a sermon for the 5th Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 9A)
By yoking ourselves to Christ, we will learn to follow the pathway of God.
A few months ago a young pastor serving at a big church decided to preach Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. If you recall, the Sermon on the Mount is Jesus’ inaugural sermon – the one in which he first describes the kingdom of God. But this pastor didn’t preach about the Sermon on the Mount, she just got up into the pulpit and started preaching using Jesus’ exact words, two full chapters of the bible. At coffee hour after the service, several people stopped to tell her that while they like some parts of the sermon, especially the parts about the lilies of the field and where our treasure lies our heart will lie also, they didn’t particularly agree other parts, like all that love your enemies stuff, or what Jesus says about hypocrites, or divorce. As they saw it, God would never confront them on that. And before we get all high and mighty ourselves, let be honest – if you sit down and read the whole thing (Matthew 5-7), I think we’ll all find some parts that make us uncomfortable.
All of us have our own ideas about who God is. And all of us read the bible in ways that seem to agree with our own preconceptions. And you know what? 99.9% of the time, our version of God ends up looking just like us. We imagine a god created in our own image.
I think this is some of what Jesus is getting at in today’s Gospel. He’s confronting the crowd with an uncomfortable truth, that God didn’t come to make them feel good about themselves. God didn’t come to dance to their tune. God came in Jesus Christ, to teach them how to follow in the pathway of God.
Think about it. How many times have we thought, “Just smite them, Lord! Smite them with your all powerful arm. Smite them for being not following your law the way we do.” But when God sent John the baptist, a hell-fire and damnation prophet to the people, who ate only locusts and honey and howled in the wilderness, they said he was crazy. He didn’t fit their view of what God should be like. He was too much of a hermit and a weirdo. He needed to loosen up and be more like us. So along comes Jesus, who ate and drank and hung out with the common people. But they weren’t our kind of people. And so we rejected him, too and said he was a glutton and a drunk. And in the end, we crucified him.
John’s God was too severe. Jesus’ God was too accepting. And so the people waited, waited for a god who looked just like us.
All of us have some image of God in our hearts. I don’t believe it’s possible for a human being to have no image of God. And if we are honest, that image that we hold tends to reenforce the way we see ourselves. It doesn’t really challenge us out of our comfort zones.
But the question is, if God were like us, who would save us? Because to be saved by God naturally requires some kind of transformation on our part. God doesn’t come and say, “you’re doing fine. Don’t change a thing, I’m just going to leave you as you are.” That’s not how it works. God takes us from where we are, to where God wants us to be. I’m not saying that we’re not doing anything right. But surely, none of us believes we’re doing everything right. All of us have sinned, all of us have fallen short of God’s best intention for us, right? And if we all have sinned, then all of us are standing in the need a loving God who not only affirms us, but is willing to confront us as well.
This is why Jesus gives thanks that God reveals Godself in surprising ways. Not is the ways we expect to find God, wrapped in our own preconceptions of who God is, filled with our own misinterpretations of holy scripture. But in simple ways that even an infant can understand – ways as simple as “follow the leader,” or “monkey see, monkey do,” or as Jesus puts it, “take my yoke upon you and do as I do.”
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There are lots of translations of the bible other than the one we use in worship. One is called the Message. It’s not really a translation; more of a paraphrase. But sometimes, when a passage is particularly confusing, like this one, it can shed new light on the scriptures. I’d like you to close your eyes and listen to a retelling of today’s Gospel from the Message.
Jesus spoke to the crowd, “How can I explain this generation? The people have been like spoiled children whining to their parents, ‘We wanted to skip rope, and you were always too tired; we wanted to talk, but you were always too busy.’
John came fasting and they called him crazy.
I came feasting and they called me a lush, a friend of the riffraff. Opinion polls don’t count for much, do they? The proof of the pudding is in the eating.”
Abruptly Jesus broke into prayer: “Thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth. You’ve concealed your ways from sophisticates and know-it-alls, but spelled them out clearly to ordinary people. Yes, Father, this is the way you like to do things.”
Then Jesus resumed talking to the people. “The Father has given me all these things to do and say. This is a unique Father-Son relationship, coming out of Father and Son intimacies and knowledge. No one knows the Son the way the Father does, nor the Father the way the Son does. But I’m not keeping it to myself; I’m ready to go over it line by line with anyone willing to listen.
“Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.”
God did not send his only Son into the world to condemn the world. And God didn’t send him just to make us feel good about ourselves, either. God sent his only Son so that the world might be saved through him. Sometimes that requires affirmation. Sometimes that requires confrontation. But either way, by binding ourselves to Jesus Christ, we will learn the steps God wants us to learn. And God will transform us into children worthy of his image.