Sunday, July 3, 2011

God Bless the World

A Sermon for the Third Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 9, Year A.
The day before Independence Day.

Zechariah 9:9-12
Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

Sometimes you just can’t win.

John the Baptist lived and preached on the edge of society – he wore clothes made of camel hair; he ate wild locusts and honey. And many people thought that he was crazy, or had a demon.

Jesus lived and preached in society – he did travel from place to place but he went to people’s houses, to the synagogue, to a wedding, to a grave and other public places. Jesus ate and drank what normal people ate and drank – and for this some people thought, `Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ You really can’t win with some people, whatever you do will be seen as wrong by someone.

You just can’t win, particularly if you are preaching on the day before a national holiday like Independence Day. Some people will want a patriotic sermon. Some people want to hear about all the things that our country does wrong. And still others prefer I ignore the holiday all together. (I guess it’s already too late to please them.) To be fair I must strive to be an equal opportunity offender, but it’s almost as difficult to please no one and it is to please everyone. So what I will do is explore how today’s readings relate to tomorrow’s holiday.

Our reading from Zechariah is an interesting choice for the day before Independence Day. In this reading we hear a description of a victorious yet humble king:
“Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall command peace to the nations; his dominion shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth.” 
This is an interesting image to consider - a King and world domination contrasts with our celebrations of overthrowing the King of England’s rule over the United States. The imagery of a king riding a donkey would sound odd to those who first heard it, but it sounds familiar to us Christians who remember and celebrate the story of Jesus’ entrance to Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. There is a traditional Christian belief that someday Jesus will rule over the world and bring peace.

On a weekend in which Americans celebrate independence from one king, Christians long for the rule of another. The word “king” has a lot of negative connotations for us – it brings to mind oppressive rule, where a few lord it over the many, where a few take whatever they want. Jesus isn’t that kind of king. It might be helpful to use another word other than king but every other word for ruler/leader has its own problems. The term “president” would not work. We don’t get to elect Jesus our ruler, we don’t get a choice between Jesus and others. And yet there is more freedom in being Jesus’ disciple than there is in choosing a leader.

Christ the King is the last Sunday in our liturgical church year, when we remember and celebrate Jesus’ authority as a ruler. We remember and celebrate God’s power and authority every day – every time we ask for God’s blessing.

It is very common for people to say “God Bless America!” on national holidays and also when it’s election time. Blessings are a special favor or gift bestowed by God. But we must not think that blessings are something that starts with God and ends with us. The blessings that we receive are not only for ourselves but also to share with one another. Those who are blessed can share those blessings with others. This is why I usually prefer to say, “God Bless the World” – because blessing is not limited to any particular group of people, blessings are God’s to give to whomever God chooses. There are blessings to behold in this country, and we naturally want the best for our families, friends, and neighbors. But we can all agree that the whole world is in desperate need of God’s blessings.

One blessing that God gives us is rest. In today’s gospel lesson, Jesus says, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” If we go to Jesus, with all the cares and concerns that are in our hearts, then Jesus can give us rest from carrying those burdens. Jesus has the power to ease our hearts and minds from worry, to lighten our load of stress and fear and doubt that we carry all too often in this modern world.

Another blessing that God gives us is work. Rest is not the absence of work for Jesus. We usually define rest as the freedom from activity or labor but that is not the message from today’s gospel lesson. Jesus says that he will give us rest but he also says, “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.”

Jesus gives us rest from the concerns of our lives but doesn’t expect us to be inactive. Jesus asks us to take his yoke upon ourselves. Yoke is not a word that we use very often anymore. It can refer to a couple different things. A yoke can be “a wooden bar or frame by which two draft animals (as oxen) are joined at the heads or necks for working together” and a yoke can be “a frame fitted to a person's shoulders to carry a load in two equal portions” (definitions from Merriam-Webster) A yoke is an instrument of work – both for animals and for humans. A yoke is not a toy, it is a tool for labor.

By using the word “yoke” Jesus is affirming the fact that he has work for us to do.

In my sermon last week I talked about how the disciples were sent out into the world as representatives of Christ, and Christians today are also representatives of Christ. I said that what we say and do matters, because our words and actions will either help or hinder our ability to represent Christ to the world.

Part of the work that Jesus wants us to do in the world is to be his representatives – to share our knowledge and experience of Jesus Christ with those who do not have that knowledge or experience. Jesus told his disciples to teach what he taught and to baptize, and that mission remains with us today.

The other part of the work that Jesus wants us to do in the world is to take care of one another. Remember, loving your neighbor is one of the two greatest commandments. And Jesus repeatedly tells his followers to take care of those in need, particularly the most vulnerable in society like the poor, sick, widows and orphans, prisoners. As Jesus’ representatives, we become God’s hands and feet in the world when we take care of people in need.

Sometimes in life you just can’t win – and that’s when we need God and one another the very most. By working together, we can share the blessings that God gives us with those who are also in need of those blessings.

Our hymns today have been particularly relevant. We started with “Jesus shall reign where’er the sun,” which describes Jesus as king over the whole world. We will close our service today with the patriotic hymn “My Country ‘tis of Thee”, which celebrates the heritage and blessings of the United States of America. The very last part of the fourth verse calls God our king. I’d like to close my sermon today by reading another patriotic hymn, one that is not in our hymnal but it celebrates what we have and asks for all people to be blessed. The hymn is called “This is My Song” and it was written by Lloyd Stone in 1934. 
This is my song, Oh God of all the nations,

A song of peace for lands afar and mine.
This is my home, the country where my heart is;
Here are my hopes, my dreams, my sacred shrine.
But other hearts in other lands are beating,
With hopes and dreams as true and high as mine.

My country’s skies are bluer than the ocean,
And sunlight beams on cloverleaf and pine.
But other lands have sunlight too and clover,
And skies are everywhere as blue as mine.
Oh hear my song, oh God of all the nations,
A song of peace for their land and for mine.

May truth and freedom come to every nation;
may peace abound where strife has raged so long;
that each may seek to love and build together,
a world united, righting every wrong;
a world united in its love for freedom,
proclaiming peace together in one song.
Let it be so. Amen.