— A Sermon by Robert W. Prim —
~~~ 5th Sunday after Pentecost ~~~
Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30
“But to what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another, ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.’ For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon’; the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.”
At that time Jesus said, “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; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.
“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. 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. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
The world is full of contrarians.
That preacher is far too dark and serious.
Oh, I don’t think so.
The world is a dark and serious place
and he is only reflecting reality.
That preacher is far too light and flippant. He’s all about creating a comfort zone in the midst of a world that cries for justice and truth.
Oh, I don’t think so.
That is just what we need in this dark and serious world, someone who can lighten the load with humor.
That preacher is far too slow in opening up the church for public worship. He’s just being lazy.
Oh, I don’t think so.
He closed it down early to protect us and he’s doing the same right now.
Contrariness is the order of the day for many; to be contrary is the default way of engaging the world for many.
The sky is blue.
Really, it looks a little gray to me.
The sky is gray.
Really, it looks a little blue around the edges.
John the Baptist is a prophet.
Oh no, he is far too ascetic, far too gloomy.
He denies the goodness and joy of God’s creation.
Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah.
How can that be?
He eats boatloads without so much as washing his hands and, besides that,
he does not refuse the refill on his wine.
Wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.
Being contrary in and of itself is not vice or virtue. There are times when contrariness is an appropriate stance against something that is false or misguided. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and the founding fathers and mothers of this country were contrarians to a form of government that left ordinary people without voice or power. We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men [people] are created equal. That was a position contrary to a system of birthright to privilege and position, to an authoritarian form of government where the voice and will of the people was subjugated to the absolute authority of the King.
Our forebears in this country had a virtuous contrariness, and in our present state of civic discourse we have to remind ourselves to keep such a contrariness alive – that is, a contrariness that is for the good of our commonwealth. Such loyal opposing, resisting, protesting is patriotic if it is in the direction of seeking justice and equality before the law for all people no matter race, sexuality, ethnic or national origin, ….
Being contrary, on the other hand, simply out of loyalty to tribe, political party, religious sect, or simply to be opposed to anything that diminishes a groups own power and prestige is harmful to the real dialogue and work that has a chance to move our country forward toward a more perfect union.
Contrariness toward injustice and inequality is sacred.
Martin Luther King, Jr spoke to this kind of being contrary in his sermon from the early 1960s entitled “Transformed Non-conformist” – the sermon we heard a few weeks ago. In that sermon Dr. King wrote: I confess that I never intend to become adjusted to the evils of segregation and the crippling effects of discrimination, to the moral degeneracy of religious bigotry and the corroding effects of narrow sectarianism, to economic conditions that deprive men of work and food, and to the insanities of militarism and the self-defeating effects of physical violence” (Strength to Love, p.24).
John the Baptist and Jesus of Nazareth embodied a sacred contrariness. John and Jesus were offering more radical understandings of the grace and the acceptance of God. Contrary to the legalisms of the time that excluded persons from becoming a part of the community, anyone could come to the river of John’s baptism – no one was going to be turned away. They might get yelled at, but not turned away. John’s movement, John’s baptism, John’s proclamation was egalitarian. Everyone was invited to come to the river to pray and be washed clean. Everyone! There was no litmus test of righteousness or family tree or status or educational degree – everyone was welcome to be a part of the new world order of God in John’s preaching. In this he was a contrarian to the established order of the day that left so many people out of the community of faith.
Jesus found his support among those of little means, among those who were outcasts from the halls of purity. His message of grace and love found a home in the hearts of the weary and of the burdened. The yoke of Jesus was the yoke of common humanity. Nothing more was demanded. Nothing more was placed upon the backs of the ones who came to Jesus. His yoke was restful and easy and contrary to the exclusivity and self-righteousness of prevailing religious thought and practice.
Take my yoke upon you, Jesus said,
and learn from me;
for I am gentle and humble in heart,
and you will find rest for your souls.
For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.
There is a place for being contrary to dominating practices and thoughts, but Jesus could see that those being contrary to his message were doing so out of a unwillingness to see their own need for reform. Jesus seemed to be poking fun at the chattering class of elitists of religion who spent their energies and time being critics of John and of Jesus. Jesus poked fun at their meaningless contrariness when he said –
We played the flute for you, and you did not dance;
we wailed, and you did not mourn.
The talking heads were just critics plain and simple without a willingness to be self aware and open to change for the good. They found their jollies in knocking others down and were never there at that the work-site of building a more just world.
Wisdom is vindicated by her deeds, says Jesus.
Jesus’ criticism of the jabbering religionists was that they were not in the field doing the work of people who knew the ache and burden of those who live and labor under oppressive structures and circumstances. The religionists were contrary for the fun of it. Their religion was self-serving entertainment, arm-chair prognostications. They were without wisdom and without faithful work. The wisdom of Jesus was the kindness, gentleness, and soul freeing faithfulness of his deeds. Jesus was a doer, a worker, a visionary ready to work in the muddiness of the human condition to bring about a more humane world.
Marge Piercy, in a collection of poems entitled Circles on the Water, has a poem entitled “To be of Use.” I hear the poem as a call to discover our full humanity in the same work to which Jesus dedicated his energies. I hear the poem as a call to discover the freeing yoke of working on behalf of common humanity. Marge Piercy wrote:
The people I love the best
jump into work head first
without dallying in the shallows
and swim off with sure strokes almost out of sight.
They seem to become natives of that element,
the black sleek heads of seals
bouncing like half-submerged balls.
I love people who harness themselves,
an ox to a heavy cart,
who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience,
who strain in the mud and the muck
to move things forward,
who do what has to be done, again and again.
I want to be with people who submerge
in the task, who go into the fields to harvest
and work in a row and pass the bags along,
who are not parlor generals and field deserters
but move in a common rhythm
when the food must come in or the fire be put out.
The work of the world is common as mud.
Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust.
But the thing worth doing well done
has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.
Greek amphoras for wine or oil,
Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums
but you know they were made to be used.
The pitcher cries for water to carry
and a person for work that is real.
If you and I are going to be involved in work that is real then our calling is to be on the side of Jesus bringing grace and well-being to those who suffer under burdens of illness, oppression, poverty, racism, sexism, rejection and all manner of suffering that is de-humanizing. Jesus was about the work of easing such burdens, of embodying the gentleness and restfulness that is God’s tender loving care for all people.
As we follow Jesus into this muddy work we will find ourselves, at times, being contrary to the prevailing winds of culture and belief. We will find ourselves calling out to the world to pay attention to those who are forgotten, to bring along those who are left out, to care for those who are powerless. Such a voice for the downtrodden will at times be contrary in our smeared and broken world, but if our voices and our deeds are crying out for justice, for mercy, for the lifting of burdens then we will find a strong companionship in our work. We will find Jesus submerged with us in the calling.
Thanks be to God. Amen.