Sunday's Sermon -
The Rev. Eric Christopher Shafer.
You really have to like St. Paul. Think of this – Paul was the first missionary to Gentiles, to non-Jewish peoples. Without Paul’s missionary zeal, Christianity might have remained what it was for the first few years after Jesus’ resurrection, a very small Jewish sect. Paul saw and felt the wonder of Christ’s message of God’s love for all people and wanted all people to know of this love. Thus, Paul took Christ’s message of salvation for humankind to the ends of the earth as he knew them, through modern day Turkey and Greece and even into what is now Italy.
This work was not without controversy. Paul began as Saul, a persecutor of Christians. With this background, it is not surprising that others in the Jewish sect called Christianity mistrusted him. And then, Paul began to preach about Christ to those of non-Jewish background. This put him into direct conflict with Peter and some of the other disciples. But, Paul knew what he was doing and the love of Jesus Christ for humanity, preached by Paul and his associates, spread quickly to many people of non-Jewish background.
But, that is not what I really like about St. Paul. He appeals to me because he was so human, Paul appeals to me because he was such a mess personally. He continually said outrageous things that got him run out of town and even imprisoned. He continually struggled with disease and all kinds of infirmities. His boat sank and he was shipwrecked. Life just did not go well for him.
Paul reflects on his life in other texts when he talks about all of his weaknesses and revels in the fact that when he is weakest, he is strongest in Christ.
Today’s second lesson is a good example of Paul at both his messiest and best: Paul is preaching to Christians in Rome and telling them the basic message of our human condition, of his human condition. Paul states it simply: Most of us would really like to do good all the time. But, we do not. We do hateful things, at times, to strangers and even to those we love. It is all part of our basic sinful, human nature, what is called the old Adam and Eve in us. Paul confesses that he is just as bad as any of us and does things he does not like. “I do the very things I hate,” says Paul. Paul notes that “evil lies close at hand” in his life even “when I want to do what is good.” “Sin dwells in my members,” says Paul and we can imagine sin tingling through his arms and legs.
If we are honest, we all know that what Paul wrote is true, and not just for St. Paul, but for all of us. We all do things we know to be wrong, sometimes very cruel and even evil things. We sometimes hate when we should love. We are unkind, sometimes even cruel, to strangers and even, sometimes, to those closest to us.
But, that is what I like about Paul. He ends today’s text with what is most important. Paul says that only Christ can rescue us from this sometimes evil behavior, “wretched” people that we sometimes are. And, not only can Christ rescue us, Paul states that Christ has already rescued us. And all Paul can then say is “thanks be to God.”
You and I know how true both sides of Paul’s teaching are. Sometimes, we really cannot help ourselves and we do what we know to be wrong. In those times, all we can do is throw ourselves on God’s mercy in Jesus Christ, knowing of God’s continual love for us in Jesus. In those times, all we can do is say “thanks be to God,” that God loves us, despite our sinful nature, because of Jesus Christ.
Jesus teaches us a similar lesson in today’s Gospel. In the first verses of this lesson, Jesus is saying that people just do not get it and, perhaps, will never get it. People ask for what they do not have, but even when they receive what they ask, they ask for something else, perhaps even what they started with!
How well I remember similar situations from my years on the staff of the Northeastern Pennsylvania Synod. When I worked with congregations who were calling a new pastor, they often wanted a new pastor with different skills than their former pastor. However, sometimes, that very congregation, when the new pastor arrived, wanted someone with the old pastor’s skills back!
But, Jesus tells us that all of this does not really matter. Our not getting it does not matter because Jesus will take away our sin and pain and give us rest. Many of us know Jesus’ famous words that end this text – “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.”
“Yoke” is not a word we use much in our everyday language in 2014, unless we are talking about eggs. Most people assume that Jesus was talking about a literal yoke, the metal and wooden bar that was used on oxen and other beasts of burden to help them pull a cart or a plow. But, when I shared this sermon idea with a former colleague, she reminded me that “yoke” in Jesus’ day also meant taking on the yoke, the burden, of someone else’s beliefs. Thus, Jesus is talking about his yoke, his beliefs, in this text, when he admonishes us to “take my yoke upon you and learn from me.” We are to take Jesus’ teachings seriously and try to learn from them. By doing this, the other burdens of our lives will be lifted and we can find rest.
Recently when a group of us studied today’s Gospel text together, one of my colleagues pointed out the obvious similarities, even connections, between these important words of Jesus and the poem by Emma Lazarus that is printed on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty in the New York City harbor, an appropriate connection for this US holiday weekend. Many of us also know Lazarus’ words on that pedestal, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me. I lift my lamp beyond the golden door.”
At its best, our country is a place where the huddle masses and the homeless can find welcome and rest, a place where we, as followers of Jesus Christ and citizens of this country, take on Jesus’ yoke, learn from Jesus, find rest ourselves and share this rest, this welcome, with others.
The juxtaposition of today’s gospel and Lady Liberty’s Emma Lazarus poem really does put the current immigration debate on another level – “give me your tired,” “take my yoke upon you,” “send the homeless to me,” “and you will find rest.”
This is not “close the borders and build more fences and walls” talk. This is talk about taking on Jesus’ yoke of love for humankind, of learning from Jesus, of reaching out in Jesus’ love to the homeless and the “wretched refuse” of the “teeming shores” of other places. It is both personal – Jesus’ love for us even in our sinful human state, and political – our call as Christians to reach out in love for others.
Okay, I know the current debate over immigration in this country is not simple or easy to solve. And that the recent influx of unaccompanied children, thousands of them, has only made a bad situation worse. But, what I do not often see in the current debate is enough of the love of Jesus. What I do not often see is Jesus’ call for love for humankind, for the poorest and neediest of humankind. What I do not see enough of is the welcome promised by Emma Lazarus’s poem, the welcome promised by Lady Liberty for more than a century.
On this holiday weekend, please know this:
• Jesus Christ loves us unconditionally and his love can and will lift every burden from our lives, if we let it lift those burdens,
• Jesus’ love for us comes despite any human frailty and sinfulness we may have. If Jesus can love Paul, as messed up as his life was, Jesus can certainly and does love each of us, and, finally,
• Jesus is calling us to reach out with this love to others, both personally and politically.
What is so wonderful about Jesus’ call, as Paul’s life and ministry so well shows, is this:
• What matters is Christ, not our sinful human nature.
• What matters is Christ, not our tendency to be unkind or even cruel at times.
• What matters is Christ, not our sinful desire to wall ourselves in and cut ourselves off from others whether those walls are physical ones at our nation’s borders or personal ones in our lives.
What matters is Christ’s love for us, guaranteed in Christ’s life, death and resurrection.
What matters is taking on Christ’s yoke, Christ’s teachings, and learning from Christ’s love.
What matters is knowing, despite how wretched we may sometimes feel ourselves, that God’s love for us in guaranteed and constant and that God will give us rest.
Christ can make our yokes easier and our burdens lighter.
And all we can say is, “Thanks be to God!”
The Rev. Eric Christopher Shafer
Mt. Olive Lutheran Church, Santa Monica, California