06 July 2008

Sermon for the 8th Sunday after Pentecost: "Yoked In Peace And Truth"

During the summer months I'm free to go out and preach in local congregations, since our student community at present does not worship together on Sunday mornings. Today was my first supply experience in campus ministry, at Palestine Lutheran Church south of Huxley, IA. Here's the sermon:

Hearers of God’s Word, grace and peace to you from God our Creator, Christ Jesus our Redeemer, and God the Holy Spirit, active here in our midst this morning. Let us pray: We who are weary and carrying heavy burdens come to You, Lord – even when we don’t know our weariness and we can’t admit how heavy our burdens really are. In this moment, in this place, give us the rest and peace You have promised. Amen.

When I was in the last few years of elementary school, my friends and I discovered Bill Cosby. We would memorize entire albums of his standup act, including the ones about his childhood and his relationship with his mother:

“’Day and night, night and day, work my fingers to the bone, and for what?’
‘I don’t—‘ ‘SHUT UP! Don’t you talk back at me when I’m talking to
you? Think I’m talking just to hear myself talk? ANSWER ME!’”

As I read the first few verses appointed for this morning from the gospel of Matthew, I couldn’t help but think that Bill would understand the frustration Jesus was expressing. “John came and didn’t eat and drink, and you called him demon-possessed; I come eating and drinking, and you call me a glutton. What’s with you people?” But this is who we are, unfortunately: we are people who work very hard to define ourselves by what we are not, especially when it comes to finding our place in society. The late, great George Carlin, who might have been our best social critic since Mark Twain, once asked, “Did you ever notice how everyone who drives slower than you is a moron, and everyone who drives faster than you is a maniac?” Maybe the morons and maniacs aren't the problem - maybe the problem, hard as it is to admit it, is me.

This kind of self-justifying life is an elaborate, expensive, destructive illusion, you know, and we Americans have become masters, virtuosos at living it. In success we glory in our grand accomplishments, and in failure we lament the cruel world conspiring to defeat us. We’ve set up a celebrity culture in which we worship the famous and delight in their downfall at the same time. It is hard, hard work, creating this elaborate illusion in which my own needs and wants get satisfied and I neither feel guilty for taking too much or cheated if I don’t receive what I’m due. This is what we’ve created for ourselves: a world where only the strong survive, where each man IS an island, and where love really does mean never having to say “I’m sorry.”

My colleague Brian Stoffregen, a Lutheran pastor in California, had some thoughts about our 4th of July weekend and being followers of Jesus Christ. He quotes theologian Roger Fjeld, who points out that "the Fourth of July is the first [and perhaps most sacred] of our civil holy days. Fjeld also mentioned that [American] civil religion removes the need for repentance -- the central proclamation of Jesus. We believe that we are right and good -- the best nation on earth -- beliefs that don't lead to repentance. Repentance means admitting that we are wrong and bad and haven't lived up to God's expectations of us and we don't have the power to change ourselves or make ourselves better. Remember how unwilling some former presidents were to admit their faults (think Watergate and Monicagate)?" [1]

There’s been a lot of talk this year about the role of pastors and churches in the presidential campaigns, and for me, the most intriguing has been the reaction to the Reverend Jeremiah Wright of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, a congregation where Senator Barack Obama was a member for more than 20 years. I struggle to find the right words to describe some of the sermons Pastor Wright has preached over the years. “Incendiary” might be one – “accusatory” might be another. Pastor Wright spoke passionately about America’s struggles with racism and violence, struggles which continue to this day. The media, of course, had a field day with Pastor Wright’s words and his relationship to Senator Obama, but what I found most disappointing was our collective American refusal to listen to those words from Pastor Wright and see if maybe, just maybe, there might be a morsel of truth within them – the words of a prophet to a people who had long strayed away from the God who loved and created them. Instead, our quest to maintain the illusion of peace, security and conformity drove Senator Obama to leave his church, and religion in America moved a little more toward a religion that looks a lot like the Platte River in my home state of Nebraska: a mile wide and an inch deep.

When we look at the eleventh chapter of the gospel of Matthew, we often do ourselves a disservice by reading only the parts which comfort us, without understanding the context in which they were spoken. Matthew 11.28-30 is one of the most well-known passages from the gospels, beloved by many, and for good reason; but if we read those verses alone, we don’t get the full message, the deep truth of what Jesus is saying to the church. Even our own lectionary folks have shied away from the power and passion of Jesus’ words in today’s gospel: they cut out verses 20-24, which we included this morning, the verses of condemnation for Chorazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum. I can’t tell you why those verses weren’t included in our readings today, but I can tell you a little about those cities and what Jesus might have been saying about them. Chorazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum were Jewish cities that had not received Jesus well – they refused to listen to His preaching, they didn’t believe in Him when people were healed by His touch, and, worst of all, they chose to continue to believe in their own justification rather than to repent. In other words, Jesus went to the churches and found them less willing to repent and believe than the unchurched. If you want to know where you and I fit in this story, it isn’t in the crowds of people meekly listening for Jesus’ words of rest and relaxation: we are the people of Chorazin and Bethsaida, the people of Capernaum, the insiders who struggle with repentance and believe that our status as insiders is what guarantees our good standing with God.

Jesus, like all the prophets before Him and all the prophets who followed Him, had to use harsh words at times to make sure His message was heard. We work so hard at constructing our illusions of security, comfort and invulnerability; when Jesus comes to remind us that we have limits, it’s awfully easy to just refuse to listen. But we Iowans have discovered our limits in these last few months, haven’t we? When tornadoes and floods can destroy our homes and kill our loved ones in the blink of an eye, when the government can swoop in and scatter our friends and neighbors as has been done in Postville, our illusions of security, comfort and invulnerability disappear pretty quickly, don’t they? Think about all the things over which we’ve argued as a church these past ten years or so: sexuality, full communion agreements, all of those kinds of issues. How important are those things, really, when our houses are crumbling and our communities are falling apart?

This weekend, my wife and I took my nephew out to breakfast with his best friend so my brother and his wife could have some down time with their newborn son. We went to IHOP in Omaha, and as we were leaving my four year old nephew, who might weigh 30 pounds soaking wet, tried to push the door open so the rest of us could walk out. He couldn’t even move it an inch, but when I helped him push, he told me “I almost got it!” This is the illusion we create for ourselves: the illusion that “we’ve almost got it!” We know in these days of immigration arguments, flood damage and tornado repairs that we are not secure, that we are not invulnerable, that comfort is not the primary need in our lives. Times such as we have lived through in the past six weeks kill any and all of the illusions that we can indeed make it “on our own.” But now, having spoken harsh words and afflicted the comfortable (that’s us), Jesus’ words of comfort and hope become the words of power they were always intended to be. My colleague Brian Stoffregen makes the argument that “on this ‘Independence Day’ weekend, we might need to stress our need to be ‘dependent’ on God – like an infant is dependent upon parents.” [2] If the comfort and security of this world were really up to us, the work before us would be back-breaking, hopeless and futile – so, shall we not give thanks to God that our illusion is not, after all, the reality upon which the world is founded?

“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens,” says Jesus, “and I will give you rest.” All you who carry the burden of security, who struggle under the load of ensuring your survival day by day, trusting no one but yourself; lay it down, and trust in God for the daily bread which God promises to give. All you who carry the burden of comfort, who stagger under the load of boredom mixed with superficial voyeurism and worship of inconsequential things; lay it down, and believe that God has a deeper, more meaningful life to offer you. All you who carry the burden of invulnerability, who groan under the load of pretending that no one could hurt you, that you’re “fine” when you’re weeping inside from pain you’ve denied your whole life long: lay it down, and trust that in the pain of breaking your heart of stone wide open God will be working to give you a heart that moves, lives and loves in ways you could have never imagined possible. To all of us, carrying yokes of grief and sorrow, yokes of anger and rage, yokes of wealth or of poverty, Jesus says, “Take MY yoke upon you – for MY yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” We who gather here in the name of Jesus are given His yoke, together, and in our corporate repentance we are yoked together, to carry our burdens with each other and with Christ, who walks the road in the yoke with us and will never let us walk alone.

Dr. Tom Long, professor of preaching at Candler School of Theology at Emory University, has said that we need to remember that this offer from Jesus is not the kind of “rest” we usually prefer. “He offers us a yoke, not a hammock,” says Dr. Long, and he’s right. There is work to be done here, but it is work that fulfills us, that gives us life instead of draining it away. As I was finishing up my thoughts on these verses last night, the thought occurred to me, “You know, Scott, Palestine Lutheran Church and Lutheran Campus Ministry are yoked together – maybe you should say something about that.” So, I will. We are called in campus ministry to the mission of “Expanding Minds, Deepening Faith, Inspiring Service.” You are called here in Huxley to “Reach Out In Christian Love To All.” These are the places where our ministries fit into the yoke of Christ, and we carry out these missions together, in faith toward God and in fervent love toward one another. I thank God that we in campus ministry share this yoke with you, and I pray for the work you do in Jesus’ name, as we covet your prayers for our work as well. Thanks be to God, that we can lay down our illusions and false hopes in ourselves and take up, together, the yoke of Christ which provides such a joyous burden of faith, hope and love. God bless you in this yoke we share in Christ, now and always – Amen.

[1] Brian Stoffregen, http://www.crossmarks.com/brian/matt11x16.htm
[2] Ibid.

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