Tuesday, July 5, 2011

The Third Sunday after Pentecost, Year A, 3 July 2011

Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67; Psalm 45:11-18; Romans 7:15-25a; Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30
Preached by Rev. Jason Haddox

In a scene from the movie “Julie and Julia” (released 2007?) Julia Child and her French cooking colleague, Simone Beck are waiting for their American hostess, Avis DeVoto, to meet them at the train station when they arrive in Boston. Simone asks Julia what Avis looks like, and Julia refers to her last letter from Avis: “Look for a middle-aged woman in a plaid jacket.” Simone realizes from this that, in fact, Julia has never met Avis in person, despite having been in regular written contact with her for many years. Julia is in the midst of explaining how this is possible when, in the background, a very short and petite middle-aged woman in a plaid jacket and hat (this is the late fifties, after all) comes running into the station, looking around the waiting room with great excitement. They see one another, and realize that yes—there she is, that’s the one. They stand face to face at last, and the viewers are simultaneously touched at this joyful meeting and amused at the disparity between their heights—Julia towers over Avis by at least a full head or more in stature.

“What are you looking for?” In this case, a plaid jacket, worn by a middle-aged woman. That was all she knew to look for.

In some respect, all of our lessons this morning are dealing with that question, What are you looking for?
The story from Genesis is almost a children’s bedtime story. “Once upon a time, in a far-away country, a man went on a long journey in search of a wife. Not for himself, but for the son of the man he worked for.
He sat at the place near the town where the young women would come in the evening to draw water for their families and animals, and there he saw her for the first time. But he didn’t know if it was really her, at first…he had to find out for certain.”

All he knew for sure was that he was looking for a wife for Isaac, from Abraham’s ancestral family. But who? Who was she, the one who would leave family and home and everything, and travel such a distance to live with someone she had never seen or met? Isaac, back home with Father Abraham, was still mourning his own mother Sarah, who had died some time before this. How could Rebecca know that this was a good thing to do?

But it happens…Rebecca goes with the man all that great distance, to become Isaac’s wife. I wonder what SHE was looking for, when she saw him walking in the field at evening, coming out to greet the travelers as they arrived. What did she think, when she saw him for the first time? Did she walk directly up to him and look right at him at once? Or did she hang back, watching and waiting to be introduced to her husband for the first time? I wonder.

In our gospel lesson this morning, John the Baptist is in lurking in the background. He needs no introduction, Jesus’ hearers all knew who he was. This morning John the Baptist is in prison, locked up for his criticism of King Herod. (By the way, this is not Herod the Great…more like Herod the Inadequate. Or Herod the Neurotic.) In a few chapters John will be executed, but for now he’s merely out of circulation. He has sent some of his own disciples to talk to Jesus, to ask him “Are you the one who is to come, or should we wait for someone else?”

This is the same John the Baptist who, at the beginning of Matthew’s gospel, when Jesus comes to the Jordan River to be baptized, says in no uncertain terms, “I need you to baptize ME! What are you doing here?” (Matt. 3:14) This is Matthew’s version of the story, wherein the theme of Jesus’ impeccable qualifications to be “the one, the Messiah, God’s chosen servant and messenger” is always front and center.

“Are you the one, or should we wait for another?” And Jesus, rather than answering the question directly, sends them back to John with the instructions “Go tell John what you yourselves have seen: The blind receive their sight, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” (11:5-6)

“What are you looking for?”

Jesus asks the crowd standing nearby the same question. “You all went out to the wilderness to hear John the Baptist—why? What were you looking for? Lovely scenery? A celebrity press conference? No…a prophet. And what a prophet, like none other ever before!

“What are you looking for, even now? John came to you as a prophet, a stern austere ascetic preacher of the straight-and-narrow way and you said “Oh he’s nuts. He’s possessed. Don’t worry about him.”

“The Son of man came, eating and drinking and gathering people in convivial community and you say “Look at him—carousing and drinking and hanging out with THEM PEOPLE—what a lousy example of moral rectitude!”

What are you looking for? Dear God in heaven…these people are impossible!

And indeed, Jesus turns to God in prayer—and a strange and complex prayer it is. We’re still in Matthew’s gospel, but this sounds like something out of John. “No one knows the Son except the Father/No one knows the Father except the Son, and those to whom the Son reveals the Father.” That interpenetration between God and Jesus, the inseparability of them, is given a tiny bit of explanation here.

“Come to me, all you burdened and troubled ones, weighed down with your own struggles and troubles and worries, and I will give you rest.” We love that passage.

But here’s the funny thing of it. Jesus tells them to take another burden, another weight. To exchange their own heavy yoke of struggle and difficulty for a different one—a lighter one, perhaps, but another one nevertheless. The exchange is not “Sit down here and rest and don’t move any more.” MY yoke is easy; MY burden is light. This, only verses after he has told the disciples “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me.”

There is a price to all this.
What are you looking for?

Paul, in the passage from Romans, is in a rough patch of theological weeds this morning. I would advise you to go home and read the passage in context, because what we’ve got in front of us is a dense and somewhat frantic extract from a larger argument that Paul is making.

Grace—God’s unearned, unmerited gift and favor—is over all. And Paul wants to insist on this throughout. But Sin (and that’s Sin with a capital S, again…not just individual misdeeds) is still interfering. Or trying to interfere…showing up in the individual misdeeds of which Paul is currently obsessing just a bit. At the end of it all (“I do not do the thing I want to do, but the thing I do not want is the very thing I do…”) he exclaims “Who will save me from all this dreadfulness? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” Immediately followed by “Therefore, now there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”

No condemnation. No condemnation whatsoever. In Christ’s life, and death, and resurrection from the dead, Death itself has been put to death, and we are caught up into the Resurrection even now. It may not feel that way some days, we may struggle to believe that that is the truth of it, but it’s not about how we feel on a given day. It’s much bigger than that.

It just may be that insisting on our own limited ability to perceive and understand—what Jesus describes as “sitting in the marketplace refusing to either mourn or dance” is a refusal to see, or to be pleased, with anything at all. Neither mourning nor feasting, but sitting in a pouty attitude with our arms across our chests and our lower lips thrust out. “Come to me” he invites…and that invitation to release our own burdens and struggles is not compulsory. We can hold on to our own “Stuff” for as long as we like—He will not force us. But then we’re stuck with it all.

The wisdom of the mysteries of the Kingdom of God are open, not to the wise and understanding, but to “little children”…for they themselves are open to receive them.

What are you looking for?

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