Thought I would share my thoughts from the back side of the pulpit this morning at West Fayette Presbyterian Church.
May these words of my mouth and this meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, LORD, my Rock and my Redeemer.
First a disclaimer. Blame the longer than usual psalm and Scriptural readings on the lectionary. I didn’t choose them. Honest.
But as I read them in toto, I realized how they tied in to our Gospel reading [Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30].
The psalm [Psalm 45:10-17], for example, is a story about trust and extreme faith. I mean, it’s the story about leaving family and familiar surrounding to follow something and Someone bigger. The psalmist is telling us our identity doesn’t come from us … it comes from God alone.
And that’s a prelude to our Scripture for Preparation [Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67]. Again it’s a story about trust and extreme faith.
I know, Genesis stories tend to be, well, boring. But Chapter 24 in its entirety is an Old Testament tale played out in four distinct scenes. With very little imagination you can see the plot performed on stage.
The first two scenes occur outside our reading, in verses 1-9 and 11-27. They set the stage and the backdrop for the audience — us — to witness as the play unfolds. Scene three is Abraham’s servant at Laban’s house explaining the reason for his visit and the order he has been given. Scene four is the interplay between Rebekah and Isaac. Neither knew what was happening or what to expect. And we’re given a glimpse of their reactions.
As the entourage approached, Rebekah looks up and sees a man in the distance. As she discovers who he is, she disembarks from her camel and takes her veil to cover herself for her soon-to-be husband.
Isaac spies the caravan as well. Not knowing what his father had ordered, he, too, asks what’s going on. And he brought Rebekah into his mother Sarah’s tent and made her his wife … and he loved her.
Awww. What a sweet story … much more fulfilling than the Romeo and Juliet tale told by that English bard. What makes this love story even more special is it shows God’s providence for those who follow Him.
But let’s not lose sight of another character in this Old Testament tale … the servant … the faithful servant. He bridges the story. He makes Abraham’s case. He makes Isaac’s case. He asks for Rebekah’s hand. He acknowledges the Lord’s role in the choice.
Old Testament Scholar Terence Fretheim points out the servants “proceed faithfully in quiet, ordinary situations.” He adds they are “anonymous but crucial to the work of God in everyday life.”
Hmm. Are we servants?
The interlude — our Prayer of Confession — was taken from The Valley of Vision edited by Arthur Bennett. It, too, is longer than usual, but I think it showed the paradoxes we face … you know, the trust and faith of our Old Testament readings and the struggles we encounter as the chosen sons and daughters of God. I felt it was a perfect preamble to Paul’s lament in our Epistle reading [Romans 7:15-25a].
That reading shows the torment Paul experienced, the frustration all Christians experience. We want to do what is right and just, but our humanity seems to get in the way … a word misspoken … a wayward glance … ignoring others and their needs. We seem to refuse to obey God’s law and instead end up doing precisely what God despises.
Again, Romans 7 can’t be read in a vacuum. It actually needs Romans 8 to complement it.
This week’s passage takes us to an all time spiritual low. Paul not only speaks for himself, but all of us as well. Wretched man that I am!
Paul ends the lament by asking, Who will rescue me from this body of death?
Praise God, there is a solution! Paul states the answer. Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! That keeps us pressing on.
So, again, Romans 7-8 are God’s good news to sinners. No matter how wretched we are, Jesus Christ has rescued us.
That finally brings us to our Gospel reflection. I suspect most preachers will focus on the last part, “Come to Me, all you who are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest …”
Well, as I’ve said many times, I’m not a preacher. I am a storyteller, so I’m going to tell you a story.
An old man and his son were walking home from town one day with their donkey. As they made their way home, their neighbors began to laugh at them and asked themselves, “Why are both of them walking? One of them should be riding the donkey.”
After much ridicule, the man placed his son on the donkey and they continued on their way. But soon their neighbors began to criticize them again, saying, “Look at that! The boy is making that poor old man walk while he rides the donkey! Why doesn’t the boy get off that donkey and let the old man ride for awhile?”
Hearing this, the boy dismounted, and the old man got on the donkey. But before long the neighbors again began to criticize them and wondered out loud, “Why is that man riding the donkey and making that helpless boy walk? What kind of man is he?”
Hearing this, the father reached down and picked up his son and they both rode the donkey and continued their way home. But the neighbors again complained and said to one another, “Look at that poor donkey, having to carry two people on it back! Why don’t they give that poor animal a break and get off of it before the animal gets hurt.”
In desperation the father and son did the only thing left for them to do. They picked up the donkey and carried it on their backs the rest of the way home.
Sometimes, you just can’t win.
To give another illustration, the Reveille/Between the Lakes recently applauded the Class of 2017 with a special section. As we’ve done in years past, we included a photo of each graduate … 299 individual photos.
We weren’t looking for affirmation, just congratulating the graduating seniors for completing another chapter in their young lives. We did receive one call, though. Apparently, one senior did not graduate and we failed to pull his picture. One slip, 298 successes.
Sometimes, you just can’t win.
You can add your story. I know you have one. Sometimes, you just can’t win.
That’s the scene Jesus faced in the first part of our Gospel reading. The New Living Translation reads, It is like children playing a game … They complain to their friends, ‘We played wedding songs, and you didn’t dance, so we played funeral songs, and you didn’t mourn.’ … Jesus points out the people had criticized John the Baptist because he fasted and would not drink alcohol. Now they criticize Him because (as He put it) “The Son of Man came eating and drinking” and they say, “Look, a glutton and a drunkard, and a friend of tax collectors and sinners!”
Sometimes you just can’t win … not even Jesus!
The difference is how we react to these no win situations. We — and I’m talking about myself — might lash back or return a tit for a tat. In the end nobody wins.
What does Jesus do? He commends those with a child-like grasp of his message saying, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because You have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants.”
Jesus is making a comparison here. He was especially critical of the Pharisees and their brand of religion. It was all rules and no rest, all work and no play. They would look for a commandment in the Old Testament to apply to every situation and where they found none they took an existing one and stretched its meaning until it applied to a variety of situations never envisioned by the original commandment. They went beyond God’s intentions in order to back up their own conventional thinking and practices. The result was religion appeared to the average person as so complicated one needed an “expert” to consult before every decision, small and large. And these “experts” looked down upon others “babes in the woods,” needing, but not heeding, their guidance. They considered themselves to be of superior mind to “the people of the land” as they would refer to them.
In contrast, Jesus is telling us His message is simple, easy to understand and not complicated. Children understand this. They accept things at face value, don’t delve into the whys, wherefores and even sometimes the ramifications. When you tell them this is black and this is white, they accept it, not dissect the statement into there is no such thing as absolute black — the absence of color — or absolute white — the combination of all colors. Actually, black and white are not colors at all — they are shades.
Children don’t think that way. Adults — especially those with, shall we say, elevated egos — do. We want to dig deeper. We want to parse each word. Or, as the song goes, “Is that all there is?”
The message of Jesus is simple. Follow Me. That is all there is.
Humility, not intellectual knowledge, makes following Jesus easy. It means looking at our lives from God’s perspective. It’s allowing God to do most of the work in our lives with our full cooperation. Through that perspective we can look at any issue, question and situation and see both the humor and the horror and still know God is alive in us and guiding us. If we think we have all the answers, we’ve failed the exercise. We’ve closed our eyes by not looking through God’s eyes and have closed ourselves to other possibilities. It leads to pride, which is especially dangerous when it comes to religion because we’re tempted to quote from the Good Book before we have actually read it. It makes us book smart, not learned. It makes us Pharisees. We might sound learned, quoting chapter and verse, but remember, a parrot can do that too.
There’s a story I was reminded about. Several years ago in a large city in the far West, rumors spread a certain Catholic woman was having visions of Jesus. The reports reached the archbishop. He decided to check her out.
“Is it true, ma’am, that you have visions of Jesus?” asked the archbishop.
“Yes,” the woman replied simply.
“Well, the next time you have a vision, I want you to ask Jesus to tell you the sins I confessed in my last confession.”
The woman was stunned.
“Did I hear you right, Bishop? You actually want me to ask Jesus to tell me the sins of your past?”
“Exactly. Please call me if anything happens.”
Ten days later the woman notified her spiritual leader of a recent apparition. “Please come,” she said.
Within the hour the archbishop arrived.
“You just told me on the phone that you actually had a vision of Jesus. Did you do what I asked?”
“Yes, bishop, I asked Jesus to tell me the sins you confessed in your last confession.”
The bishop leaned forward with anticipation. His eyes narrowed. “What did Jesus say?”
She took his hand and gazed deep into his eyes. “Bishop,” she said, “these are His exact words. ‘I can’t remember.’”
You see, salvation happens when we accept with unwavering trust our sins have not only been forgiven but forgotten, washed away by the blood of the Lamb!
The message of Jesus is simple. Follow Me. That is all there is.
Pastor Kenneth Sauer tells the story of when he hit rock bottom — sort of like Paul. He had more guilt than he could bear. His self-esteem was shattered by guilt. His joy was shattered by guilt. He couldn’t move on because of guilt. He was depressed, lonely and desperate. Here are his words …
“Just when I was feeling my worst, I happened to walk into the campus record store and coming from the speakers I heard the voice of Billy Joel singing the lyrics, ‘I love you just the way you are.’ And at that moment, I felt as if God were speaking to me saying, ‘Ken, I know you are not perfect! I created you. But you know what? You may be amazed by this … I love you just the way you are! There is nothing you can do to cause Me to love you more; there is nothing you can do to cause Me to love you less. This unhealthy guilt you feel over simply being a human being does not come from Me … It is of Satan … It is not real — nor is it reality! Ken it’s time you started living. Ken it’s time you were finally happy! Get over yourself! Come to Me you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. I love you just the way you are.”
You see, when we embrace God’s forgiveness, the focus of our lives shift from our badness to God’s goodness, and the question becomes not “What have I done” but “What can God do through me?”
We Christians should be celebrating constantly. We should be busy having parties, banquets, feasts and merriment. We should be engulfed in inexpressible joy because we have been liberated from the fear of life and the fear of death. And that joy should attract others to Christ by the fun there is in being a Christian.
Or, as Teresa of Avila prayed, “From silly devotions and sour-faced saints, spare us, O Lord.”
As the saying goes, “A sad Christian is a phony Christian, and a guilty Christian is no Christian at all.”
It’s the Jesus way. The message of Jesus is simple. Follow Me. That is all there is.
People rejected Jesus because they thought His message was too easy. The plain fact is when we don’t want to listen to the truth, we will easily enough find an excuse for not listening to it!
This world is filled with grown men and women who act a lot like spoiled children. They refuse to play and dance in the freedom and love of the Kingdom of God no matter what the game is and thus, there is no good news for them. Life is glum. Doom and gloom persist. Anger and resentment grow with every passing year. Depression offers no way out.
Life does not have to be this way! Jesus said He came to give us life and give this life to the full. Come to Me, Jesus beckons, and I will give you rest.
What a word of hope for all of us who have been tired, sick, defeated and discouraged. “Come to Me. I love you just the way you are!”
This is the Jesus way. The message of Jesus is simple. Follow Me. That is all there is … and this is our invitation to follow Christ into the real life!
Won’t you come?
THOUGHT TO REMEMBER: Gratitude is the key to attitude.