Proper 9a, Sunday, July 6, 2014

July 7, 2014

Easy Jesus
Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

11:16 “But to what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another, 17 ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.’ 18 For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon’; 19 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.” 25 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; 26 yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. 27 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. 28 “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. 29 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. 30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

I mentioned last week that I was presenting you with the easiest aspect of discipleship which is what you might call check-writing ministry. I think there is some truth to the ease of giving money as opposed to getting your hands really dirty, but today’s passage of scripture points to another way in which discipleship becomes easy – it becomes easy when your calling becomes clear.

In my way of looking at things, one of the hardest things to deal with in life is the ongoing confusion I have in regard to what I need to be doing. Often it’s not the tasks themselves that I find intimidating – it’s determining what I need to do and how I need to do them. We live in a very complex world, and it’s hard to know how to focus in on the most essential matters.

I made reference to this in the sermon I preached just after finishing my bicycle journey – how liberating it was to have such a single task each day, but that wasn’t the first time I encountered that truth. I’ve been put in touch with this truth on previous occasions.

I recall having such an experience a few years ago when I was the director of the Wesley Foundation. I had gotten our Board of Directors to sign-off on building a yurt – which is a round dome-type structure that is made from what you might call minimalist materials. I had navigated the process of obtaining a city building permit — which was no small task. It didn’t really fit the standard construction project, but the round platform that would be the floor of the yurt was much like a deck, and when you build a deck the posts are to sit on concrete footings that are 2’ x 2’ wide and 18” deep. And that’s no big deal for most decks. But this yurt platform was designed with 30 posts underneath it. And it needed six more posts to hold up the entrance ramp and rear steps. This project was going to require us to dig 36 large and square holes in a yard that was filled with tree roots and large rocks.

I agonized over how to get those holes dug. I went to a couple of tool rental companies to see what kind of equipment they might have to expedite that process, and no one ever presented me with what I considered to be the magic power-tool. But one day a friend brought a man over to talk about the project, and this man assured me that he could dig those holes just like I needed them with a small back-hoe. He was so confident – and I was so relieved. We drew up a contract and I paid him a portion of the fee on the front end so he could go rent what he needed.

My friend and I arrived at the Wesley Foundation early the next morning before the man was due to arrive. I remember sitting outside drinking our coffee in great anticipation of what was going to happen that morning. About 30 minutes after the man was due to arrive we both began to have that sinking feeling you get when you begin to suspect that you have been conned. That man never showed up that day or any other day. He did make the mistake of answering his phone a couple of days later and I at least had the opportunity to ask him what he thought God would think of him stealing money from the church, but that was the last communication I ever had with him.

But that experience had one other unintended consequence. I felt so angry and humiliated by the scam it gave me the determination I needed to get those holes dug. With the use of plain old shovels, picks, go-devils, axes, a sawzall, post-hole diggers, and a couple of big heavy iron poles we got those holes dug. And when I say we, it was me and whoever happened to drop by during those hole-digging days, and there were quite a few people who got in on that activity. It was an epic undertaking and a glorious experience. For about two weeks I had an incredibly clear agenda. The work was hard, but the yoke was easy. I had no doubt what needed to happen and we got it done. I almost felt grateful to that man who ripped me off. I don’t think I would have had the wherewithal to engage in that undertaking if he hadn’t lit that fire in my belly.

And I’m thinking this is often the way it goes with our efforts to follow Jesus. We spend a lot of time and energy in relative states of confusion about what it is that we need to be doing. Good cases can be made in regard to the various directions we need to go – there’s always a lot of information to be gathered before we actually take action in some way. There’s always something else to be considered before we move in a bold manner. Stalling often seems like the prudent thing to do. But gratefully there are these people or circumstances that come along that call us to action. The situations aren’t always pretty, but the need becomes clear.

It’s interesting to think about the people and circumstances that helped shape John the Baptist. John the Baptist was a pure hearted man, but he grew up in the midst of a highly compromised religious community. I’m guessing John the Baptist became as extreme as he did because he saw how phony and distorted the religious executives of his day had become. The scribes and Pharisees were so proud of their vestments it made John the Baptist want to wear untailored hides. They were so careful to observe their food laws it propelled John the Baptist to eat bugs. They used their authority to keep people under their control and confused about who God was and what God required it lit a fire in his belly that enabled him to speak truth with power to all the people.

We think of John the Baptist as being a bizarre character, and certainly there were people during his own lifetime that thought he was out of his mind, but it’s not that hard to see that he was driven to those extremes by the maddeningly unfaithful nature of the religious culture of his day. John the Baptist didn’t decide we wanted to go do something unusual – he simply couldn’t be a part of what was going on in Israel at the time. There comes a time when action becomes easy.

John the Baptist went to extremes to express his faith, and certainly he was considered too extreme for some people – people who were more concerned with the way things looked than with the way things were. And those same people considered Jesus to be too common. They weren’t prepared for their messiah to eat and drink with anybody – especially with nobodies. We United Methodists didn’t create the notion that religion should be for respectable people who behave well. This has been a problem for a long time.

But it’s still a problem. People who go to church are often more interested in maintaining the way society operates than in challenging the evils of our day. People often go to church in hope of improving their standing in society as opposed to standing against policies that protect the privileged and victimize the poor and disenfranchised.

But you know about this problem. You know how distorted it all can get, and you don’t come to this church to improve your standing and maintain order. If that’s why you are here you are confused. This is not a good place to make business contacts. I wish it was, but it’s not.

The fact that we are a struggling and marginalized church makes me think we are doing something right, but I don’t take too much comfort in that. I think there’s some truth to the fact that our numbers suffer because of the ways in which we try to accommodate distressed people. And no doubt we have put some people off by embracing the label of a Reconciling Church. But these things have their appeal as well.

I honestly can’t blame our struggling nature on our bold faithfulness. Our frailties are also due to lack of organization and clarity of purpose, and as the senior pastor of this church I feel a large share of responsibility for this problem.

But I also believe that growth and vibrancy are more dependent upon faithfulness than to effort. I believe our task is more of an exercise in hearing what God needs for us to do than it is an exercise in doing anything. This is not to say that we don’t have work to do – hard work. But if it’s God’s work it’s also easy work – the kind of work you do without question and without hesitation.

I’m praying for that kind of clarity for us. I want this church to grow. I want it to be vibrant, and I believe that will happen when we have a renewed sense of calling and understanding of what we need to be about. Faithful following of Jesus isn’t easy like it’s easy to sit and watch television, but it’s not without it’s own form of ease. The ease you have when you are working as hard as humanly possible at the most important thing you can possibly do.

Please join me in praying every day for this church and for your own sense of calling. Pray for guidance and understanding and for a renewed sense of what you can do to help sustain and strengthen the body of Christ that this world so desperately needs.

It’s really quite easy – thanks be to God. Amen


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