July 9, 2023

The Sixth Sunday after Pentecost

July 9, 2023

The Rev. R. Allan McCaslin

Lessons: Gen. 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67; Psa. 45:11-17; Rom. 7:15-25a; Matt. 11:16-19, 25-30

From the Gospel according to Matthew, “The children said, ‘We played the flute for you and you would not dance; we wailed and you would not mourn.’” I speak to you in the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

     Good morning! It is wonderful to be back to serve with you and among you once again. And I look forward to sharing some of my Sabbatical learnings and reflections with you, as well as hearing about your learnings and reflections. Now, I won’t delve into all of that this morning (Thanks be to God!), but I will share that a profound learning for me was how much I truly love you and have missed you. And it is that love that beckons me to return and engage with you in mutual ministry once again, and to share with you an invitation – an invitation to reconsider what it means to live, and be, and walk as people of faith.

     Now anyone who has been to Assisi knows that wherever you go in that city, you either walk uphill or downhill and quite often, both: one way right after the other. It is rare to find a flat surface anywhere. So, in preparing for my pilgrimage of walking with St. Francis and St. Clare, I ordered the exact same pair of hiking shoes that had worked really well last time. They arrived the week before I left. I tried them on. They fit. I wore them for a few days. One felt a little tight but nothing to worry about. And off I went to Assisi. But within a few days, my feet were killing me. So much so, I could hardly walk at all. It turns out that while I had ordered the exact same brand and size of shoe as before, they sent a narrower pair – a pair that were basically useless. So, I bought some Italian shoes – not necessarily my style but at least more functional. But I struggled with how to walk in them. That experience was a metaphor that I was being invited to discover, to learn a new way, a different way, to walk this journey of faith with you. And today’s scripture lessons provide some insight into how each of us – all of us – might walk together differently.

     In today’s reading from Romans, St. Paul laments his inability to be the perfect Christian. He is frustrated that his words and deeds don’t always demonstrate the transformed heart and mind, that change in values and priorities, he claims to have embraced through his coming to faith in Jesus Christ. In all honesty, I think Paul’s predicament describes each of us. Like us, Paul knows right from wrong. He knows what people, what the church, expect him to do and what he himself believes he should do and still, he makes wrong choices. Well, it is a fact of human nature that we all struggle with choosing good over evil, choosing right over wrong. We desire to be good people, but it seems beyond our nature and that is exactly Paul’s point: We are incapable of being perfect; incapable of meeting everyone’s expectations.

Realizing that truth, Paul cries out, “Wretched man that I am. Who will rescue me from this body of death?” And then he answers himself saying, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ! Jesus Christ our Lord!” Paul grasped that what Jesus offers is not a rigorous path striving for perfection or meeting everyone’s expectations, a path to be mourned and marked by guilt and beating ourselves up, but rather, a way of life to be danced: a way of life marked by forgiveness and mercy, by grace and welcoming love.

     Throughout his ministry, Jesus was confronted by people who expected something more from him. They expected a Messiah who would rid them of Rome’s oppression and make their nation great again. A nation made great not because everyone committed to demonstrate God’s grace and mercy in every aspect of daily and civic life, but rather, by their perfect adherence to an expected way of living based upon interpretations of scripture. Sadly, such interpretations expected or required excluding some people from meals, keeping the Sabbath but ignoring human need, being zealous about tithing mint and dill but neglecting everything God said about justice, mercy, love and faith. Time and again, Jesus declared that God’s kingdom is about redemption and wholeness marked by a divine grace, mercy, love and forgiveness embodied by every citizen, not power or overthrowing unjust governments, nor burdensome rules and meeting expectations. And to emphasize his point, throughout the Gospel according to Matthew, Jesus linked entering the Kingdom of God with being like a child – not lacking in maturity, but rather, unencumbered by the burdens we acquire through life. Those burdens – many of them self-imposed - that expect power and perfection and in the process can engulf us with so much guilt and self-hatred that we are afraid to dance when we hear the flute and afraid to mourn when others wail because we are sure that someone somewhere expects more from us.

And shedding those burdens of expectation is what Jesus is speaking about when he says, “I thank you, Father … because you have hidden these things from the wise and intelligent and have revealed them to infants.” See, for all our wisdom and intelligence, society still values the individual who can do everything without any help at all. So, we try to keep up with what Parker Palmer calls the "functional atheism" of trying to do everything ourselves. Trying to please everyone and "make everything OK” all by ourselves. And in the process we burden ourselves to the point of physical, mental, and even spiritual exhaustion.

Now there are burdens beyond our control. Cancer is one of them, as is caring for older parents. And we often feel trapped under many heavy things -- mortgages and student loans, bursting email inboxes and overstuffed schedules, deteriorating bodies and houses, and especially the expectations of our own creation, the church, and one another. But it is in the midst of this reality that Jesus says, "Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest."

Now Jesus  is not being naïve here nor suggesting we live without responsibility. Jesus, in a classic example of the saying, “you are damned if you do and damned if you don’t” describes a no-win situation. He says, “John came neither eating nor drinking and you said he had a demon. I come eating and drinking, and you call me a glutton and drunkard.” Jesus realized that he could not please everybody and in that realization he was set free from being tempted to even try. He can focus, instead, on his mission and focus without distraction. And he invites us to do the same.

     Jesus says stop striving for perfection and just live the Gospel. He says choose to take my yoke upon you: My burden is light because I don’t worry about what people think or expect of me. I choose to put my energy into loving God with all my heart and with all my soul, and with all my strength, and will all my mind, and loving my neighbor as myself. And so should we. This is not a call to act willy-nilly or shun accountability, but rather, it is about choosing what really matters: Choosing to love God and all that God loves, and doing so with all that we are and have. That’s what it means to be a Christian. That’s what it means to walk as people of God, people of faith, people marked in baptism as Christ’s own.

     Still, we do try to be the perfect church: the perfect pastor; the perfect Vestry; the perfect Christian and, in the process, we can heap burdens on ourselves that are impossible to carry. But Jesus says that when we put our energy into loving God and loving our neighbors as ourselves, we take on his yoke and can cast off the heavy burden of meeting everyone’s expectations and focus on what’s important. Now, anyone who has observed a team of oxen knows that a yoke teaches the oxen how to walk together and share the load and, in the process, they find the task easier. Jesus says my yoke is easy when we walk together and when you follow my lead.

Jesus invites us to choose his yoke – not a yoke of hopeless and impossible expectations carried upon our shoulders and chafing at our necks, but rather, a way of life carried in our hearts and minds. A way of life where our deeds and all that we are and have proclaim God’s grace, God’s mercy, God’s love, and God’s forgiveness.

Our mission as people of faith, as people of God, as Episcopalians, is to listen for, and respond to, God’s invitation to seek to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ. The tough part for us is to not only choose to both hear and respond to that invitation, but learn how to walk it.

The children said, “We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.” I wonder which sound do you hear this morning? Shall we mourn or dance?  Personally, I want to dance … And I invite you to join me. It’s good to be back with you and may God’s grace continue to abide with us, in us, and especially through us. Amen.