A sermon for Proper 9A, the 3rd Sunday after Pentecost July 3, 2012 Zechariah 9:9-12; Matthew 11
When I was a young bride, living in married student housing at the University of Virginia, we had very limited television access. There were a couple of distant network affiliates we watched in snowy black-and-white, and there was one local station that came in a little more clearly, Channel 29. And during the day, on Channel 29, I received my first exposure to the Bakkers. The television ministry of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker came as a surprise to me, and I watched them with fascination and a little horror, compelled not by their theology but by their theatricality. Could they possibly be sincere?
Back then, in the mid-1980s, we already knew to be suspicious of TV evangelists. I had watched my grandmother give her money to Pat Robertson’s 700 Club, and I viewed the Bakkers with an equally suspicious attitude. It was hard to be neutral about them. Some people loved them deeply; others dismissed them with scorn. And it really came as no surprise when the whole ministry blew up over a sex scandal, their marriage ended and Jim Bakker went to jail.
I had a picture of what a holy person would be like, and it didn’t include asking people to give money to support a TV ministry. I had firm ideas.
So did John the Baptist and the people around him. They had a highly developed set of beliefs about God’s judgment and the need to repent and be baptized. John lived in the wild, ate sparingly, dressed in skins. If he showed up at our church door today , we might be tempted to suggest he continue on down the road to Gray or New Gloucester. His looks and his fierce preaching would make most of us uncomfortable.
And some people are into that. Being called to task and criticized suits them as a spiritual discipline. For most of us, though, it’s painful to be called to account, and if that’s all there is, do we really want to listen to it over and over?
John, who came to point the way to the Messiah, had a very different way of relating to people than Jesus did. And while he was in jail, he sent his own disciples to ask Jesus a question. “Are you the one?” The implication clearly is, “You don’t seem like the one we’re looking for.” Jesus, perhaps annoyingly, does not answer directly, instead asking them to report to John all that he has done, so that John may draw his own conclusions.
Over the next few months, we’ll be reading several Old Testament prophets alongside the gospel of Matthew. Today’s reading points us directly to the Messiah, giving us a list of things he will come to do, whenever he comes. Zechariah delivers a clear message: the Messiah will come for peace. But in spite of the words of this prophet and others, people formed their own opinions of what a Messiah ought to be like, and in an occupied country, that took the form that would have been most helpful: a heroic revolutionary determined to overturn Roman authority on behalf of the Jewish state. So it’s not surprising that Jesus got a lot of questions about who he was and what he was doing and if he really was the one they were looking for, especially in contrast with the strictly ascetic John the Baptist.
Some people are drawn to what they see as a rigorous faith. Another famous “church” family is featured in a documentary I saw in part on the Internet last week. A group of fresh-faced, ponytailed young women, not much different in appearance from the Senior Highs who led worship at our Annual Conference meeting last weekend, are the first thing you see, and they are singing about America. I didn’t catch all the words at the beginning, some of it underscoring the documentary reporter. Their excitement builds as they get to the concluding line of the chorus of Lee Greenwood’s “Proud to Be American.” The narrator’s voice drops out as they belt the words, “God Hates the U.S.A.”
They are the Phelps family, doing business as the Westboro Baptist “Church,” a word I put in quotation marks deliberately. They have terrifyingly firm ideas and a belief in a god so angry and destructive that we might call that god a Monster. In the case of the Phelps family, the motivation seems to be drawing attention to prove something about God rather than to bring people closer to God, and they do it by picketing military funerals, carrying signs printed with slurs against gay people and declaring God’s hatred for the U.S.A.
We may well wonder what their approach has to do with Jesus.
Yet Jesus’ rant against the towns gives fodder to the kind of people who understand our God to be all about judgment.
In Matthew 11 we find Jesus engaged in a teaching ministry, but this chapter follows a period of active healing ministry. The towns he rebukes have failed to understand him, even though he has done amazing things in them, healing two blind men and a woman with, well, women’s issues, and raising a little girl from the dead, and restoring a mute man beset by demons. That last one got the attention of the religious leaders. To have power over demons, he must be a demon himself! The Pharisees were looking for someone like themselves, who followed all the religious rules to the letter.
Jesus was not the One they were looking for.
It’s all subject to interpretation.
I, for instance, have a little thing about tattoos. My sister-in-law once challenged me about this. I said I had warned my children about coming home with tattoos or piercings, and she said, “You’d mind that, but it sounds like you wouldn’t mind if they came home with a same-sex partner.” We all have our limits, our expectations, our way of reading the laws of faith. And she was right. Because for me tattoos and piercings were ornamentation outside my personal range of taste, but if one of my children should happen to be gay…no big deal.
I’ve softened on the tattoos, although none of my children has one. As far as I know. And I’m still edgy on the piercings, I’ll admit it. What’s the basis of this set of rules for me. Fear of needles? Fear of being tacky? Essential nerdiness? It could be any one of those burdensome states of mind that informs my prejudice and my parenting. Just as John’s followers could not wrap their heads around a Messiah who liked to sit in houses and eat full meals, just as the Pharisees could not abide a Savior who healed on the Sabbath and actually physically touched people they deemed unclean, I carry the burden of nature and nurture, of my own tendencies reinforced by the people who raised me and the time and the place in which they did it. Somehow I got the message from those people and places that there was a difference between bodily decorations — unacceptable! — and love — always acceptable.
But I live in a world now where preachers wear tattoos, just not this one. (Not yet, anyway.)
The Bakkers, Jim and Tammy Faye, had a son who is now a pastor. His tattoos include whole sleeves, and one that states plainly, “Religion Destroys.” He preaches at Revolution NYC, a church that meets Sunday afternoons in a Brooklyn bar. He has shocked the evangelical world of his parents by putting down the yoke of judgment. In an interview on “Fresh Air” last winter, he talked about his realization that faith is really about love. He delivers a message of hope, that God’s grace embraces everyone.
People who are passionate about God feed that passion with one core belief. For some it is that God judges. And I’m afraid the Jesus of Matthew 11 speaks to them. But that is not the end of the story. What do we hear from Jesus, after he expresses his aggravation with the slow understanding of human beings?
Come to me, all you who work hard to get from one day to the next in this world. Come to me, all you who are worn right out. Come to me if the burden you are carrying is the very religion that gets in the way of knowing God’s grace.
Come to me and rest.
Put down the rules, the expectations, and the assumptions. Hear what I am saying to you now. Look and see what I am doing.
Know God’s love. It’s the only yoke you need to wear if you want to serve me. And I promise, the yoke of love is easy. (Revised Songbird Version)
He came about hope. He came about peace. He came about love.
He is the One we’ve been looking for all along. And sometimes we have just as much trouble seeing our Savior’s nature as the Phelps family does. We hew to our rules and or expectations and our assumptions like the Pharisees. We cling to our loyalties like John’s followers. But every now and then, somebody breaks out and reminds the rest — any one of us is welcome to come to God. In the name of the One who Loves us all. Amen.