Wednesday, 23 August 2017


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Identifying the Disciples

July 9, 2017


July 9, 2017 (Fifth Sunday after Pentecost)

New Millennium Church, Little Rock, Arkansas


Matthew 11:16-19


16 ‘But to what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the market-places and calling to one another, 
17 “We played the flute for you, and you did not dance;
   we wailed, and you did not mourn.” 
18For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, “He has a demon”; 19the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, “Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax-collectors and sinners!” Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.’*


Matthew 11: 25-30

25 At that time Jesus said, ‘I thank* you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; 26yes, Father, for such was your gracious will.* 27All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.

28 ‘Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. 29Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.30For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.’

In The Message (Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of the Bible), Matthew 11:28-30 read as follows:


“Are you tired?  Worn out?  Burned out on religion?  Come to me.  Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest.  Walk with me and work with me – watch how I do it.  Learn the unforced rhythms of grace.  I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you.  Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.” 


I’ve been preaching for the past few Sundays about what it means to be a disciple of Jesus.  Discipleship involves more than learning a series of beliefs or facts from a teacher.  It involves learning and becoming like the teacher so much that one lives and acts like the teacher does.  Disciples imitate their teachers because they embrace the perspectives, values, and ideals of their teachers.  


I’ve also emphasized that Jesus calls us to be bold and fearless followers.  Jesus leads us into controversial and subversive living defined by God’s grace, truth, justice, peace (meaning wholeness), and hope, not by notions commercial, political, and religious empire (power and prestige).  And because of this, Jesus warned that his disciples would be targeted for persecution, criticized, mistreated, and even branded as threats.  


At the end of Matthew 11 Jesus commented about critics of his ministry and methods (verses 16-19).  He then offered a spontaneous prayer of thanksgiving to God for revealing the gospel of grace to ordinary instead of privileged people (verses 25-26).  The passage ends with his well-known invitation to “all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens,” his assurance of moral and spiritual comfort, and his promise of life that is not restless, but restfully useful.


In verses 16-19, Jesus compared the moral and ethical mindset of his time (what he termed “this generation” at verse 16) to children who somehow can’t understand how to properly respond to truth no matter how it is presented (“we played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn”).  Jesus explained that John the Baptist was considered an oddball because he fasted and refrained from drinking wine.  Meanwhile, Jesus was denounced because he attended feasts, house parties, and drank wine with people considered moral and social outcasts.  


The lectionary committee did not include verses 19 to 24 in our reading for today and I failed to have them added for our reading.  I regret that omission because those verses shed important light on the prayer Jesus prayed at verses 25 and 26 and the invitation to “all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens” at the end of the chapter.  Matthew 11:19-24 read as follows:


Matthew 11:20-24

20 Then he began to reproach the cities in which most of his deeds of power had been done, because they did not repent. 21‘Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the deeds of power done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. 22But I tell you, on the day of judgement it will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon than for you. 23And you, Capernaum,
will you be exalted to heaven?
   No, you will be brought down to Hades.
For if the deeds of power done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day. 24But I tell you that on the day of judgement it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom than for you.’


In this important passage omitted by the lectionary committee, Jesus denounced Capernaum, Chorazin, and Bethsaida, places where he had devoted a lot of his time and ministry energy, as being worse than Tyre, Sidon, and even Sodom.  Tyre and Sidon were non-Israelite coastal cities.  We have little evidence, if any, that Jesus devoted any of his time and ministry efforts there.  Instead, he spent a lot of time in Capernaum, where Peter lived.  The Gospels mention that he taught and performed works of healing in Capernaum and Bethsaida.  Jesus denounced Capernaum, Bethsaida, and Chorazin because those communities did not repent and embrace the gospel ethics of grace, truth, peace, and justice despite all the he did.  And, remarkably, Jesus said that if he had done in the notoriously corrupt and unwelcoming place called Sodom what he did in Capernaum, Bethsaida, and Chorazin – places where he spent most of his time – Sodom would have not been destroyed, suggesting that Sodom would have responded with repentance!  That led Jesus to say of Capernaum, Bethsaida, and Chorazin that “on the day of judgment it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom than for you” (Matthew 11:24).  


It is important for us to remember what Jesus then mentioned in his brief prayer to God (verses 25-26) in which Jesus was thankful that God had “hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and … revealed them to infants … for such was your gracious will.”  Throughout this passage, in both what the lectionary committee included as well as what it omitted, Jesus emphasized that the test of discipleship is how we respond to the ways of God that are revealed to us.  John the Baptist and Jesus represented different expressions of God’s truth.  Both were reviled and rejected.  John and Jesus each preached a message of repentance.  Both were rejected by the religious elite.  John and Jesus were embraced by marginalized people.  


Jesus recognized something we must constantly remember.  God’s liberating ways are often rejected by and among the places and people who claim to be religious, and are embraced among places and people who are marginalized by religious and otherwise privileged people!  Throughout this passage (Matthew 11:16-27), Jesus – the Master Teacher – emphasized the difference between revelation and repentance.  When Jesus gave the example of children who complain that others do not respond appropriately to music and songs (Matthew 11:16-17), when he mentioned the way he and John the Baptist were rejected despite their different ministry styles (Matthew 11:18-19), when Jesus denounced Bethsaida, Capernaum, and Chorazin (Matthew 11:20-24), and when Jesus thanked God for the response of unprivileged people who embraced his gospel despite the unrepentant reactions of people he described as “the wise and the intelligent” (Matthew 11:25), Jesus was making a powerful point.  The real test of discipleship is whether and how we respond in repentance to the gospel God reveals to us!  revealed to us.  


That is a sobering truth to ponder today, the first Sunday after the US 4th of July holiday, because of what the United States claims to be and how prevalent God’s gospel of grace, truth, justice, peace, and hope has been proclaimed to and across this nation.  


This nation has since 1776 professed belief in what its Founders called the “self-evident” truth that “all [persons] are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.”  


The gospel of Jesus has been preached, sung, and otherwise published across the length and breadth of this nation from its beginning.  


This nation has from its beginning heard, read, discussed, debated, and pondered the meaning of justice, peace, and freedom with full knowledge about the liberating message found in Exodus.  From our earliest days, this society has known about the gospel of grace and peace revealed by the New Testament Gospels.  From our beginning, this nation and its leaders have known the messages of justice and divine condemnation revealed by the Hebrew prophets about social inequality and oppression of people who are poor, weak, immigrants, disabled, women, children, and defenseless.  


And this nation has not only been given the Biblical record culminating in Jesus.  God’s good news of grace, truth, justice, peace, liberation, and hope has been revealed by prophetic people in every generation.  Martin King, Jr., Malcolm X, Adam Clayton Powell, Samuel DeWitt Proctor, Fannie Lou Hamer, Dorothy Day, Jimmy Carter, Clarence Jordan, Maya Angelou, James Baldwin, Cornel West, Gardner Taylor, Jeremiah Wright, Jr., Ruby Sales, Howard Thurman, W.E.B. DuBois, Vincent Harding, Pope Francis, and Carter G. Woodson are only a few names of the many prophets of justice, peace, truth, liberation, and hope to “this generation.”  


Yet, like the children Jesus mentioned in the passage we read and like the communities of Bethsaida, Capernaum, and Chorazin he denounced in the passage omitted from our reading, this society has not repented!  If Bethsaida, Capernaum, and Chorazin were denounced because they did not repent despite all Jesus did and said, think of how much “this generation” – meaning this society that calls itself righteous, freedom-loving, and just – is guilty before God!  


  • This nation has not repented from the sin of mistreating workers.
  • Religious teachings have not led “this generation” to reject the sin of military adventurism and pursue policies of peace, generosity, and justice.
  • Religious teachings have not led “this generation” to practice hospitality to immigrants despite our Statue of Liberty rhetoric.
  • Despite all the ways that the love of God has been revealed and the gospel of Jesus has been proclaimed, “this generation” the “wise and the intelligent” – meaning the people of influence, power, and privilege in this society –have not respected truth.  They have not rejected hypocrisy and fraud.  They remain addicted to, and actually have chosen to embrace, leaders who glory in oppression rather than justice, greed rather than generosity, war rather than peace, hate rather than love, polluting the world rather than protecting it, and hope rather than fear.  


The truth is that this generation (to use the words Jesus used to describe his society, is afflicted by religion that doesn’t liberate, enlighten, or inspire, but by religion that is devoted to notions of personal, commercial, political, and religious empire.  The religion of Jesus is preached about, but not practiced.  The love of God is sung about, but not shown in the way our society functions.


The religion of personal, commercial, political, cultural, and religious empire does not lift people.  It wears them down.  It does not bring people together.  It drives them apart.  It mistreats and fears immigrants and strangers.  It abuses and cheats people who are poor.  It robs workers.  It glories is making war, not peace.  


This religion promotes hard word without fair wages.  It talks about loving neighbors as long as neighbors are people we know and like, but fearing and mistreating people we don’t know so that we never are moved to call and treat them like neighbors.  


So Jesus calls all who are sick and tired of that kind of religion. Jesus calls the left out, looked over, mistreated, and marginalized people in every place and time.  Jesus calls us to God!  Jesus calls on all other people to leave religion based on notions of empire and come to him.  


  • Come, weary people! 
  • Come, working people tired of being robbed and hurt and killed in the name of capitalism and profit making!
  • Come, all who are tired of making war so others can get rich, famous, or become rulers!
  • Come, you who are burdened by prosperity gospel preachers!
  • Come, you who have been shut out of religious communities because of your identity, who you love, the way you believe, how little you own, where you are from, and how you think!


Jesus calls all who are tired of imperial religion, imperial commerce, imperial culture, imperial politics, and imperial thinking to come to God by coming to Jesus!


Then Jesus calls us to take on his sign of life.  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. 


 The yoke Jesus spoke about was an image of allegiance, wisdom, and justice.  We are not yoked to empire, but to God’s love, truth, peace, liberation, and justice.  That yoke identifies us with God’s love, grace, justice, and peace as people who do not preach and practice slavery.  That yoke identifies us as people who will not turn our backs while immigrants and strangers are mistreated.  That yoke identifies as people who will not be silent while politicians and profit-makers deny healthcare to people who are sick, poor, and unpopular.  That yoke is the sign we are connected to God’s love through Jesus!  


We have learned to love from Jesus.  We have learned joy from Jesus.  We have learned the meaning of justice from Jesus.  We have learned the true meaning of peace and wholeness and prosperity from Jesus.  We have learned how to live, how to die, how to suffer, how to overcome, and how to rise up from any and every setback and sign of death from Jesus!  


His yoke is easy compared to the yoke of greed, war, hate, fear, and hypocrisy offered by the religion, commerce, and politics of empire.  His burden is light compared to the pain and suffering, hate and fear, wickedness of empire.  


Come to Jesus!  Be yoked with Jesus!  Live in obedience to the teachings and example of Jesus!  This is what sets us apart as his disciples!  Amen.


©Wendell Griffen, 2017