Are You Paying Attention
Sermon by Rev. Steven McClelland on Matthew 11: 16 – 30. Focus on how the extinction of the cities of the past foreshadow our own extinction unless we put on the teachings of Jesus.
When Jesus gets angry I get interested and nervous, because I want to know what got underneath his skin. As Mark Twain once said, “It ain’t those parts of the Bible that I can’t understand that bother me, it’s the parts that I do understand.”
Which makes me wonder what these towns and villages did that made Jesus so angry. I searched to find out about Capernaum and Bethsaida to see if there was anything that was notorious about them. But nothing turned up. In fact, they were nondescript little fishing villages in Galilee, the kind of villages where most of his disciples came from. Furthermore, nothing in the Gospels points to these villages being full of brothels, drugs, gangs, hedonists, communists or devil worshipers.
Apparently Jesus’ main complaint is that they were apathetic whiners. He had preached and healed, was doing what Matthew called acts of power, and they were unmoved, going about their business of catching fish. In fact, Jesus compares them to children in the marketplace, “We played the flute for you, and you did not dance, we cried, and you did not mourn.
“John came neither eating nor drinking and you said, ‘He has a demon.’ The Son of Man came eating and drinking and you said, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’”
Reading between the lines, it sounds like they didn’t want the tough asceticism of John the Baptist, renouncing worldly pleasure, and they didn’t want the joy of Jesus, who welcomed everyone and hung out and partied with sinners. They just wanted to be left alone – have someone bless them the way they were.
Maybe they were hoping for a therapist to come and enhance their self-esteem rather than challenge them to change in anyway. So it would seem that apathy and indifference were the things that bothered Jesus. It reminds me of God’s line in Revelation: “So because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of My mouth.” (3:16)
And because of this Jesus is so angry that he pronounces great woes on these towns and villages.
I can relate to Jesus’ frustration. As I read the signs of our times, we are facing multiple crises that are rapidly approaching us. As Thomas Friedman of the Times put it, the world is becoming more hot, crowded and wired. Global climate change is causing extreme weather patterns all across our country. Our winters are getting colder, summers hotter, storms more severe and frequent.
A world once inhabited by 2 billion people is now closer to 8 billion, stretching the planets resources to a breaking point within a generation or two. Debt problems are causing economic hardships for those who played by the economic rules of our grandparents, our state pension fund just like the federal funds for Social Security and Medicare are being ripped off and underfunded by those in political power and the lobbists who pay big money to see that things remain that way.
We don’t have a plan for how we are going to deal with the increasing rates of unemployment that are about to bankrupt our federal disability funds, for those who are truly disabled, because those who can not or will not find work are turning to all possible sources for income. We have a political system that is broken unwilling to compromise on any issue and thus we have no plan for how we will deal with the sick, the elderly and the needy. Unless we have some kind of Great Awakening we are heading for a great disaster.
Michael Crichton, the screenwriter who wrote the science fiction thrillers, Jurassic Park, The Andromeda Strain, Congo, and State of Fear, to name but a few of his books, has sold over 150 million books trying to scare us regarding the perils coming at us from the future. In his book, The Lost World he warned,
“At a time when our behavior may very well lead us to extinction, I see no reason to assume we have any awareness at all. We are stubborn, self-destructive conformists. Any other view of our species is just a self-congratulatory delusion.”
And I would add the dinasours lasted for 250 million years. We’ve been around for maybe a 100,000 and are probably closer to extinction than any other species on the face of this planet. We may be the dumbest creatures to have ever walked the face of this earth.
I would love to point the finger at so many others, corporate greed, political corruption, but I should put myself and you into the same category. We have a species-wide problem of not seeing the truth until it is too late.
When evil confronts me I tend to get cynical rather than engaging the evil that causes it in the first place. But evil is a crafty thing for it often hides in banality and among good people thinking they are doing good, while all the while they are being used by the devil to destroy the very creation God has entrusted to us.
Evil seldom looks creepy or wears a red suit with a pitch fork. The devil always puts the words “new and improved” on his toxic products. He hides in regulations, law suits, austerity plans and people just doing their job. And so cynicism and apathy are just too easy to fall into because who do you blame and what are we to do about it anyway?
In the end I am tempted to feel powerless and apathetic and indifferent to the problems facing us just like the people in Capernaum, Chorazin and Bethsaida. The problems are too big, too complicated, other people don’t seem to be as bothered, so why not get on about my business and fish?
So here’s my question: Do these ancient words of scripture still have authority for our 21st century challenges? Too often the Christian message for our time and place has been reduced to hoping things will get better in heaven. So why bother with now?
The only problem with that approach is that Jesus told us to make disciples of all nations teaching to observe all that he commanded. And what he commanded has everything to do with now and not the afterlife.
So he concludes his prophescy of doom with a saying that we often use in our communion service. “Come to me all of you who are wearied (by the concerns of the present age, by the lack of justice and righteousness,) who have become wearied (and apathetic toward what you can do to change anything) and I will give you rest.”
The invitation is a way for us to realize that it doesn’t all depend on us. It may sound like a copout in dealing with the problems we face, but it is not. It’s a reminder that God is with us in this business of transformation and if we were to put on the yoke, the understanding of God that Jesus had, maybe things would begin to change. For as he said, “My yoke, my understanding of what God wants is easy and my burden is light.”
But I wonder. I’ve been trying to live the way of Jesus for the better part of my life, and I can say many things about it, but easy isn’t one of the them. But then again what’s difficult about it is my own convoluted way of following Jesus, where I try and have a a foot in both worlds? Where I try to have God on my own terms.
Maybe it’s that dance, straddling the things of God and my own narcissism that’s so darn hard. Perhaps if I just gave it up, and loved God with everything I have, and loved, I mean really loved my neighbor as myself. Perhaps that would be such a lighter more productive life. Maybe it’s not the passage that makes me uncomfortable. Maybe it’s just me. What about you? Amen.