5th Sunday After Pentecost, Year A
Much like last week, I feel like I need to begin by addressing our reading from Genesis – and the Psalm, too. In Genesis we hear the telling of Rebekah joining Abraham and Isaac’s family, taken away from her own – as it was then. It appears as though she has some agency in the story – it seems she is given a choice to go or not (whether or not it was actually a choice in her culture is unsure), but this is unlike Isaac, who is more or less just a sidenote in almost every story that involves him. It gives us a hint of the important role Rebekah will have in this familial line.
The Psalm was written for a royal wedding, the only one of its kind, and the section we heard addresses the queen. There is such an emphasis on her beauty and the hope she brings for bearing sons. I have to be honest that I get tired of reading our patriarchal scriptures that diminish a woman’s value to her child-bearing ability and her looks.
It feels strange to have celebrated 50 years of Lutheran women being ordained as pastors in the ELCA on June 29 and then hearing these texts. We must be aware that this attitude of oppression toward women is still alive and well in the world today, even in our own country, even among the women pastors we celebrate. Women pastors are still critiqued for their child-bearing abilities (or lack thereof) and their looks, good or bad. We should celebrate that we have been ordaining women for 50 years, and yet there is still so much more work that needs to be done. We should celebrate that Lord of Life is currently led by a pastor and deacon who are both women, and yet there is more work that needs to be done. Sometimes we might be okay with that kind of truth telling, and other times not.
In Matthew’s gospel reading today, the text is calling out people who don’t recognize truth when it is standing right in front of them. They have been told the message, but they haven’t heard it or seen it because it hasn’t come in the way they want. They see with superficial eyes and make assumptions about John the Baptist and Jesus. Jesus is calling out the crowd on their assumptions. And he’s calling them out for failing to see what’s been in front of them because it doesn’t look or sound the way they want it to.
In our own culture, we are facing change, like the people in our gospel reading. We are being challenged to listen and hear calls for change. Those calls might make us uncomfortable. The change itself may feel uncomfortable. Everytime calls for equality come they often make us uncomfortable, maybe because of our own guilt or our denial that we are part of broken or evil systems. It’s hard to imagine that we, good-meaning, moral people could be participants in or malformed by systems that we had put so much trust in. Sometimes we think – yes, we want change, but just not like that. But then how? How will change come? How will change ever be acceptable to us? “We played the flute for you and you did not dance. We wailed and you did not mourn.” (Matthew 11:17)
In the verses that we skipped today, Jesus reproaches the cities in which most of his deeds of power had been done because they did not repent. They did not pursue new paths. Even these places that had received most of Jesus’ work could not see and hear and change their ways. They could only say, “Yes we want change, but not like that.” It may be good for each of us to reflect on this, wondering in what ways we are resistant to change.
There’s a pastor who is guiding people into the fall by warning them that the level of anger in our culture and system will increase every week. Especially with the pandemic and with the upcoming election – anger will be in the air. “Anger can be a righteous thing and motivate us to action, but it can also be toxic and cause us to turn on each other and demand things that are unreasonable.” (Prof. Matt Skinner, Luther Seminary, in Sermon Brainwave) It will be essential for us to retain our core – to remember who and whose we are, and remember to live in and from love, or we will tear each other apart.
Paul’s writing in Romans comes to mind: “I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. … When I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand.” I appreciate this passage so much because it is so human sounding. You can really hear his inner struggle. What Paul articulates here ends up being articulated by St. Augustine, and then eventually by Luther, who would say that we don’t have the power to do good within us. When left to ourselves, we always choose ourselves. Sin is navel gazing, and when I am navel gazing, I can’t see anyone else but myself. Even having the capacity to do good is God at work in each of us.
The depth of sin Paul articulates, in addition to our own guilt or heaviness with everything going on – it can feel so heavy. Fighting systemic sin that is centuries old is exhausting. And even getting us to admit it is there takes strength. And this is where we finally hear what we want to hear today: “Come to me, you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” Ahh. Breathe. An invitation to be present, to lay our burdens down. To lay down our guilt and our shame and our assumptions of others. Notice that this is an imperative – an order, if you will. It may also be an invitation, but it is an imperative. Come to me, and I will give you rest. There is urgency here. You really need to do this.
“Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble of heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” Trading our heavy weight of sin articulated in Romans for Jesus’ light burden of teaching. To live in the way of Jesus is to live in the way of love and peace and justice. That way doesn’t always feel light. Sometimes it feels quite heavy. It also requires us to let go enough, to trust God enough, to hand over our burdens, to surrender. Do we trust God enough to do that? To let go of our hate and our assumptions, and allow God to use our anger for action instead of festering? Today’s texts reveal our human condition – that “left to our own devices we would respectfully decline,” (Prof. Karoline Lewis, Luther Seminary, in Sermon Brainwave).
Today we get to try again; to let go and let God; to surrender; to let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me. “Try again” was a phrase I introduced last week in contrast to our world of “try harder.” Let’s try again, church. There is grace abundant to carry us, giving us ample opportunity. Let us let go and dwell in the rest of God, and be recharged for this important work.
I want to close today with the prayer written by a team of Lutheran and Episcopalian prayer leaders in light of this pandemic as we approach our 20th anniversary of our full communion agreement with the Episcopal Church. It’s called A Prayer for the Power of the Spirit Among the People of God. It was in the Wednesday email for the last two weeks. Let us pray.
God of all power and love, we give thanks for your unfailing presence and the hope you provide in times of uncertainty and loss. Send your Holy Spirit to enkindle in us your holy fire. Revive us to live as Christ’s body in the world: a people who pray, worship, learn, break bread, share life, heal neighbors, bear good news, seek justice, rest and grow in the Spirit. Wherever and however we gather, unite us in common prayer and send us in common mission, that we and the whole creation might be restored and renewed, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.