Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67; Romans 7:15-25a; Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30
Ordinary 14A; Proper 9
Sometimes you just can’t win.
Sometimes anything you say or do will be viewed with suspicion, rejected or ridiculed. Often for reasons unknown, those with whom you wish to engage refuse the invitation to participate. Like middle-schoolers at their first dance, no matter what the DJ plays, everyone remains lined up against the walls of the gym. Perhaps they’re aching to connect with those on the other side but too afraid to take the first step toward the center. If one brave soul would venture forth, others would follow. But barring that act of courage, the stalemate of separateness holds firm.
Even worse, when relationships reach a breaking point, each person’s actions become suspect. Flowers brought home must mask an unrevealed transgression. A favorite meal cooked gets interpreted as manipulative, not considerate. No words are innocuous. No action is left unanalyzed. No moment is not infused with a tension that has the potential to explode. What’s the term for this impasse? Disdain? Contempt? Whatever the word, most of us have felt the helpless sting of a no-win situation.
Jesus faces just such a Catch-22. Teaching and proclaiming his message in the cities, he encountered the stonewall of the proud and pretentious who refused to participate in the present and coming Kingdom of God. They imprisoned John, failing to recognize him as Elijah. Nor will they heed Jesus himself. They dismissed John for his asceticism and Jesus for his indulgence. They wouldn’t dance at the wedding nor mourn at the funeral. Nothing would convince them to get off the wall and join the community. No healing, teaching or preaching rang true to those who had contempt for the messenger. Every word and every act, no matter how gracious, loving or generous, was met with disdain because they had rejected the One who offered and embodied them.
The faithless generation lead by meticulous Pharisees knew the letter of the law so well that they could not hear the Word made flesh. So confident that they were right, they could not recognize the righteousness of God in their midst. Let anyone with ears listen.
Let anyone with ears listen to the admonishment of the One who is gentle and humble in heart. Let the confident and the wise, the privileged and the proud, the law makers and the powerful, open their ears to the Lord of all who came not to be served but to serve. Let those who pile on the poor and hamstring the vulnerable and exploit the weak unstop their ears to the words of the One who calls all those with heavy burdens to come to him and find rest for their souls. Unsnarl your lips, stop rolling your eyes, suspend your witty sarcasm and quit looking down your nose at John and Jesus and the people who flock to them and listen. Look. Participate.
Go to their weddings and dance. Attend their funerals and mourn. Don’t sit on the sidelines and mock, enter the chaos and learn. Recognize that the Kingdom of God is present and coming and you do not want to miss it for the sake of being right or above it all. Or what? Will you be better than those who throw themselves at Jesus feet or call out to him from the side of the road or eat with him or rejoice unabashedly when they are forgiven and freed?
We lose so much when we exchange dancing for false dignity and deep mourning for aloofness. We lose so much when we value being right over being in relationship. We lose so much when we are motivated by earthly adulation instead of divine call. We lose so much when we choose being worldly wise rather than a fool for Christ. We lose the chance to not only participate in the Kingdom of heaven but also the opportunity to be in the presence of God.
The text juxtaposes this faithless generation of wise Pharisees with the gentle and humble-hearted, servant Savior. In a few more chapters, Matthew’s Gospel records Jesus’ condemnation of the scribes and Pharisees who “tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they refuse to lift a finger to move them.” They are the very antithesis of Jesus who calls, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. … For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” This raises a question for us: Are we the ones imposing the heavy burdens or learning for the One who has come to lighten the load of those most encumbered? Are we taking up Jesus’ yoke or refusing to break the yoke of oppression? Are we unabashedly dancing and wailing with those who rejoice and those who mourn or are we too proud to engage in such undignified behavior?
Gentleness and humility make the difference in which yoke we wear and what burdens we bear or place on others. Gentleness keeps judgment at bay and humility contains the relentless pursuit of self-justification. It is hard to roll our eyes and make fun of others when we are keenly aware of our own failings and shortcomings. Gentleness opens us to empathy and humility reminds us of our constant need to learn. Gentleness and humility invite us to rest from the exhausting work of appearing invincible and the insatiable desire to look better, younger, smarter, funnier, more powerful, etc., etc., etc. Gentleness and humility allow us to stop scrutinizing ourselves and others and free us to see and hear Jesus. Who knows? We may be so yoked that we lose ourselves and find abundant life.
Such closeness begins with a willingness to suspend our assumptions and our fear long enough to leave the safe wall of our certainty and participate, however awkwardly, at the wedding and the funeral and everything in between.
I just finished reading “Masters of Craft: Old Jobs in the New Urban Economy” by Richard Ocejo. The author details the journey of people working as barbers, butchers, bartenders and alcohol distillers. Those he follows are mostly college-educated and from middle class backgrounds who have chosen to pursue careers in jobs that formerly had been considered “bad” – as in hard work for not much pay. Often, they start at the bottom rung of the ladder, sweeping the floor, hauling the barrels, working long hours, doing physically demanding work. And yet, their passion for service or locally sourced meat or well-made products that bring pleasure to others, drives them to get better, to keep at it. They make mistakes and welcome correction. They seek out mentors. They emulate those who have more experience. They check their ego at the door and do what needs to be done, from polishing glassware to stocking the meat cases. Sometimes the teachers are those who in other arenas have much less status. The immigrant butcher mentors the apprentice with the four-year degree; both recognize the skills present in one and needed by the other.
One young man eager to become a bartender in New York’s burgeoning upscale cocktail bar scene talks about his first experience at one famed bartender’s place. “I remember thinking, ‘OK, there is a lot I have left to learn,’ and thinking, ‘OK, I don’t even know what this Rittenhouse (Rye) is, I should go find out.’ … I never would have looked at this unassuming $12 bottle of booze and thought I could do something so delicious with it and just being so humbled by this. I was like, ‘Wow, I have a lot left to do here.’ I really just keep trying to work toward that in my own way.”
Reading such sentiments made me question how I view my vocation. Am I always seeking to learn from those who know more than I do? Am I always looking to the Teacher who is all-knowing? Am I willing to do whatever needs to get done, from sweeping the floor to waiting on the customers? Am I aware of how much I don’t yet understand? How many skills I lack? Am I willing to sacrifice my need to be the expert for the adventure and vulnerability of holy curiosity? Does my passion for my Lord guide and drive me? Will I trade my post-modern contempt for Jesus’ eternal gentleness and humility? Will I have the ears to hear the music that makes me dance and the wailing that moves me to mourn?
The only way to find out is to get off the wall and take up Jesus’ yoke, trusting that I will learn and in so doing find rest for my soul.
- Read all of chapter 11 and note the context of this Sunday’s reading. Consider John’s role in preparing the way for Jesus. How did he help people have ears to hear? How might his message help unstop our ears?
- What are the markers of our generation? If the Pharisees aren’t in charge, who is? What values do those in power promulgate and how do those values relate (or not) to Jesus’ message?
- What are the actions, ideas or thoughts that keep you from dancing or wailing with others?
- When have you experienced a situation in which you could not win, no matter what you said or did? What, do you think, was happening? How did you handle it?
- Of all the characteristics that could be ascribed to Jesus, why do gentleness and humility get named? Are gentleness and humility held in high esteem in our culture? Church? Homes? Why or why not?
- Why would Jesus be thankful that God has hidden things from the wise and intelligent and instead revealed them to infants? Why is that important?
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