July 5, 2020 The Fifth Sunday after Pentecost

The Fifth Sunday after Pentecost – July 5, 2020
The Rev. R. Allan McCaslin
Readings: Gen. 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67; Psa. 45:11-18; Rom. 7:15-25a; Matt. 11:16-19, 25-30

From the Gospel according to Matthew, “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 sense that life is akin to a never-ending treadmill: a treadmill of expectations? As hard as we try to balance meeting the expectations of families, friends, and neighbors, not to mention our sense of obligation to God and the Church, and let’s add to that the expectations of our own creation – how we think we should speak and act at all times- and try as hard as we may, just cannot keep up with it all? I know I sense that every once in a while. And it seems that in these days of uncertainty and conflict throughout the world, trying to keep up with all that is happening around us at home and abroad, and trying to make sense of it all, and figure out how we should respond, has caused those treadmills of expectations to quicken their pace. So much so, that for many realizing they can’t keep up has morphed into a sense of guilt and despair.

     Now, while our Old Testament lesson this morning speaks about the peace that comes from placing one’s trust in God like Rebekah did: she could easily have gotten caught up in running on a treadmill of endless doubt about the future. Fortunately, she got off that treadmill and listened to God. But Paul was not as fortunate.

     See, St. Paul experienced the demoralizing power of a treadmill focused on meeting one’s own personal expectations. In today’s reading from Romans, Paul expresses his anger and frustration at his inability to always do the right thing. He knows right from wrong. He knows what he should do and yet, he often makes the wrong choice. And typical of human nature, Paul looks for a reason, looks for something or someone to blame. He decides that his situation must be caused by sin. Yeah, that’s it, thinks Paul, otherwise, I’d always make the right choice. But the danger in thinking that because something went wrong must be due to some unconfessed sin or secret sin, can lead to another treadmill. A treadmill of endless searching and questioning every action, every emotion, every thought to the point of exhaustion. Inward reflection and repentance is healthy, as long as it is journeyed with a sense of God’s grace and forgiveness.

     Now, for me, Paul’s decision that his inability to be perfect must be caused by sin sounds like a character made famous by comedian Flip Wilson: Geraldine. Remember her? Whenever she got caught making the wrong choice she would exclaim, “The devil made me do it.” Today, we tend to blame our wrong choices on political leaders, our church leaders, our children, our parents, our schools, too much violence on television, too much religion or not enough religion in the public place, and so on. Anything that goes wrong must be someone’s fault. The fact is that, like Paul, we all struggle with choosing good over evil, right over wrong thoughts and actions. 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. We have God’s laws – the Torah - that show us how to live in wholesome relationships with God and each other and yet, instead of those laws liberating how we live, keeping up with the expectations of the Torah can become like a never ending self-flagellating treadmill that causes our bodies and souls to ache from carrying the burden of guilt. Paul, in total frustration with his propensity for sin and inability to be perfect cries out, “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!” Jesus Christ shows us the way: a more fulfilling way to live as God’s people; a way of life that requires stepping off the treadmills of expectation. 

    Throughout the Gospels, 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 because its people had a change of heart so that they were committed to demonstrating God’s welcome, grace and mercy in every aspect of civic and personaldaily choice, but rather, by strict adherence to a legislated way of scriptural living. You know, the kind of living that follows scripture to the letter – at least in the way we might interpret those scriptures. In Jesus’ day – not that this would ever happen today - scripture was often cited as a reason to exclude people from meals, to determine who is unwelcome, 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 willingly embraced, embodied, and pre-eminent in the hearts and minds of every citizen of that Kingdom. But no, the people expected more. 

     In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus addresses the problems that arise with striving to meet everyone’s expectations, even our own. He says, “I thank you, Father …. Because you have hidden these things from the wise and intelligent and have revealed them to infants.” Now, this is not some anti-intellectual comment, but rather, it affirms Jesus’ description of the kingdom of God as being like a child. Not lacking in maturity, but rather, unencumbered by the world’s expectations: Those expectations of power and perfection described by Paul that lead to incredible burdens of guilt and even self-hatred. In a classic example of the saying, “you are damned if you do and damned if you don’t” Jesus 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 knows he cannot please everybody and in that realization he is set free from being tempted to even try. He can step off the expectation treadmill and focus, instead, on his mission and do so without distraction.

     Several years ago when I was still in Arkansas, I met a friend for coffee at a local bookstore. As I was lamenting about something that had gone horribly wrong at work, I glanced up and saw a book on a nearby shelf written by, of all people, Dr. Laura It was entitled, “Stop Whining and Start Living.” And I burst out laughing. How we respond to life is always a choice. Jesus says stop striving for perfection and just live the Gospel as best as you can. He says get off the treadmill of trying to meet everyone else’s expectations and, instead, take my yoke upon you. Now, wait a minute, Lord! Getting off a treadmill and putting on a yoke sounds like jumping out of the frying pan into the fire. No, Jesus, says, if you will take my yoke upon you will find that my burden is light because I don’t worry about what people think of or expect of me. I choose to put my energy into loving God and my neighbor as best I can. And so should we. This is not a call for acting irresponsibly, but rather, it is about choosing to focus on what really matters: Choosing to love God and all that God loves.

     Still, we do try to be the perfect church: the perfect pastor; the perfect Vestry; the perfect Christian and, in the process, we heap burdens on ourselves that are impossible to carry as we get caught up running faster and faster on a treadmill that has no end. Jesus says that when we put our energy into loving God with all our heart, soul, and mind and loving our neighbors as ourselves, such love becomes the very essence of who we are. In taking on his yoke, we cast off the heavy burden of meeting everyone’s expectations so that we focus on what’s important in life: Loving God, Loving Neighbor. Anyone who has observed a team of oxen knows that a yoke teaches the oxen to walk together and in so doing, share the load and, in the process, find the task easy. Jesus says my yoke is easy, but it requires walking together and following my lead. It requires getting off the treadmill and living into the Gospel’s call to seek and serve Christ in all persons as best as we can; to show and be motivated not by our expectations or those of others, but by God’s endless mercy, forgiveness, justice, and grace.

      None of us knows how our future will evolve. These are certainly perplexing days. How we respond to all that is happening around us though is always our choice The truth is, every day is an opportunity to either get on the endless treadmill of meeting everyone’s expectations and striving for perfection, or put on that yoke that proclaims God’s love to and for all.

    The children said, “We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.” Which sound do you hear this morning? Shall we mourn over our inability to be perfect, or dance in the confidence of God’s grace? I’ll leave that choice to you. Amen.