July 6, 2008

Genesis 24:34-38
Song of Solomon 2:8-13
Romans 7:15-25a
Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

This is the season of the church year that is often called “ordinary time.” It’s the season after Pentecost, a long period without special celebrations until we finally get to Reign of Christ Sunday at the end of November and then the season of Advent in December. During this “ordinary time,” the lectionary readings can feel rather random. On a special Sunday, like Reign of Christ, or Easter, or even the third Sunday of Lent, the readings are chosen to connect with the particular theme of the day or the season. So when you read them together, they seem to fit together. But during ordinary time, there is no particular effort made for the readings to “fit together.”

For the past few Sundays, we have been reading through the book of Genesis, reading through Paul’s letter to the Romans, and reading through the Gospel according to Matthew. The psalm (or in today’s case, the passage from Song of Solomon) is chosen to connect with the Old Testament readings. So, if you noticed that the wedding song we heard today fit very nicely after reading about how Isaac found and married his wife Rebekah… well, that’s the reason why it fit so well. Those who put together the cycle of lectionary readings chose that passage from the Song of Solomon to reflect on the marriage of Isaac and Rebekah. But they didn’t make any attempt to match up the readings from Romans or Matthew to that marriage theme.

And yet, when I began to study the readings for today, I immediately found connections between them that can’t have been intentional on the part of the lectionary authors. Or, perhaps it’s not so much that I found connections, but it’s more that reading the texts together influenced what I noticed about them and focused on.

The Genesis and Song of Solomon texts got me thinking about marriage. And since it is the season of weddings, and since I was also working on wedding sermons last week, the marriage theme seemed to jump out at me. So, as I read from Romans about Paul’s inner conflict and his struggles with “doing what he does not want to do” I thought about conflict within marriage.

Perhaps there are couples that do not argue or fight from time to time, but I haven’t met any. And perhaps there are people who are always polite and respectful and reasonable when they disagree with their spouses or other loved ones, but I don’t know of any. When it comes to our closest relationships, I think we can all relate to Paul’s frustration with himself. We often don’t do or say what we know is right. We do the very things we hate. We do the things, and we say the words that hurt our partners or put them down. In the heat of the moment, we do what we do not want to do… out of deep frustration, because of insecurity, or maybe just because we’ve been trying so hard to be “nice” to everyone else out in the world, and here is someone who is “safe” to yell at or be impatient with.

Paul wasn’t referring to a marriage relationship when he wrote about the power of evil within him. But he wrote: “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” I think that there are times when we might share his feeling of frustration in terms of the challenges of being married or being in other close relationships.

Paul expressed his distress over his inability to do what he wanted and to do what he knew was right in these words: “So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?”

Paul clearly feels powerless. He simply doesn’t have the will-power or the strength to do what he knows in his mind to be the right thing to do. He cries out for help to the only one who is able to rescue him from himself. He asks, “Who will rescue me from this body of death?” And he answers his own question by writing, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord.”

Paul doesn’t elaborate much on how God helps him with his struggle to do what he knows is right. And he doesn’t even claim that he does much better with God’s help. But what is clear is that he no longer feels so stuck — so enslaved to his continual pattern of doing what he knows is wrong.

So my question is, “How does having God in your life help?” How does Jesus make a difference to our relationships with our spouses, or our children, or our parents, or our best friends? Has anyone ever asked you that question? What difference does your being a Christian make to your life? What difference does it make to your relationships?

It certainly doesn’t automatically turn us into really nice people who always do things right. If you need examples of how that’s true, I’m sure that your spouse or sibling or child or best friend will be happy to provide some examples. Both my husband and my sister could list countless examples of my impatience, or of my selfishness. Yes, me! A life-long Christian, a committed disciple of Christ, a member of the church, and even a minister!

Very much like Paul, I struggle with my inability to do what I know is right. I respond to problem situations or things that frustrate me in negative ways. In the heat of the moment, I snap, I complain, or I criticize. And then I think, “What am I doing to this person that I love?” “What am I saying to this person that is God’s child?”

But though I am nowhere near perfect, I firmly believe that God makes a huge difference in my life and in my relationships. First, there’s the fact that I am called to follow the way of Jesus. It’s not just that I’ve decided that abiding by some religion’s rules is a helpful spiritual practice. But I have responded to an invitation to follow a completely radical and totally different way of life. I’m not just following rules, but I’m learning a way of being — humble, loving, serving, celebrating, enjoying, giving. I can’t just give up the call to love because it’s who I am now — well, it’s who I’m becoming — and that makes a big difference in all of my relationships.

Second, there is the amazing fact that I’m forgiven. Yes, I mess up. Yes, I do what I do not what to do. And yet, by God’s mercy I am forgiven. And I’m learning both to ask for forgiveness and to offer it as well. And it means that I don’t have to be stuck — I’m not stuck in past arguments, hurts, or failures. I have the freedom that comes with a fresh start — and my relationships can be full of new beginnings as well.

And third, there is the wonderful fact that I am not alone in my struggle to love. My faith gives me the assurance that God continues to love me even at my worst moments. God stays with me, even when I don’t acknowledge God’s presence or look for the way of Jesus. And when I do look, when I do ask for God’s help, I know that help is provided.

In our Gospel text today, the author of Matthew’s Gospel describes those who met Jesus as “children playing in the marketplace.” He was amazed and perplexed by the fact that they just didn’t seem to recognize or understand who Jesus was or the importance of his message. First, they rejected John the Baptist. John, of course, had come with a strict message of judgement. He challenged the people to repent, to change their ways, and to turn back to God before it was too late. And though many came for baptism and turned their lives around, most thought that he was crazy, that he was exaggerating, that they weren’t doing TOO badly with their lives.

And then, they rejected Jesus too. While most of them thought that John’s piety was a little “over the top,” they didn’t think that Jesus was quite “spiritual enough”. They were baffled by the people he hung about with. They watched him eating and drinking and celebrating life, and love, and didn’t know what to think. His way didn’t look like any religion that they knew about!

But the Gospel writer gives thanks to God for revealing Jesus’ identity and significance to the “infants” — to the “little children” who by God’s grace are able to “get” what so many others simply cannot understand. Yes, we need to change our ways, turn towards God and the way of Christ. But Jesus has come to forgive us, to heal us, and to help us to live in his way. Our Christian lives are not meant to be tedious, onerous struggles to do what is right. As John’s Gospel says, Jesus came NOT to condemn the world, but that we may have LIFE in his name.

In today’s Gospel passage, we hear Jesus’ invitation to that life in relationship with him. “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 is a heavy burden to love our spouses, and our children, and our friends — to love them sacrificially, generously, and unconditionally. But, as Christians, we are not asked to be perfect or to do everything right by our own strength and resolve. Paul couldn’t do it, and I can’t do it either. But we are continually called to repentance — to turn again to God — to turn again to Jesus our Saviour. He will walk with us, and help us, and guide us. He will forgive us when we fail, and teach us to forgive each other as well.

Jesus says: “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.