a sermon on Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30
preached on July 6, 2014, at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone
Amidst all the discussion and celebration of independence this weekend, the Times offered an interesting look at the changes to feelings of national pride over the course of several generations. They highlighted a recent survey that showed that young adults—roughly defined as people younger than me—have less interest in supporting the symbols of American democracy while showing a higher level of respect for “classic American ideals like equality and opportunity.” Most notably, the article notes a consistent decline in the percentage of Americans who “consider their American identity to be extremely important,” ranging from 78% of the oldest generation among us to 70% of baby boomers, 60% of “Generation X”ers, and now only 45% of young adults. The article looked closely at broader trends for other generations over time and on this basis suggested that this is a long-term trend that will not change as this youngest generation grows older. However, while this youngest generation may not wave the flag or “love America” quite as much as those who are a bit older, their attention to the values that define our union makes it clear that they can’t be considered any less patriotic than anyone else.
Now, you might wonder, what does this news about patriotism have to do with our strange story from Matthew’s gospel this morning? Well, I think Jesus was facing a time where people were focused on the symbols of his ministry and missing the values that stood behind it. He was about halfway through his recorded ministry and had gone so far as to commission his disciples to go out and do some of the work that he had been doing, so he stepped back to assess how things had gone. He was even challenged by his old friend and preacher John the Baptist, now stuck in prison, to send him back an assessment.
When Jesus looked around, though, he saw a bunch of people who loved the spectacle and symbols of what he was doing but who totally missed the point of why he was doing it. He saw people who loved his miracles, who listened carefully to every word of his teaching and preaching, who followed him around from town to town, who brought their sick friends and family to him in hopes of finding healing—but who ultimately missed the point of it all. The people loved the symbolism of what he was doing, but they didn’t really seem to understand the values behind it, the reality that following this message had consequences.
So Jesus voiced his frustrations with them, about lifting up his voice and not being heard, about offering his hope and finding vindication only in the long term, about revealing his wisdom to the wise only to have them dismiss it as folly. The worst of Jesus’ frustration actually comes in the verses that our reading from the lectionary skips, where he reproached the cities where he had been preaching and teaching and healing for ignoring his cries to repent. He didn’t seem to be frustrated so much by their personal sinfulness or lack of traditional morality but by the ways in which they seemed to be focused on all the wrong things. Jesus lamented how deeply astray this entire generation seemed to be, how they were unable to tear their minds and hearts away from themselves, how they insisted upon status and privilege for themselves, how they missed all the ways in which God’s kingdom was being revealed in their midst through not just deeds of power but even more through the dancing and weeping led by the children, the poor, the needy, the widow, the orphan, all those for whom God shows special care and concern because the world so easily forgets them along the way.
After voicing his frustration at the people’s inability to take his message to heart, Jesus turned his focus to prayer. He invited the people—and us—to overhear his prayer to God, a prayer not about changing hearts and minds or convincing anyone that he has a better way but rather a word of thanksgiving for the people who did seem to be getting it, for the ways in which God was hiding these lessons from those who claimed to be wise and instead revealing it to “infants”—not literally babies but children in spirit who were willing to start fresh and be open to the fullness of what God was doing in the world. Jesus thanked God for keeping this message from being so clear to some people, for letting him keep his focus on those truly in need, for welcoming not those who were already at home but those who needed a place to settle in for good.
In his frustration and in his prayer, Jesus was embodying the deep and clear biblical message so well expressed by twentieth-century Reformed theologian Karl Barth,
that righteousness always requires favoring the “threatened innocent, the oppressed poor, widow, orphans, and aliens… God always stands unconditionally and passionately on this side and on this side alone: against the lofty and on behalf of the lowly; against those who already enjoy right and privilege and on behalf of those who are denied and deprived of it.” (Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, II/1, p. 386; quoted by William Goettler in “Pastoral Perspective on Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30,” Feasting on the Word: Year A Volume 3, p. 214.)
Jesus was frustrated with a world that was so focused on preserving the symbols of everything that it didn’t care about the people in greatest need—and most of all didn’t care that it didn’t care.
As we celebrate the independence of our nation this weekend, it seems like a good and fair moment to think a bit about these things, about our care and concern for those in greatest need, about our attention to the transformation of the world that requires us to give up our power and privilege for the sake of others, about the challenge from our young adults to pay attention to the values that define us rather than the symbols that stand before us.
It is easy to forget that Jesus was a young adult in his day, certainly in a slightly different category than he might be today because of substantially shorter life expectancies but still also likely to have been dismissed and derided as one whose attitudes and behaviors would change as he grew older. Yet his insistence on caring for the poor, on breaking down the structures of power that preserved the status quo, and on building up a new way of life that focused on the fullness of life for all are so very similar to those values of equality and fairness that are lifted up by young adults in our own day and age. To put numbers on it, the survey cited by the Times notes that some 37% of the oldest generation think that unequal chances in life are a big problem while 57% of young adults call that inequality a big issue. I think Jesus would welcome this kind of reassessment that helps us to focus anew on the values that lay behind our symbols and that invite us to recognize how we can be more faithful in our life together.
Then it is in these moments, these times when we have faithfully considered how God is calling us to live in gracious mercy toward all, these places where we have given up our power and privilege to trust God’s presence with us, when we can begin to claim those hopeful words that close our text for today. These beautiful words echo across the ages:
Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.
When we hear these words alongside this call to deeper repentance, it becomes clear that Jesus offers rest and comfort not to those who already enjoy it but to those who are most in need of it, to those who have no power to make it happen for themselves, “to those who have been made weary by a world that fails to comprehend the burden of injustice.” (William Goettler)
So Jesus calls us to set aside our hopes in our own salvation, our trust in other understandings of the world, our confidence in military might, our allegiance to flags and nations, our hope in the power of the world—everything that yokes us to things other than him—so that we might know this kind of true rest, this sort of easy yoke and light burden, this freedom that comes only from God in Jesus Christ our Lord. When we do this, we need no other comfort than what we find in Jesus Christ our Lord. We need no other sign than the cross. And we need no other goal in our life together than to seek the promise of love and joy and peace for all people in the new thing that God is doing in our world.
So may God strengthen us as to open our hearts and minds to this deeper and truer comfort, this most hopeful sign, and this most joyous goal, until all things are made new. Thanks be to God. Amen.