Sunday, July 6, 2008

Eighth Sunday after Pentecost
Zechariah 9:9-12
Psalm 145:8-14
Romans 7:15-25a
Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

For I delight in the law of God after the inward man: but I see a different law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity under the law of sin which is in my members.

I think what I like most about Paul is his honesty. He is often harsh in his letters, saying what most of us think but would never say out loud. He is willing to call a sin a sin and to admit that he is the worst of sinners. In his letter to the Romans, he talks about his inability to be all he wants to be, the perfect Christian, a righteous person. He admits his frailty and his lack of control. He wants to do what is right and avoid what is wrong, but he recognizes and confesses his failure.

We donít want to admit our failure. This is even truer for institutions and organizations than it is for individuals. The Bible tells us that where two or more are gathered in Jesusí name, God will be with them. Unfortunately, there are those who believe that whatever words come out of such a gathering must be absolutely true, as if the words of religious people must be from the mouth of God. Those that stand in leadership positions of those churches are thought to have a closer relationship with God and therefore by His hand must be right. We see this most clearly in those cults with charismatic leaders. None of the followers dare disagree because they do not have the same connection to God. Those leaders forget their imperfection. They forget that they are no different than Paul, unable to control their own flesh.

Paul certainly had a great deal to say about the Gospel message and the Church. We look to him today for guidance about how we live and serve God in this world. We might even think that Paul was perfect, yet Paul did not even think so. Paul knew his failures, he recognized his frailty. He knew that he could make mistakes and even that he was likely to do what is wrong. If Paul, who met the risen Christ on the road to Damascus, could have no control over his own flesh, how do we expect to be any better? This is why we must always remember that while God does call and ordain His Church to do His work in this world, the Church is made of many members all of which are fallible. We donít have control: we do what we want to do which is not always what God would have us do. That is why we are called to be slaves to God, who can and will bring us to that perfection which is the result of His sanctification.

We are saved by the grace of Christ. While our salvation is a future promise of eternal life, we are saved in this life to be transformed for the sake of the Gospel and for the glory of God. We are saved and are sanctified so that the world will see Christ in our life and in our deeds. Unfortunately, we are still living in the flesh, the flesh which is weak. We fail. We say things we know we shouldnít but the words come out of our mouths even before we realize we are thinking about them. We do what is wrong even before we realize we are doing it. We donít do what is right and do not even realize it until the moment has passed. We fail because our flesh still holds the sin which Christ has overcome.

There is a phrase attributed to Martin Luther, ďsimul justus et peccatorĒ which means ďsimultaneously saint and sinner.Ē We are saved and are assured of the hope of eternal life. We are being transformed into the saints who God has created and ordained us to be. But it is a process that takes a lifetime. While we still live in these bodies of flesh we will fail. I think that this is why Christianity is confusing to those who do not believe in Christ. They expect Christians to be perfect as Christ was perfect. They see our failure as hypocrisy instead of the reality of our human flesh. They do not realize that the Church is not a place where perfect people gather, but a place for imperfect people to be forgiven, healed and transformed. I suppose we are part of the problem because too many Christians refuse to accept their own frailty.

George Carlin died recently. George Carlin was a comedian, a controversial comedian at times, but very funny. One of his most famous routines had to do with language. The routine, of course, was ďThe Seven Dirty Words that you canít say on Television.Ē I donít like the seven dirty words. They serve no real linguistic function in communication except as exclamations or to shock. Unfortunately, for some, those words are a vital part of their speech. Every other word is one of the seven or something similar. Their sentences stop making sense and start sounding like jabbering. I absolutely do not use some of those words because they are not only offensive but they are not even pleasant on the tongue. They donít fit well into conversation and they have no value in making a statement, even if it is meant to shock. Overuse and abuse of those words stops being funny and becomes upsetting as much because it shows a lack of concern for others as it does a lack of cohesive language.

I absolutely do not use some of those words, but unfortunately I find myself using some of them way too much. I donít want to do it. I really hate when I hear one of those four letter words come out of my mouth. I do not have the control of my tongue that I would like and often end up saying something I know I should not say. It is not only dirty words that slip from my mouth. When Iím cut off on the highway, I am quick to call that person something that is not very nice. Iíve used words about people that I would never want others to use about me. When I do this, I am cut to the heart. I know I have done the very same things on the highway, and though Iím quick to justify my failure with excuses I am never willing to give the other guy the same consideration. When this happens, I vow to be more considerate on the road and to hold my tongue. I ask forgiveness for the thoughts, words and deeds against my neighbor. And then the next time it happens, I spit out those same words all over again.

Our scripture for today is a story of opposites. Though Jesus and John the Baptist had a similar message, they approached it much differently. There was such a difference that earlier in this chapter John even questioned whether Jesus was the One for whom they had been waiting. John came preaching hellfire and brimstone, calling for repentance with mournful wails. Jesus also preached repentance but with a completely different point of view. For Jesus, the message was one of joy because the promised kingdom had come. John lamented, Jesus danced. John lived as though it was time for a funeral; Jesus celebrated as if at a wedding. Interestingly, neither the messages of John nor Jesus were accepted. Jesus was not concerned. ďWisdom is justified by her works.Ē

Jesus talks about the difference between the ďwise and understandingĒ and the ďbabes.Ē We would automatically assume that those who are wise and understanding would be more acceptable in the kingdom of God. What do babes know? The wise can understand revelation more quickly. They can interpret it more clearly. They can share it with more eloquence. Yet, Jesus tells us that it is the babes to whom God will reveal His kingdom. Babes will not take control; they will live in hope and trust, allowing God to be God, celebrating Godís promises instead of trying to prove their wisdom, power and authority. We ignore the wisdom of children because it seems so simplistic, but the truth of God is simple. We laugh at the foolishness of children, but it is to such as them that God reveals Himself.

The third opposite in this passage is in verse 28, a powerful promise to those of us who live in a world full of burdens. ďCome unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.Ē Jesus Christ has given us the Great Commission to go out and make disciples of all nations. This task can seem like a burden, particularly when we canít convince the people we love the most that real peace is found in the hope of Christ. But it is not a burden that we carry alone. He has promised to be with us and it is by His power that the nations will be saved. We rest in the promise of hope that comes from faith in Christ, and trust that He will be faithful. We donít know who we will find in heaven, so let us stay on the solid foundation that is Christ. He will carry all our worries and cares, so that we can find rest.

The yoke of Christ is light and it is there that we will find rest. The gift of faith is from Christ Himself and we cannot see the heart of any man, to know the work of the Lord in His life. We mourn the lost of our loved ones, especially those to whom the Gospel seemed to have no effect, but we are called to live in the joy of the present Kingdom. We live in the hope that God is faithful to all His promises, and trust that our Lord Jesus Christ loved all of creation.

We often think that power and authority is established by the loudest voice. Take, for example, a classroom. How many teachers get the attention of their students by raising their voices? The reality is that yelling does little good when things are chaotic. I learned in my preschool classroom that yelling only makes the children get louder and more out of control. It is necessary to find something to get their attention, to give them something that will bring calm and order to the room. We normally think that bulk and brawn will give us order, but that is not always true. Thatís why John the Baptist thought Jesus would come to be a military power. Thatís why he was surprised at Jesusí quiet ministry.

Zechariah writes that Israel should rejoice because her king will come riding in on a donkey. This does not seem to be an image to bring much hope or peace. After all, how can there be peace with a king who humbly rides a donkey rather than coming in with power and authority in a chariot and magnificent horse? This picture of a Messiah is not at all what the people expected. In Jesusí day they were still looking for someone to fight, to overcome the oppressors with power. Yet, God sent Jesus who rode a donkey as He entered victoriously into Jerusalem just days before His death. Jesus got the peopleís attention not with a loud voice and awesome military power, but with words of hope and miraculous deeds that changed the lives of those who met.

Jan Hus (John Huss) was martyred on July 6, 1415 and will be remembered this Sunday. It is a secular holiday in the Czech Republic because even though his work was on the religious front (his followers became the Moravian Church), he has become a national hero. Most Czechs are either non-religious or Roman Catholic. Yet, the courage of Jan Hus, who willingly faced death for the sake the believers, is still remembered today. He once wrote, ďOne pays for confession, for mass, for the sacrament, for indulgences, for churching a woman, for a blessing, for burials, for funeral services and prayers. The very last penny which an old woman has hidden in her bundle for fear of thieves or robbery will not be saved. The villainous priest will grab it.Ē Things donít change much, do they? We continue to follow our flesh instead of hearing the voice of God in our lives.

Things were very confused in church during the 14th and 15th centuries. There was a question about who should be Pope. At one point, the seat of the Pope was moved out of Rome into Avignon, France. After 790 years it was moved back to Rome, but the cardinals were almost all from France. The Italian people were afraid that the cardinals would elect a French pope, and that he would move the seat from Rome again. The cardinals elected an Italian, fled the country and then elected a French man into the office. Who is the authority? There were people on both sides, which was right? All claimed to be from God, which one was true?

During this controversy over authority, one of the popes actually sold indulgences to raise the money he needed to wage war against the other pope. Could God really wish His people to fight one another over a position whose official title is ďServant of the Servants of God?Ē This was the question asked by a man named John Huss (Jan Hus). We often think of Martin Luther as the man who started the Protestant Reformation, but there were others before him who laid the foundation for reform. Jan Hus was one of those men who were preaching about the abuses of the church a hundred years before Martin Luther.

Jan Hus was burned at the stake having been found guilty of heresy. The question before the council was about this issue of papal authority. Jan Hus believed that the pope was not a divinely created position, but one created by the Church to keep order. Since the leaders had only recently managed to bring the Church under the authority of one Pope, they did not want anything that might disrupt the shaky unity. They found him guilty and he was killed. Throughout the battle for power and authority, the people called to live as Christ actually lived according to their flesh. Instead of being servants to Godís servants, they did what they felt was necessary to keep control. They did not even realize they were not living according to Godís intentions for their lives.

Our work, as Christians, is not to rule the world with power and might. The world will see Godís lovingkindness through the compassion given by those who have experienced it. Christians who have heard the Word and have seen the light are Godís instruments of His grace and compassion. Through us, all men will know of Godís mighty acts, the splendor of His kingdom. The psalmist praised God so that others might hear of the acts of the One from whom we receive the unmerited favor of His blessings. We, His saints, are called to sing His praise, to speak of the glory of His kingdom. We speak these words not only to praise God, but so that others might hear and believe.

Lovingkindness is proactive. The Lord God Almighty, through Jesus Christ our Lord, has shown the most incredible compassion to all. His goodness is for all He has made. His love is for everyone. Christ died for sinners even before we knew we were sinners. He died for us even before we were born. Godís lovingkindness is proactive, coming to us long before we even knew we needed it. Even now that are many in our world who do not know they need the mercy and grace of God. They do not accept the forgiveness that comes from faith because they do not believe they have anything to be forgiven. But Godís Kingdom has come for them, too. By Godís grace, we have become the manifestation of His lovingkindness, as we take His Word into the world.

The psalm for today is an acrostic, a poem in which each verse begins with a different letter of the alphabet. It is interesting to think about the importance of this literary technique. The psalmist found a way to praise God from literally ďA to Z.Ē How often do we think so much about Godís grace that we can write a poem using every letter of our alphabet?

We are frail. We will fail. But we can live in praise and thanksgiving to God because He is merciful. We do not need power, might or a loud voice. We need only to recognize our imperfection and let God continue His work in our lives. Today we are saints and sinners simultaneously. One day weíll know the fullness of Godís promise of perfection.

A WORD FOR TODAY
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