Sunday, July 3, 2011

Sermon for Proper 9 (Pentecost III)

Matthew 11:16-19. 25-30
St Paul's Cathedral

They say that a preacher’s job is to comfort the afflicted … and afflict the comfortable. Well, I’ve got plenty of material to do both with this morning, right here in these eight verses from the eleventh chapter of Matthew’s gospel.

But I’m feeling a little rebellious today, so I’m not going to do either one! I’m not going to try and comfort you in this sermon—though, of course, if it’s comfort you need, your clergy in this cathedral, and your bishop, stand ready to provide that comfort. And I’m not going to try to particularly afflict you either, though I do hope that you find what I have to say a little challenging, at least, if not provocative. What I want to try to do is enable you to see familiar sights and familiar events a little differently, and, having seen, to be inspired to action. What I want to do, in fact, is to invite you to put yourselves in my position as the preacher in this interaction. Only instead of a polite congregation seated in pews, your hearers are ordinary people out in the world getting on with their busy lives. Your job is to “preach” to them, both in word and in deed—probably mostly in deed—and in preaching to them, what you want to do is…you guessed it…comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.

Some of you know that there was an event held up in Minnesota the week before last, the triennial Episcopal Youth Event, or EYE. We had an adult leader and two youth—including a young lady from this parish—represent the Diocese of Springfield there, along with a cameo appearance by the Bishop. Imagine 900 teenagers taking over a college campus, getting together a couple of times a day in a rock concert atmosphere to sing and worship and listen to speakers, and at other times break out into smaller groups for various activities. It was a high-energy experience!  

The theme of this year’s EYE was loud and clear: It’s all about mission. There were some very powerful and moving presentations on the subject, and, as a result, a bunch of young people who are inspired and motivated to pursue mission. And mission is at the core of today’s gospel reading from Matthew. Just a few verses earlier, Jesus had sent his apostles out on their first mission trip, and the material we heard today is part of the conversation in which Jesus helps them unpack their experience as missionaries.

I’m aware that, under the leadership of Dean Brodie, there’s an ongoing conversation in this parish community about mission: What is the mission of the Cathedral Church of St Paul? What imprint is this historic congregation called to leave on the community of Springfield in the second decade of the twenty-first century? And you can take my word for it that there’s also an ongoing conversation at a diocesan level on the same subject: What is our mission in central and southern Illinois at this particular moment in the history of Christianity and the history of this part of our state? One on a mission is one who is sent. What, precisely, are we “sent” to accomplish? Trust me on this: I eat, drink, sleep, and dream that question 24-7!

Well, for starters, thinking back to the idea of comforting the afflicted, we certainly have words of comfort to offer. Jesus himself gives us those words: “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

God knows, and we know, that there is no shortage of people in the world around us who are “weary” and “heavy laden.” People are weary from being laden with anxiety—anxiety about finances, anxiety about their relationships with family members and others whom they love. People are weary from being laden with grief over losses that have already occurred and losses they know will occur and losses they fear might occur. We are particularly mindful these days of those who are suffering loss due to floods and fires in various parts of our country. People are weary from being laden with chronic poverty, from being imprisoned by addiction, from being abused and exploited by those in positions of power. There is no shortage of weariness or heavy-laden-ness.

And we have good news for such weary and heavy-laden men and women and children—good news that we can tell, and good news that we can do. Through the organized ministry of the church, and through the faithful actions of individual Christians, we offer words of comfort and deeds of comfort to those who are weighed down by the burdens of the human condition. Through us, they hear Jesus saying to them, “I will give you rest.”

But before being swept away by missionary zeal, we do well to remind ourselves that our words and deeds of liberation and reconciliation will not always get us welcomed with open arms. When Allied troops invaded France in 1994 to drive out the Germans, they were welcomed as liberators. When Coalition forces invaded Iraq in 2003 to topple Sadaam Hussein’s government, they generally got a rather chillier response. When Jesus sent his apostles on their first mission trip, he warned them that they would encounter rejection, and to just shake off the dust and move on.

Sure enough, that’s exactly what happened. Jesus gives voice to their frustration, and his own, here: “To what shall I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the market places and calling to their playmates, ‘We piped to 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, ‘Behold, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’” In other words, John the Baptist was all eccentric and spiritual, so people thought he was just plain weird. Jesus was more ordinary and liked to mix it up socially, so he was accused of being a party animal. Either way, people had an excuse for rejecting the gospel, for turning their back on the good news. As missionaries who follow in their steps, we should also expect to be misunderstood, misinterpreted, falsely accused, and rejected. There’s no way around it.

When, as Episcopalians, we think about the missional challenges we face, we are tempted to worry about “competition” from other churches. In particular, we worry about the “big box” churches, churches with big screens, theater seats, Starbuck’s in the lobby, and rock bands on the platform, packing in hordes of people every Sunday. There are a number of good reasons why we should not think of other churches as our competition, but I’m particularly struck by these words from evangelical pastor John Ortberg on the subject:

Who is your competition?
It's not other churches. Every church is our partner and ally. Thank God for Lutherans and Episcopalians and Methodists and … Congregationalists and Non-denominationalists. …our competition is hell. Hell is at work wherever the will of God is defied.
Every time a little child is left unloved, unwanted, uneducated, unnoticed. Every time a marriage ends. Every time racial differences divide a street or a city or a church. Every time money gets worshipped or hoarded. Every time a lie gets told. Every time generations get separated. Every time a workplace becomes de-humanizing. When families get broken up. When virtue gets torn down. When sinful habits create a lives of shame or a culture of shamelessness. When faith gets undermined and hope gets lost and people get trashed. That's when hell is prevailing. 
It is not acceptable to Jesus that hell prevail. Your job is not to meet a budget, run a program, fill a building, or maintain the status quo. Your job is to put hell out of business. 
That's what it means for your church to do well.
I would only add this: Our mission is not to defeat hell on our own by solving all these problems, tempting as it may be to think we can. Rather, our mission is twofold: First, it is to announce to the world not what we are doing about all the world’s ills, but what God is doing to redeem and restore the fabric of creation through the death and resurrection of Jesus. We are primarily newscasters, and only secondarily newsmakers. Second—and this is the hard one—our mission is to model in our own life together what the restored Kingdom of God looks like, to say to the world, “Hey, if you want to know what’s coming when God is finished with this project of his, look at us.” Of course, that’s pretty audacious, because it means we then have to deliver on what we’ve promised. Not so easy, I realize, but always our vocation, always our calling.

My friends, will you walk with me in that glorious mission? Praised be Jesus Christ. Amen.

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