July 5, 2020
5th Sunday after Pentecost, Pastor Javen Swanson
Today’s scripture readings: Romans 7:15-25a; Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30
Episcopal priest TJ Tetzlaff writes that the first thing he noticed when he walked into the church where he had been called to be the pastor was that the sanctuary had chairs instead of pews. Of course, pews are bolted to the floor, immovable. But chairs can be moved around. He says that, “as someone who likes to experiment with liturgy and blend the classical with the contemporary,” having chairs meant he could rearrange the worship space from time to time to create different points of focus, or to create a different environment for each liturgical season. The chairs could provide another way to “inspire fresh engagement with worship.”
During his first few weeks at the church, Rev. Tetzlaff was told by dozens of people how often his predecessor had rearranged the chairs. About half the congregation made a point of telling him how much they liked having the space rearranged and hoped he would continue doing it. The other half of the congregation told him they couldn’t stand it and wanted him to leave the chairs in one place. While trying to decide what to do about the chairs, he realized that no matter what he did, someone was going to be disappointed. “The chairs could be moved or left alone, but either way someone wouldn’t be happy.” The lesson is this: “If you’re in a position of leadership, then at some point you are going to disappoint. There will be times when you will be judged and critiqued regardless of the action you do or don’t take.”
This is sort of what is being described as today’s Gospel lesson begins. Jesus says, “To what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the market-places and calling to one another, ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.’” Jesus has been comparing himself to John the Baptist. You remember that John the Baptist was kind of a weirdo. He ate bugs and clothed himself with camel’s hair. He spent all his days down by the river screaming about repentance and threatening hellfire and damnation. The thing is, people didn’t really care for his style; it was a bit much. Jesus says it’s like children were playing flutes in the streets and saying, “John, lighten up! Come on, let’s dance!” Later Jesus comes along with a similar message, preaching repentance and proclaiming that the kingdom of heaven is near. But unlike John the Baptist, Jesus is all about a good party. One day he’s turning water into wine at a wedding reception, the next he’s preparing a feast for five thousand. It’s seems like he’s always hosting dinner parties where everyone is invited. But the people aren’t so excited about this, either. They call him a “glutton and a drunkard” and think his hospitality is a little too extravagant. In other words, John the Baptist is too stern and Jesus is too much of a party animal. It seems like there’s no pleasing anyone.
Maybe the truth is that nobody really wanted to hear the message John and Jesus were preaching. Each of them called for people to repent and turn back to God and to witness the in-breaking of God’s kingdom here on earth today. But that made people uncomfortable, so the people launched character attacks. John, he’s too serious and weird. Jesus, he has too much fun with all the wrong people. It really doesn’t matter who you are or how you live; when the crowd doesn’t like what you’re saying, they will come up with a reason not to listen and you might just find yourself under attack.
It’s Fourth of July weekend and America is sick. I mean, literally sick. We’ve had nearly three million confirmed cases of COVID-19 and over 125,000 deaths, and the outbreak is accelerating across the country. Journalists have been working overtime to cover the story and infectious disease experts have been sounding the alarm, all of them trying to communicate the reality of what we’re up against and what is required of us to bring this pandemic under control. But it’s a difficult message, and not everybody wants to hear it. Rather than facing the truth, some dismiss the media as “fake news,” and our nation’s foremost epidemiologists are portrayed as fearmongers who don’t know what they’re talking about. Most of you know that Dr. Anthony Fauci is the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and has become the leading voice of the medical community trying to help our country navigate this pandemic. One prominent radio host said recently that Dr. Fauci is a “grandstander” and “a PR man… a showman… the P. T. Barnum of the Covid virus,” who should go back “into a laboratory where he belongs.” When the crowd doesn’t like what you’re saying, they will come up with a reason not to listen, and you might just find yourself under attack.
It’s Fourth of July weekend and America is sick. The pandemic of white supremacy has been surging in this country for generations. And what we’re seeing now with the coronavirus pandemic is exactly what we’ve seen over and over again with the pandemic of racism: If you don’t like the message, discredit the messenger. Luther Seminary professor Joy Moore said in a podcast this week that “Colin Kaepernick took a knee and that was the wrong way to protest. We walked down the street and that was the wrong way to protest. We riot and that’s the wrong way to protest… Truth is right there in front of us and this generation refuses to see it.”
One hundred sixty-eight years ago today, on July 5, 1852, the escaped slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass gave a fantastic speech that is worth reading in its entirety today called, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” He writes:
But I fancy I hear some one of my audience say… ‘Would you argue more, and denounce less, would you persuade more, and rebuke less, your cause would be much more likely to succeed.’ But, I submit…. At a time like this, scorching irony, not convincing argument, is needed. O! had I the ability, and could I reach the nation’s ear, I would, to-day, pour out a fiery stream of biting ridicule, blasting reproach, withering sarcasm, and stern rebuke. For it is not light that is needed, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake. The feeling of the nation must be quickened; the conscience of the nation must be roused; the propriety of the nation must be startled; the hypocrisy of the nation must be exposed; and its crimes against God and man must be proclaimed and denounced.
Frederick Douglass, “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?”
This is the kind of truth-telling Jesus says is hidden from “the wise and the intelligent”—from presidents and pundits and people in positions of power—and revealed to the “infants” of our world. It is difficult to recognize what’s true when the truth threatens to knock us off of our thrones. The same Jesus who tells us to turn the other cheek, who shows us that death is the path to life, is the one who tells us not to turn a blind eye or bury our hands in the sand but instead to lean into uncomfortable truth.
In fact, Jesus says, confronting uncomfortable truth is the path to healing and peace. “Come to me, all you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. 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.” Soul-sick weariness is the inevitable consequence of working so tirelessly in defense of a status quo that dehumanizes others and steals their breath. That is what makes us weary. The easy yoke Jesus offers is work that exposes injustice, dismantles broken systems, and establishes true peace.
Actually, it’s not an easy yoke. The work will be uncomfortable and hard. It will force us to confront evils we’d rather pretend didn’t exist. But at the end of the day, the result of that work is freedom—freedom as we feel the heavy burden of brokenness lifted from our shoulders. Freedom that is at the heart of Jesus’ entire ministry. Freedom that is the promise of America. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Frederick Douglass, “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?”, in The Nation, published July 4, 2012, accessed July 2, 2020,https://www.thenation.com/article/archive/what-slave-fourth-july-frederick-douglass/.
Lance Pape, “Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30: Homiletical Perspective,” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A, Vol. 3, eds. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2011).
TJ Tetzlaff, “Proper 9A: The Right Yoke,” on Modern Metanoia, published June 26, 2017, accessed July 1, 2020, https://modernmetanoia.org/2017/06/26/proper-9a-the-right-yoke/.
Jason Wilson, “Why Trump’s media allies are turning against Fauci amid the pandemic,” in The Guardian,published April 7, 2020, accessed July 2, 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/apr/07/fox-news-coronavirus-trump-media-allies-turn-against-fauci.
WorkingPreacher.org, “Brainwave #732: Fifth Sunday after Pentecost (Ordinary 14A),” published June 27, 2020, accessed July 1, 2020, http://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=1274.