Reverend Philip Stringer
Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30
LET US PRAY: O merciful Father in Heaven: You give the knowledge of your saving help-- a comfort to your people. Feed our hearts with your Holy Word, and make our hearts instruments of your glory, today and all days. AMEN
Today’s scripture texts are an invitation to be at peace; to live a life of grace in which we are free to embrace the moment for what it is.
The middle chapters of Matthew’s gospel include long passages in which Jesus teaches crowds of people. He has instructed his disciples on how to interact with others and now he speaks to the crowds who have gathered to hear him about daily life— and the sum of his message is to stop living in tension and contention and competition—
Stop struggling to free yourself from a trap you don’t have to be in.
Stop trying to win an argument that doesn’t need to be won.
Stop trying to push fix what isn’t broken.
Someone once pointed out to me that much of life’s frustrations are the result of unmet expectations. Expectations are appropriate when realistic and reasonable.
I expect the sun to rise tomorrow.
I expect to be treated fairly.
I expect to be physically safe from violence.
But many of our expectations are not realistic or reasonable, and that is where we run into trouble.
I expect everything to go the way I want it to go.
I expect you to agree with me about everything I believe.
I expect to get everything I want.
I expect the world to revolve around me.
I expect you to be perfect and to never make mistakes that impact me.
When our unreasonable expectations are not met, we become angry or frustrated.
When Patty, the girls and I lived in Taiwan, we met many “ex-pats.” (expatriates— people living outside of their own cultures). Some of them were happy and some of them were not— and overwhelmingly, the difference between the two boiled down to how they viewed the culture they were in.
Before going abroad, we had gone through a week-long preparation program with other missionaries of various denominations. One thing we learned is that it is important to understand what is unique to a culture— things unique in both the other culture and your own.
For example— you and I live in what can be referred to as a “low-context culture.” We are very task-oriented. We order our time and our goals around the idea of completing tasks. If our goal is to build a bridge, we are going to set a timeline for its completion, and everything we do will be tied to that timeline. If you’re supplying the steel, it needs to be here by tomorrow morning because the steel cutters are scheduled to be here tomorrow afternoon. The riveters will be here on Tuesday, so the crane operator needs to be here then, too. Our expectation is that if your delivery truck breaks down, you’re going to have a backup in place. There are no excuses for delays. The timeline drives our expectations. Come hell or high water, that bridge is going to be done by the end of this month— and we expect that everyone will do whatever it takes to make that happen. Not meeting the deadline is a failure.
We have accomplished some really great things as a result of being a low-context culture. But most of the world doesn’t work this way. The Chinese culture, for example, can be referred to as a “high-context culture.” In Taiwan they may plan to build a bridge, too— and they may also have a goal to complete it by the end of the month. But it could be that a typhoon will come and make it impossible for the truck driver to deliver the steel on time.
The steel cutter’s mother may be sick and so he may not be able to come until Tuesday, and so on.
These are unforeseen surprises that pop up in the moment. They are an inconvenience, but that’s life. The other members of the team realize this and adjust to accommodate the changes as best they can— but ultimately it may push back the completion date. Moving the date is not a failure, it is just a consequence of the new context.
So expats who expected everything in Taiwan to go as they expected (i.e.— for everything to be done like it is done in Vermont) were very unhappy. “What is wrong with these people!?”
People who understood that timelines might not be firm were much happier.
Jesus asked the people what they were expecting when they went out to see John the Baptist in the wilderness. They wanted to see a prophet; but when the prophet said and did things that made them uncomfortable, they dismissed him. And they were doing the same thing with Jesus.
In our gospel reading for today, Jesus implores them to take a step back— look beyond the moment to the bigger picture. If Jesus can just get them to stop imposing their unrealistic expectations on the moment, then they will finally be free to accept the moment for what it is.
A friend of mine wrote a book about this some years back, and the title was, Not Trying Too Hard. The goal of the book was to help people understand that they are not going to create meaning in their lives because their lives already have meaning. That meaning comes to us through God’s grace.
Paul understood this when he wrote to the Christians in Rome about our sinful human nature. What Paul tells them is that the key to living a holy life isn’t to become sinless, because that’s impossible.
Notice in our second reading today that Paul isn’t speaking in the past tense. He doesn’t say, “it WAS no longer I that DID it, but sin that DWELT within me.”
Rather, he says, “it IS no longer I that DO it, but sin that DWELLS within me.”
He does not say, “wretched man that I WAS.”
He says, “wretched man that I AM.”
Paul knows that he cannot master sin. He cannot conquer it. Rather, it is God’s love that overcomes it and makes it powerless to define him.
“Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”
A careful look at my own life makes it clear that in far too many ways I am seeking happiness and peace through my own efforts— and I suspect that if you take an honest look at your own lives, you will find that in many ways this is true for you, too.
“If I can just get everything on my ‘to-do’ list checked off, I will be happy.
If I can just buy this or that I will be happy.
If those people who play loud music on their car stereos will just turn it down everything will be fine.
If I could have the body of a teenager again I would be happy.
If I could just win the lottery I would solve a lot of the world’s problems and all of mine.
And it goes on and on and on
But to you and me today, Jesus has another message. “Stop trying so hard.”
“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.”
Last week, some of you met my Uncle David. He is a brilliant man— a brain that analyzes every second of the day. An incredible mind. A “genius,” quite literally.
Several years ago, when Rachel was a toddler and Margaret was 5 years old, our family came together in Chicago to celebrate Rachel’s baptism— and Uncle David was there. Margaret was playing dinosaurs and dressing like a princess and stuff like that and Uncle David was playing with her.
The Apple Store was new— Chicago had some of the first ones to open, so the “guys” all decided to go check it out. Ironically, we were going to see the “genius bar.” But Uncle David decided to stay back and play with Margaret.
I thought about it on the drive to the store. Later, I mentioned it to him, and he told me that the greatest mistake he had made in his life was to spend his daughter’s early childhood years working on his doctorate in chemistry. “All of that work to earn a degree to satisfy people who ultimately didn’t care about me at all. Time that I could have spent with my daughter. I won’t make that mistake again.”
If you are working hard to find peace and happiness in your life— you won’t find it out there somewhere— in fancy degrees, or lots of money, or in trying to force people into fitting into your ideas of what the world should look like.
If you are looking for peace and happiness in your life you will find it IN your life. You will find it IN life as it is. Because God’s love for you and the world fills this moment, just as it is.
The fullness of life comes from realizing that God’s grace is enough. God’s grace makes it unnecessary for us to control the world around us and even the world within us.
God’s grace is a manifestation of love. And the yoke of Jesus is simply this: Love.
Love your neighbor.
Love the world.
Stop trying so hard. “For my yoke is easy,” says Jesus, “and my burden is light.”