Once upon a time—ok, it was in 1152—England was ruled by a King named Stephen. Stephen didn’t know it, yet, but he was near the end of his reign, most of which he had spent fighting rebels who believed his cousin Maude, or Matilda, should be queen.
In 1152, though, King Stephen was asked for a truce by John Marshall, one of the rebel leaders, who offered his five year old son William as a hostage to guarantee would honor the truce.
So, like Theon in Game of Thrones, but much younger, little William was handed over to King Stephen.
John, of course, broke his promise, which meant that little William’s life was forfeit. Some of his men wanted the King to catapult William back to his father, hurling him over the enemy lines. But Stephen gave John a last chance to honor his promise and save his son’s life. "I can have other sons," was John’s reply—and in fact, I’ve toned it down, since we’re in church.
So, by the customs and usages of war, Stephen had to put the little boy to death. William was led to the gallows, since hanging was the least cruel way to kill him that Stephen could think of. As one version of the story has it, the atmosphere, charged with death, and the crowd’s excitement, finally registered with the boy, and he called out to Stephen who had always been so kind to him, “I don’t want to play this game anymore!”
The crowd laughed, but not for long. Stephen’s heart was touched, and he gathered up the little boy and took him away from the gallows.
“I don’t want to play this game anymore.”
That’s what I thought about when I read today's Gospel for the first time. The little children that Jesus likens the people and the religious authorities to, who won’t play any game that they’re invited to join in.
They won’t play pretend funerals, when invited to by John the Baptist, and they won’t dance when they’re invited to do that by Jesus, who compares himself and his disciples to children playing the flute.
But why not? What are these invitations that the leaders and the people are rejecting?
The leaders, of course, have a stake in rejecting either offer, because both offers require change. And change is threatening to those in positions of power. What is to say that the leaders—the priests, the scribes, the Pharisees—will remain leaders if they agree to change? After all, they have their hierarchical Temple system, which guarantees them status and income, even under Roman occupation. The fact that they are effectively collaborating with what Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan call the Roman domination system, isn’t easy to stomach, for them, but they preserve their status and power. In fact, they even use the domination system to get rid of disruptive elements, like Jesus himself. Easy to see why they would reject the invitation. So they dismiss the austere John as having a demon, and the welcoming Jesus as “a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.” To repurpose a line from Mandy Rice-Davies, “Well, they would say that, wouldn’t they?”
But Jesus in today’s Gospel doesn’t limit the analogy of the children who won’t play to the leaders. This time the people are plainly included—the whole “generation” is indicted.
So, let’s look at the invitations of John and of Jesus.
John the Baptist practiced an austere, self-denying life, he called the people to repentance and amendment of life, as we Anglicans say. Or, to put it more simply, he asked them to face themselves as they truly were. John held up a mirror to those who came to see him, and confronted them with themselves, failures, cruelties, errors and all.
That experience can be . . . hard. Even the small sins can make us burn with a disproportionate level of guilt and shame. I don’t think I’m oversensitive, but even memories of my own stupidities or unkindnesses as a child can make me blush getting on for half a century later. And let’s not even talk about more recent sins.
Worse, confronting our own shadow side forces us to look at the sins that we can’t get free of, though we want to. In my mind, I can hear some 20th Century followers of the Baptist sniffing about “will power” and “resolution.” The whole 19th Century self-help tradition (which is still going on, but hasn’t really improved any) is based on that quintessential heretical premise attributed to Joseph Glanville, that “Man doth not yield himself to the angels, nor unto death utterly, save only through the weakness of his feeble will.”
While John the Baptist offers us self-knowledge, it’s not an easy gift to receive, because of guilt and shame, yes, but also, all too often because of our hopelessness in the face of the challenge to change.
Paul knows better than this.
It’s all very well to want to change, but how can we? Well into his career as Apostle to the Gentiles, Paul writes about this with an immediacy and an intimacy that you can feel almost two thousand years later. In today’s reading from Romans, he writes:
I can will what is right, but I cannot do it.What did I cut out of today's Epistle? The rationalization, Paul trying to let himself of the hook. We know better, don't we?
For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.
Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?
John gives us the gift of self-knowledge, but he counts on our will power far too much. Paul doesn’t provide an answer other than to point to Jesus.
So let’s turn to Jesus and his invitation. Jesus invites us to the dance. He invites us to a life of abundance, of joy. He invites us into relationship with himself. And not a relationship based on shame, or guilt.
Jesus’s invitation is simpler:
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.
As Paul’s continuing struggles make clear, that’s not a miraculous lifting of our propensity to sin. We won’t be magically transformed into sinless, perfect people. But it’s an invitation to lay down our burdens, to accept that God’s forgiveness is unfailing as is God’s love. An invitation to accept God’s love, when we are unloveable.
Even that can be daunting. Being in relationship with God can work changes in us, over time. C.S. Lewis wrote in Mere Christianity that “taking your life as a whole, with all your innumerable choices, all your life long you are slowly turning this central thing into a heavenly creature or a hellish creature.” Joining the dance means being open to life, to change, to the many little decisions that we make changing us in ways we may not even notice.
But more than that, far more than that, it means letting go of our own illusion that we can will ourselves into being who we want to be. That we can, like the religious authorities, manipulate the rules, and be righteous by following rules. The heavy burden of the law, of compliance, of obedience through fear—these are what Jesus is asking us to give up. Nadia Bolz-Weber put it simply: The Law will never love you back.
Instead, Jesus is asking us to be in relationship, to accept love, and to open our hearts to returning it.
When little William, the five year old hostage, became scared as they took him to the gallows, he was a pawn of the domination system of his day. He called out to the man he thought of as his friend, and, because Stephen viewed the boy as a child and not as a pawn, he responded in love, not as a King.
That’s what we are called to do.
Respond in love, not in a role.
That’s really all it takes.
In the name of God, father, Son, and Holy Spirit.