Sunday, July 6, 2014

Fourth after Pentecost (Proper 9A)

Matthew 11: 16-30

Grace and peace on this Fourth of July/Independence Day Weekend—as it really begins to feel like summer, picnics and band concerts and fireworks.  A great time of year.   

There’s a tradition to call Matthew “the Gospel of the Church,” in that this first book in our New Testament seems to have a special focus to remember Jesus’ concern with  how his followers should organize themselves and live faithfully in years and generations to come.  Over the last few weeks in our Sunday gospel readings we have been moving through the tenth chapter of the gospel and listening to Jesus as he spoke to his disciples about--and commissioned them for--the work that they were about to begin as they would go out first into the local towns and villages and eventually into all the world, casting out demons, healing, blessing, in his name.  Mindful of the inevitable opposition and persecution that would come their way, they are to be seeking out and encouraging and enlisting those who were prepared to hear the good news and to respond to it by turning around their lives and joining the good work of God’s Kingdom.  Not a mission or commissioning for one day only or for them alone, but a charge to repeat again and again in the life of the Church.  We as Christian people who read the gospel are clearly invited to picture ourselves in the group of disciples hearing Jesus on that day, as we continue that work of confronting the evil one, proclaiming forgiveness of sins, the healing of the brokenness between God and his creation, pronouncing his blessing, the good news of Christ and his kingdom.

And then Jesus turns out not to be one of those arm-chair generals who gives orders to the troops and then retires to the rear.  In Matthew 11 immediately on the heels of his instructions to the disciples he launches himself right out into the thick of the action himself, into the cities and towns of the Galilee.  Into the synagogues and in the town squares, street corners and country crossroads.  If the disciples weren’t quite sure at first what this new mission enterprise was supposed to look like, they were right away going to see it begin to happen with their own eyes.

The first fifteen verses of this chapter, just before the part we have in our reading this morning, Jesus introduces himself and his message in the context of John the Baptist and his followers.  John we remember has been arrested and soon would be executed as a result of his confrontation with King Herod Antipas over the matter of his scandalous marriage to his sister-in-law, and there is apparently some question about whether John’s followers should now, with their master and teacher no longer available, shift their allegiance to Jesus.  They ask Jesus on John’s behalf if John should now tell his followers to join Jesus and his disciples, and Jesus tells them simply that he’s not going to make an argument.  They are instead to rely on what they can see with their own eyes.  “The blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them.”   In other words—think for yourselves, people.  Do you really think you need to wait for some leader to tell you what’s going on?  Open your own eyes and see what is happening.  “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”   Christian mission not some academic enterprise of abstract speculation, not about something someone named “God” might do in some far distant future, but about the power of God here and now to transform and renew.

And then the passage appointed for today, as Jesus turns from this conversation with John’s followers to address the crowd of bystanders.  “With what shall I compare this generation?  It is like children sitting in the market places and calling to their playmates . . . .”   Like five year olds playing dress up in the attic.  Putting on grown-up clothes and pretending to do grown up things.  But not for real.  Maybe that’s the alternative vision of the Church.  All show and no go. The neighborhood of Make Believe.  John the Baptist came, and you turned-out in great numbers to cheer his sermons, but then you went home again at the end of the day, and changed nothing about your lives.  Here I am, Jesus says, and you all gather around and cheer my sermons, but again, no change.  John had one preaching style and I had another, but the message was and is the same.  The time is now.  God is acting.  This is our opportunity to turn things around.  The day of decision.  And at the end of the service for both of us you shook our hands.  “Enjoyed the sermon today, preacher,” and out the door.

Woe to you, Chorazin, woe to you Bethsaida!  These little backwater villages of the Galilee.  If they had heard preaching like this in London and New York there would have been a revival that would made Billy Graham look like small potatoes. But the precious words of salvation, the call to repentance, an invitation to renewal, restoration, transformation, are for you like water off a duck’s back.  Nothing sinks in!   Woe to you, Capernaum.  If they had seen what you have seen, right here in front of you, right here, right now,   the whole city of Las Vegas would have lined up for the altar call.  The showgirls, gamblers, and pawnbrokers, sinners, con-men, criminals, the dregs of society:  they would hear what we’re talking about.  But it just sails over your head.

Fascinating, isn’t it, Jesus goes on, to see how the message of salvation is plain enough to be heard by uneducated fishermen and rough laborers and addicts and thieves and drunkards, and they are honest enough to look into the mirror and see what is really going on, and what they really need to do to turn their life around, and the word of God comes alive in them--but that it’s all just too complicated and nuanced and entertaining in an intellectually playful sort of way for those who are the better sort?  A friend of mine once said he wished his local church and congregation on Sunday mornings had even one-tenth of the spiritual seriousness and life-changing power as he found among the members of the AA group meeting in the church basement on Sunday evenings.  “Hidden from the wise and understanding,” plain as day to the babies.

The point is certainly that Jesus doesn’t pull any punches.  He’s not aiming for popularity here by telling people what they want to hear and patting them on the back and telling them that they’re just fine just as they are.  His message is that God is real, and that God means business.  The message, and a timeless message, is that if we want to be a part of what is real, if we want to be a part of what God is doing, if we don’t want to be left on the platform while the train is pulling out of the station, then we need to begin by opening our eyes and our ears—to see and hear him, and to get up out of our circles of self-absorption and mutual admiration, and to follow him.  Not only with our lips, but in our lives.

It looks really hard to do that.  Change always seems that way at first, as I can tell you from personal experience.  Maybe seems like it might be easier for those who don’t have so much invested in things as they are.  But that’s not true at all.   This change is all gift and grace and refreshment, if only we can bring yourself to taste and see for yourselves.  Like the transformative power of a gentle rain on a draught-stricken field.  Remembering that this is the same Jesus who says in John 10, “the thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy.  That’s not me.  Not me at all.   I come that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”  Gift and grace and refreshment.  Mercy, forgiveness, love.

Don’t know how many of you may remember the movie “The Matrix.”  But the scenario might be helpful.  The choice there.  The red pill or the blue pill.  Really a matter of life and death.  What Jesus and his disciples are about as they head out into all the world.  A decision with ultimate consequences.  Not playing games or putting on shows.  The choice  to continue to live in an artificially-induced dream world, or to wake up to a reality that for all its challenges the only place where true love and meaning and hope are possible.

Waking up is hard, no question.  At least in the first moment or two.  But not to be afraid—that’s the conclusion of Jesus’ sermon.  Remembering what I think the church does sometimes forget.  That this is good news.  Healing and blessing.  The invitation we would hear as we receive the gift of Holy Communion and then are sent out like those first disciples--the words of Jesus echoing in our ears, inspiring us, waking us up, filling our lives—to be not words of fear but words of love.  Tender assurance.  That he might dwell in us, and we in him.  What I have for you is better than a dream.  So much better than the neighborhood of Make Believe. 

There’s a wideness in God’s mercy like the wideness of the sea.”  #470 in our hymnal.  Always one of my favorites.  “There’s a kindness in his justice, which is more than liberty.  There is welcome for the sinner, and more graces for the good; there is mercy with the Savior; there is healing in his blood.”

And the conclusion of his sermon with the bystanding crowd, with the promise that our traditional Anglican Prayer Book tradition places immediately following the words of absolution.  Don’t be afraid.  An invitation as we would both hear and respond.  Not only with our lips but in our lives.  Having laid our old selves down at the foot of the cross, this is going to be good.   Very good.  A promise that can and will begin to be a reality in our lives, even today.  “Come unto me, all ye who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

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