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Sermon by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton
Methodist Scholar of World religion Huston Smith ften told this Hindu story: The disciple said to the master, “How can I find God?”
Instead of answering the question, the master led the student down to the river. After staring out over the water a while, the master grabbed the student pushed his head under the water,holding him there for several minutes while the student struggled. Finally, the master let him go. The student emerged from the water sputtering and gasping for air.
After a few minutes, the master said, “So how did it feel down there?” The student glared at the master and said. “It was awful. I thought I was going to die.” The master said, “When you want God as much as you wanted air, when you feel like you cannot live without God in your life; then – you will find God.
Matthew 11 reads:
“But to what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplace and calling to one another, ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.’ For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon’; the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’
Jesus’ point in this text is simple – people aren’t really serious about finding God, so they avoid God by complaining about God’s messengers. The ones complaining about both John and Jesus purport to be serious seekers after God – but what they are really looking for is a God made in their own image, not the God in whose image they were made. They are seeking a religious experience that will fit appropriately into their lifestyle, spiritual moment that they can control and regularize.
Yes, Jesus would agree with the Hindu master, when people want a relationship with God as much as a drowning man wants air; when we believe we will die without God, then our inherent will pettiness will cease and we will look up and discover God and holiness all around us.
In Matthew, the character of Jesus is drawn in sharp contrast to the scribes and Pharisees and their way of approaching God. They have taken the Torah, the teaching from God, the revealed will of God, and transformed it from a living and exciting invitation to holy living into a heavy, joyless, burden on the people. They have expanded it into law after law, long lists of that which is clean and unclean, exact formulas for ritual observance that one must follow to a T. They have turned God’s word of steadfast love into a word of perpetual judgment and duty. The yoke of the Law, the call to work in the Kingdom of God, has become an albatross around their necks, weighing them down and holding them back.
The scribes and Pharisees were not unique in these attempts to corral and control God; these efforts to bring some sort of order into the wildness and chaos of God’s ways with the world. Down through the years, we human beings have habitually sought to create systems
by which we can assure ourselves we are all right, all right with each other and all right with God.
The Lutherans have the Book of Theological Concord, the Episcopalians have the Book of Common Prayer. (Remarkable how similar they are in size and “weightiness.”) Presbyterians have a Book of Order, and the Methodists have The Discipline, And in terms of making us “right with God,” none of it ever works, not really. At some point all our systems fail, because we fail. No matter how cleverly we put the system together, there is always a flaw in it. And the flaw is us.
Paul gives clear voice to this flaw in Romans 7:23: “but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin” The problem with all the human ideas about how to be religious is not that they are failures of logic or that they are inconsistent systems of ethics or even that they ask too much of us. The problem is, as the old comic strip character Pogo once said, “We have met the enemy and they is us.”
WE ARE THE PROBLEM!
When Paul says in Romans; “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” and again, “I can will what is right, but I cannot do it;” we are all forced to nod with sad and rueful recognition. Our behaviors big and small are very seldom completely consistent with our better selves and we, like Paul, long to know not only why we are bad, but also how we will ever get off this endless cycle of good intentions and bad results, of consistent failure and guilt?
The promise of the gospel is that Jesus has come to rescue us from ourselves. In verses 25-30 of our Matthew 11, Jesus proclaims: “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.”
In the midst of all our current confusion and despair, God still comes to us in the person of Jesus the Christ. God comes to us and reminds us that the divine/human encounter is controlled not by us, but by God. We do not find God through wisdom and intelligence; God finds us and reveals God’s self to us when helpless as a baby, we need and want God the way we need and want air to breathe.
Jesus invites us to lay our burden down and take up the yoke of the Gospel with him. I wonder what burden each of us might need to put down this day in order to take up the yoke of Jesus, the cross of Christ? What sin of our past haunts our present? What doubt in our mind troubles our spirit? What feeling of inadequacy or unworthiness keeps us from offering ourselves as a fellow laborer with Jesus in the Kingdom of God?
Whatever it is that is holding us back and getting in our way; Jesus invites us to put it down,lay it aside, kick it to the curb, leave it behind as we embrace the opportunity to share in the work of the Kingdom, the work of sharing with the world God’s grace, God’s goodness, God’s love.
Take a deep breath, feel the air enter your lungs. Now, take another breath and breathe God in, feel God come into you with forgiveness and love and holiness. “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.”
Amen and amen.