July 5, 2020 – sermon

Posted by on Sun, Jul 5, 2020 in Season after Pentecost, Sermons

The Fifth Sunday after Pentecost

July 5, 2020

We hear the tension between people in Matthew’s gospel—like children across the square choosing up sides and declaring who is right. The ascetic John comes and attracts followers, and his detractors say he has a demon. Jesus came enjoying all sorts of people, eating and drinking with them—he must be a glutton and drunkard, friends with all the wrong sorts of people. The same story could well be told with different accusations in our own cities and streets. Then Jesus puts both these allegations out on their ear by that simple sentence ringing with truth: “Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.” Indeed she is! If we look at how assertions are acted upon, and what outcomes are wrought in the wake of those professing them, we will see—or not see— the wisdom of which Jesus speaks.

Yesterday being ‘Independence Day’ invited reflection on some of the divisions and differences our country has seen, and our church as well, sometimes both combined. The very name defines it; independence from the other is being celebrated; challenging for a church who encourages interdependency and being one in the body of Christ. The tension between loyalty to country and loyalty to God was not new nor is it easily resolved, so it arose quickly, when in 1785 (after the American revolution) the first American Prayerbook was being written. At the time bishops of the Anglican Communion were still required to swear allegiance to the British crown, and in this newly ‘independent’ country, that was not going to work. Though it was customary in Christian churches to pray for and remember the Sovereign and honor important national occasions, Americans were not willing to simply duplicate the English Prayerbook, switching out the monarch’s titles and national dates or places. Prayers for King George III were unlikely to be offered alongside prayers for President George Washington (an Episcopalian). Then, as now, how we pray is who we are, and soon the inclusion of a special Fourth of July collect and readings for a Communion liturgy were proposed; “A Form of Prayer and Thanksgiving to Almighty God for the Inestimable Blessings of Religious and Civil Liberty.” Here’s the tension point: Many clergy were still loyal to the crown during and after the Revolutionary War, and others were equally adamant supporters of the revolution and independence from the British. The new Presiding Bishop was of this latter mind, and yet he fiercely resisted inserting the proposed Independence Day propers because he saw it as something that would divide rather than unite the church. Pretty well defines irony, no? Being one in Christ’s church mattered so much more than being the victors in that dispute, that it would be nearly 150 years before those Independence Day propers were added to our Prayerbook.

A leader had listened not only to the deep tensions sincere Christians felt between church and state, but to where God might be heard be in this, a God great enough to embrace them all as God’s (argumentative) children. “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” Jesus declared no one right or wrong, good or bad, victor or loser. He invited us to lay down burdens—not the values or hopes—and come to him to find rest for the soul. It is hard work to keep up one’s end of the fight, the weapons to prove ourselves right get heavy, and so in following Jesus we get to, we have to, lay them down that we may take up what Jesus says is his gentle yoke, one easy on the shoulders and light in burden. Jesus’ audience would know the yoke metaphor usually referred to the ‘yoke of Torah’ which was the Jewish expression for learning, studying, and obedience to Torah. One rabbi said the one who took up the yoke of Torah, was never under the yoke of the government. Here, instead of pointing them to Torah, Jesus himself embodies the yoke—and in our taking him up, we are choosing faith and salvation before all else.

Some burdens are not about tensions between sides, rather they are those we face by little choice of our own. The COVID-19 virus for example, or maybe a family member unwilling to set aside angry politics enough to be civil. Some burdens we wrestle with as we try to grow in understanding and humility, like biases based on race, gender identity, nationality, language, religious difference and so on. Here, setting down our burdensome preconceptions and admitting our ‘infancy’ in such wisdom still means plenty of work. Putting the values of our faith ahead of our egos finds us thankful that we can reach for Jesus’ guiding yoke as we strive to learn, as we take responsibility and care, opening ourselves to God’s possibilities. Because what is patently clear is that we cannot fix these things on our own.

We come full circle back to those accusing John of having a demon since their immediate impression was that he was disturbingly over-abstinent, and similar superficial assessment of Jesus, rejecting him as a drunkard in bad company. How many laid down defenses to know Jesus is Wisdom? Even if often rejected or misunderstood, as God’s agent he reveals God’s ways and God’s love. Do we stop to look at the actions or behaviors carefully enough, or do we trust our personal self-at-center biases or ill-informed suppositions, unexamined? By example, at first it felt odd, wrong even, to celebrate Communion the way we are right now, and yet after prayer for this community I saw it would be all the more so not to do it. I was uncomfortable being the only one to drink from the chalice, as if that suggested self-importance. Yet on reflection, far from being about me, it is on behalf of us all we do this, in unity together. It is a precaution we take because we love each other and want to help keep each other safe. I realized many people have long received Communion ‘in one kind’ even when both bread and wine are offered freely. Some because of health concerns with bread, others because of problems with the wine. We know what wine can do and the living hell it can be for one addicted to alcohol. Yet, in odd paradox, Psalm 104 praises God for creating water and plants, making “wine to gladden our hearts.” From Jesus’ Last Supper to today and beyond, it is also part of what we know as an instrument of God’s presence itself. My point is that God gives us freedom to create both nations and wine, and we can use either one for destruction and damnation or as instruments of healing and salvation. All of what we have is from God, the whole of creation is shared generously with us by an open hand. We ourselves are part of creation, and God has given us both freedom and responsibility to make choices. Do we follow Christ or another way? Do we act as instruments for the common good or strive to have ‘the most toys’ or possessions? We can choose the burdens of weaponry against each other or the gentle yoke of the one who died and rose for us.

Along with Paul, I often wish our acting on putting Christ at center was easier. “I do not understand my own actions.” Is there anyone who hasn’t found themselves there? “For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” As I read this it’s like Paul holding up a mirror for me to see my life and choices, and it’s humbling. Like him, what I see isn’t all rainbows and puppies. This scripture is ancient, and yet I listen hoping to hear an answer I might have missed, to find the will to right actions like a magic 8-ball controlling my decisions. Every time I do that, it’s as if saying, I can do it all myself, I’m independent and turning from temptation and sin is up to me and no one else. If I just buckled down and tried harder! That’s not how it works, obviously, or we wouldn’t be struggling with anything. Paul’s idea of sin isn’t bad action or rule-breaking, it’s distorting our relationship with God. It’s us thinking we can fix ourselves through more willpower, having more stuff, or just finding the right self-help plan or book. It’s thinking our world revolves around us, that it all depends on us, instead of seeing God as the center and trusting God’s love for us. No matter how hard we try or how much will we bring, we cannot save ourselves. We need outside help, we need the one who came with a gentle yoke to do just that. Paul’s words sound more like a discovery than a treatise; “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”


© 2020 The Rev. Katherine Sedwick. All rights reserved.

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