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Sermon for Fifth Sunday after Pentecost 2020

Zechariah 9:9-12 Psalm 145:8-15 Romans 7:15-25a Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

A little boy opened the big family Bible. He was fascinated as he fingered through the old pages. Suddenly, something fell out of the Bible. He picked up the object and looked at it. What he saw was an old leaf that had been pressed in between the pages. 'Mama, look what I found,' the boy called out. 'What have you got there, honey?' With astonishment in the young boy's voice, he answered, 'I think it's Adam's underwear!'

What do we find in the Bible? There’s something about this passage from Romans that sounds like an Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meeting. Paul says, “Hi, my name is Paul and I’m a sinner.” The folks reply, “Hi, Paul.” But we know where he is coming from. So much of his writings portray Paul as someone with all the answers. In today’s reading, he seems to have all the questions, but little of the answers. He goes from “I do not understand my own actions” to “Wretched man that I am” with plenty of opportunities to share his good news. It is good news to us, because we too fall somewhere between those words, we fall short of God’s plan for us. We can relate to Paul and Paul can relate to Adam.

We hear that Paul longs to keep the Law, but its demands are too much for him. The law measures his sin. The law incites sin by putting ideas in his head. Paul can’t achieve righteousness by meeting the standard of the law. God delivers him from the standards and from the guilty conscience. Paul’s ideas of sin come, not from the breaking of a rule, but as the distortion of his relationship with God.

This distortion of our proper relationship with God, this turning from God-centeredness to self-centeredness, introduces a darkening of mind into the very center of our being. Don’t we all struggle with this. So many things that we know would be good and helpful, but we just sit and look at them. And so many things we do that we know we should stay away from. St. Paul knew. He had the same problem. A lot of important people have found and continue to find themselves doing things they really don’t want to be doing. Everybody, maybe, has experienced it. We know good and well what we ought to do. We even want to do it – want the good feeling we get from doing a good thing. And then we go and do something else, or do nothing at all.

We don’t ever get too grown up to need guidance. When we are left to our own devices, we backslide as often as not. So, if we are wise, we set ourselves up with structures that will support us in doing the things we ought to do. Join an exercise class, for example, instead of just trying to do it ourselves. Don’t carry cigarettes with you to be tempted. Have your savings taken out of your check before you even see the money, so you won’t miss it. Find someone else trying to do the same thing and agree to support each other during the weak moments and stressful times.

The church did that in Paul’s day. Almost as many of his letters deal with behavior as with belief, and he expected people to keep each other in line. He viewed it as kindness. It was interior and exterior, personal and communal, this impulse toward chaos, and he used his own struggles against it as a model for others to be just as honest. All these years later, he could be sitting in any modern psychotherapist’s office or in any twelve-step meeting. He would be saying the same thing. And everybody at the meeting would nod in agreement.

So, how do we assess our mental, physical and spiritual selves? How do we know how we are doing? Thursdays are trash days in my neighborhood. As I was walking on Thursday I thought about how differently folks approach trash day. Some folks have their carts out on Wednesday so they don’t forget. Who knows what time the truck will come on Thursday and they don’t want to miss it. Others have theirs out at a leisurely pace on Thursday morning. But I’m thinking everyone cleans out their refrigerator on Wednesday to get all the gross stuff out of there. So when do we do that with our wants, our needs, our hurts, our pain? When do we assess the situation of our interior lives and leave some of it out for the trash man to pick up. Do we have a system in place? Paul thinks that we should!

In the Gospel reading, Jesus condemned the attitude of his generation. No matter what he said or did, they took the opposite view. They were cynical and skeptical because he challenged their comfortable, secure, and self-centered lives. Too often we justify our inconsistencies because listening to God may require us to change the way we live.

Jesus mentioned two kinds of people in his prayer: the “wise” who were arrogant in their own knowledge, and the “little children”, who were humbly open to receive the truth of God’s Word. Are we wise in our own eyes, or do we seek the truth in childlike faith, realizing that only God holds all the answers?

Our entrance hymn, Faith of our Fathers, is especially appropriate for this Fourth of July weekend. It is our forefathers in this country who tried to lay down laws to protect us from ourselves. Are we more concerned for ourselves and have forgotten the greater good? Today, with the pandemic and restlessness around “Black lives matter,” can we say it today? Faith of our fathers, holy faith! We will be true to thee till death.

Declaration of Independence was approved by the Continental Congress on July 4, 1776, and that announced the separation of 13 North American British colonies from Great Britain. It explained why the Congress on July 2 “unanimously” by the votes of 12 colonies (with New York abstaining) had resolved that “these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be Free and Independent States.” Accordingly, the day on which final separation was officially voted was July 2, although the 4th, the day on which the Declaration of Independence was adopted, has always been celebrated in the United States as the great national holiday—the Fourth of July, or Independence Day.

To back up a little bit, on April 19, 1775, when the Battles of Lexington and Concord initiated armed conflict between Britain and the 13 colonies, the Americans claimed that they sought only their rights within the British Empire. At that time few of the colonists consciously desired to separate from Britain. As the American Revolution proceeded during 1775–76 and Britain sought its sovereignty by means of large armed forces, making only a gesture toward conciliation. The majority of Americans increasingly came to believe that they must secure their rights outside the empire. The losses and restrictions that came from the war greatly widened the breach between the colonies and the mother country; moreover, it was necessary to assert independence in order to secure as much French aid as possible.

So instead of the sovereignty of the British Empire, we chose a way out. We chose - Faith of our fathers, holy faith! We will be true to thee till death.

Our founding fathers chose to move forward with prayer and God’s guidance. Do we remember that the signers of the Declaration of Independence were men of prayer and conviction? Do we know that a great deal of due diligence was done to find the right path for us?

“Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” What on earth is Jesus’ yoke? We know that a yoke is a heavy wooden harness that fits over the shoulders of an ox or oxen. It is attached to a piece of equipment the oxen will pull. A person may be carrying heavy burdens – burdens of sin, excessive demands of religious leaders, oppression, persecution, depression, or weariness in the search for God. Jesus frees people from all these burdens. The rest that Jesus promises is love, healing, and peace with God, not the end of all labor. A relationship with God changes meaningless, wearisome work into spiritual productivity and purpose.

In what sense was Jesus’ yoke easy? The yoke emphasizes the challenges, work and difficulties of partnering with Christ in life. Responsibilities weigh us down, even the effort of staying true to God. But Jesus’ yoke remains easy compared to the crushing alternative. Jesus doesn’t offer a life of luxurious ease – the yoke is still an oxen’s tool for working hard. But it’s a shared yoke, with weight falling on bigger shoulders than ours. Someone with more pulling power is up front helping. Suddenly you are participating in life’s responsibilities with a great partner.

With a training yoke, the weight of the burden is shared between an experienced animal and a newly trained animal. When the weight is distributed and the task is made easier. In the Roman Catholic tradition, the clerical collar symbolizes our being yoked with Jesus Christ. It is in that partnership, that working, praying and moving together that God’s sense of purpose is fulfilled.

Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light. This familiar saying is widely understood to mean that following Jesus is easy, because, unlike the Pharisees, he is not too particular about how we live. But this doesn’t hold water if we think about Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount. Blessed are the ones who stand up for what Jesus proclaimed. The “easy yoke” Jesus promises is all the more confusing in thinking of the strenuous demands placed on the disciples and the rejection they faced. How can Jesus offer rest when he asks so much? Faith of our fathers, holy faith! We will be true to thee till death

What Jesus offers is not freedom from work, but freedom from oppressive labor. Soul-sick weariness is not the inevitable consequence of all work, but rather of work not suited to us, of work motivated by fear, of work performed in the face of futility, or of work not using our God-given gifts. There is also weariness that comes from having nothing at all to do that truly matters. The easy yoke means having something to do: a purpose that demands our all and summons forth from us our best. It means work that is motivated by a passionate desire to see God’s kingdom realized. It means work toward a certain future – a future in which God’s dreams will finally come true. To accept the yoke of our gentle and humble Lord is to embrace the worthy task that puts the soul at ease – the task that connects our gifts to God’s purpose. It is then that we can get to work and find rest when the work is done. And be able to claim the Faith of our fathers, holy faith! We will be true to thee till death ! Amen.

Faith of Our Fathers

Faith of our fathers, living still, In spite of dungeon, fire and sword; O how our hearts beat high with joy Whene'er we hear that glorious Word!

(Faith of our fathers, holy faith!) (We will be true to thee till death).

Our fathers, chained in prisons dark, Were still in heart and conscience free How sweet would be their childrens fate If they, like them, could die for thee

(Faith of our fathers, holy faith!) (We will be true to thee till death).

Faith of our fathers, we will love Both friend and foe in all our strife; And preach Thee, too, as love knows how By kindly words and virtuous life.

(Faith of our fathers, holy faith!)

{We will be true to thee till death}

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