Monthly Archives

July 2020

A God Who Must be Discovered

By | Sermons

Meadowbrook Congregational Church

“A God Who Must be Discovered”

Rev. Art Ritter
July 26, 2020

 

Matthew 13: 31-33, 44-52
He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.” He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.”
“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it. “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind; when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad. So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. “Have you understood all this?” They answered, “Yes.” And he said to them, “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.”

 

When I was very young, my family lived in a small house in downtown Stanton, Michigan. I use the term “downtown” very loosely. We moved out to the farm just outside of town when I was around 4 years old. One of our neighbors was Mrs. Lower. I don’t remember much about Mrs. Lower other than that she was a nice lady who took my brother John to Sunday School at the nearby church. Eventually the whole family started going to church and well, you know the rest of the story! I don’t recall Mrs. Lower ever yelling at us for being too noisy or for running through her yard during our play. Somehow she put up with three crazy neighbor kids, all between 2 and 5 years old.

A few years after we moved to the farm I remember Mrs. Lower hosting our family at her home one night. She had set up her old film projector and showed us some old movies of her vacation trips. It wasn’t real exciting. Many of us mature folk might remember when that was kind of a typical social experience. Dinner and home movies. Yet at the end of her show she presented a movie that starred my family. There were scenes of us lined up, perhaps getting ready to go to church, so my Mom and Dad must have cooperating in the filming. But there were other scenes, when my brother and sister and I obviously had no idea that someone was recording us. And it was filmed during a period of three or four years. We watched my brother and me playing baseball when I could hardly stand or walk. We watched my brother riding his tricycle and pulling a wagon with me and my sister inside. We watched my siblings and me trying to steal the large wooden cardinal out of Mrs. Lower’s birdbath, never realizing that she not only knew of our theft but that she was recording every minute of it. Perhaps such filming of neighbors wouldn’t be very appropriate in today’s society but those secret clips provided my family with a treasure that I still enjoy watching today. Such a gift was a hidden surprise.

When we lived in Salt Lake City, we had some beautiful raspberry bushes that grew on the terrace in our backyard. They didn’t produce a large crop, but they offered enough delicious raspberries to satisfy us for three or four weeks of summer. During our time there, those raspberry bushes tried to make their way into the surrounding terraced area that I used to plant tomatoes and cucumbers and peppers. Some of them even pushed their way into my beautiful green lawn. I recall always having to dig out the roots of raspberry bushes.
One day as I was standing on a step ladder, painting the seven foot fence that separated our property from my neighbors, I decided to peek over the fence to see what was in my neighbors’ yard, carefully and without fanfare of course, like a good neighbor would do. I was amazed. All I could see was raspberry bushes, taking up most of their backyard. Suddenly I came to an understanding. Evidently all of my raspberries were the gift of grace from my neighbor’s bushes. My raspberries were really my neighbor’s raspberries that had made their way under the fence and into my yard. The raspberries I enjoyed and the raspberry bush roots that I had to dig out, were compliments of the life and vigor planted by someone else many years before.
Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung had an inscription on a plaque that was over the doorway of his home. It read in Latin, “Bidden or unbidden, God is present.” Whether realized or understood, God is always revealed in the everyday events of our lives.

This morning we continue on with Jesus’ teachings from the 13th chapter of Matthew. Today Jesus offers four short parables: one about a mustard seed; one about yeast or leaven; and one about a treasure hidden in a field; and finally one about a pearl that is so valuable a man sells everything he owns to buy it. The parables of the mustard seed and the leaven are usually treated as parables of growth. But the real lesson perhaps lies in the sharp contrast between the initial state of things and the final outcome. Something that starts small and unnoticed and perhaps unnecessary and unwanted becomes an impressive source of power. It is something unexpected.

Jesus says that the Kingdom of Heaven is like a mustard seed. A tiny, perhaps the tiniest of seeds. The emphasis is on God’s action in the world that is almost unnoticed but which yields results that contradict its unimpressive appearance. Nadia Bolz Weber asks “what kind of off-brand kingdom this is? It’s like saying someone is the smartest of all idiots or the mightiest of baby dolls.” The leaven illustration isn’t any better. Such yeast was considered impure, something of which Jews were required to rid their entire house before celebrating Holy Days. In the ancient world, this yeast used as a positive symbol of God’s influence was widely regarded as an agent of corruption. We might think that the Kingdom of God should demand more dignity than that. It should be pure and powerful or shiny or impressive. But yet the Kingdom of God comes even now in surprising ways, at work in people and events and situations- perhaps even in a global pandemic- in acts and words that we regard as insignificant or impossible. And God’s actions have results that are beyond our wildest expectations. God is at work in people and events and situations- like national unrest and protests- in things that offer us hope that runs counter to the status quo, in things that demand change from the status quo and from our standards of worldly success.

The second set of parables, the treasure and the pearl, stress our human response to what God is doing. Like buried treasure, God’s activity in our world is hidden and has to be uncovered. Like a pearl of great value, we have to want to find God’s activity, we have to seek it out for it to be found. The emphasis is on the response made by the discoverer. He sells all that he has to take possession of what he has found. When we find God’s presence in the midst of our world and our lives, we are to set aside all other interests and concerns and emerge ourselves in that grace and mercy. Like a buried treasure, God’s activity is hidden and must be discovered. Like a valuable pearl, God’s presence must be sought in order to be found. When our eyes are opened to see what God is doing, we must commit ourselves wholeheartedly in faith.

Perhaps Jesus was merely trying to encourage the efforts of those early Christians to be faithful, to be faithful in following him in a world that seems stacked against them and where even the most faithful of actions don’t always seem to make a difference. There are huge threats around us these days. We are confronted with problems for which no one has answers. We long for a day in which we might have more certainty and more comfort, but don’t know if that day is within the scope of our vision. In this time, we are to seek and to be the presence of God in small and seemingly insignificant ways. We are look for God in ways that make sense and in ways that are hidden and surprising. We are to seek the ways of God in all that we do and with a desire that established new priorities and bring us to new behaviors.

William Willimon writes that whenever the Church starts thinking too big, or whenever the disciples of Jesus start thinking too predictably, we become a silent partner to the power of the world. Yet history teaches us that with the world being what it is, whenever the Church is most faithful, the world has characterized it as small and apparently insignificant. When we see ourselves as a mustard seed rather than a sequoia, we may just be at the spot where God can use us. When we see ourselves as unwanted yeast in the carefully orchestrated recipe of society, we might be working toward following God’s intention. When we find a treasure in the fields of this crazy world and reorient ourselves toward buying it, or a pearl of such value that we are moved to seek it with our whole hearts, then we are actively following God and acknowledging that there is more of God’s word to be said and more of God’s way to be discovered.

Whatever else we learn from these four short parables, it is good to know that Jesus taught us that the Kingdom of God is close at hand, right there in the midst of our lives. It is not something to be found in an ivory tower or in the rules and demands of religious tradition. It is right there in ordinary life, perhaps right in front of our face without us knowing it. Perhaps it has been there all along and now we understand it. And when we see it and when we understand, we are surprised. We are made new. God loves us so much that God will not leave us alone.

Living With Weeds

By | Sermons

Meadowbrook Congregational Church

“Living With Weeds”

Rev. Art Ritter

July 19, 2020

 

 

Matthew 13: 24-30, 36-43

He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?’ He answered, ‘An enemy has done this.’ The slaves said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ But he replied, ‘No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.’”

Then he left the crowds and went into the house. And his disciples approached him, saying, “Explain to us the parable of the weeds of the field.” He answered, “The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man; the field is the world, and the good seed are the children of the kingdom; the weeds are the children of the evil one, and the enemy who sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels. Just as the weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Let anyone with ears listen!

 

While setting up for last week’s outdoor service I noticed that we have a healthy crop of weeds in the flower and shrub beds surrounding the church.  Because we have such a large building and property, it is takes a lot of work to keep things looking nice and during this spring and summer of pandemic, it has been even harder.  We did have a work day in June that was well attended but it seems as if the weeds we pulled then have been replaced by bigger and better weeds.  After the service last Sunday, Sharon Brown came up to me with a wonderful idea that was about ten minutes too late.  She suggested that before the benediction and right before we left, I should have told everyone at the service to pull a few weeds and take them home!  If we have another outdoor service, perhaps we can follow up on that idea.  In the meantime you are welcome to stop by the church at any time and enjoy some social distanced weed pulling.

This seems to be the time of year when weeds are most prevalent at my home also.  I have shared with you before the grief that the neighbor’s cottonwood trees cause me.  First it is the little seed pods that clog my gutters.  Then it is the white fluff which covers my deck and enters the kitchen like a winter snow, almost ankle deep.  And then the curse of the cottonwood doesn’t end.  Now all of our landscape beds are filled with tiny, little volunteer trees, seeds that have fallen upon good soil and trying to put down roots to become growing trees.  I have spent a lot of time recently pulling out these nuisance trees, along with the weeds.  Even in the drought these plants seem hearty enough to survive.

I shake my head when I consider how much time and energy Laura puts into trying to nurture a bed of annual flowers or I spend in reseeding a section of my front lawn.  It seems our failure rate is about fifty percent.  Things that I want to grow sometimes don’t seem to grow.  But then there are the seeds from my neighbor’s cottonwood and the helicopters from my maple trees and the dandelions from my other neighbor’s lawn.  They seem to find a way to plant themselves and grow without any sort of problem.  There is no strategy or technique or effort.  There is only growth.

In the thirteenth chapter of Matthew, Jesus tells lots of parables.  He tells two parables about a sower sowing seeds.  In the second of these he speaks of the Kingdom of Heaven being like someone who sowed good seed in a field, only to have someone else come along and sow some weeds while he was sleeping.  When the plants grew there was wheat and weeds alike.  The man’s workers offered to go out into the field and pull all of the weeds.  But the sower replied, “No, because when you gather the weeds you will destroy the good crops as well.”  And the sower seems quite certain that an enemy has done this, someone who disagrees with him or dislikes him for some reason.  Maybe he is a little paranoid, maybe he just finds himself in a situation of where there he feels like he is standing alone with his opinions, behaviors, and practices.  It is those with whom he disagrees, those whose choices seems to threaten him who have planted the unfriendly and unwanted seed.  Yet he is patient and forbearing, willing to allow the separation of the good and the bad at a later harvest time.

Perhaps the man had workers like me in his fields- people who couldn’t tell a weed from a flower!  Sometimes even a trained eye finds it hard to tell the difference between a good plant and a bad one.  In her book The Seeds of Heaven, Barbara Brown Taylor writes of the experience of uprooting the raspberries by mistake or protecting something that looked interesting but turned out to be a thistle.  She says, “I don’t know what makes us think we are any smarter about ourselves or about the other people in our lives.  We are so quick to judge, as if we were sure we knew the difference between wheat and weeds, good seed and bad, but that is seldom the case.  Turn us loose with our machetes and there is no telling what we will chop down and what we will spare.  Meaning to be good servants, we go out to do battle with the weeds and end up standing in a pile of wheat.”

Most scholars believe that the gospel of Matthew was written to a community that was struggling with each other.  Jewish Christians were certain they belonged to the way of Jesus because of their heritage.  They had always followed the rules.  Gentile Christians were celebrating the freedom from the law, feeling like they didn’t need to obey all of those crazy obsolete standards of the Jews.  These parables were written to address the question about how these two groups can coexist peacefully and with purpose.  How can they understand one another?  How can they forgive one another?  How do they realize that they are excusing their own sins all the while they judge the sins of others?

We live in a world much like that.  There are lots of weeds and wheat growing together in our current social and political climate.  We cry “Black Lives Matter” and someone shouts back “All Lives Matter.”  There are plenty of peaceful protests but some fixate only on acts of looting, arson, and violence.  When I watch the news at night I see a political ad about or against a certain candidate.  Ten minutes later I see another ad that offers me the totally opposite information.  When we look about us, it is hard to understand the views of people who we love and care about deeply.  With such division upon the important issues facing us, can we ever be a weed-free field?  In the midst of pandemic, the behavior of others worries or at least puzzles us.  Some don’t seem to take the COVID-19 situation seriously, casting doubt on the words of scientists and health specialists.  The failure to wear masks or practice social distancing makes us shake our heads or leaves us shaking in our shoes.  There is honest and painful debate about the re-opening of the economy and colleges and public schools.  How can we thrive or even survive when our opinions and practices are so divergent?  How can we love someone who believes things that are so different, and in our view so hurtful or harmful?

How do we improve the condition of our world?  What are we supposed to do with the “evildoers” of our day?  How do we improve the crop to create a harvest of righteousness and justice?  In a sermon in another book, Bread of Angels, Barbara Brown Taylor says, “Our job, in a mixed field, is not to give ourselves to the enemy by devoting all our energy to the destruction of the weeds, but to mind our own business, so to speak- our business being the reconciliation of the world to God through the practices of unshielded love.  If we will give ourselves to that, God will take care of the rest- the harvest, the reapers, the fire- all of it.  Our job is to be wheat, even in a messy field- to go on bearing witness to the one who planted us among those who seem to have been planted by someone else.”

Taylor then offers a story of the twentieth century Pope John XXIII, born Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli.  Pope John would end his lengthy prayers each night by saying to himself, “Who is running the church?  You or the Holy Spirit?”  Once he assured himself of the answer he again said to himself, “Very well.  Go to sleep Angelo.”  Taylor urges us to follow this example of prayer, perhaps as the only way we can sleep through pandemic and division and unrest and uncertainty.  “Stay true to our roots and to the one who planted us, believing him when he tells us that the harvest is his.”

In his book Rip Van Winkle and the Pumpkin Lantern, author Seth Adam Smith writes, “Perhaps we are not really sinners in the hands of an angry God, after all.  Perhaps we are all more like seedlings in the hands of a wise gardener.”

Finally and again, Barbara Brown Taylor tells a modern parable of the wheat and the weeds.  “One afternoon in the middle of the growing season, a bunch of farmhands decided to surprise their boss and weed his favorite wheatfield.  No sooner had they begun to work, however, than they began to argue-first about which of the wheat-looking things were weeds and then about the rest of the weeds.  Did the Queen Anne’s Lace pose a real threat to the wheat, or could it stay for decoration?  And the blackberries?  They would be ripe in just a week or two, but they were, after all, weeds- or were they?  And the honeysuckle, it seemed a shame to pull up anything that smelled so sweet.  About the time they had gotten around to debating the purple asters, the boss showed up and ordered them out of the field.  Dejected, they did as they were told.  Back at the barn he took their machetes from them, poured them some lemonade, and made them sit down where they could watch the way the light moved across the field.  At first, all they could see were the weeds and what a messy field it was, what a discredit to them and their profession.  But as the summer wore on they marveled at the profusion of growth- tall wheat surrounded by tall goldenrod, ragweed, and brown-eyed Susans.  The tares and the poison ivy flourished alongside the Cherokee roses and the milkweed, and it was a mess, but a glorious mess, and when it had all bloomed and ripened and gone to seed the reapers came.  Carefully, gently, expertly, they gathered the wheat and made the rest into bricks for the oven where the bread was baked.  And the fire that the weeds made was excellent, and the flour that the wheat made was excellent, and when the harvest was over the owner called them all together- the farmhands, the reapers, and all the neighbors- and broke bread with them, bread that was the final distillation of that whole messy, gorgeous, mixed up field, and they all agreed that it was like no bread any of them had ever tasted before and that it was very, very good.  Let those who have ears to hear, hear.”  AMEN.

If You Have Ears

By | Sermons

Meadowbrook Congregational Church

“If You Have Ears”

Rev. Art Ritter

July 12, 2020

 

Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. And he told them many things in parables, saying: “Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. Let anyone with ears listen!”

“Hear then the parable of the sower. When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart; this is what was sown on the path. As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; yet such a person has no root, but endures only for a while, and when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away. As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing. But as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.”

The great preacher George Buttrick was once on a cross country flight.  As he traveled, he took out a legal pad on which he furiously began scribbling some notes for his upcoming Sunday.  The passenger sitting next to Buttrick inquired, “Say, what are you working on there, sir?”  Buttick replied, “I am working on my sermon for Sunday.  I am a preacher.”  “Oh,” the other passenger said.  “I don’t like to get caught up in the complexities of religion.  I like to keep it simple.  You know, ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’  The Golden Rule.  That’s my religion!”  Buttrick answered, “I see.  And what do you do for a living?”  The passenger responded, “I am an astronomer.  I teach astrophysics at a university.”  Buttrick shot back, “Ah yes.  Astronomy.  Well, I don’t like to get caught up in the complexities of science.  ‘Twinkle, twinkle, little star, how I wonder what you are.’  That’s my astronomy.  Who could never need more than that, eh?”

Last Sunday night I was involved in a game of virtual live trivia using the Zoom platform.  I had a really good team including Colleen and Sherilyn Foster, Tom – a retired colleague of mine and his son, and Nick, my best friend from childhood and college and his son.  We answered every single question correctly.  Following the game my team sat in a breakout room chatting about our lives and our past connections.  Nick and I talked about being college roommates and best man at each other’s weddings.  Tom and I talked about being at various annual meeting of the National Association of Congregational Christian Churches together.  Tom and Nick talked about an eighteen month period in which they both lived in Greenville, Michigan and started a youth soccer program.  But poor Colleen sat up in the corner of the display, listening to all of this guy talk, without much to say.  She had no idea about what any of us were talking about.  I felt badly for her and found a way in which she could exit the conversation quickly and get on to something certainly much more important.

We’ve all been in those time and places in which it seems we just don’t understand what anyone is talking about.  We are strangers to the details of the conversation.  We feel as if what is being said is being spoken in a totally different language.  We are hearing something at a much different level than others who are listening.

I can think of an example from my past.  When Laura and I lived in central Illinois, in the midst of the corn and pigs and soybeans, I was always looking for a shortcut from Toulon, the town in which we lived, to Peoria, the big city with the malls and the hospitals.  All of the farmers in my congregation told me to take the Valley Blacktop.  This made little sense to me.  There was no road or street sign saying “Valley Blacktop.”  I looked really hard for one.  Secondly, most of the roads in that area of central Illinois were paved so this designation did not narrow my choices.  Finally, as hard as I tried, I could not find a hill much less a valley.  I figured that perhaps as soon as these farmers got through talking to me they just went around the corner and started laughing.  The bottom line was that you had to know where the Valley Blacktop was to find the Valley Blacktop.

I think that Jesus understood the deep meaning of truly understanding something.  In the thirteenth chapter of Matthew, a chapter that contains seven parables, Jesus explains the meaning of his peculiar teaching style.  “Why do you speak in parables?” his disciples asked.  Jesus knew that his followers wanted to quickly decipher for themselves the mysteries of the Kingdom of God.  He understood that they wanted to be able to clearly define where God was working in their lives and in the world.  But he said that in order to learn these things, his followers needed to know something else about God.  They would need eyes to see and ears to hear.  Jesus knew that only those who first had some experience of God’s love and of God’s ways would be able to comprehend the message that he was teaching.

Look at the Scripture lesson more closely.  First of all, Jesus tells the parable of the sower.  What is that?  It is a lesson in elementary agriculture.  It is a simple and rather obvious tale about planting seeds in different kinds of soil.  It is like a story about watering your flowers.  We understand what we have to do and why we do it.  It doesn’t seem of vital importance.  Yet Jesus hints that there is something else, something more profound to the story.  He says, “Listen then, if you have ears.”

The disciples are still perplexed.  “We understand your stories.  But why are you teaching in this manner?  Why can’t you just tell us the basic truth?  Why can’t you just get to the point of your lessons?”  Jesus explanation is rather complex, but it boils down to this:  “I tell parables to the crowd because they hear them and don’t get them.  I tell parables to you and you understand.  And because you understand, I can teach you things that are even more important.”  Because the disciples knew something, they were able to learn something more.  Because they knew something, a simple story of life, something as simple as planting seeds, could become an important lesson about life in the Kingdom of God.

I also recall my first Christmas serving a church in Utah.  A radio station there was fond of playing a song about the Twelve Days of Christmas in Utah, complete with all sorts of cultural references to green jello, popcorn in an apricot tree, lakestink, crickets, and missionaries on bicycles.  See- you don’t know what I am talking about, do you?  When I first heard it, I didn’t understand it at all.  Yet the church secretary would laugh hysterically every time she heard it.  It took me eight years to pick up on the humor.  So it was for a large percentage of Jesus’ listeners.  They did not know enough about what he was saying to understand the message that he was speaking.

Where does that leave us?  It would seem that the message of this lesson is that we must believe in the Kingdom of God, we must open our eyes to the truth of its presence in our lives, and we must have ears to listen expectantly for its arrival.  We must believe and know what we are looking for and listening for if we are going to see and hear and understand and trust.  If you believe in what Jesus teaches about God’s intention, and if you align our life to those precepts, then you will come to see and hear other things in greater clarity, other truths about God that you first did not understand.

I think about how many parents spell out parts of a conversation they have in front of their children- words that they don’t want their children to hear or understand.  Laura and I do it with the dogs- spelling out B-O-N-E or C-A-R or W-A-L-K.  But over time children, and even our dogs, begin to figure out the spelled out words or at least they begin to make sense of the context.  They become wise enough or perhaps even mature enough that they can understand and listen.  Parents stop spelling because they can’t hide the meaning of the conversation anymore.  Perhaps that is what Jesus was teaching here.  Some people just aren’t ready to hear so he talks in stories that don’t make sense to us immediately.  But with growth and maturity, and the inspiration of the Spirit, the good news of the Kingdom of God will take root and something heard later will remind us of a seed planted earlier.  And then we will know and understand.  And then we will be ready to hear more.

Like Jesus’ disciples, we are blessed to hear and to understand.  If we believe in what Jesus teaches us about God’s way, if we align our lives to those teachings, then we will understand and be able to hear even more.

 

 

 

 

 

By | Sermons

Meadowbrook Congregational Church

“A Gentler Yoke”

Rev. Art Ritter

July 5, 2020

 

Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

“But to what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another, ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.’ For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon’; the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.”

At that time Jesus said, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him. “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.”

 

Back in the early 1980’s, I used to go to movies regularly.  Now, I really can’t recall the last time I visited a movie theatre.  I remember the 1983 film War Games starring Matthew Broderick and Ally Sheedy.  The movie was about a young computer whiz who, while searching for new video games to play, unknowingly hacks into a national defense program’s supercomputer which was originally programmed to predict the possible outcomes of nuclear war.  After starting a game called Global Thermonuclear War, the young man discovers that he has activated a weapons control system and the computer, unable to tell the difference between simulation and reality, has attempted to start World War III.  At the end of the movie, the computer and the young man and the military defense team all learn the same lesson.  The deadly game cannot be won.  The young computer whiz gets to deliver the moral of the film when he says, “The only way to win, is to not play.”

It is hard for us – to not play the game.  We usually measure our worth by our participation; by how much time and effort and resources we have put into the project.  We evaluate the success of our lives by our contributions, by how far we have climbed on the ladder of success.  Our busy-ness implies our value and our worth.  We want to take advantage of every opportunity, to follow every path, to pass every test, to know every secret, and to fulfill every demand.  But sometimes whatever we do is simply not enough.  No matter how impressive the effort we understand that whatever we do just isn’t enough.

Recently, the circumstances are different but perhaps the feeling is the same.  The pandemic has changed my schedule.  I am not as busy as I used to be with meetings and classes.  Perhaps demand and expectations aren’t quite the same.  Yet I am feeling more tired and weary.  It has been hard for me to rest but not because of my busy-ness.  It is more because of my worry.  I worry about what I might be able to do to control the seemingly out-of-control world around me.  I am not resting easy because I am looking for a way to control my own life and life situations.  I want to keep healthy and I want my loved ones to be healthy.  I am concerned about the future of our church as we try to deal with this extraordinary situation in methods with which I am not familiar and with technology that I never dreamed I would need to use.  I am looking for solutions, trying to solve problems, examining and seeking to prepare for every possible outcome – when the dilemmas and questions and scenarios seem to change each day.  I know that you are doing the same.  You can’t get away from it.  Colleen Foster mentioned to me this week that many of us are working from home, or working more from home.  But that means we never really leave work behind.  It is always in our minds, in the next room, or in the keys of the smartphone that we carry with us all of the time.  It can be a load.  We carry that burden with us every day.  The yoke weighs heavy upon me.  The yoke leaves me numb and exhausted, burdened with a heavy sense of hopelessness.

In the 11th chapter of Matthew, Jesus spoke to the Pharisees.  We tend to think of Pharisees as bad people- enemies of Jesus.  Yet in those days, Pharisees were highly respected many of society.  They were the educated leaders, the devout followers of God, capable and conscientious, always trying to do what was right and to make the world a better place.  They were a lot like us.  Their biggest problem perhaps was that they had a tendency to be “over-responsible.”  They wanted to be found worthy in God’s eyes and worthy according to their own standards.  They tried to live up to impossibly high standards and obligations.  And they insisted that everyone else do likewise.  There was something about the Pharisee philosophy that demanded that they always try to do something more, to try harder, to be better, and to worry more about things.  I wonder, does that sound like anyone you might know?

In a sermon on this piece of Scripture, author and preacher Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “I may believe that I live by God’s grace, but I act like a Scout collecting merit badges.  I have a list of things to do that is a mile long, and while there are a number of things on that list that I genuinely want to do, the majority of them are things I ought to do, that I should do, that I’d better do, or I might feel that God doesn’t love me anymore.  I may believe that my life depends on God’s grace, but I act like it depends on me and how many good deeds I can perform, as if every day were a talent show, and God has nothing better to do than keep up with my score.”

It is an exhausting way to live.  It may lead us to worry, to despair, and to hopelessness.  To those who can hear Jesus says, “Come unto me, all you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens.  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.”  I like hearing that, don’t you?  Words of encouragement.  An invitation to a better place.

The yoke of Jesus is not a heavy burden.  The yoke of Jesus is weight released.  The yoke of Jesus is rest for the soul.  Right in the middle of all of the complexities and mysteries and confusion he stands and says, “Come to me and I will give you rest.  Let me dwell with you and you dwell with me.”  The yoke of a contented soul doesn’t come in finding actions that prove our worth, solutions that ensure our safety, or ideas that secure the future.  The burdensome yoke is the one we wear when we try to save ourselves.  The yoke of Jesus reminds us that God already knows all about us and loves us anyway, unconditionally, always.

We might, especially these days, prefer a God who takes away our problems rather than helps us cope with them; who eliminates our challenges rather than equips us for them; who vanquishes our opponents rather than enable us to make peace with them.  But in the yoke of Christ we get not what we want but what we need.  We get a God who shows us in our pain.  We get a God who comes beside us when we are lost.  We get a God who bears our burdens when we are broken.  That is the yoke of Christ.

There is a feeling I recall from my childhood days.  Every once it a while it sweeps over me again and I can recall feeling the same way when I was seven or eight years old.  That feeling came on the first warm and sunny day of spring in mid-Michigan; when the snow and ice had at least partially melted and the green grass began to appear.  You could take off your winter coat and at least exchange it for a sweatshirt or spring jacket.  I remember getting off the school bus and running up the long driveway to my house, running carefree, like a young colt out to pasture, running as if my feet were floating on the air.  On those kind of days, the weight of the gray and cold winter was over and the promise of the play of summer was just ahead.  The heavy yoke was lifted and a gentler yoke was embraced.

Jesus knew that our life would have its burdens.  Taking on his yoke does not mean the burdens will disappear.  But it does mean that the weight will be tender upon our shoulders because we know that it is shared.  We can begin to live life not as if we carry things alone, but as if Jesus were standing with us.  We can lay down self-imposed expectations and understand we can open our arms for help.  We don’t have to measure ourselves only to earthly standards because we know our ultimate goodness comes from God.  We lay down our burdens of the weighty yoke of the world to find the blessings God’s promises in a gentler yoke.  Our load is lighter when we walk with God.