Proper 9a, July 9, 2017

July 10, 2017

The Gift of Clarity

Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30


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.”


In my way of looking at things, one of the hardest things to deal with in life is the nagging problem of trying to determine what I need to be doing. Now I know this is what you might call a first world problem. This is the kind of problem you have when you have the luxury to decide how you should be spending your time.


I know there are many people in the world who would love to have the opportunity to make some decisions about how they spend their time, and I don’t want to trade in the problems that come with economic and political freedom for the problems that are associated with tyranny and poverty. But distress comes in a lot of different forms, and one of the things that is challenging for many of us is the problem of determining what we need to be doing and how we can best do whatever that is. We live in a very complex world, and it’s hard to know how to focus in on the most essential matters.


It’s a gift to have a clear calling. This isn’t something I am always in touch with, but I’m not unfamiliar with the sweetness of clarity. I’m mindful of an experience I had a few years ago when I was the director of the Wesley Foundation at UALR. The Wesley Foundation is the United Methodist Campus Ministry program at UALR, and I had gotten our Board of Directors to embrace the idea of building a yurt – which is a round dome-type structure that is made from what you might call minimalist materials. It’s a really interesting design that would provide us with a round room that would be 30’ in diameter.


I had navigated the process of obtaining a city building permit — which was no small task. It didn’t really fit any standard type of construction project, but the round platform that would be the floor of the yurt was much like a deck, and the city building inspector pointed out that when you build a deck the city code calls for all vertical posts 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. So 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 one of my board members 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 board-member 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. The 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. He agreed that it probably wasn’t something God would like, but that was the last communication I ever had with him.


But that experience had an unintended consequence. I felt so angry and humiliated by the scam it gave me the determination I needed to get those holes dug. My District Superintendent at the time considered this a dubious enterprise, and I couldn’t bear to give him the satisfaction of failure. So 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 animal skins. And 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 might think of John the Baptist as being a somewhat 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. He was yoked to the truth of God and not to the phony religious leaders of his day and it made him stand out in a remarkable way.


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.


It’s sort of incredible that many of the same people who thought John the Baptist was too extreme considered Jesus to be too common, but this probably isn’t anything shocking to any of us. In fact there’s a sense in which I find this to be rather comforting. We modern Americans didn’t start the tradition of trying to make our religion conform to our lifestyles. There’s always been a lot of tension between the demands of faith and our comfortable patterns of existence. We don’t want our lives to be as disrupted as John the Baptist thought they should be, but we want our savior to come to us in a highly exalted manner. John the Baptist was too unusual and Jesus was too normal. We religious people can be pretty particular about the way we want God to come to us.


And I’m not unsympathetic to this human predicament that we are often in. It’s not easy to discern the truth. As I said, I find myself in almost perpetual dismay about the way I should be living my life. There’s an infinite number of good causes to get behind and an equal number of people who would love for us to join with them in their good fight. Some people are convinced the secret to life is found in what you eat or not drink, others advocate yoga, some people think you can only hear God speak in Pentecostal tongues, and others would say they find God on the lake at dawn. You might say we’ve got a lot of options when it comes to encountering God, but you could also say we worship a lot of false Gods – gods that we have created to suit our needs and comforts.


What I believe is that it’s never easy to find that direct path to communion with God, and one of the things that makes it hard is that we don’t like to get off the path we’re on. We want Jesus to join us where we are, but unfortunatley that’s not where we’re most likely to find him. Jesus doesn’t meet our expectations, but the beautiful thing is that Jesus generally finds ways to disrupt our thinking and our comfortable way of living and provide us with some clarity about what we need to do.


This isn’t a pleasant process, but it is a profoundly satisfying undertaking. I wanted to find an easy way to get those 36 holes dug, and I was willing to buy in to somebody’s fantasy about how we could get those holes dug, but something happened that was so much better than paying somebody to solve my problem. I was given the gift of clarity about what we needed to do, and I was able to share that gift with other people. We were digging holes for Jesus and with Jesus and that might be some of the best work I’ve ever done. When we finished we had this amazing pile of roots and rocks that we had excavated in the process of creating those footings for that yurt. That pile of debris looked like an altar to me.


I really don’t think there is any burden lighter than to be yoked to Jesus of Jesus – regardless of how difficult that work may be. I believe it’s a gift to understand what it is that Jesus has called you to do. It’s so much better than the curse of confusion that I think many of us experience on a regular basis.


I don’t say this to heap further pain on those of you who, like myself, experience a good amount of distress about what it is we need to be doing. I honestly think confusion is a far better thing than delusional clarity about what you need to do, and I don’t think that’s an unusual circumstance. I believe there’s probably more false clarity than actual clarity, and I believe it’s more helpful to maintain an attitude of searching for truth than to settle for a reasonable substitute for truth. I believe God is more sympathetic to confusion than to false advocacy.


I primarily believe God is with us in our struggles and God wants us to find our way. I believe God wills for us to discover the truth and to give ourselves to the work of bringing God’s truth in to this world. It’s hard work because the world doesn’t generally welcome God’s truth, but it’s a gift to discover such work, and there’s not a lighter yoke to be borne.


There’s no end to the ways in which we can bear the love of God in to this world, and that’s the work we are called to find and to do.


Thanks be to God.




4 Responses to “Proper 9a, July 9, 2017”

  1. Anonymous Says:

    Thompson – as always, a voice “crying in the wilderness” – and the sound you make is all too clear to me – think we have to always be alert to where God is leading – like you, I would like to take the right path more often. I appreciate you sharing your down to earth “humanity” with us – Mickey Wilspn

  2. Anonymous Says:

    meant “Mickey Wislon”

  3. Anonymous Says:

    keep trying – Mickey Wilson

  4. Earl Says:

    As in your sermon, I do not write this with false clarity but real clarity, a wonderful message for me. Thank you

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