"As I mused, the fire burned"

Reflection on life as a person of faith.

A Sermon for Pentecost 5 – 9 July 2017

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St Paul’s Edmonton, 9 July 2017:  Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30; Romans 7:15-25, Pentecost 5

Pray.  The central idea I’ll discuss today is the Gospel contrast between the wisdom of the Father, the Lord Almighty and the wisdom of this world. This is one of the areas where believers (and non-believers for that matter) struggle with our faith. In fact, if you spend much time reading theology or commentaries on the Bible, you may have noticed that there is a lot of ink spilled trying to debate the question of why certain things have been written the way they were – rather than just accepting the text as presented and trying to figure out the more important question: what does that text mean to us today?

This passage begins after a section of teaching to the crowd concerning John the Baptist.  Jesus then laments the state of the world by speaking of children in the marketplace: “We played the pipe for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not mourn.” The image of the children who fail to entice the others to either mourn or dance, parallel the two ministries of John and Jesus – one who called to repentance and grief and the other who called to a time of rejoicing.  However, in spite of these two different ways, the world rejects them both: In response to John’s ministry of denial the world concludes he must be possessed; and in response to Jesus’ message of the coming of the kingdom, the world concludes He was a glutton and a drunkard. Godly wisdom versus earthly wisdom.

People of faith know this to be true: it doesn’t matter how God is presented to the world, the wise reject that appeal while we foolish embrace it. Even within our lives of faith we constantly run into this dichotomy – Paul affirms this in Romans when stating, “For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate…For I know that nothing good dwells in me…For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing.” Paul identifies that this earthly wisdom in conflict with Godly wisdom is very much alive and active in each of our lives.

The call of Christ is that we each give up our lives: death to sin and rebirth in Christ.  Our minds, very much conditioned by the wisdom of this world, respond…maybe it would be alright if I died a little bit, but not too much.  Compared to the wisdom of this world, God offers us his own inverse wisdom, a left-handed wisdom (Robert Capon) – a wisdom that requires we turn all of our carefully crafted lives upside down to follow the radical path of Christ.  That inverse wisdom is no place clearer than in the cross of Christ; where might and power do not save the world, but only meekness and death.  Inverse wisdom.

This wisdom contrast is again proclaimed a bit further on in the gospel.  Jesus switches to a prayer of thanks that begins with this: “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.”  As someone who has spent over 10 years of my adult life in some form of higher education, this can be a challenging thing to hear! Yet this is what we are called to as Christians, because it is only in the innocence of a small child that we can truly see the gift that God offers to each of us. Young children understand – When people are dancing, it is time to dance.  When people are mourning, it is time to mourn.

This inverse wisdom of God confronts the wisdom of the world, and that is nowhere more true than in our need for security.  The world’s wisdom demands that we build careful frameworks in order to secure a certain future which we cannot predict.  The wisdom of this world bombards us with a message of scarcity and anxiety – which contrasts strongly with God’s message of abundance for all.  We are told many times per day that we need to grab on to all that we can or we won’t get our fair share. (cf Walter Bruggemann, The Litany of Scarcity) This quest for security was presented in Luke’s Gospel (Ch 12) in the parable of the rich farmer.  He has a great harvest and builds new barns for all his goods, so he can retire and take it easy.  As he sits back in his Laz-y-boy recliner with his feet up – do you recall what happened next? // God arrives and makes one of those incredibly difficult pronouncements: ‘Fool! Tonight you die. And your barnful of goods—who gets it?’  The wisdom of the world versus the inverse wisdom of God.

What this inverse wisdom of God asks us to give up is the lie that we can control our destiny and our lives.  Certainly we can influence things, by eating well, exercising, practicing stress management…but none of us know the day when we or our family members will die or be involved in a horrible accident.  This leaves us with a choice – the way of God’s inverse wisdom, and the child’s approach to life knowing that the new day will bring the sun, breakfast and a new set of adventures // or the wisdom of this world which tells us to worry endlessly to compass ourselves with anxiety and to work to maintain our safety.

Jesus moves on to next talk about taking up the yoke of Christ.  A yoke is a beam that is used with animals or people in order that they may bear a load, or pull a plough. Seeking such security by our own efforts and the sweat of our own brow is to accept onto our shoulders the yoke of the world’s uncertainty.  Following the way of the world’s wisdom is to bind ourselves to worry and anxiety.

Now, just to step back a moment, this message of not taking on ourselves the yoke of the world does not mean that we never plan, or think about danger, or take steps to mitigate possible dangers.  It does not mean we stop wearing seat belts, or installing smoke detectors, or asking our children to let us know where they are.  What it means is that we pass back to God the things we were never able to control in the first place, and refuse to take upon us the yoke of this world.

Christ’s request is that we take up the additional burden of Christ, an easy yoke and a light burden.  The Greek word used here for burden refers either to the loading up of a ship or a beast of burden, or figuratively to overburden someone with spiritual anxiety or an obligation to ceremony (Strong’s G5412).  There is no doubt Christ is discussing an additional burden to be taken on with his yoke, but the burden is a light one – which is what we’ll talk about in our home stretch.

Consider the promise of rest which proceeds that request to take up the yoke of Christ.  The Greek used there, “I will give you rest”, means to permit someone to cease from a labour in order to recover and regain strength.  It is interesting that many times when I hear this passage explained, it is suggested that Christ’s promise is to remove from us all of our earthly burdens.  That is not what is promised – the passage does not say I will remove from you the yoke of your burdens. Rather Jesus asks us to take on an additional yoke, his yoke, and he will give us rest for our souls. The reason carrying Christ’s yoke is a light burden, even while it demands of us that we die to sin to be reborn into Christ, is because of the way that Christ offers us that burden.  This is what makes this another narrative of God’s grace, even when we are in the midst of a road of suffering.

In 1993 I participated in the Nijmegen Marches in the area around Arnhem and Nijmegen in the Netherlands.  These marches have special significance for the Allied forces from WW II as this area was the site of the ill-fated operation “Market Garden” documented in the file “A Bridge Too Far”. The march is 4 days long, totals 160 km and military teams march in full military kit with 15 kg packs – what we used to call ‘fighting order’.  It requires a lot of physical stamina and mental focus – the final day I completed the marches with a stress fracture in my right foot..  Each day begins well before sunrise, and involves about 8 hours of fairly rapid walking through the humid heat of the day.

What does this have to do with our passage on rest?  Well, the image of what I have related concerning our burdens and Christ’s role reminds me of my experience in Nijmegan.  We would march for 13 or so kilometres and then come into a British rest area where we could bandage feet, fill canteens and eat slices of melon.  The first thing one did on entering the rest area was to drop our heavy packs and remove our boots…which was heavenly.  But, after a rest stop of 20 or so minutes, it was time to lace up your boots, shoulder the weight of your pack and head off for another 13 kilometres.

This is very much how I read this passage containing Christ’s words to us.  There is no promise that our burdens will be removed from us, but only that we will be given rest.  So we enter this rest stop in our life, are refreshed by Jesus, and then step out with the original burden along with Christ’s added yoke.  The next 13 km are still ours to push through in sweat, pain and perseverance under our burden but knowing that there is refreshment available for us. That truth has only been confirmed for me in the years since that marching, as I now bear the daily burden of chronic pain that ended my military career and continues to limit me. The one constant that keeps me going is that yoke of Christ, which brings meaning into the midst of my suffering.

I acknowledge that this is a difficult interpretation. We would much rather be healed in a blinding flash of light. But more often than not God does not free us from the burden of the long journeys of our lives, those 3-day roads we are called to walk.  What Jesus promises us is relief along the way, much as Elijah was given bread and water part way through his 40-day journey, so he would be strong enough to continue walking into the wilderness (1 Kings 19:7).  The Christian who suffers from serious disease or has horrific family problems such as abuse or addiction will not always be instantly freed from these burdens through faith or prayer.  A person who has lost a spouse or child suddenly, tragically and too young, will not mysteriously have everything restored – those burdens will be with them for the rest of their lives.  What they will have is renewal and support to guide, comfort and strengthen them in their suffering. Sometimes those burdens are ours to bear throughout our 3-day road, but it is the yoke of Christ transforms the burden.

How does Christ offer us God’s grace through this?  Here are four aspects that offer us true grace.  First, God favours the weak over the wise, arrogant or self-assured.  The place that God brings his greatest blessings upon us is not when we have completed an intense bible study, or an act of charity, but when we are brought into the full reality of our weakness and when we drop to our knees and call out, ‘I cannot take anymore, O Lord!’  Second, as Jesus proclaims, He is the true knower of God and has opened that previously closed path to all of us. Third, Jesus offers us rest for the burdens we carry, and a yoke that will continue to grant us that rest.  Finally, the reason we find that yoke easy is because we are not left alone to bear our life’s burdens, for Jesus continues to walk along with us, and continues to bring us the rest we so dearly need.

I want to emphasize that last point as it is the real nexus of the grace in this promise.  As a contrasting example, consider the physicians treating a gravely ill person.  They come and examine, offer their medical wisdom, prescribe treatments and interventions, make honest mistakes, and then leave at the end of their shift to return to their homes, their families and their own lives while the gravely ill person continues to bear their burden of sickness.  The radical difference in this invitation from Christ is that he not only offers us that rest, but remains with us and in fact invites us into his-self…for he is the physical and spiritual embodiment of that rest.  Jesus is not a rest-dispenser who provides measured doses of rest when we request, but the companion who invites us into his own and through that grants us the help we need continuously.  Jesus provides us a hiding place within himself that resolves both our burdens and our sin.  The final crucial difference between the rest of Christ and the world’s rest is that we have to seek out rest in this world whereas Christ pursues us and invites us into his rest even as we sometimes flee from his presence.  Christ does not wait until we meet some absolute conditions of membership, but asks that we come to him heavily laden and in need of rest, and promises relief and the continuing relief of his light burden and easy yoke. The reason carrying Christ’s yoke is a light burden – even while it demands of us that we die to sin to be reborn into Christ – is because of the way that burden is offered to us by Christ.  This is what makes this another narrative of God’s grace, even when we are in the midst of a three-day road of suffering.

Now, what we seek most often is the relief from our burdens: that is, the wisdom of this world tells us that true relief comes only if the burden is eliminated.  This is not God’s promise.  Christ does not promise us a removal of burden and a path to an earthly paradise where we will neither sweat nor labour anymore.  He does not, with a wave of His hand, convert this world of sorrows into a place of endless joy and delight.  All that waits for the final remaking of the world that comes with Christ’s glorious return. (as the Lutherans sing in their Eucharist, ‘grace our table with your presence and give us a foretaste of the feast to come’) a foretaste is what we receive in this world.  What Christ does demonstrate through his own life, is that our burdens can be light even while the associated suffering is heavy.  Accepting the yoke of Christ onto ourselves converts the heavy burden to the light; and provides us a perspective on our suffering that allows us to receive Christ as companion even as we struggle in the midst of that three-day road.  (ack here material drawn from articles “The Invitation”; “When the Burden is Light”; and “Anxiety and Despair” from the ebook “Provocations: Spiritual Writings of Kierkegaard” ed. Charles Moore, 2007 available at: http://data.plough.com/ebooks/Provocations.pdf)

Paul, in 2 Corinthians 4, summarizes this truth beautifully: 2 Cor 4:16-18 “Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.”

That which we do not see, is the yoke of Christ and his companionship and support as we travel through our journey and “outwardly waste away”, while the yoke of Christ allows us to be inwardly “renewed day by day”.  Accept upon yourselves Christ’s yoke, and he will bring you rest, and will continue to bring you rest for your weary souls, for Christ’s burden is easy and his yoke is light. And that is truly good news!  Let us pray.

Father in heaven! Draw our hearts to you so that our longing may be where our treasure is supposed to be. Turn our minds and our thoughts to where our citizenship is – in your kingdom, so that when you finally call us away from here our leave-taking may not be a painful separation but a joyful union with you. We do not know the time and the place, perhaps a long road still lies before us, and when strength is taken away from us, when exhaustion fogs our eyes so that we peer out as into a dark night, and restless desires stir within us, wild, impatient longings, and the heart groans in fearful anticipation of what is coming, oh Lord God, fix in our hearts the conviction that also while we are living, we belong to you.  Amen. (Kierkegaard)

Rough and unused materials…

The Litany of Scarcity, http://therivardreport.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/the_liturgy_of_abundance.pdf

You may not know that I’m a person who lives with chronic pain, the result of an injury to my lower back that ended my military career.  One of the truths I’ve learned in the past ten years living with that pain is that the burden is very much defined by how I perceive it.  When I focus on the pain, and on the unfairness of that condition, and how it has limited me, the burden grows, quickly and considerably.  When I focus on living into each moment of each day in Christ, it is surprising how the burden becomes lighter and easier to bear.  I am certainly not a sterling example of how to bring this into reality, as I fall to my humanity more times than I would like to admit even to myself; however, it is an illustration of what Christ offers to all of us.

The other aspect of this dancing/mourning duality reflects the two ways that God deals with us.  The Gospel, the true freedom of Christ, the limitless joy that exists in a life lived in obedience to God’s will, these are all occasions of dancing.  There are also times of what Matthew Henry termed God’s, “calamitous, afflicting providences” which, while they occur, have been set beneath the joy of Christ and God’s grace and mercy.  This is challenging language, as it impacts directly upon our nature to seek only comfort and certainty, to build our storehouses well for the day we may sit back and enjoy the bounty that we have created.

The problem with that image of the self-filled barns is not only that it places our ability to obtain security above that of God’s providence.  But also that it involves the idolatry of stuff, and the lie that things of this world can bring us salvation…they can perhaps bring us comfort of a sort for a short time, but ultimately all things of this world will pass away so that comfort too will pass.  Only God’s providence provides a lasting source of certainty and sure security.  Again, this is the inverse wisdom of God.

One of my past commanding officers, had just spent six months in Haiti as the commander of the United Nations force working there.  He told the story of a life-changing encounter.  The city of Port-au-Prince is built on the side of the mountain with the wealthy homes high on the hill, and the destitute living in shacks in the shantytown in the valley below.  Poor so poor with that we likely cannot even conceive it here in Canada.  Most of the city’s sewers are open so, literally, the sewage flows down the hill into the valley.  Not a pretty picture.  On this day Don Matthews was in the valley and came across a man standing in the ditch.  The man was up to his waist in sewage and was shovelling the ditch clean.  Unimaginable.   Don stopped and asked him what he was doing.  The man answered through his translator-I’m working so my children can have a better life.  I am working so my children can have a better life.  Imagine, a man up to his waist in sewage speaking of a better life for his children.  I’m not going to attempt to spiritualize that image, except to say, behold the inverse wisdom of God at work.

“Laughing With”  Regina Spektor

No one laughs at God in a hospital, No one laughs at God in a war
No one’s laughing at God, When they’re starving or freezing or so very poor

No one laughs at God, When the doctor calls after some routine tests
No one’s laughing at God, When it’s gotten real late
And their kid’s not back from the party yet

No one laughs at God, When their airplane start to uncontrollably shake
No one’s laughing at God, When they see the one they love, hand in hand with someone else, And they hope that they’re mistaken

No one laughs at God, When the cops knock on their door
And they say we got some bad news, sir
No one’s laughing at God, When there’s a famine or fire or flood

But God can be funny
At a cocktail party when listening to a good God-themed joke, or
Or when the crazies say He hates us
And they get so red in the head you think they’re ‘bout to choke
God can be funny, When told he’ll give you money if you just pray the right way
And when presented like a genie who does magic like Houdini
Or grants wishes like Jiminy Cricket and Santa Claus
God can be so hilarious

No one laughs at God in a hospital, No one laughs at God in a war
No one’s laughing at God, When they’ve lost all they’ve got
And they don’t know what for

No one laughs at God on the day they realize
That the last sight they’ll ever see is a pair of hateful eyes
No one’s laughing at God when they’re saying their goodbyes
But God can be funny
At a cocktail party when listening to a good God-themed joke, or
Or when the crazies say He hates us, And they get so red in the head you think they’re ‘bout to choke
God can be funny, When told he’ll give you money if you just pray the right way
And when presented like a genie who does magic like Houdini
Or grants wishes like Jiminy Cricket and Santa Claus
God can be so hilarious

No one laughs at God in a hospital, No one laughs at God in a war
No one laughs at God in a hospital, No one laughs at God in a war
No one laughing at God in hospital, No one’s laughing at God in a war
No one’s laughing at God when they’re starving or freezing or so very poor

No one’s laughing at God
No one’s laughing at God
No one’s laughing at God
We’re all laughing with God


Written by sameo416

July 8, 2017 at 2:06 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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