SERMON FOR JULY 6, 2014
Pentecost 4, Proper 9
Nativity, Bloomfield Township
READINGS: Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 5-67
Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30
MAY THE WORDS OF OUR SACRED WRITINGS BE A LAMP UNTO OUR FEET, AND LEAD US ONTO PATHS OF JUSTICE, LOVE, AND MERCY. AMEN.
Over 40 years ago, I realized that a spiritual reformation was taking place, not only in our country but throughout the world. People were hungering for something. They had a hole in their lives, a hole in their hearts. They wanted to connect with something outside of and greater than themselves. People were seeking for that connection in different ways. They began to explore various paths, sometimes other religions. Christian leaders often called this pagan or “New Age Nonsense” and issued warnings that these things were dangerous to the souls of “believers.”
The rejoinder to this was the rebuttal that what was dangerous to souls were the dogmas, doctrines, and actions of organized religions, especially Christianity, which were perilous to the spirit and well-being of humans. Let’s face it. Christianity does not have a very good record of carrying out the teachings of Jesus. It does have a history of buying into many of the things that Jesus was against!
Last week Karen and I watched a PBS presentation on the Voting Drive that was held in Mississippi during the summer of 1963. A thousand students from colleges in the north rode buses into Mississippi to encourage African Americans to vote. They were met by fear: white people’s fear that their way of life would change; black people’s fear that terrible retaliation would take place against them once these college students returned to their colleges in the fall. It saddened me to hear the venom spewed and violence displayed by these Bible-thumping “Christians.” Rest assured, some Episcopalians were among the oppressors. Three students were murdered. Many were beaten and intimidated.
One woman told of her experience with near death. She was walking along the road when a truck with three men in it drove by and stopped. They grabbed her, and tied a hangman’s noose around her neck. They tied the rope to the back of their truck and drove off, slowly at first, and then faster and faster as she ran behind the truck, trying to keep up. At the point where she was sure she was going to fall and be dragged to her death, they stopped the truck, threw the end of the rope at her, all the while laughing and carrying on, and warning her to get out of Mississippi. What amazes me is this took place in the so-called Bible Belt where people consider themselves devout Christian followers of Jesus. I must confess, I’m not sure which Jesus they were or are following.
Our gospel reading today seems like a series of disconnected sayings. Actually, they are mini parables in response to the previous verses. In order to understand them, we have to consider the context. Jesus had made a tour of some of his disciples’ hometowns, where his message had largely been rejected. As part of this tour, he had also paid a call on Capernaum, where the reception was no more favorable.
At that time, Capernaum was the intellectual center of Judaism, The reigning pundits and scholars gathered in Capernaum to finalize the principles of the Jewish faith. That great work is now known as the Talmud.
I don’t think it’s too far off to imagine that Jesus was reacting to a kind of double-tiered failure: he had failed to enlist a following from the communities of his closest disciples. That must have been a bitter disappointment to those disciples who would naturally have been hoping that their friends and relatives would see in Jesus the same light they did. In Capernaum Jesus had also failed to win the endorsement of the intellectual elite. They put him down as a crackpot or the victim of misconception.
Jesus’ mission was considered a kind of folly by most people. By human standards, it was and continues to be seen by many as pointless and bearing no positive result. However, the apostle Paul points out that the folly of God is actually a level of wisdom that surpasses human understanding. We never know what God’s “folly” is going to achieve.
Speaking parabolically, Jesus refers to his growing number of opponents as children who refuse to join in each other’s games. When one group played the flute, the other would not dance. When one group wailed at a funeral, the others refused to mourn.
He speaks almost with sarcasm that he and John the Baptist are rejected no matter what they do. John was dismissed as being possessed by demons because of his ascetic lifestyle—i.e., he “came neither eating nor drinking.” (vs. 18) On the other hand, Jesus was accused of gluttony and drunkenness because he ate and drank with those considered to be outcasts and sinners. Both were caught between a rock and a hard place.
In other words, the people played the flute and told John to “lighten up.” Enough of repentance or hellfire. Dance to our tune of moderation. Then Jesus came, and he was ready to dance—dance as they had never dreamed! Every meal was a party, as long as everyone was invited. No exclusivity with Jesus. The people’s response was to wail that he was a glutton and drunkard!
How to explain what Jesus was trying to say in today’s reading? I suggest we must accept that God is Mystery, pure and simple; and God remains Mystery. God cannot be understood through our intellect. We use our intellect to study science, history, math, literature and to earn a living. We also use our intellect to study Scriptures and see how their understanding has evolved over the centuries. Nevertheless, the human intellect continues to try to embrace what essentially is beyond it: the Mystery of the Divine One. While it can be an honorable and positive thing to reach for Truth, capital T, in the end we are doomed to fall short of the goal. We cannot comprehend with our intellect that which is incomprehensible.
Connecting with God is something that is initiated by God, not by our human intellect. That connection takes place through God’s love, what some call grace or energy or spirit. Jesus’ purpose for coming into this world was to show us God’s love and how it can transform us. He modeled God’s love through teaching, preaching, healing, and making disciples. He has asked us to do the same, as we are transformed.
God’s ways are not our ways. The world laughs at the folly of believing in a Divine Being, of believing and following the ways of Jesus. A few days ago, there was a panel discussion on television about our current immigration crisis and how the system is broken. One panelist cited the words on the Statue of Liberty. Another panelist shot him down, saying that was French idealism and never had been reality in the U.S. The first panelist countered with what he saw as historic population and economic growth every time we opened our shores. The other replied that we had kept out people from the Middle East, from Asia, and from parts of Europe during the 1920’s and look at the prosperity we enjoyed. Why else were they called the roaring 20’s? Yes, they roared… right into the greatest depression the world had ever known.
I can’t help but remember the words of Zechariah in the Jewish Scriptures: “…show kindness and compassion toward each other. Do not oppress the widow or the orphan, the alien, or the poor: do not plot evil against one another.” (Zechariah 7:9b-10) I can’t help but remember Jesus calling the little children to him. And the time in Matthew’s 25th chapter when he told a parable: “I was a stranger, and you welcomed me.” He said the just will ask when they had welcomed him, and they will be told “I assure you, as often as you did it for one of my least brothers, you did it for me” (Matt 25:35). If we’re to be disciples of Jesus, we must see the Christ in every other human being. When we are discussing or interacting with the alien, the stranger, the immigrant, we are discussing or interacting with the Christ.
Today’s gospel reading is telling us things will seldom go any better for us than it did for Jesus and his early disciples. People will laugh and mock us. They will say we are delusional. They will hate us for saying that we must seek and serve Christ in all persons and strive for justice and peace, respecting the dignity of every human being.
But it doesn’t matter what they do or say. It doesn’t matter. As followers of Jesus and members of his church, our mission is to restore all people to unity with God and with each other. (Repeat.) It says so on Pg. 855 of our BCP. Last week during an interview, Elton John was quoted in Monday papers as saying: “Jesus was all about love and compassion and forgiveness and trying to bring people together and that is what the church should be about.” Yeah. It’s not about buildings and dogma and rules and regulations that oppress. Rather, how do we speak to the hurting who are close by in our lives, and to the hurting who are far away? How are we engaged with those whose struggles are profound and whose needs are overwhelming? The great theologian Karl Barth insisted discipleship requires favoring the “threatened innocent, the oppressed poor, widows, orphans and aliens…”
If souls are not transformed and the world is not healed, the church will have failed. How and where we transform souls and heal the world is up to God. God will show the way. It may sound or seem like folly, but as disciples of Jesus, our role is to obey his teachings and to allow him to transform us. While we’re being transformed into disciples, we are to Go. Make Disciples. Baptize. Teach.
This isn’t easy, but we can do it. In verses 28-30 of today’s gospel, Jesus extends an invitation to “all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens.” Here Jesus reaches out to all who are burdened by the oppressive demands of the scribes and Pharisees. In contrast, a response to Jesus’ call will bring them “rest” or salvation. Jesus further invites them to “…take my yoke upon you, and learn from me.” The first yoke he spoke of was a symbol of oppression, (Is. 58:6, 9b); but in contrast, the yoke… the teaching… of Jesus is easy, and its burden is light. Conforming to the will of Jesus means living in freedom according to God’s purposes, which brings rest to the soul.
Nativity, too, is going through a reformation. We will discover a new way of being and doing church. We will allow the Holy Spirit to transform us into 21st Century disciples. We don’t know what we’ll be like at the end of our discernment journey. But we trust. We trust our Creator is at the helm. We trust our Savior is walking every step of this journey with us. We trust the Spirit will speak. It will be an exciting adventure. It also will be scary at times.
The next step on our journey will take place this Friday from 9 a.m. to 12 noon, as we begin to discover and/or affirm our gifts. Next Sunday, we’ll meet with Pastor Michelle Meech immediately after the service to begin discussing the book some of you took home last week, Cultivating the Missional Church. Even if you feel you can’t or don’t want to participate in these steps, reading the book will keep you informed of where we are on the journey. You will understand what we are doing in each step. You will have answers to your questions or your fears. Read the Preface, the Introduction, the Prologue, and Chapter 1 before we meet next week. It’s not a difficult read. In fact, it’s quite interesting.
Jesus is saying to us:
“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.”
Jesus has called us to be his disciples. “Come to me. Come to me. My yoke is easy, and my burden is light. Go. Make disciples. Baptize. Teach.” Amen.
The Rev. Diane E. Morgan
Resources used for this sermon:
Barth, Karl. Church Dogmatics, II/1. T. & T. Clark, Edinburgh. 1955.
Goettler, William. “Pastoral Perspective.” .” Bartlett, David L. and Taylor, Barbara Brown, Editors: Feasting on the Word. Year A. Volume 3. Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30. Westminster John Knox Press. Louisville, KY. 2011.
John, Elton Sir. Interview reported in USA Today. June 30, 2014. New York, NY.
Kairos Spiritual Growth Digest. “Growing Disciples.” Kairos Publications. Minneapolis, MN 55424, 2002.
Pape, Lance. “Homiletical Perspective.” Bartlett, David L. and Taylor, Barbara Brown, Editors: Feasting on the Word. Year A. Volume 3. Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30. Westminster John Knox Press. Louisville, KY. 2011.
Park, Eugene Eung-Chun.. “Exegetical Perspective.” Bartlett, David L. and Taylor, Barbara Brown, Editors: Feasting on the Word. Year A. Volume 3. Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30. Westminster John Knox Press. Louisville, KY. 2011.
Synthesis. “Wisdom and Healing.” Proper 9, Year A. July 6, 2014. PNMSI Publishing Company, Inc., Boyds, MD 20841-0335.
Townes, Emilie M. “Theological Perspective.” Bartlett, David L. and Taylor, Barbara Brown, Editors: Feasting on the Word. Year A. Volume 3. Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30. Westminster John Knox Press. Louisville, KY. 2011.