Sermons That Work

Several Week Ago…, Proper 9 (A) – 2005

July 03, 2005

Several weeks ago on a gray afternoon in June, tourists in Tewkesbury Abbey in England experienced something rather unusual. A pure, clear, child’s voice floated in the dim light. It reached into every corner, every chapel and chantry. No matter where you were, you could hear it. It seemed to come out of nowhere and yet it was everywhere. The voice sang hymns—Advent hymns, Easter hymns, everyday hymns—one after another for more than an hour. Reactions to the singing were varied. Some tourists looked bothered or mildly amused. Others paused to listen and then move on. Some seemed drawn to find a quiet spot to listen and then to pray. One tourist, determined to find where this lovely sound came from, found Brendan. Almost hidden in the high, dark, richly carved wooden choir stall, nine-year-old Brendan, a chorister on vacation, sat with his hymnal going page by page singing completely unselfconsciously his favorite hymns.

At Evensong that afternoon, Brendan sat with his newfound tourist friend. The boy with the angelic voice was also quite a character. He insisted on helping his friend find her place in the prayer book and hymnal. He whispered and squirmed until other adults rolled their eyes and found new seats. He commented on the visiting choir’s anthem and was utterly involved in the sights and sounds of everything that was going on around him. He missed nothing. Brendan even seemed to know intuitively who would “play” with him—sing with him—and who wouldn’t.

Children are like that. They can be very perceptive. In today’s Gospel, Jesus uses the image of children at play in the marketplace to make a point. Children singing to each other is most often an image of innocence and light-hearted fun. Jesus gives this image a different slant. The children’s chant is sharp-edged. They seem to be saying, “We’re trying to tell you something, but you ignore us. We’re giving you every chance, but still you ignore us.” It’s a powerful image. Jesus himself might be feeling like the children in his image. John the Baptist had been preaching and baptizing, but he’s now in prison. Jesus has taken up his ministry of teaching. Both men were calling the people to return to a faithful life, but in very different ways—like the children’s song. John preached a confrontational message and modeled an ascetic lifestyle. He was accused of having a demon. Jesus’ lifestyle was a more joyful announcement of the coming of the kingdom. He ate and drank with all sorts of folks without reservation. He was accused of being a glutton and drunkard, a friend of sinners and tax collectors. Neither John nor Jesus could win, evidently.

What was wrong with these people? Couldn’t they see that Jesus and John were inviting them to return once again to a faithful living of their covenant, to a more guileless living out of the law that says to love as you would be loved, to behave towards others as you would want them to behave towards you? Jesus even tells his listeners that if they would just come to him, he would give them rest. If they would take his yoke on themselves, they’d find his yoke easy and his burden light. How very obvious. How very simple. Or is it?

Well, of course it’s not simple, because like Paul we still struggle with accepting this message. In his letter to the Romans, Paul says, “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.” Doesn’t that sound familiar? We still condemn or ignore people who demand that we consider how selfish and damaging our own lifestyles can be to the world and to those around us—people who tell us to change. Likewise, we often condemn or ignore those people who take Jesus’ command to love and respect all God’s people seriously—people who invite us to do the same. Often, in our hearts, we know the good we want to do, but when push comes to shove, we give in to the evil we don’t want to do.

We might consider what it is that makes it seem easier to do evil. Perhaps it seems easier to look out for ourselves, instead of putting the effort into giving of ourselves to others. It certainly is easier to keep company with folks who are just like us than to put effort into listening to different ideas or rubbing elbows with people who don’t look or act just like us. We have to admit that in the church we much prefer to say “we’ve always done it that way,” instead of trying something new. But how foolish that all is. How foolish we are when we can see the problem and understand the solution for those folks in Jesus’ time, but we find it hard to make the connection to our own lives.

We might think again about the image of the children. There are lots of messages offered to us—many songs, many types of songs. To borrow from the Old Testament, there is a time for everything—a time to dance and a time to mourn, a time to hear and a time to act, a time to sow and a time to reap. And in all things, we can rely on God’s sustaining care for us. We aren’t being offered the chance to dump all our cares and work on Jesus when he talks about giving us rest. He’s offering us his yoke—the symbol of obedience to God—not a human yoke. If we can accept that offer, we might begin to see more clearly the connection between Jesus and the Father, and then see that same connection between God and ourselves. Once we understand that, Paul tells us, we will be able to speak of God to others. Our lives will be bound and directed by the laws of the kingdom of God, the laws of love.

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Christopher Sikkema


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