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Sermon: Wisdom’s Children

July 3, 2011

Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

Even though the Church of Jesus Christ is open to all people, we sometimes make it difficult for people to become members.  Many local congregations have developed elaborate membership classes that require only a little less time and effort than getting a Ph.D.  Some churches require specific commitments, such as becoming a member of a small group, serving on a committee or tithing—giving ten-percent of your income to the church.  Some denominations insist that new members sign a document that claims the person’s theological beliefs are identical to the doctrines of the church in question.  Some require a particular kind of baptism—if you haven’t been immersed completely, then you haven’t really been baptized.  I know people who have gotten married with far less commitment than is required by some churches.  In fact, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church says that our membership “vows, like marriage vows, bind us as long as we live on earth…God will punish those who do not keep their solemn promises made in his name. Remember, ‘it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God’ (Heb. 10:31).”

Now let’s contrast those burdens of membership with the way Jesus gathered followers.  Jesus approached some potential new members—he called them “disciples”—and said, “Hey, come on!”  If a person wanted to become a member of Jesus’ movement, they followed him.  If not, they didn’t.  All the training they got was on-the-job training.

It could be said that Jesus’ disciples did not have it quite as easy as it seems on the surface.  Legend has it that of Jesus’ original membership class of 12, all 12 died early, violent deaths.  But, it is also true that none of them ever had to serve on the Board of Trustees.  Some people would say that’s a good tradeoff.

As religions and denominations make the shift from movement to institution, the level of commitment and obligation required by the leaders seems to increase.  But that’s not ever how Jesus imagined the life of faith.  Our lesson from the gospel according to Matthew includes one of our most beloved verses: “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest…For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

That’s something we can all appreciate in our busy, overburdened lives.  In the modern world, employee productivity is skyrocketing through the roof.  What that really means is that businesses are getting more work from fewer and fewer employees.  Employees are burdened.  Our children are expected to attend ever more activities and functions, and many parents today look forward to Mondays because their overburdened jobs seem like vacations compared to a weekend full of dashing around town to get their children to thirty events.  We fight with insurance companies, banks and credit card companies, the IRS and a hundred other institutions that aren’t particularly interested in knowing that you worked a 60 hour week.  Oh, and by the way, there’s a meeting at church tonight.  We need a yoke that’s easy and a burden that is light.

Jesus never had to deal with the rigors of a high school marching band schedule or inane paperwork.  He did, however, know something of religious obligation.  Jesus grew up in a religion and a society that was under threat.  The Romans had occupied the land, and while they were relatively generous occupiers, they still managed to stifle the social and religious life of the people.  Some religious people thought that the answer to this problem was more faithfulness.  If only we worked harder and became more faithful Jews, God would intervene and drive the Romans from this land.  The Pharisees were one of these groups of leaders.  They were lay people, and they believed that religious Law and obligation could be observed to the nth degree.  They were able to parse out the obligations of God’s Law in every particular.

It’s easy for us to caricature the Pharisees as uptight people who were more concerned with questions about how you could stuff a camel through the eye of a needle than about how to love God and neighbor, but look at these two books.  One of them is the Bible, and one of them is The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church.  Which one do you suppose is the Bible?…If you said the thicker book is the Bible, you are correct, but it isn’t thicker by very much.  This Discipline is 857 pages, including the index.  Eight hundred and fifty-seven pages of policies and procedures, rules and regulations.  If you dropped this thing on your foot, you’d be in a cast for a month.

The Pharisees and our Book of Discipline, however, are not evil, and they are not the enemy.  They are testaments to our human desire to serve God well and live up to our high calling as children of the Almighty.  But they are also misguided, and this is what Jesus understands.  Our relationship to God is not based on obligation, but on love.  It is God’s grace—God’s free gift of love—that gives us the breath of life.  It is God’s grace that sends Jesus, the embodiment of perfect love, to this earth.  It is God’s grace that gives us the loving, nurturing presence of the Holy Spirit to guide us.  God first loved us, and we love God back (1 John 4:19).  That’s the message of Jesus Christ.  “My yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

But through all of our trying so hard, and by exercising all of our best plans and carefully considered mission statements and reorganizations and commitment-filled membership vows, we have tried to measure up, and we have missed the boat.  Our faith is not about measuring up.  It is about loving.  That’s why Jesus said, “I thank you, God, that the so-called wise and intelligent people of this world have not understood your message, but you have given understanding to the infants, the simple and humble, those who know that they are utterly dependent on you.”  They don’t try too hard.  They don’t fight and struggle to gain something you have already given to them as a gift.  They simply trust in you, God, and rest secure and easy in your love.  It has never been about working hard.  It has always been about love.

Fifty-eight year old Debbie Spark heard a woman, a stranger, someone she had never met, talking about her kidney condition.  Due to a genetic condition, the woman had to undergo dialysis three times a week, and had a severely restricted diet.  Her name was Polly.

Debbie had watched her own friend die while waiting for a heart transplant in 1985.  She felt compelled to help, and so she did.  In May of this year, Debbie gave Polly one of her own kidneys.  Debbie and Polly both will have to have their blood tested regularly to be sure their single kidneys are functioning properly.  But now, Polly has the prospect of a nearly normal life.  And Debbie?  She has one kidney left.  (James Monteleone, “From Stranger to Friend to Living Organ Donor,” Albuquerque Journal, May 24, 2011.)

Do you think Debbie shared a kidney with Polly because she was just that committed?  Do you think her religious obligation caused her to give a part of herself—literally—to a stranger?  Or do you think she did it out of love?

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