A new rhythm has emerged on Sundays. And, to my surprise, it feels right. It is a surprise because I never would have imagined that hosting a Bible conversation in my office for an hour right before worship would not interfere with preparation for worship and preaching. Instead, it is so obviously the needful thing for me and for us. Looking back, I am not sure that I was ready for this much earlier in my ministry. But I am now.
I arrive early. I wander over to the Chapel of the Epiphany and spend some time arranging the chairs a little here, a little there. I feel like a host getting set for guests who are coming for dinner. I like to be sure that everything is ready. That's done by eight in the morning. Then I go back across the street to the building where I have an office. I get the coffee on and the hot water for tea. I put out the dough-nuts that I bought at the Tim Horton's drive through on my way into town. Then I read the scripture that we'll be hosting in our conversation and in the sermon. At nine I hear the elevator open and people arrive. We number four or five or six or seven. There are the regulars. And there are often drop-ins, sometimes guests from out of town. We get coffee and tea and dough-nuts. We greet. We pray. Sometimes there is important news to share. Then we pick up one of a number of translations of the Bible that are on the round coffee table in front of us and we read the text for the day. Then we wonder about it. We wrestle with it. We laugh about it. We imagine what our world looks like when seen through this script. I test some directions that I imagine the sermon might go. It feels like the warm up sessions that African American preachers often have with the deacons in the minister's study before worship. It feels like a musician practicing scales and chord progressions in order to be ready to play. At five to ten we pray. At ten I leave the group to clean up the office and I walk to the Chapel. The hour has flown by. I have not had time to get nervous. Worship begins at 10:30. Just time to go and look for newcomers and visitors who have arrived early. Then time to meet and pray with the worship team.
This past Sunday was a wonderfully rhythmic day for me. The conversation in my office was lively and one of the interventions changed the opening of the sermon in a helpful way. As with most sermons that I preach these days, this one is not in written form anywhere (nor, on this occasion was it recorded). It only existed once, in the moment. The only text that I use is large print copy of the scripture for the day. I think of it the way a jazz musician thinks of a chart. It holds the melody and chord progressions. On the sides I make jottings as a reminder of the improvisational interpretive moves I expect to make in expressing the truth of this text so that it might lift off the page in power. How that power comes is a mystery to me - it is the mystery of participating in the work of the Holy Spirit to bring life out of death and order out of chaos.
When I arrived at the Chapel I was met by Gerald - my long time friend and colleague who accompanies worship on the piano and organ. Gerald was fretting about the music that he had chosen in preparation for hearing the Word. After our children move to class, our minister of music offers a mediation that leads us into scripture. Gerald had struggled to find music that would express the text - a text, he noted, that begins with power and concludes gently. When I heard what Gerald had prepared and listened for the way in which he hoped the music would open us up for the text I was even more encouraged to lift the text off the page in a sermon that followed Matthew's setting of Jesus' original chart.
And what a chart - Matthew 11:16-30. Once the congregation heard it they knew where we were going. We were going to a much beloved lyric. As a younger preacher I would have been very tempted to land there early and to let it dominate the time. But now, as an older player of these charts, I am learning to trust the power of working our way to the resolution that comes after things get complicated. Then the line that resolves things has a chance to, well, resolve things. It offers the promise that the gospel delivers redemption at the end, reconciliation beyond all possibility, healing when there is now only great pain. Sometimes we preachers get to Sunday far too soon. First comes Good Friday with its great trouble. And then comes living in hope on the long Holy Saturday trusting in God when there is more absence than presence. A chart that carries the congregation through this journey invites us to trust the gospel hope of Easter Sunday homecoming beyond all possibility.
The sermon, like the chart, played its way through four separate settings, related but each different in tone. It noticed that almost the entire song is in Jesus' own words. A welcome relief, perhaps, from last Sunday's difficult song of the binding of Isaac. The music begins with Jesus comparing this generation to children who complain that the other children won't play along with their wedding and funeral games. It was a member of our morning group who said that this sounded to him like people (like us) who whine like children when they/we aren't delivered what they/we want. In the next line Jesus notes that they/we reject John for being too strict, too ascetic, too hard: "He has a demon". Then Jesus notes that they/we reject Jesus for being to loose, too easy, too immoral: "Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax-collectors and sinners". Apparently Jesus and John live in a cultural world that is not so different than ours. It sounds like they face a lot of opposition. It sounds like it isn't easy forming a new community of people who live in the kingdom of God. The opening setting of the chart ends with a reminder that true wisdom will be seen in its deeds/children. No opinion-poll or needs survey will reveal wisdom. Wisdom is discovered over the long term, not in a short term snapshot of what the people want. True then. True now.
Next came the missing second section in this chart. It is missing in the revised common lectionary. I know that the lectionary struggles with the total number of verses to be read on any given Sunday. In some denominations (Anglican, Lutheran, etc) all the readings on every Sunday are to be read. This necessitates a maximum number of verses to be selected. The introductory notes to the lectionary make it very clear that it encourages all missing verses to be included when possible. What is also regularly obvious is that the verses chosen for exclusion are surely the hardest verses to preach and to hear. In some congregations it might be possible for the lector to simply jump over verses twenty to twenty-four of this passage as instructed by the lectionary. Not at University Hill Congregation. Not when a group has met to read the text at nine in the morning. They will be suspicious. They will wonder what has been left out and why it has been left out. So the preacher had no choice but to include the second section in the chart.
This is when it becomes clear that the irascible God we me last Sunday in Genesis, high on Mt. Moriah as Abraham prepared to sacrifice Isaac, is also the God who is incarnate in Jesus. So much for running to Jesus to escape the dangerous God met by Abraham, Sarah, Moses and Elijah. Now Jesus pronounces painfully hard "woes" on the people who want to claim his as their own. He says that the judgment is going to be harder on the places where he has been preaching and healing and ministering than it will be on foreign cities like Tyre and Sidon. He says that his home base of Capernaum will be worse off than, of all places, Sodom. He says that the lack of transformation, the lack of turning around, the lack of changed lives, the lack of repentance means that there is a huge judgment coming. This is a hard word to preach to the very people who have shown up to hear Jesus on a July morning. It is a word of judgment on the western church that reveals little transformation, little changed living, little true repentance. It is the reason that my improvisation on this section reminded the church that judgment is not the end of the story of the gospel. Judgment is the place where we finally end false living and begin to turn to a true life with God. Peter knows judgment on Good Friday in the face of his denial and flight. Peter is saved on the other side of his personal judgment day when Jesus calls him to "feed my sheep" on Easter Sunday. The sooner we get to our judgment day the closer we are to our redemption. Well, that's how I played it on this occasion.
Then to the third of the four sections in the chart. We overhear a personal conversation between Father and Son. Five times Jesus speaks the word "Father". He does this in a chart in which he speaks in the feminine voice of Wisdom - the feminine mind of God met in the Book of Proverbs (and other Wisdom Literature) in the Old Testament. Jesus says that he is so grateful that the mind of God is hidden from the wise and intelligent. Echoes of Paul in I Corinthians 1:18-2:1. I played a few bars of that Pauline melody here for those who would enjoy the interpolation of texts about God's wisdom looking foolish to the wise. I noted that a church with the name "University" in it has to be cautious about its capacity to think its way to God. I noted that a minister with academic degrees after his name cannot dare imagine that his capacity to know God is related to his attempts to be wise and intelligent. I noted that Jesus seems grateful that humans cannot think their way to the mind of God. Instead, says Jesus, the wisdom of God is revealed to infants. I played a riff on the two new grandchildren that have arrived in our family within days of each other this spring. I noticed how they are just now beginning to communicate back to us with smiles and sounds. Life is being revealed to them. I wondered if that is how it is with us and Jesus and the kingdom come. We cannot receive it if we approach it with our critical minds in high gear, self-selecting the God we want. Instead, we can only see the new world into which we are being born when we are prepared to enter the kindgom as babies, all eyes and ears, receptive, open, responsive.
Now the fourth and final section. The line we've been waiting for. The first three sections have named how hard it is to hear God's voice and to be changed. Now Jesus turns to those who know that they are infants. He turns to the exhausted poor who are carrying heavy burdens. He invites them into the kingdom come: "Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest." I expected this line to be powerful but I had no idea how powerful it would be. I lingered on the burdens that people carry with them to worship. I alluded to burdens that we had carried for so long that we don't even think of them as anything other than normal life. Burdens placed there in childhood. Burdens we have carried silently and alone because we thought that was what life was all about. Suddenly the church became extremely quiet. There was obvious resonance with this description of our lives. I saw tears on a number of faces. Then I saw heads being buried in hands. I realized that it was not me speaking. Jesus was speaking directly to the people. I invited them to lay their burden down today. I said that I had been slowly laying my lifelong burden down for many years. I said that, to my surprise, the doctor's diagnosis of multiple myeloma has been an invitation to finally lay down my beloved old painful burden and to live freely. Hearing the doctor say that my time is not infinite finally freed me to let go of the burden I thought must never be dropped. A life unburdened. Imagine. Free at last.
But freedom to live unburdened with Jesus is not the freedom we are taught to expect in a society that idolizes the freedom of the individual. Jesus is not finished with us once we have finally laid our familiar, heavy, exhausting burden down. Now he invites us to pick up his burden, to put on his yoke. He means that we are to be yoked - harnessed - to him and to one another. We become part of a yoked team called Jesus' church. He is well trained, he is humble, he is a good teacher. He is carrying a cross of suffering and invites us to join the company who, together, shoulder this common burden. When shared it is a light burden - one that we're meant to carry. It gives us the work we are called and made to do. This yoke, this connection to the community that bears the burden, is perfect freedom. We are apprentices in the school of cruciform wisdom. No longer do we bear an unbearable burden alone. That burden is laid down. Now we come to the table and in receiving the bread and the wine, the body and the blood, we become one with Jesus Christ. We live in communion with him and with one another. Yoked and burdened. Saved and free.