Romans 7:15-25a; Matthew 11:16-19
“To be good, or not be good; is that the question?” Well actually it’s a lot more complicated than that. Usually what it boils down to is how compliant we are with the cultural rules that are place upon us and who enforces this law. Who makes sure that the mores of culture are followed? That is left up to the gatekeepers of each community. And as you very well know, each community has a gatekeeper.
Most of you are old enough to remember when the church used to be the gatekeeper. Growing up, there were unwritten expectations on our behavior, particularly if it was Sunday. Think of all the things we regularly do now that we dared not engage in when we were growing up in our childhood church. We play golf on Sunday. We play cards on Sunday. We have Spirituality Meetings in a local brewery and our mugs are not empty. What has happened to us!
Growing up I was a “PK”. Do we have any PK’s here this morning? PK was short for Preacher’s Kid. Being a PK was the kiss of death. Being a PK, when I played sports, it was assumed I was lousy. I never got to hear any of the really good jokes. Most church folks held me to a much higher moral standard than they held themselves. All they had to worry about were Ten Commandments. PK’s had a few added on:
- If the church doors are open for anything you must be there thirty minutes early.
- Be careful what you say because someone is always listening and you don’t want to embarrass your dad.
- Never, ever contradict the word of someone older than you. That is a mortal sin.
- If in doubt, remember Paul who said, “Wretched man that I am, I don’t understand my own actions.”
If it sounds like I am ranting you are probably right, but living up to Paul, or perhaps living down to Paul has been a thorn in our side for 2,000 years. Joann Lee writes, “Until recently, the church was not a place that challenged my understanding of myself and my role in the world. If anything, my faith seemed to add regulations, restricting even further what I could do or not do, demanding perfection and adding more pressure. In short, the yoke was not easy and my burden was not light.”
Those of us who were born Presbyterian grew up in a denomination that loved everything about Paul, particularly his concept of total depravity. In order to not fall into the very clutches of hell, we were encouraged to act a particular way, talk a particular way, and pretty much associate with folks who walked and talked the same way. I imagine some of you had a similar church experience. Perhaps I am being hard on Paul. His job was to change lives. His “go to” story was a conversion along the road to Damascus. Standing in a Greek village Paul would preach, “You are like I used to be. I knew right from wrong but turning to the way of the world was so much easier. Then I meet Christ, or he met me. My life was turned upset down. I was a wretched man saved only by his grace. Join with me. Be born anew. Leave the life you know. Become one with Jesus and be lifted to God’s holy plain.”
We have all heard this sermon. Billy Graham spent a lifetime preaching. It is persuasive. It touches the very core of our beliefs. But it can be a sermon that does more than convert. If we are not careful, it starts us down a road of irreversible conformity. We establish a particular lifestyle and beliefs that distinguishes us from others. Rather than becoming a sanctuary for radical thought, we only attract folks like us. We establish guidelines which keep us from being infiltrated by the sinful world. Eventually we become so rigid, we the church of Jesus Christ forgets who Jesus was. If Jesus were to appear among Christians today his primary message would be, “Why don’t you folks lighten up!”
Using the Revised Andrews Translation, Jesus grumbled, “John came and you complained he acted like a Southern Baptist so you killed him. Now I come, eating and drinking with others and you criticize me for being too much like an Episcopalian. What is your problem?”
The problem is Baptist, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Catholics, Evangelicals, and every other member of the Christian faith all claim Christ that happens to look and act just like them . Along the way we lost the real Jesus, the one who never turned down any dinner invitation.
I suspect Jesus loved to attend the Synagogue on the Sabbath. But he lived the other six days of the week in the margins and dark corners of life. That is where Jesus found people who worried about more than having the correct liturgical color on the communion table. We tell ourselves that Jesus hung out sinners because they needed hope. But maybe he hung out with them because he needed to laugh.
Ever attend a church that forgot how to laugh? Ever visited a church that obviously was never taught a very important reason for worship is finding joy. Jesus went out to dinner with folks who liked to crack open a bottle of wine and tell stories. Then when it was his turn Jesus would say something like, “Did you hear the one who about the man who tried to make the trip from Jerusalem to Jericho all by himself.” And everyone would laugh. Jesus, now smiling, would continue and amazingly each person identified with the traveler. They had been overlooked by a Rabbi. They had been mistreated by a local authority. Each person sitting with Jesus had experienced intuitional angst. Jesus made it a habit of wandering inside their pain of a stranger, or an outsider, and giving them joy. A glass would be lifted and someone would say, “Jesus, tell us another one.”
People tend not to share their lives to a person demanding adherence to cultural regulations. But everyone loves a good story. When the ice is broken, a laugh or two shared, the opportunity for intimacy occurs. A big problem with our society is we laugh AT folks but we have forgotten how to laugh with them. Jesus went among the marginalized not only to save them but to save himself. What good are our barriers if we are broken? What good is our castle if we are trapped by the moat?
One of my summer jobs when I was in college was to mow the grass above the moat at Fort Monroe. If you have ever been there you know the original fort was protected from bombardment by walls and earthen fortifications. No one has fired on the fort since the 1860’s but the grass still needs to be cut. The US Army decided the job was too dangerous for a private so they contracted the job out to the guy I worked for. Barry provided the lawn mowers and it took two people per mower to get the job done. The first person pushed the lawn mower along the steep hill. The second person stood on top holding a rope attached to the mower to keep it from falling into the moat. In other words, the lawn mower was more important than the workers.
Don’t we live in that kind of world? Civility, proper etiquette, law and order, collared golf shirts, or whatever we have that makes us, us, and them, them, have become more important than humanity itself. You know I am right because nobody laughs anymore, except Jesus, who still goes where we dare not venture just to share or hear a story. And when the night grows long and the bottle is empty, Jesus puts his arm around them, and us, and says, “Come, all you that are weary and carrying a heavy burden, and I will give you rest.”
The word of the Lord……………………Thanks be to God.