The Fifth Sunday after Pentecost
July 9, 2017
The Rev. R. Allan McCaslin
Readings: Gen. 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67; Psa. 45:11-17; Rom. 7:15-25a; Matt. 11:16-19, 25-30
From Matthew’s Gospel, “The children said, ‘We played the flute 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.
Do you ever have moments when you don’t get what people are talking about? You keep listening, but their words make no sense. (Did someone just whisper, “Yeah. Every week during the sermon? LOL!) I had that experience at school these past few weeks. There were times when I didn’t have a clue what the professor was talking about or, more importantly, why their words mattered. I kind of felt that way about today’s scripture readings.
After all, they do seem disconnected. We have this incredibly long passage from Genesis describing how Rebekah became Isaac’s wife. It’s a lovely story, (well, other than that gold ring through the nose stuff) but what on earth does that story have to do with St. Paul’s frustration at his inability to be the perfect Christian? And then there’s today’s truncated gospel reading. Our text leaves off the introductory verses where Jesus affirms who John is and clarifies his own mission and ministry. No, our text jumps right in with Jesus talking about flutes and dancing, wailing and mourning, and questioning his hearer’s sincerity of faith before skipping over to words about yokes and comfort. And in the middle of this, he says, “Wisdom is vindicated (or justified) by her deeds.” … Say what?
The truth is, those simple words speak volumes about why these texts matter to us. About how God desires for us to live as people of faith.
You see, in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus is not only the Son of God, the Word of God made flesh as the other gospels affirm, but for Matthew, Jesus is also the Wisdom of God. Jesus is both Word and Wisdom dwelling among us and showing us the way. Sadly, many in Jesus’ generation just like many today, choose to ignore God’s Word and Wisdom, and thereby, miss out on God’s invitation to an incredible new way of life.
Matthew’s account of the good news of God in Christ is an amazing story. He describes how, throughout his ministry, Jesus was confronted by people who expected the Messiah to come and rid them of Rome’s oppression and make their nation great again. A nation made great not by the people’s demonstration of God’s grace and mercy in every aspect of their daily lives, but rather, by perfect adherence to a certain way of living. When Jesus speaks later on about yokes, he is reminding his hearers how often God’s word can become oppressive, chafe at their necks and become a burden to uphold. God’s word was misused to exclude people from meals, to insist upon keeping the Sabbath while ignoring human need, to be zealous about tithing mint and dill while neglecting everything God said about justice, mercy and faith. Time and again, Jesus declared that God’s kingdom is not about power or overthrowing unjust governments, nor is it about burdensome rules and regulations. God’s kingdom is about redemption and wholeness. A redemption and wholeness marked by a divine grace, mercy and forgiveness that is embodied in every citizen of that Kingdom. Quoting from the Prophet Isaiah, in God’s kingdom, Jesus declares, “The 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.” In other words, Jesus’ deeds – everything he has done so far in his ministry - says it all. The Kingdom of God is near.
Matthew tells how John preached repentance and led an austere life. That he questioned the practices of those in power. John wailed and people would not mourn, would not repent. Instead, they called him a demon and killed him. Jesus preached the grace, mercy and forgiveness of God, as well as repentance. He healed on the Sabbath and ate with sinners. In many ways, he played the flute, but people refused to dance. They called him a drunkard and a glutton, and they killed him, too. The reality is, as Mathew’s gospel demonstrates, people chose to neither listen to John or to Jesus and, in so doing, evaded the invitation to know the life-giving grace of God proclaimed by them both.
In today’s reading from his letter to the Romans, it looks like Paul, in his zeal to be the perfect Christian, has missed that invitation, that Wisdom of God, too. Paul expresses his frustration over the reality that his words and deeds don’t always demonstrate the supposed transformed heart and mind, that change in values and priorities, Paul claimed to have embraced through his coming to faith in Christ. In all honesty now, doesn’t Paul’s predicament describe us all?
Like us, Paul knows right from wrong. He knows what he should do and yet, he keeps making wrong choices. Paul wanted to be the perfect Christian. And yet 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.
And Paul, realizing that truth cries out, “Oh wretched man that I am. Who will rescue me from this body of death?” He immediately answers his question saying, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” Paul has grasped the Wisdom of God. What Jesus offers is not a rigorous path to be mourned but rather, a way of life to be danced: a way of life marked by forgiveness and mercy, by grace and love; a way of life to be enjoyed and embraced. And that, friends, is why these words matter to us especially today.
We try to be the perfect church; the perfect pastor; the perfect Vestry member; the perfect Christian and in the process we often heap burdens on ourselves that are impossible to carry. And carrying impossible burdens tends to break down communities, it disenfranchises, it sets members against one another. We see it happening in churches across our land, just as we see it in politics and in our racial and economic divisions. Jesus frequently urged his hearers to grasp God’s wisdom: stop striving for perfection and start living the Gospel. The gospel is not about perfection: it is about God’s grace, mercy, and forgiveness lived in and through me, through you.
In today’s reading from Genesis, Rebekah was presented with an opportunity to marry Isaac. She didn’t know what he looked like nor did she have any certainty that what the servant told her was even true. Conventional wisdom told her she would be crazy to take such a chance. Nevertheless, when asked, “Will you go?” she chose to trust in God and declared, “I will.” Like the bride in our Psalm, Rebekah made a commitment. And that commitment, her willingness to trust, her deeds as it were, yielded incredible results.
Jesus asks 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 proclaim the wisdom of God’s grace, mercy, and forgiveness.
Our mission as people of faith, as people of God, 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 choose to both hear and respond to that invitation.
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 you hear this morning? Shall we mourn or shall we dance? Amen.