First Congregational Church
July 9, 2017
5th Sunday after Pentecost
Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30
“The Curious Good News”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
I came across a story this week by man a named Dr. Philip W. McLarty, who told about his early teaching days as a band director in Winnie, TX. He and a new history teacher named Harold found rooms to rent from a very religious lady I’ll call Sally. Over the summer, Sally got her brothers to enlarge the bathroom and build a closet in Harold’s room because she wanted everything just perfect when school started. When our guy, Philip, showed up for rehearsals a few days before school was to start, everything was done except for the taping and mudding of Harold’s closet.
Sally asked Philip if he knew anything about sheet rocking, and it happened that he did. He was making good enough time, but he knew he wasn’t going to finish the project before midnight, and that would be a problem for Sally, as she was a very strict and proud Southern Baptist who didn’t believe on working on the Sabbath.
So Philip stopped work around 11:30 and came to the living room where Sally was quilting. He told her he could be finished in another hour or so, but it was going to run into Sunday morning. Apparently the look on Sally’s face was one for the history books. Luckily, she had a sense of humor. She looked up at Philip with a twinkle in her eye and said, “You work, I’ll pray!” Dr. McLarty didn’t say if he finished before midnight, but it is a story that demonstrates how one can treat bad news.
In regards to this morning’s scripture passage, I’m sure they had their reasons. I refer to the folks who put together the readings for the Revised Common Lectionary. I’m sure they had their reasons to leap-frog over verses 20-24 but in so doing, they gave us no clue nor help. Granted, in those missing verses, Jesus rants against various cities and his words are difficult to read. If you take a step back from Matthew 11, the excluded verses don’t really seem to fit into the overall flow, and even the passage - or passages - for this morning aren’t necessarily all that plain, either.
But maybe it makes more sense, before we get to the reading of our passages, that we take a minute to understand that Matthew 11 begins with John the Baptist in prison for the crime of pointing out that Herod had married his brother’s wife. Apparently Herod didn’t have such an issue with John’s truth-telling, but it really bothered Herod’s wife, Herodias. So it was at her insistance that John found himself in the hoose-cow.
Being isolated from the general population, apparently John was curious and wanted to know if Jesus was the expected Messiah or should they be waiting on someone else. As we know, neither John the Baptist nor Jesus looked or acted much like one might think a Messiah or the Messiah’s herald would look like. So John was asking for confirmation of Jesus’ Messiahship.
Jesus’ public reply was something along the lines of, “Yep. I’m the one. And yes, John the Baptist was the guy prophesied to announce me. And you, the ones listening to me, get a grip.”
Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30
16 “To what can I compare this generation? They are like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling out to others: 17 “‘We played the pipe for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not mourn.’
18 For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon.’19 The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’ But wisdom is proved right by her deeds.”
25 At that time Jesus said, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. 26 Yes, Father, for this is what you were pleased to do.
27 “All things have been committed to me by my Father. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.
28 “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, 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.”
Thank you, Peggy. I have to admit that verses 16-19 are not necessarily some of Jesus’ easiest words to understand. But these were words of lament, over those who refused to accept Jesus as the Messiah, because he didn’t do the “tricks” the requested of him - like dancing to a flute tune or mourning when they wailed. In other words, they were fickle and restless; unfulfilled in laughter and unmoved by sorrow. They were acting like spoiled children, never satisfied and often complaining. (I’m so thankful I never act like that!)
Several commentators pointed out how the passages for this morning are a pivot point in the book of Matthew. Timothy L. Owings calls Matthew 11 the chapter for the contemporary church, because it is the place where Jesus turns from God’s mission focusing on Jesus to focusing on us. In the book of John, Jesus majestically pronounces, “I am the light of the world.” But in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus looks at his ragtag group of disciples and, despite his knowledge of their all-too-human limitations, pronounces, “You are the light of the world.” Except that he doesn’t talk about light here, but taking up a yoke and burdens.
One just has to love Jesus and his oxymoronic statements. Jesus calls the yoke we are asked to take up “easy” and “light.” But a yoke is still a yoke that either adds weight to our shoulders or chaffs the necks of livestock to pull in the same direction.
When Jesus says that his burden is light, it is a word that means light in terms of weight. When he says his yoke is easy, it is a Greek word that means more than easy. The word ‘chrestos’ carries more of “kindness” and “pleasantness.” Jesus’ yoke transforms the usual cruelty to a kind and pleasant phenomena, as when someone you love lays his or her hand on you to encourage you, to love you, to lead you gently and lovingly where you should go and to that place where you can flourish.
I don’t think I’ve danced with anyone since my college ballroom dance class, but I sort of remember hearing that really good dancers know how and where to go - not just because of years of practice - but because of gentle hand pushes with fingers tips or nudges with the heal of the hand. I should have consulted with our resident ballroom instructor before this morning, but there is only so much time in a day. The bottom line is that becoming attuned to the gentle hand nudges and pushes from God makes for a much easier and less awkward life dance.
We come to church for as many different reasons as are represented by the number of individuals here today. So some of us come to receive a firmer faith, to find answers to life quandaries, or to be in that place where God and humanity meet - called family. Still others come to keep peace in their own family.
Regardless of our particular generation, a good many of us long for answers, solutions, and neat formulas for success. Despite our searching and deep desires, we can find our minds wandering or we become aware that we weren’t really thinking about anything, because we are just so tired, trying to fit so much into the short summer. And yet, here Jesus says, “I will give you rest.” It’s the promise that attends the charge of yoke-bearing.
Sometimes Jesus delivers us from the burdens we place upon ourselves. And sometimes he unburdens us only to lay another weighty burden on our backs. Sometimes Jesus frees us from the constraints of the world that has harnessed us in order to place our necks in a more demanding yoke.
Many times we come, knowingly or unknowingly, to lay down our burdens and to take the weight off our shoulders. This Sunday, Christ invites us to press into his yoke, the one that he wears with us, the one that brings rest because we don’t have to work so hard, so that more can be done in his name and because of his relationship with God. As we prepare to step out into our own lives and weeks and yokes, let us pray.
Holy and Loving God, your gift of Christ and relationship is a Good News that is indeed curious. You tell us things that seem oxymoronic, yet they are good and true and even more right than we can imagine. Sometimes we fail to see the wonder of your call on our lives, and we ask your forgiveness when that happens. Help us, Giver of Rest and Breath, to use those gifts you give us to make for better lives, even when life seems confusing or nonsensical. For the simple beauty of a life danced with you, all your people say, Amen.
Just the messenger. And the collector and arranger of that which has been received. References available upon request.