Saturday, July 8, 2017

The Better Burden: A Sermon For The Fifth Sunday After Pentecost

The Better Burden:  A Sermon Preached at St. Margaret of Scotland Anglican Church, Barrie, Ontario (Diocese of Toronto), 9 July 2017

Readings for the Fifth Sunday After Pentecost, Genesis 24:34-38,42-49,58-67; Psalm 45:10-17; Romans 7:15-25a; Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

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."


If you are an Anglican of a certain vintage, you will recall that in the Service of Holy Communion according to the Book of Common Prayer, there were four quotations from scripture that were collectively referred to as the Comfortable Words.  One of them is taken from today’s gospel reading from Matthew 11.


Come unto me all that travail and are heavy laden, and I will refresh you. St. Matthew 11.28


Taken together, the four quotations of the Comfortable Words functioned as an assurance of salvation.  They assured the would-be communicant that he or she would be welcome at the table of a loving and gracious God who had forgiven our sins.  In a very real sense, these words reminded us that there were no barriers between us and God.  They were comfortable in the sense that they eased the troubled and guilty soul and allowed us to relax into God’s love.


My Anglican upbringing probably explains how I reacted once to a certain question.  When I was responsible for the chapel of a small military base out West, I got a call from the Base Maintenance office to say that I they wanted to replace the old sign on the front lawn with a new one.  “What do you want on your sign, Padre?’, they asked me.


I thought long and hard about what sort of sign might attract the many young soldiers passing through the base, many tired and stressed after long wargames out on the prairie.   I remembered listening to the Comfortable Words as a child and I decided on Matthew 11:28:   "Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.”  That verse beautifully captured the sense of welcome and peacefulness that I wanted the chapel to offer to its visitors.


It may not surprise you to learn that the following verses, 11:29-30, did NOT make it onto my sign.   For one thing, there wasn’t enough room, but even if there had been room, I wanted to avoid the two mentions of “yoke” and the word “burden”.  Neither word seemed to offer the right sort of invitation to someone who’s been sweating for weeks at a time under a heavy pack and helmet.   


Even for us civilians, unburdened by helmets and rucksacks, there is a paradox in these words of Jesus.  How can a yoke be easy?  How can a burden be light?   And beyond the paradox lies a thought which our contemporary mindset finds deeply unattractive.  When the idea of the good life, to quote the old Eagles song, is to be “running down the road, trying to loosen my load”, who really wants to be yoked or burdened?  


Well, I suppose it depends what we are yoked to and burdened with, and what we think freedom really is.   While Jesus’ invitation to become his disciple may use the uncomfortable language of the yoke/burden, the larger context of Matthew 11 makes it clear that this is a pretty good deal he is offering.   Earlier in Matthew chapter 11, we learn that John the Baptist, who is in Herod’s prison, has sent a message asking Jesus if he is the savior that the people have been waiting for.  


2 When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples 3and said to him, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’ 4Jesus answered them, ‘Go and tell John what you hear and see: 5the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. 6And blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me.’     


If we hear all of Matthew 11, then, Jesus is offering good things: healing, wholeness, restoration, resurrection.   It is all we would expect of the Messiah and Saviour and then some.  So why the language about yokes and burdens?


I think that today’s second reading from Romans helps us to understand the gospel better, because when Paul writes about sin, he is talking about something which looks like freedom but which is actually a yoke and a heavy burden.  Paul’s theology, because it depends on terms like “the flesh” and “the body”, is often taken to mean that he hates the physical human body, which in contemporary society is celebrated as the source of beauty, sex and power.   In fact, as U understand it, Paul what Paul means when he says “the body” is in fact the whole human condition, which consistently brings us up short of our ideals.


For Paul, even when we know what God wants of us (“the law”), we fall short because of our imperfect human nature.   For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.” (Romans 7:23)  


Sin for Paul includes all the things – our impulses, temptations, thoughtless and weak moments – that cause us to fall short of the good life that God calls us to.   Often we mistake sin for something that seems like freedom, and learn the difference too late.  A fun trip to the casino might lead to poverty, sexual fantasy might lead to adultery and broken relationships, while a seemingly harmless racial stereotype or joke can lead to hatred and bigotry.   Sin can be anything that seems to promise escape, fun, and freedom, but which can lead to captivity and constraint.  Our popular culture and advertising offers endless examples, from wealth to sex to beauty.


When Jesus calls us to follow him, he offers us true freedom but it is the freedom of discipline and the ability to say no to false freedoms and bad choices.  David Lose notes that “We don't (the like (the word no) because it is, well, just plain negative. Even more, it stands in our way, negating our immediate desires and wishes, withholding something from us that we want.”  Saying no to ourselves or to those we love and care for may be difficult because it negates an impulse or desire that might seem like a good idea at the time.


Lose also notes that the church needs to work hard to recover an idea of discipleship that actually connects our faith lives to our real lives.   Putting on the yoke of Jesus means that there we give God a say in what we do with our bodies, about the kinds of words that come out of our mouths ad keyboards, how we spend our money, and all the myriad choices that we make in a typical day.   This a huge idea that needs far more time and attention that I can devote to it at the end of a summer sermon, but it is a something that always needs to be foremost in our minds as we think about what it means to be followers of Jesus.


If we read Matthew 11:28-30 again, we notice that Jesus speaks to those who already are carrying heavy burdens, to “all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens”.  I think of several images from films where this mage is acted out in spiritual terms.  I think of Marley’s ghost in A Christmas Carol, shacked to the cashboxes that he chose over his fellow humans as his life’s concern, or the conquistador in The Mission who punishes himself for a murder he committed by dragging his heavy, rusting armour everywhere he goes.   I think of the things I can’t let go of, and wonder what other invisible burdens the people around me are carrying.   I think of Jesus, waiting to set us all free of these burdens, and calling us instead into a life of true freedom, and I see that as the true message and goal of the church, to bring the burdened to Christ so they can find true freedom.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

"Here I Am" : A Sermon for the Fourth Sunday After Pentecost

Preached at St, Margaret of Scotland Anglican Church, Barrie, Ontario, the Diocese of Toronto, 2 July, 2017

Texts for this Sunday:  Jeremiah 28:5-9 or Genesis 22: 1-14, Psalm 89: 1-4,15-18, Romans 6:12-23, Matthew 10: 40-42



After these things God tested Abraham. He said to him, "Abraham!" And he said, "Here I am.” (Genesis 28:1)

I think I would fail in my duty as a preacher today if I didn’t say something about today’s first lesson from Genesis 22, the story of God demanding that Abraham sacrifice his son Isaac.   I say that because I think this story, perhaps more than almost any other that is heard in the Sunday by Sunday lectionary readings of the church, can shock and offend us.   The cruel and impossible demand that God lays on the shoulders of Abraham are so hard to reconcile with our idea of God as the good, loving creator.   It explains why many Christian churches follow the age-old temptation to downplay the Hebrew Scriptures and to see Jesus the Son as being far more attractive than his angry and judgemental father.


If these things trouble you, rest assured that you are not only.  Over the centuries, Christian and Jewish scholars have struggled with this story and have tried to understand it.  There is an ancient Jewish story which imagines God asking one of his angels to tell Abraham to sacrifice his son, but the angels refuse to do it.  If you want to command this death, they say to God, do it yourself.  This ancient story reminds us that the Jewish faithful, like the Christian and Muslim faithful who came after them, recognized full well the difficulty of this story.


Our unease with the story begins in its first verse, when God decides to test Abraham.   It’s not like Abraham wasn’t already faithful.  He had left his homeland to follow God into the wilderness, he had trusted God when told that his aged wife Sarah would have a child, and now he he had allowed his son Ishmael to be taken away from him.   What else did Abraham need to prove to God?  It’s hard to understand.  Last week I heard a rabbi speaking about the book of Job, and he basically said that while God has the right to test his people, most Jews wish that he would just stop already.  That’s what I love about rabbis, they embody the dark humour of being faithful to God despite centuries of hardship and challenge.


God calls and Abraham says “Here I am”.   We know these words well.  We find them elsewhere in scripture.  “Here I am” says the young Samuel when God calls him the night. Here I am says Ananias of Damascus when God calls him in Acts.  “Here I Am”, we sing in one of our most popular hymns today.  “Here I am, Lord, it is I Lord, I have heard you calling in the night.  I will go, Lord, where you lead me”.    Abraham answers God, and goes where God leads him, to a mountaintop where he is asked to sacrifice his son.


At this point Abraham was not part of an organized religion.  He knew God and loved him, and followed him, but it was a personal relationship and he did not yet know all the rules.    Was this some new, terrible thing that God was now asking of him?   Who knows what Abraham was thinking on the three days it took them to reach that mountain?  We know that other cultures in the middle east practised human sacrifice, often of children. One such culture, the Ammonites, who worshipped a God called Molech, was a near neighbour of Israel.   We know that there are passages in the Torah prohibiting the sacrifice of sons and daughters (Leviticus 18:21; Jeremiah 32:35; 2 Chronicles 28:3), so perhaps the story of Abraham is meant to explain to Israel how their God was different from the  gods of the neighbouring peoples.


Explaining the story in these cultural terms helps  us understand it intellectually, but as the story unfolds all of that is still in the future and we can’t help but to read our emotions - sadness, horror, outrage - into it.   We see the old man slowly and painfully moving up the mountain while Isaac, presumably a strong young teen since he is carrying the wood, follows.   We wonder why Abraham could do this thing, and why how Isaac could go along, for when they arrive at the place, and there is no lamb, he surely understands.   And how could this strong lad let his aged father bind him and lay him on the wood, were it not out of his loyalty and obedience?   Abraham calls Isaac, and he too answers “Here I am”.   Either he is too innocent to know what is coming, or, more likely I think, he knows full well and he is obedient to his father up to the point where God reveals the ram and the story becomes clear.  The God of Israel will never demand human sacrifice of his people.  Instead, the sacrifices of animals in the Temple will become a sign of how God provides for his people, who offer part of their blessings back to God.  It becomes the same basic idea that we celebrate each Thanksgiving, or at each family meal, that God provides for us.


For these reasons, the three so-called Abrahamic traditions, Jews, Christians, and Muslims, have each found good in this story.  For the Jews, the story was about God’s faithfulness, and the ram was a sign that God would always provide for his people.   For Muslims, who recount the story in their Koran, the story was about obedience to God.  Abraham and Isaac, in their “here I ams”, are examples of how the faithful should follow God.  And what of us Christians?


For us, the idea of the son, faithful and obedient to his father, carrying the wood of his sacrifice to the place of his death, becomes an image or foretelling of Jesus bearing the cross to Golgotha.   Whereas God stops Abraham and does not demand this sacrifice in the end, God does not spare himself  or his son.  If Abraham sorrowed in his heart for what he thought he had to do, our theology of the Trinity, of the three persons in one, tells us that God is fully present in the pain and sorrow of his son’s death.   Some see the idea of the atonement as a callous sacrifice, of God ordering Jesus to his death, but I think our idea of the Trinity reminds us that this what happens on the cross, like on Abraham’s mountain, is a sorrow, pain, and sadness shared by the father and the son.   


My hope then is that if we stick with the story to its end, and if we think about its place within our long family story of faith as Jews and Christians, we can find resources in it to help and sustain us in our daily lives.    Abraham’s response to God, “Here I am”, is our response.  We talk a lot about church shopping and choosing a church because we live in a culture that is dominated by consumer values, but in fact we are here because we are called to be.  We respond to God by saying “Here I am”, and that means more than just “Here I am, Lord, present in my usual pew on Sunday morning.”   


Saying “Here I am” means being responsive to God in those moments that feel uncomfortable, even those times that feel like a test.  God may call us to respond to moments of injustice, racism, or other evil things that may test us.  Saying “Here I am” means that we are ready to stand with others who are suffering, even if that comes at a cost to us.   God may call us to answer for things we have done that we would rather not think of.  Saying “Here I am” means that we are ready to reconcile, to ask forgiveness, to find new ways forward.  God may call us to live through difficult times of sorrow or grief or sickness.   Saying “Here I am” means that we are open to God and what he may ask us to do and be, even when our thoughts may be clouded by self pity, fear and anger.   God’s call comes in the good and bad times, and sometimes it takes courage to say “Here I am”, but we answer knowing that the one who calls us is good and faitihful.


My prayer for all of us that we can have the strength to wrestle with this difficult story, and that it can teach us something about being faithful and obedient like Abraham and Isaac, knowing that God will be with us and will provide for us in whatever he may call us to. Amen.

Michael Peterson+

Acknowledgement: This commentary by Kathryn Schiferdecker was very helpful in thinking through this sermon.

Mad Padre

Mad Padre
Opinions expressed within are in no way the responsibility of anyone's employers or facilitating agencies and should by rights be taken as nothing more than one person's notional musings, attempted witticisms, and prayerful posturings.


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