Sunday, July 9, 2017

Sermon: "Trusting Jesus at the Point of No-Return"

A Meditation on Matthew 11:
"Come to me, all of you that are weary..."
 


1.

This Jesus knows.  This Jesus knows that investing your life in peace means provoking your share of conflict.  This Jesus knows that cherishing life, really cherishing life, means carrying a cross.  This Jesus knows.  So he offers himself to us.   COME TO ME.  TAKE MY YOKE.  LEARN FROM ME.  We don't have to walk this way alone.  We bear no cross alone.  This Jesus promises us his comfort, his courage, God's companionship.  LEARN FROM ME, he says, AND YOU WILL FIND REST FOR YOUR SOULS.  That's Jesus this morning, that's his gospel, for you and for me.  LEARN FROM ME, he says, AND YOU WILL FIND REST FOR YOUR SOULS.

So I want talk about that this morning.  I want to talk about TRUSTING JESUS AT THE POINT OF NO-RETURN.  What it means for you and me to turn it all over; what it means for you and me to take that yoke, Jesus’ yoke; and what it means to invite Jesus to the center of our centers—when the struggle overwhelms us.   

You see, that’s where Jesus finds us this morning.  That’s where Jesus finds his disciples.  The struggle out there is overwhelming.  The powers, the principalities are mighty.  The crowds are already hungry and the seas are just starting to rise.  COME TO ME, Jesus says, ALL OF YOU THAT ARE WEARY AND CARRYING HEAVY BURDENS.  We’re worried about our planet.  We’re worried about our kids.  We’re worried about our government.  And we’re worried that our little faith might not be enough.  Jesus knows all this.  Jesus recognizes the struggle.  COME TO ME, he says.  TAKE MY YOKE, he says.  LEARN FROM ME, he says, AND YOU WILL FIND REST FOR YOUR SOULS.

So I want to talk about TRUSTING JESUS AT THE POINT OF NO-RETURN.  I want to talk about the struggle that faith inevitably generates in our lives, even in our hearts.  I want to talk about the companionship of God, the renewal of our spirits.  And I want to talk about taking Jesus up on his offer.  What kind of rest is he talking about?  What kind of peace is he promising?    

2.

Mural: Bishop Richard Allen
In the heart of Philadelphia, in the heady days of the late 18th century, Richard Allen and Absalom Jones reached their own point of no-return.  And maybe you know their story.  They were gifted men, the two of them, and they belonged to St. George’s Methodist Church.  Which is still there, in Philadelphia.  They had devoted their lives to God and they cherished freedom and service.  But they were black men, Richard Allen and Absalom Jones.  And the movers and shakers at St. George’s were increasingly uncomfortable about the growing number of freed black men joining their church.

It was sweet, after all, to include blacks; but the movers and shakers at St. George’s weren’t so sure about trusting them or ordaining them or taking any kind of direction from them.  This is an old story, right, but a contemporary one as well.  Inclusion’s kind of sweet, but collaboration, cooperation, communion’s asking maybe a little too much.

So St. George’s decided to build a balcony in their sanctuary, to accommodate their growing membership; and they designated that balcony for Richard Allen, Absalom Jones and their black brothers and sisters.  And that was, for Richard Allen and Absalom Jones at least, the point of no-return.  The two men led a walk-out in 1787, and soon moved into a church of their own, creating in the process a movement we now know as the African Methodist Episcopal church.  An American first.

Balconies might work well in sports arenas, or in libraries, or in congress, but for Richard Allen and Absalom Jones, they’d never suffice in the church.  It was their point of no-return.  In Jesus’ church, we’re brothers and sisters, one body in Christ.  In Jesus’ church, we all matter, we sit in one circle.  In Jesus’ church, we recognize the same image of God in every single, every unique, every colorful human being.  That’s what they believed in 1787.  No balconies in Jesus’ church!  And that was the beginning of the AME tradition in this country.

The Rev. Traci Blackmon in Baltimore
Traci Blackmon told us this story just last week, in Baltimore, during the UCC’s 31st General Synod.  I hope you get to know Traci Blackmon.  She’s the UCC’s new Executive Minister for Justice & Witness Ministries; and she’s a powerful and fearless leader in our 21st century church.  She told us, last week, about visiting Philadelphia and St. George’s Methodist Church recently, and meeting the pastor of that congregation.  This is the church, mind you, that Richard Allen and Absalom Jones left in 1787.

When the pastor took Traci into the sanctuary, this same pastor pointed up to that same balcony, where the church had relegated its black members in the 1780s.  And he told Traci that every Sunday, before preaching, he looks up to that balcony and asks himself who’s sitting up there now.  In 2017.  Who’s sitting up there now?  Traci Blackmon paused at this point in her sermon—so the rest of us could catch up with where she was and where she was going.

See what that Philadelphia pastor’s saying?  See what he’s asking of himself, of his church?  He knows his church history.  He knows his American history.  So every Sunday, every single Sunday, he looks up to that balcony and asks: Who are we segregating in America these days?  Whose voices are we dismissing these days?  Whose children are we slighting?  Who are the disenfranchised, the silenced, the invisible these days?  Who’s in that balcony now?

3.

In Baltimore last week, Traci Blackmon thundered on from there, making all the necessary, all the prophetic connections.  She found her voice, Traci did, in Ferguson and St. Louis in the early days of the Black Lives Matter movement.  So she knows what’s she’s talking about.

She called out all the balconies that need to be desegregated, still, in America.  She called on the church—our United Church of Christ—to be at the forefront of deconstructing balconies that protect the wealth of the very few at the expense of the very many.  She reminded us that global warming is a balcony crisis: that the poor pay the heaviest price, that peoples of color will suffer most, as seas rise and storms blow and leaders refuse to take science seriously.  And she reminded us what happens every day in the streets of Ferguson and Baltimore, Oakland and Cleveland: how black kids and brown kids live in American balconies, how their schools are defunded and their parks left to waste, how their healthcare’s at risk and their jobs pay a pittance.  Who’s in the balcony now?  Traci insisted that we know who’s in the balcony now.  And it’s time for God’s church to take the balconies down.  I mean, this was some preaching.

And you know, all along, Jesus’ disciples have been hearing the same kind of preaching.  He’s been talking about balconies all along.  He’s been talking about injustice and segregation all along.  He’s been talking about the ways religion sometimes designs the balconies, and about the ways the privileged justify the balconies and defend them and then refuse to see them at all.  Jesus’s been talking about balconies.  And more than that, he’s been calling folks out of those balconies to sit at God’s table and feast on God’s abundance and share in the work and wonder of God’s kingdom.  This is the great gospel project, of course, the kingdom, the kin-dom of heaven: to imagine and then to enact a beloved community, a sisterhood of abundance, a brotherhood of respect.  And it means calling folks out of those balconies and it means taking the balconies down.

The thing is, once you go all in on the great gospel project, once you see God’s image in the full spectrum of human color and experience, once you start taking those balconies down, you realize how hard it all is.  You realize what it’s going to cost you, this journey of discipleship and compassion and solidarity.  And it’s going to cost you everything.  It’s undoubtedly going to break your heart.  And you realize how demoralizing it is, sometimes, for dreamers out here in the real world.  Even God’s dreamers.  There just aren’t any guarantees.

I’m thinking about the black pastors I met in Baltimore, whose city churches and urban neighborhoods are devastated by violence and poverty.  They’re losing black boys, black men by the handful every week.  And their government doesn’t give a damn.  I’m thinking about the activists I met whose hard work on climate change and mass incarceration and health education may unravel—soon—if Donald Trump’s neanderthal government has its way.  Once you go all in with Jesus, it seems, you care so much it hurts, you love so hard it hurts.  And the losses add up fast.  I imagine a lot of us know a lot about that.

And this is where the disciples find themselves in this morning’s text.  They care so much it hurts.  The losses are adding up so fast.  And hope is fleeting.  I don’t know about the rest of you.  But these days, I’m in that crowd a good bit of the time.  And I’m right there with them this morning.  At this point—of no-return.

4.
 
So Jesus says to his disciples, Jesus says to you and to me: COME TO ME, ALL YOU THAT ARE WEARY AND ARE CARRYING HEAVY BURDENS, AND I WILL GIVE YOU REST.  That’s gospel.  That’s God’s word this morning.  COME TO ME, Jesus says, ALL YOU THAT ARE WEARY AND ARE CARRYING HEAVY BURDENS, AND I WILL GIVE YOU REST.  This Jesus is a shepherd.  This Jesus is a pastor, a friend, a mentor.  He wants you to know what’s deepest in the heart of God.  He wants you to know the fullness and the nourishment of grace.  He knows that you care so much it hurts.  He knows that you love so hard it hurts.  And he promises you, he promises you that you’re not alone.  That his ways are gentle, that his heart is humble, that his friendship is true.  This is not a ‘get out of jail free’ card; this is not a pass on the hard requirements of discipleship.  But it is grace.  And it is love.  And it is enough.

TAKE MY YOKE UPON YOU, Jesus says.  TAKE MY YOKE.  Is he saying, forget about all that balcony business?  Of course he’s not.  Is he saying, just kidding about turning the other cheek and going the extra mile and loving your enemy?  Of course he’s not.  Is Jesus saying, blessed are the blissfully ignorant, or blessed are the calculated callous, or blessed are the saved and who cares about anything or anybody else?  Of course he’s not.  This isn’t cheap grace; this is the real thing.  And Jesus is offering us a practice, he’s extending to us a discipline.  This gospel is a way of life.  TAKE MY YOKE UPON YOU, he says, AND LEARN FROM ME: AND YOU WILL FIND REST FOR YOUR SOULS.  That’s not a pass on the hard requirements of discipleship.  It’s a promise of God’s grace along the way.  TAKE MY YOKE UPON YOU, Jesus says, AND LEARN FROM ME.  That’s not a theological shortcut around the daring spirit of agape, around the risky business of forgiveness or the pain that comes with it.  It’s a promise of Jesus’ companionship, Jesus’ friendship, God’s love along the way.  This gospel is a way of life.

By the way, that word “yoke” is important here; in some ways it’s the key to the text itself.  You see, in first century literature, this “yoke” most often refers to the Torah, the core teaching, the core practice of Judaism itself.  Love God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength.  Love your neighbor as yourself.  Take what you need from the earth, but no more than that.  Welcome the immigrant, honor the widow and protect the orphan.  Keep the Sabbath and slow down.  Worship God and only God.  Torah.

The radical teaching of Jesus in Matthew—from the Sermon on the Mount to the great parable of the kingdom in Matthew 25—that radical teaching is his rendering of Torah.  His interpretation of Torah.  Jesus isn’t creating a new religion; he’s radicalizing the old one.  Love God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength.  And love your neighbor as yourself.  That’s the yoke.  Praise God for the sunrise and the sunset.  Praise God for the food you eat and air you breathe and sixty seconds to a minute.  That’s the yoke.  To walk with Jesus is to take that yoke and practice.  To befriend Jesus is to take that yoke and try it on, one day at a time, imperfectly perhaps, but deliberately.  To truly rest in Jesus—and I mean the rest that renews, I mean the rest that revives us—to truly rest in Jesus is to take that yoke and learn from him.  Like I say, this isn’t cheap grace; this is the real thing.

There are some who reduce Jesus to a word, to a name, to a conviction that Jesus is the only Son of God.  (Some add an extra syllable--JE-EE-SUS--to stretch the word itself, to emphasize the name above all names.)  What I hear Jesus saying this morning is bigger than that, and harder than that, and sweeter than that.  What I hear Jesus saying this morning is COME TO ME.  What I hear Jesus saying this morning is TAKE MY YOKE.  What I hear Jesus saying this morning is PRACTICE WITH ME.  If you practice with me, I’ll show you a path.  If you pray with me, I’ll open your heart.  If you forgive with me, I’ll shine a light in all this darkness.  If you break bread with me, I’ll feed you in ways that really and truly matter.  So COME TO ME.

Quickly I want to return to Traci Blackmon’s sermon in Baltimore last week.  And I want to say it was one of the most troubling sermons I’ve heard in a long time.  This business about balconies is real.  This business about global warming is real.  This business about racism and the disregard for black and brown lives in America is devastating.  Traci’s preaching is hard to hear.  And it turns out, of course, that my many privileges are so often part of the American problem.  Those balconies were built by my people.

Strangely, however, I was not overwhelmed.  Strangely, I felt the Spirit moving in my heart.  Strangely, I heard in Traci Blackmon’s preaching a call to new life.  Because she offered me, she offered all of us, the gospel.  Because she preached the gospel of Jesus Christ.  And that gospel is an invitation to practice, that gospel is a call to collaboration and resistance and compassion and revolution.  And Jesus isn’t in the business of writing us off.  Jesus is in the business of inviting us in.  Traci Blackmon energizes my faith.  My Brother Jesus energizes my faith.  COME TO ME.  TAKE MY YOKE.  PRACTICE WITH ME.  Torah is a call to collaboration and compassion.  Gospel is a call to resistance and revolution.  And we’ll never be alone.  I’ll never be alone.  You’ll never be alone.  That’s grace.

There are always going to be some who reduce Jesus to a word, to a name; but friends I think Jesus is bigger and sweeter and harder than that.  I think Jesus is a path.  I think Jesus is a practice.  I think Jesus is the light that shines when we risk that practice together.
Let's live in that light.  Let's walk that path.  Let's take Jesus up on his promise.  Together.