Sermon for 6 Pentecost, Year A
Based on Matt. 11:16-19, 25-30
By Pastor Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson
You may have heard or read the following story, told by Aesop: "A man and his son were leading a donkey to town. After travelling for a little while, they passed a group of young girls whom the man overheard saying, "Look at that old fool! At least one of them could be riding the donkey." So the father placed his son on the donkey."
"They travelled on further and met some women. One of them, within earshot, said, "Look at that brat riding the donkey while his father walks!" So the father stopped the donkey and joined his son on its back."
" Shortly after that, they encountered some men. "I'd say that's a cruel thing to do to that donkey," said one of the men, who was within hearing distance of the donkey's owner. "Obviously that is too much weight for the beast." He added, "Those two ought to be carrying the donkey."
"So the father and son dismounted and they tied the animal's legs and with a pole across their shoulders, struggled along with the donkey, until they came to a bridge. On the bridge, they met a bunch of people who laughed at them. The noise frightened their donkey as it fought to free itself. This increased the uproar of the crowd and in the midst of it all, the animal slipped off the pole and over the bridge, into the river below and drowned."
This story, reveals a great truth ~ namely: Oftentimes people are never satisfied; there is no pleasing people; one might try everything to gain the approval of others only to discover that it is all in vain; even our best, most conscientious efforts to please others are rejected; the harder we try to please others, the more they ridicule and despise us.
In today's gospel, Jesus refers to the people of his generation as being like spoiled children who refuse to play with one another. When someone plays the flute, they do not dance; when someone wails, they do not mourn. He goes on to say that the people also rejected John because he was too ascetic, too austere. Then, when the Son of Man came eating and drinking with all of the social outcasts, they rejected him too because he was a glutton and drunkard.
Most, if not all, of us have faced rejection and unfair criticism by others. We can identify with the man, his son and the donkey in Aesop's tale; we can identify with John and Jesus whenever we're on the receiving end of rejection and unfair criticism. No matter how hard we try to be "people pleasers," we discover that they're never satisfied. Our greatest accomplishments of heart, mind, body and soul; our most generous and unselfish giving of time, talents and possessions; our wit, humour and wisdom; all of who and what we are offered in love to others turn sour and are rejected or unfairly criticized by others.
Whether it's employer-employee relations; teacher-student relations; relations with our spouse, children or other family members; relations with our friends and neighbours; parishioner-pastor relations; or a host of other relations; we do experience rejection and unfair criticism. Sometimes this rejection and unfair criticism can have devastating consequences for us. These consequences can wound us for life. It may result in living with a sub-basement self-esteem level. Maybe it damages one's capacity to trust others so severely that one is unable to develop a meaningful relationship of substance with anyone. Maybe for others, it leads to permanent addictions to drugs, sex, food, work or anything else that provides some sort of escape or sense ~ however fleeting ~ of pleasure or security.
How do we handle rejection and unfair criticism? When they have such devastating consequences in our lives, where do we go or whom do we turn to for health and healing? How can we live by God's intended purpose, being fully human and fully alive? On that, more later, but first another look at verses16-19 from a different angle.
This past week, my wife was looking at a small, black and white picture in one of our magazines. She was trying to make sense out of it, but, alas, the most she could see in the picture was a snail. Showing me the picture, she wondered if I saw anything more. After looking at it carefully for a minute or so, I said, "Yes, I do. I see Moses receiving the stone tablets from a pair of heavenly hands on Sinai. I also see in the background the people of Israel to Moses' right. Furthermore, I would guess, by the style of the work that the artist is Marc Chagall." Well, sure enough, after we turned to the same picture on another page ~ this time larger and in color ~ I was correct, it was Chagall's "Moses Receives the Tablets of the Law," much to the surprise of my wife.
In a similar way, the people who wrote off John as having "a demon" and the Son of Man as "a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners" really didn't know John and Jesus at all. They looked at John and Jesus from the angle of their built-in ignorance, biases and prejudices. They thought they knew all there was to know about John and Jesus ~ but, alas, they knew precious little. The tragedy of such people is that they missed countless life changing, life enriching opportunities because of so hastily writing off John and Jesus. They could have grown so much more in their lives by seeing the whole picture; by looking from a different angle, which would enrich, enlighten and inspire them. How many times do we fail to see someone ~ maybe even Jesus ~ by making hasty, prejudiced judgements of others? How many opportunities have we missed to grow in our faith journey because we've failed to see the whole picture ~ thinking that we knew all there was to know when, in reality, we knew precious little?
In situations where we are tempted to make hasty, prejudiced judgements, it is helpful for us to pray for grace to have: the eyes to see, the ears to hear, the heart and mind to understand and the will to carry out in thought, word and action, God's greater purposes. Who knows, the very person whom we are tempted to write off may become a vessel of God to deepen our faith. That very person may be able to help us grow in areas where we previously had fallen into a rut or had dismissed as insignificant.
In one respect, we might be able to handle our rejections, unfair criticisms and their consequences better if we were able, by grace, to see them as instruments of stretching, bending, molding and shaping us into more faithful servants of God. This, I believe, is where Christ's great invitation has some relevance for us.
As we face our rejections, unfair criticisms and their consequences; as we are tempted to hastily reject or unfairly judge others; as our lives feel like they are falling apart; as all of the world's problems seem too overwhelming for us; Christ invites us to: "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."
It seems rather contradictory that a yoke could be easy and a burden light. Yet it is true. Those who work with draft animals know that a proper-fitting yoke for the animals not only allows them to pull heavier loads more efficiently because the yoke evenly distributes the weight of the load; but the yoke also allows the animals to pull their load in a straight direction. In a similar manner, by accepting Christ's great invitation, we discover that his yoke is easy; that his burden is light because his yoke evenly distributes the weight of all our trials and tribulations in ways that we can handle them and grow in our faith journey; thanks to Christ's yoke and burden, we are able to be steered in the right direction, to the right destination.
Will you respond to Christ's great invitation today? Will you journey with me to become more fully human and fully alive? Will you come with me to find lasting rest, peace, life and fulfillment that only Christ is able to give us?
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