July 9, 2017

Pentecost 5   July 9, 2017   Psalm 145, Romans 7:7-25a, Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

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“Come to me and I will give you rest,” Jesus says. And yet here I am, feeling feel like… I’ve been ignoring the invitation… most of this past week….

Life is difficult, Jesus often tells us.  Life is difficult – but – it’s never supposed to be as difficult as we make it. So Dorothy Day, co-founder of The Catholic Worker movement often said. Which I’ve been thinking about this week, as I’ve been pondering what St Paul says today… About it being human nature to want to do the right thing… Even while we’re doing what we really don’t want to do… We do not do the good we want to do, Paul says in Romans, but instead we do the very things we don’t want to do…

And by now I should know better than to try to cover Romans and the gospel in the same sermon… And reading NT Wright’s good commentary on Romans I should have been doubly reminded… As he points out how challenging it can be even just to read this chapter quickly without getting tongue-tied… And yet here I was, spending most of a whole day just trying to understand all the ways great interpreters through the ages have heard and interpreted what Paul’s trying to say… Till I found myself feeling like this person Paul describes in Romans, who wants to do the right thing… but keeps getting it wrong…

I keep thinking I want to do the right thing, but I need to say “I think” because I’ve been remembering how my sainted mother (God rest her soul) used to tell me that when I was little I would tell her, “but… I don’t want to do…what I want to do…” Which is how I end up feeling after studying this section of St Paul’s letter to the Romans – that starts way back in chapter six, and winds through twisty turns of thought well into chapter eight. A complicated argument about how the law of God (and probably the natural law and civil law also) actually makes us more (not less) inclined to break the law. Leaving me feeling again like my four-year-old-self – not at all sure now that I even want to do… what I want to do…) As I try to wrap my head around what I think the word of God is saying… And think about…

How often we think we want to do the right thing – but then find,, in practice, that the very same law that tells us not to covet actually triggers our inclination to want yet-more-stuff that we don’t want to want.  We want what we don’t want to want all the more once we’re told not to want it – so St Paul says. And as if to prove his point, now I can’t seem to resist hanging out perhaps for far-too-long with this strange passage of scripture – which suddenly seems to explain so much of life, here and now, for this weak-willed person…

Of course I don’t think Paul intends for us to take everything he says too literally. I don’t think St Paul expects we’re always going to go shopping till we’re dropping every time we hear the commandment not to covet – or want to go out and kill someone every time we hear the commandment not to murder. But then again – maybe we should be wondering – why it does seem to be true – that we covet and buy so many things we don’t need or really even want. Things we know won’t satisfy and won’t last…  And why is it that murder mysteries and CSI-type dramas are so very popular? If there was nothing wrong with murder, theft, greed and adultery – would we even bother to read murder mysteries and watch crime shows?

And of course we should always be trying to look for positive applications of any bible teaching…So… perhaps – if it turns out that law actually works mostly through negative means – then perhaps we should be lobbying to make it illegal to be Christian. If being Christian was against the law, perhaps we’d be experiencing prolonged sustained revival… like the early church in the first three centuries, and like the contemporary church in China today… Perhaps at the very least we should try to get the bible and Christian books banned in Boston… This might be just what it takes to get people actually reading the bible…bumping it up the popularity ladder all the way up to Beach-book status…?

And of course by the time we come to the end of this letter we understand it’s all a love letter – and all St Paul’s apparently conflicted thoughts about being down by law are all for the purpose of getting us to trust entirely not in-law, but in Jesus Christ, Savior of the world, and in his saving love alone…And this argument against salvation by law and salvation instead by Christ alone can be difficult…for all of us who’ve been taught in the school of worldly life so very differently… Yet it never has to be as difficult as we make it…

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Life is difficult, Jesus often tells us. But it’s never supposed to be as difficult as we make it. And here’s Jesus again, sounding like he’s inviting us to bring our best beach-books and head out on vacation with him. (Two weeks in a row now he’s sounding like he’s talking vacation – which makes me wonder – what can be going on?) As he says, “Come to me, all of you who are weak and heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”

And what kind of rest is Jesus talking about? Sabbath rest? Vacation rest? Or could this be a parable about some other kind of rest…?

Jesus does do a lot of speaking in parables that are not entirely transparent… Today he’s talking about children who play the flute, and complain that nobody’s dancing. Flute playing and dancing were usually part of a wedding ceremony. He’s talking also about other children playing the sad music we expect to hear at funerals, and complaining… nobody’s weeping along in harmony… And Jesus makes this into a parable about how people disrespect his straight-and-narrow cousin John the Baptist, who’s famous for fasting and self-denial, slandering John by saying he’s got a demon. A parable that’s also about Jesus himself, who has got a bit of a reputation by now for eating and drinking with people regarded as sinners, outcasts, and undesirables – and now people are slandering Jesus, calling him a glutton and a drunkard… A charge Jesus seems to accept as a pretty good joke… (Yes, he’s probably thinking, so much of what we do is enough to make me want to drink gin out of the cat dish… But I won’t give them the satisfaction of going there…and… )

The joke, of course, is on those won’t recognize John or Jesus for who they really are –  but – the really funny part of the parable is in how it seems – if it might help someone listen better and actually hear what he’s saying – Jesus actually appears to be willing to let the joke seem to be on him….

Parables are like Jesus’ second language. And parables are a language system. There’s different types of parables, but parables generally are comparisons of something very familiar and something less familiar…Parables don’t have neat, clear, and definite conclusions or resolutions. (Part of what makes a parable a parable is that its meaning is not self-evident.) Biblical parables are meant to startle, provoke, even shock us into seeing something… Parables mean more than we can see all at once…But parables are not open-ended. They don’t mean whatever-we-want-them-to-mean…

Which can also be said of most of the bible. Even when we think the word of God is very clearly about something rather obvious… On closer listening we nearly always notice it’s also about more than we can see at first sight…

On some level, perhaps most of the bible, even the most literal and historical parts, are also meant to work as parable…. And part of the work of following Jesus for us is to keep trying to translate the parables of grace, judgment, and God’s kingdom… using words and images that make it less difficult for people today to listen…and hear…

When Jesus says “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart….” He’s speaking in metaphors that have the feel of a parable… One contemporary translation (The Message) paraphrases this passage as “Walk with me and work with me – watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you.” (Coming perilously close to sounding rather dated, as in vintage 1970’s-dialect – “I won’t lay any heavy trips on you, man…” Yet somehow it works as translation still…)

The yoke of Jesus that he invites us to take up and share with him is yet another micro parable… People in Jesus’ day might use a yoke to pull a heavy load – a smaller solo-human-version of the larger-double-yokes used with oxen to pull a plow. Pulling a load with a yoke is still work.

But it’s a lot easier than carrying a heavy load in our arms, or trying to drag our heavy load along behind us without a yoke…

And when Jesus says “my yoke is easy, my burden’s light…” He’s reminding us…

Life is still often going to be difficult…. But –

Life with Jesus is a whole lot less difficult… than life without him.

And when we come, as we’ve been called, like little children, late for supper…

Still we find…

Jesus waiting for us, still – his hands outstretched in welcome…

Welcoming us again into his holy and blessed rest…

Blessed beyond all measure…

Thanks be to God. Amen.