July 6, 2014, Pentecost 4 – The Voice in the Marketplace
Our next-door neighbor was hosting a Fourth-of-July get-together yesterday, which we were able to enjoy vicariously through our open windows. Our two little neighbor girls, who are very nice girls, were joined by a whole bunch of their friends, and they sounded like they were having a blast – they had a trampoline and a swimming pool and basketball and bicycles and lots and lots of running and shouting. Lots of shouting, but apparently not lots of listening, because as is often the case in large groups of children – and adults as well – everyone seemed to want to be on the sending end of things but very few wanted to be on the receiving end. The parents, of course, had a particularly hard time being heard over all the fun when it was time to call the kids in for dinner or warn them to keep away from the street. And I think that’s a little bit like the picture Jesus was drawing for us in the reading today.
Jesus said, “This generation” – by which he just meant the people living in the world around us – “This generation are like children who sit around in the marketplace and call to one another.” You try to play the flute and get up a dance but nobody’s listening. You play a sad song to draw them into mourning but they won’t listen to that either. John came to the children of men with a solemn warning and they said “Who on earth would pay attention to a fanatic out in the desert? He must have a demon or something.” And then the Son of Man himself came among them, eating and drinking with them, and they dismissed him, too. “Why should we listen to him? He’s obviously no holier than the rest of us – he’s nothing but a glutton and a drunkard.” Everyone was so busy with their own pronouncements and judgments and self-importance that they couldn’t – or wouldn’t – hear the call they needed to hear.
And now, in our own generation, there are infinitely more voices out there: voices of our neighbors and friends, voices on the TV, voices in the newspaper, voices on the internet, voices of all manner of advertising and politics and propaganda. Not to mention we each have our own voice to add. Everybody’s got something to say, but you may have noticed, not much of anybody ever seems to be listening. Do you ever hear a debate on economics or gun control or gay marriage or abortion or any other hot-button issue, where anyone comes away with new ideas, or where anyone has changed their mind, even a little bit? We are all of us very quick to speak and very slow to listen, and on top of that, there seems to be so little time in our noisy world for quiet reflection. And if that makes it hard for us to hear one another, it makes it even harder for us to hear the still, small voice of God. Now, maybe even more than in the marketplace of Jesus’s day, the call of the Father, that voice we most need to hear, gets lost in the clamor – and not only lost, but rejected, by those who most need to hear it.
The call of the Father comes in the humble voice of Jesus, who invites us: “Come to me, all you who are tired out from carrying your heavy loads. Come find rest in me, the Teacher who is gentle and humble in heart. The load I have for you is easy to carry, and the burden I would lay on you is light.” For me personally, this verse is an anchor, something I come back to again and again, a promise I hold onto for myself and for the people I pray for, people who are carrying loads far too heavy, people who are weighed down by burdens far too difficult for them. Even more than that, I believe that God has given me these verses as a vision for our church, as a guiding principle for St. Philip’s. I wrote them into my prayer book on March 7, 2013, when I was praying for God’s will for our church, and that’s why you see these verses at the heading of our newsletters and on our website. I believe God has called us to be a church “welcoming the weary and dedicated to discipleship” – because I have seen that God is making us a safe and comforting place for all people who find their way here, and because we are daily learning from the one who is gentle and humble in heart. I see those things already in who we are as a church, warm and loving and faithful, and I know that God will make it more and more a reality for us as we grow.
But these verses are not first and foremost about what we have to offer. The first and most important thing for each of us as a disciple of Jesus Christ is to hear him. The call of the gentle Teacher is an invitation that each and every one of us has a profound need to hear, because to be human in this world is to carry the heavy burden of being sinful and broken people, and we all grow weary under that weight. The passage from Romans that we read this morning is heavy with that burden; Paul cries out in desperation: “I love the law of God in my heart, but my mind and my body – the things I do and the things I think and the words that come out of my mouth – they all seem to be at war with my heart, so that I feel like I’m held prisoner by the sin that controls my thoughts and actions. I am such a complete loser! Can’t anyone rescue me from this body of death?”
Who hasn’t felt the weariness and discouragement of what Paul is saying? We promise ourselves that we will never fall back into some bad habit, and the first thing we know we are right back where we started. We vow to do better at some discipline, or we vow to be kinder to someone that always annoys us, or we vow to avoid some temptation, and we so often disappoint ourselves, so that we end up carrying the additional burden of our guilt along with everything else. We get very good at carrying on with our lives, shouldering the load, pushing through our weariness and disappointment, but by the grace of God we all come at last to those moments when, like Paul, we feel we will be crushed by the weight of our failure.
Those moments are grace to us because that is exactly when the sweet call of Jesus comes to us like the promise of rain in the desert – if we listen. “Come to me, all you who are carrying burdens too heavy to bear. I will give you rest. Try on my yoke instead of that heavy load you’re carrying around.” For the Jews in Jesus’ day the crushing burdens were the impossible demands of the Law. To the Law of Moses, which had been given by God to reflect his character in the midst of godless nations, the teachers of the Law had heaped regulation upon manmade regulation. People were looking to the Law to make themselves right with God, but the only power the Law had was to show them how utterly unworthy they were.
Our generation is not burdened with the Law of Moses, but we burden ourselves and one another with laws of our own making. In place of the Law of Moses we have become a law unto ourselves. And it is every bit as heavy and unbearable as the rules and regulations of the Scribes and Pharisees.
We lay on ourselves the burden of being right, and the burden of judging others – because if I am right, you must be wrong. That’s why it’s often so hard for us to listen to one another, because the idea of being wrong is such a threat to our fragile egos.
We lay on ourselves the burden of being in control – we feel that somehow we ought, we need, to make things work the way we want them to.
We lay on ourselves the burden of self-righteousness, of being better than the “other”, whoever the “other” happens to be, of proving, to ourselves and everyone else, that we are the “good guy”.
We lay on ourselves the burden of satisfying our appetites and desires. We’re told that we do ourselves harm if we deny ourselves or restrain our impulses.
We lay on ourselves the burden of self-sufficiency, the burden of needing not to need anyone.
And we lay on ourselves the heavy burden of shame, every time we fail to obey our own laws and live up to our own expectations.
These are the laws of our sinful human nature, the whispered demands of our pride and our selfishness and our fear and our guilt. Even the best and strongest of us are unable to carry the weight of these demands, and if we did they would only kill us in the end. The good news is that we can cast off all of these burdens, because there is one burden – and only one – that is easy to bear, and there is one yoke – and only one – that is light on our shoulders. Hear the Voice that calls out to you, “Come to me, all of you who are carrying heavy burdens, all of you who are worn out from your labors. Come take my yoke upon you, come share my burden, and I promise that you will find rest.”
The one yoke that is light on our shoulders, the one burden that is easy to bear, is the one law of the kingdom of God. And that is the burden of love: to love God with all our heart and all our soul and all our strength and all our mind, and to love our neighbor as we love our very selves. That burden alone brings life instead of death, and builds us up instead of crushing us to the ground. And it is easy, not because we are so naturally good at loving one another selflessly – we know we are not – but because we are yoked together with the one who loves perfectly and endlessly. It is the one burden we can’t fail to carry, because we have the perfect yokefellow, one who is able to carry the load perfectly, but who gladly teaches us gently and humbly to share it.
The Voice of the gentle Teacher is calling us out of our self-imposed slavery, and into the peace and freedom of his law of love. He is calling us to be life-long learners, fellow laborers, bearers of the very best burden. Listen for his voice today, and accept his invitation, and you will find true rest for your souls.