Sunday, July 06, 2008

Sermon, Proper 9A, Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

There's always an excuse.

"We played the flute, and you did not dance; we wailed and you did not mourn." As Jesus pointed out, John came wailing -- "Repent, you brood of vipers!" -- and was treated as an outcast. He was portrayed as unstable, a troublemaker, and as someone who was overly serious.

We see John and we think, "Dude . . . lighten up!" So he gets pushed aside as nothing more than a Chicken Little screaming that the sky is falling.

Jesus himself, he says, came eating and drinking. He showed up at weddings and feasts, befriended those damned tax collectors and sinners, and was rebuked for it. People called him a glutton and a drunkard because he didn't follow proper rabbinical protocol.

People see that and think, "If he doesn't take this seriously, why should we?"

And therein lies the rub. John was too serious and dismissed. Jesus, apparently, was too fun-loving and dismissed. Both were dismissed because they didn't live up to people's understanding or expectations of proper behavior or holiness or whatever.

There's always an excuse.

This is really no different than today.

Today, on the one hand, it's that people don't want to be tied down on Sunday, "It's the one day of the week I have to myself." Or it cuts into family time. Or, "I'm not a bad person, why do I have to be told I'm a sinner?"

To those who say it's the only day of the week you have to yourself, I would respond, "Everything you do during the week is ultimately for yourself." To those who say it cuts into family time, I would argue that this -- church -- has the potential of becoming an extended family capable of more support than you can imagine. And to those who don't think they're bad people, well, nobody is perfect. Especially the people in the pews and least of all me.

And on the other hand, people claim that church is too boring or they can worship God just as well while hiking or fishing or hunting. Or they want to know what they will get out of it, as if church were there simply to meet their needs.

To those who say church is boring, I remind them that church isn't there for our entertainment. To those who claim they can worship God on their own, I say, "You're right, but what are you learning? How are you living into the community of God's kingdom?" And to those who ask, "What am I getting out of it?" I ask in return, "What are you putting into it?"

The fact of the matter is that the message of Jesus -- feed the hungry, clothe the naked, heal the sick, welcome the outcast, raise up the lowly -- doesn't appeal to the vast majority of people in our society today. Worship seems to not appeal to people, nor does working for the kingdom.

What apparently does appeal to the majority of people is being told that their wealth is a blessing from God and it's yours to keep. Or a lively "praise service" which resembles an entertaining concert where the musicians are the stars. Or constantly hearing what the church can do for you.

Don't get me wrong, in and of themselves these things can be okay. But taken together they form the basis of bad theology. We may very well be blessed with wealth; but it would behoove us to remember that that "all things come of thee, O Lord, of of thine own have we given thee." How much of our wealth are we returning to God in thanks for giving it to us in the first place?

A praise service with contemporary music can certainly be an uplifting experience. And it can certainly give you that "mountain top" feeling. But we can't live on the mountain top. Jesus pointedly showed us that after the Transfiguration. We need to get down off the mountain and minister to people where they are.

And there are times when the church can certainly take care of our needs, both positive and negative. But how much can we take without giving back? An infant is needy and requires constant feeding; as adults we should be expected to feed ourselves and work towards making the church strong and healthy so it can take care of the needy when required.

But as I said, this doesn't appeal to the majority of people. If that's the case, how do we go about building up the kingdom of God? The first step is to understand that we aren't here to appeal to people. Entertainment we aren't. The yoke of Jesus invites the weary and heavy laden to find rest. But it is still a yoke.

Building up the kingdom of God and forming disciples requires work and faith and commitment. Sometimes what I do is work, but it is almost always enjoyable. All the time what I do requires faith. And all the time it requires commitment -- especially the commitment to remain in communion with those people with whom I disagree.

This isn't done through mass appeal. This is done through close, intimate relationships. I have been here now four years. We have grown over that time. We have done some good things. I believe we will continue to grow and I believe we will continue to do more good things. But it will continue to take work, faith and commitment.

In this particular section of the gospel, Jesus is beginning to focus more and more on his disciples. And more and more he is beginning to understand that the kingdom will grow by building on what they do. The kingdom will grow by small groups of people becoming communities of faith that repeat the cycle.

We aren't playing a numbers game. We aren't driven by Nielsen ratings. But we are driven by faith. We are driven by the understanding that we are yoked to the one who danced; which, again, although restful and light, is still a yoke. And it is because we are asked to submit to that yoke, because we are required to think about the Other and Less Than, because we don't live on the mountain top, because our needs aren't the primary reason for attending church, because of all that we will never appeal to the vast majority of people.

Appealing to the vast majority of people isn't our goal; becoming a community of faith is.

There's always an excuse.

Find your excuse for being here and tell someone about it.


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