On a recent visitation to one of our congregations, Joy and I stayed in a hotel with a premium cable plan. We don’t have HBO at home. This hotel offered four different versions of that channel, as well as a number of listings we had never seen.
It probably comes as no surprise to you that, among the host of channels we could choose from, Joy and I still couldn’t find anything to watch. Well, that’s not entirely true. We stumbled on live coverage of a polka party somewhere in the upper midwest.
For twenty minutes we sat mesmerized. Middle-aged and senior hoofers were whirling—and shuffling—around the dance floor. Accordions and tubas wheezed and oompahed polka versions of Beatles tunes along with old standards like the “No Beer in Heaven Polka”.
At about ten minutes in I made the big mistake. “They’re not really doing the polka,” I said. “They’re just moving around the dance floor.”
You see, I haven’t told my wife everything. Some things are better left unsaid in a marriage.
“Oh, and what would you know about the polka?” said Joy. She assumed I was joking.
A wiser person would have taken the easy out. Laugh like it was meant to be funny and let this all go away. But I occasionally relapse into my addiction to being right and knowing everything.
So I said, “I happen to have taken a dance class in college. I know how to polka.”
“You did what?”
With a few careless words, I had hand-delivered my wife an enduring picture of my young adult awkwardness and clumsiness. She thought it was precious. Her sentiment did not make things better for me.
Taking that dance class was a daily humiliation. It had been the only remaining PE class that fit into my already set academic schedule. I needed a PE to complete the core requirements. I figured, “How bad can it be?” Clearly I lacked both imagination and self-awareness.
I am not especially light on my feet. As a sophomore in college, my social awkwardness matched my clumsiness on the dance floor. So, asking different people to dance with me and then to move around the floor with her like an arthritic wildebeest only made matters worse.
Each set of new dance steps always began for me as a series of lurches and stumbles. I watched my feet, self-consciously counted the time, and moved with a kind of Tin Man stiffness. We learned the polka, the rhumba, the waltz, and the tango. Once we got to clogging I was feeling pretty comfortable, largely because the depths of my humiliation had finally been plumbed.
As I look back, I have to admit that I did improve with time. Fred Astaire and Justin Timberlake I wasn’t. Watching more accomplished dancers, repetition, and the willingness to just keep trying helped. But two closely related things made the biggest difference.
First, I had to get over myself. I started the class all self-conscious about how I would look to others. Eventually, I just loosened up and quit comparing myself to other people. That was made a lot easier once I stopped worrying about being perfect.
Second, once I loosened up, the music could get under my skin. I could just let the music move me.
Following Jesus resembles learning to dance. In Jesus, God is playing a whole new tune. With the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, God has set the entire creation to the melody of grace. Eventually, everything will move to that divine music. It’s called the Kingdom of God.
When we human beings loosen up, God’s music will move us in the ways of grace. But the truth is, loosening up doesn’t happen all at once.
Just get a load of those disciples.
On the road one day they were shuffling along behind Jesus. A quarrel starts up about who’s the best disciple. You can bet that they were comparing their spiritual and moral resumes.
And they have been doing some pretty laudable stuff: teaching, feeding the hungry, restoring tormented souls to sanity, and healing the sick. Mostly they acted as Jesus’s assistants, but they made themselves useful and pretty much towed the moral the line.
It’s just that they’ve missed the central point. They still figure that Jesus will love you more, reward you more richly, depending upon the level of your moral and spiritual achievements. It’s as if they’ve been dancing the waltz to God’s rhumba.
Jesus wept! Well, actually, he probably sighed and then repeated the message of grace for what must have seemed like the hundredth time.
“Remember that cross thing? I’m going to die on a cross and then be raised on the third day. That’s going to change everything about who we are and how we relate to everybody else. We discussed this twice already. In fact, I just finished repeating that lesson not more than five minutes ago.”
Blank stare. Mouths agape. “Uuuuummmmm.”
Jesus knows a teachable moment when he sees it. So he tries explaining that grace thing in a slightly different way.
You can’t climb or achieve your way to a seat closer to God. Jesus says, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” (Mark 9:35) In Jesus, God has already chosen to draw so near to us that plenty of us actually spend much of our time trying to regain a little personal space.
In his death and resurrection, Jesus has freed us once and for all from the burden that we’ve done something so rotten that God will write us off. The message of the cross and the empty tomb is that there is no sin so toxic and vile that God cannot redeem it. Did you catch that? God redeems it. Not us!
As long as you think that your moral purity or your theological correctness or your charitable works or your spiritual disciplines can make you any better than anyone else, you’ve missed the point. You continue in the illusion that you can make God love you better, and love you better than the next poor slob.
Grace doesn’t work that way. That’s why Jesus asked a child to stand at center stage for just a moment. Jesus says, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” (Mark 9:37)
The key is the phrase “in my name.” It means “as sent by me personally.”
Contemporary American perceptions of children can mislead us here. We assume that children stand for unspoiled innocence. In Jesus’s day, children were nobodies. They had no power, no privilege, no money. In other words, children have no pretense to justifying themselves by their achievements and status.
Jesus was saying something like this, “Quit trying to justify your own existence, and don’t ask other people to justify themselves. Nobody has to prove that they’re worth loving. I love them. Every one of them. And when you love them, you love me.”
Here’s the real truth of the matter. Everybody is a mixed bag. Every saint is a sinner and even the supposed scumbags of the world are vessels of God’s grace. Nobody’s resume is so great that God will owe you. And nothing on our resume makes us higher or lower than anybody else.
What matters is who sent us. Each of us is sent by Jesus. Everyone we meet is sent by Jesus. When Jesus sends you, that makes you a child of God. You’ve been sent to love and to be loved by love itself.
Love is God’s music. When that music gets under our skin healing happens. Restoration happens. Reconciliation happens.
We don’t need to compare ourselves to others. We don’t need to get every step just right. But when we loosen up, God moves the world through us.
Bishop Jake Owensby preached this sermon at St. Alban’s in Monroe, Louisiana.