed Jesus. So grace doesn’t mean that anything goes. But grace does mean that we don’t earn God’s love. God loves us all. Even sinners.
And there’s something else here, too. This is a passage about grace. And this is also a passage about dancing. It’s about the joy that grace brings to our lives. If you don’t feel any joy in your faith, it just might mean that you are trying too hard. It might mean you have some Pharisaical tendencies. I know I do. It’s very common to get so serious about being a better person that we miss the whole point. Life is meant to be celebrated. Life is not a problem to be solved but an adventure to be lived. Jesus came that we might have life and have it abundantly (John 10:10). Following Jesus is good news, not bad news. Why do we Christians so often miss that?
There was a monk who was new at the monastery. He was given the job all new monks were given. He was to copy by hand the ancient documents. It was tedious, endless work. But it was essential to preserve their faith.
This new monk was bothered by one thing. They were copying copies. They were not copying the originals. That meant that his work could only be as good as the work of those who had made the copies he was copying. He went to the head monk to express his concern. He pointed out that if there was an error in the very first copy, that error would be replicated in all the future copies.
The head monk said, “I’m sure there are no errors. We’ve been copying from the copies for centuries. But you do make a good point. Just to be sure, I’ll check it out.”
So the head monk went to the cellar where the originals were kept. He took with him one of the copies. He compared them line by line.
Hours later, he was still down there. The other monks were concerned. One of them went down to check on him, to make sure he was OK. As he descended the stairs, he heard sobbing coming from the cellar. He found the old monk leaning over one of the original books crying. “What’s wrong?” he was asked. The old monk looked up and he said, “The word is ‘celebrate'”!
That missing “r” makes a difference. The word is celebrate! That’s how we respond to the good news of Jesus Christ. With celebration!
Jesus ate with tax collectors and sinners. He made room for all at his banquet table. It was a joyous celebration. Watching with long faces were the Pharisees. Also watching were the disciples of John the Baptist. John is pictured in scripture as a pretty serious guy. He almost fits with the Pharisees more than he fits with Jesus. And so his disciples came to Jesus with a question: “Why do we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?”
Jesus answers, as Jesus often does, with an answer that makes you think. “The wedding guests cannot fast while the bridegroom is with them.”
What is he saying? He is saying the party has begun. It’s party time! Jesus has introduced something new. And the new and the old often clash. Old ways don’t always give way to new ways gracefully. The way Jesus put it was that you don’t put new wine in old wine skins. And you don’t put a new patch on an old garment. In both cases, something’s going to rip. You’ll have wine on the floor and you’ll have a hole in your pants. Expect some embarrassment. Expect some disruption. Expect some anger. Look what they did to Jesus, after all!
It’s a whole new way of looking at life. Grace, not works. Celebration, not self-denial. A party, not a funeral. And it’s the people who are most religious who have the hardest time with it. That was true when Jesus lived and that’s often true today.
I don’t know if you’ve seen the latest movie. It’s called “Footloose”. That was a joke because “Footloose” actually came out in 1984. It seems new to me only because I’m getting old. Everything that happened since about 1975 seems new to me. But I consider “Footloose” a classic. I was doing youth work back then and I remember showing it to our youth group. We used the latest technology. VHS. It was amazing. We were still using our reel-to- reel film projector for most of our movies, but we actually played “Footloose” on a VCR.
It’s the story of a teenager named Ren McCormack. He had just moved from Chicago, Illinois to Beaumont, Oklahoma. It was quite a culture shock. Especially when he learned that two of the things he loved most in life, rock music and dancing had been banned by the Beaumont City Council.
It was a pastor in town who led the charge. He was determined to make Beaumont a Christian town. He locked horns with Ren McCormack who had brought with him all the sinful influences from the big city. You can probably guess who becomes Ren’s girlfriend. That’s right. The pastor’s daughter.
The senior prom isn’t going to happen. You can’t have a senior prom without dancing. And you can’t have dancing without inviting the devil into your community. So Ren goes before the City Council. He tries to persuade them to change their ordinance. He is unsuccessful, but he makes a pretty good speech. He even does a pretty good job with the Bible. Let’s take a look.
(Video Clip from “Footloose”)
He persuaded the pastor, but not the City Council. So the senior prom is still disallowed. But high school students can be resourceful. They arrange their own senior prom at a grain mill just outside the city limits. And who is seen dancing there for the first time in years? The pastor and his wife. The holy people said it was a shame.
Communion is a celebration. In fact, when I in my role as pastor serve communion, I am called a celebrant. I’ll bet you didn’t know that. Communion is a celebration. It’s not a funeral. It’s not a wake over the dead body of Jesus. It’s a celebration that there is no dead body. He rose! He is alive! He is here! The dance goes on! And he invites us all to join in.
In the words of that wonderful hymn that some of you love and some of you don’t, Jesus is saying to us today:
They buried my body and they thought I’d gone, but I am
the dance and I still go on. Dance, then, wherever you
may be; I am the Lord of the Dance, said he. And I’ll lead
you all wherever you may be, and I’ll lead you all in the
dance said he.
As we come now to your table of communion, Lord Jesus, may we come eagerly and joyfully to celebrate the life in you that will never, never die. Amen.