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Sunday 24 July 2011

The Pearl of Great Price

Texts:  Genesis 29. 15-28; Romans 8. 26-39; Matthew 13. 31-33, 44-52

In the book of Genesis we read of a man named Jacob, who looked upon the daughter of Laban, his uncle, and loved her.  In return for Rachel’s hand in marriage, Jacob agreed to work for Laban seven years - great price by any standard, particularly when one remembers that in the ancient near-East, it was usually the bride’s father, not the groom, who paid out the money.  Daughters were considered expensive liabilities to have around the household too long, so the sooner they could be married off, the better, and the bride-price was considered a worthwhile investment towards achieving that end.  Nor was the youngest of daughters ever, and I mean EVER, married off before the older – as Jacob discovers when he wakes up from his marriage stupor and discovers Leah, not Rachel, lying beside him.  So we are left with the overwhelming impression that Jacob loved Rachel more than anything else in the world.  His love, it seems, made him a little mad, mad enough to put aside his rights as an eligible bachelor and his reputation as a man of considerable rank in the community.  Mad enough to put aside his self-respect and work like a slave for 14 years in order to finally secure the one whom he treasured so very dearly.

When Matthew recounts Jesus’ parables of the treasure and the pearl, I am sure he has exactly that quality of devotion in mind.  For Jesus speaks of people who, like Jacob, stumble upon a treasure that so captivates their devotion that they are willing to forsake everything they have in order to obtain it.  One is a peasant, working as a farm-hand in somebody else’s field.  He is very poor, one who works for another because he has very little property of his own.  But one day, as he works the plough, clunk!  He finds a treasure.  We are not directly told what the treasure is.  But we are told that the treasure is so valuable that the man daren’t move it.  Instead, he hides the treasure in a deeper hole and goes off to sell everything he has in order to buy the entire field.  Clearly the treasure is worth far more than everything he owns!  The second parable is similar.  It tells of a merchant in search of fine pearls.  One day he comes across a pearl which absolutely captures his imagination with its beauty.  So great is its value that the merchant is prepared to sell everything else he owns, a very considerable estate, in order to buy that one pearl.  So here is that madness again, the madness that is able to drive a person to renounce all that they are and all the many things they possess in order to obtain the one thing that has claimed their heart.  The psychiatrist, I am sure, would call the madness an ‘obsessive-compulsive’ disorder and warn us that the condition is quite irrational and very dangerous!

But these are stories about God.  Like the treasure and the pearl, and like Rachel in the Genesis story, God is one who takes our hearts captive in a moment of irreducible wonder.  Suddenly we become aware that God is all in all, that God is the heart that beats behind every heart, that God is the still-point at the centre of a turning universe.  And we realise, perhaps for the first time, that nothing but God actually matters.  So much so, that we are compelled to consider all else we possess, or all else that we long for, as mere rubbish beside the incomparable vision before us in that moment of recognition.  In his great work which is, in many ways, a simple commentary upon these parables, Soren Kierkegaard notes that it is the desire for one thing, and one thing only, that is able to purify our lives and our hearts.  The advertisers are out to sell us many things, to make us desire and long for everything under heaven.  Our society would like us to be good citizens which, these days, means being a good consumer of all the pretty things that we don’t really need.  But the beatific vision of the pearl or the treasure compels us to turn aside from all that and desire the one thing that is of more value than all the wonders of the worlds put together.  God.

Make no mistake.  The love of God is a kind of madness.  It can make you obsessive, it can make you sick - at least that is how many others will come to view what you may become or what you may choose to do as a disciple of Christ.  I have a deep admiration for the monastic orders of the church in this regard. For the monastics are people who have taken the word of the gospel quite literally.  They leave everything behind— family, possessions, status, career—in order to devote themselves to the praise of God and the service of other human beings.  And there, in the secret life of prayer, these men and woman also seek to lose even their very selves, that they may know the surpassing beauty of knowing God.  I believe, with Martin Luther, that there can be a monasticism for ‘ordinary’, workaday, people like you and I, a genuine following of Christ in the midst of the secular world, if you like.

The secular monk is simply a disciple, one who has learned from Jesus that their land, their possessions, their skills, their talents, everything they have and everything they are, is for God.  Imagine what freedom could be ours if we really believed that!  That terrible anxiety we all experience with regard to our possessions and property would no longer be there.  We would be free to praise God for what we have, and to share it willingly and joyfully with whoever is in need.  And we would no longer hoard our gifts and talents as though they were ours alone.  We would no longer hide our lights under bushels.  We would offer them to everyone out of love, and for the praise of God.   But most of all, we would no longer be afraid to talk about God with one another.  The anxieties we all have, in contemporary Australia, about being branded religious fanatics or irrational obsessives would evaporate because, in the joy of a genuine relationship with God, we would be happy to take the yoke of Christ, to become his ‘fool’ for the sake of love and of the gospel.

Are you catching the vision?  Can you climb the mountain and see the promised land?  How blessed is the one who sees visions and dreams dreams!  How blessed are they that glimpse the pearl of great price and treasure the vision in their hearts!  For that vision is like a beacon of hope when troubles and persecutions come, as they inevitably do.  When Paul wrote about the things that try to separate the disciple from the love of Christ, he was speaking from personal experience.  Paul was one of the many thousands of mystics and prophets and saints who knew the gritty, dirty, reality of discipleship—hardship, distress, persecution and famine for the sake of the gospel.  Yet for Paul, as for many other saints, the vision that sustained him was the sign of the cross, the sign that God withheld nothing of himself from us, but had reached out to us in God’s own fit of madness, to love with the gift of his very own son.  For people who know this deeply, who have meditated upon that sign in the dark light of prayer, the ‘trials’ of faith become a participation in God’s own suffering love.  And so they are counted as a privilege, tangible signs that Christ is present and active in the world as love.  In this perspective all things, all things—even those things that seem to tear the world apart—may be seen to work for good.  And, for that reason, even the greatest darknesses can be embraced with a deep sense of thankfulness.

So . . .  I have a question for you all this day.  What vision dominates your horizon?  Is it the vision of financial security?  Or perhaps the vision of an easy retirement, basking in the reflected glory of your children’s achievements?  Or perhaps the dream of professional success, and the admiration and respect of your peers?  Or . . .  is it the vision of God— that pearl, that treasure of great price?  How willing are you to renounce all that, for our contemporary world, makes for commonsense and security and good management in order to obtain it?  How mad are you willing to become for the sake of Christ and of his gospel?  Only you know the answer to these questions.  You and God.  Remember that God is always at the heart of you, calling and whispering, calling . . .  and whispering.  How will you respond when you hear that gentle voice today?

Sunday 3 July 2011

The Yoke of Christ

Texts:  Genesis 24.34-38, 42-49, 58-67; Song of Songs 2.8-13; Romans 7.15-25a; Matthew 11.16-19, 25-30

Today I want to talk about what it means to wear the yoke of Christ.  In a saying unique to Matthew's gospel, Jesus says:

Take my yoke upon you and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble of heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy, and my burden light'.

What kind of yoke is Jesus talking about here?  You'll be relieved to know that it has very little to do with having egg on your face or, indeed, with becoming the butt of someone's awful humour!  But it has everything to do with the sheer discipline and hard work of labouring for Christ in the workshop of the world.  Those of you who've spent some time on a farm will know that a yoke is the piece of sculpted wood which goes around the neck of a bullock when it is harnessed to a plough.  Sometimes the piece of wood is designed to harness two or even three bullocks abreast.  Here the yoke becomes a means of joining the beasts to each other as much as to their work.  By becoming harnessed so, the bullocks learn a discipline essential to their task.  The discipline of working with each other and with their task-master - walking at the same pace and pulling with the same effort, so that the plough cuts its furrow with maximum effect, efficiency, and balance.

That Matthew should use an image of servitude to describe the life of following Jesus might surprise some of you.  Afterall, most of us have been taught that the Christian life is about throwing off our chains and walking in freedom.  Well, that is most certainly true.  But here Matthew is telling us that the freedom we aspire to in Christ will only come to us through a form of radical submission to Christ's will and way.  In one of the many paradoxes of the gospel, we are told that the way by which we might lay our burdens down is to take up the yoke of Christ and submit to his tutelage.   Which goes, of course, to the heart of discipleship.  To be a disciple is to submit oneself to the disciplines of the master we have chosen to follow.  It is to take that master's yoke upon oneself and learn how to plough the fields of the world according to the master's peculiar vision.

We see something of the joy and the cost of discipleship in the rather lovely story of Rebecca in Genesis.  Here is a women who lives under the protection and patronage of her father and brother in the land of Ur.  Life is secure, it is predictable, it is safe.  But one day a chap turns up from a far and distant land, and paints an entirely new scenario for her.  Why not come with him to that other land and to a different life?  Why not come and be the wife of a wealthy stranger named Isaac, a man whom Rebecca has never met?  Why not leave who she is right now, and welcome a radical change in role, identity and purpose?  Now I don't know about you.  But I think I'd be very, very wary.  But when Rebecca is asked if she wants to go, she says 'YES!'.   Somehow she is able to see the promise of that life far away.  Somehow she is able to find the courage to leave the safe and familiar behind and embrace the promise of what will be. 

For the earliest disciples, Jesus was like that stranger who came from a distant land saying 'follow me'.  In hearing that call and that challenge, each of them weighed up the cost against the promise, the tangible against the intangible, the known against the unknown.  Some took a risk.  They took up the yoke of Christ, which is also his cross.  They chose to follow him no matter where he led, and very often against the dictates of either reason or moral duty.  Others chose to stay with the yokes they were already wearing.  Like familial and civic duty, and keeping your head down lest the occupying force, the Roman, cut it off.  At least, that's how an ancient middle-eastern writer named Matthew saw it.  But now to the really difficult questions.  How might we few, gathered this morning in this shrine of Christ, really take up the yoke of Christ in our own lives and living?  But perhaps there is a more pressing question to be answered first.  Is there any real sense in taking the yoke of Christ seriously in this age of Ebay, atheism and new-age spirituality?

I believe there is a great deal of sense in doing so, because people have become so very burdened in this brave new world we've created!   The Ebay generation is burdened by the belief that we can somehow buy and consume our way to peace and happiness.  The tragedy here is that the world of modern consumerism offers nothing more than the eternal return of the same in the tired old story-lines of soap operas and pop music.  The more you buy, watch or consume, the less you get of anything genuinely new that is able to liberate us from our slavery to the same old thing. The new atheism, on the other hand, is burdened by the belief that we can somehow reason our way to peace and happiness.  Ironically, what the ‘new’ atheists are pedalling, is the rather ‘old’ story that got us into the economic and environmental mess we find ourselves in today, so so-called Enlightenment’s story about human beings pulling themselves out of the mire through disinterested reason and scientific enquiry.  The tragedy, here, is two-fold.  First, the Enlightenment story has never really comes to terms with the fact of human sin, what the apostle describes as knowing what is good and helpful and true, but failing to actually do it.  In this, paradoxically, psychoanalysis is certainly the Apostle’s ally!  Second, the Enlightenment story has never been comfortable with what might be called ‘the irrational’, that tendency of life itself to occasionally contradict everything we think we know, to surprise and lift us out of the quagmires in which we bury ourselves by our reason, that tendency which we Christians call the arrival of grace as from some place other that our very circumscribed understandings of reality. Which is where you’d think the dominant new-age spiritualities of our time might have something helpful to offer, with their promises of liberation through that which is not at all reasonable, through an embrace of all that is wild and untameable in the human spirit.  The tragedy here is that new age spiritualities are as weighed-down as consumerism and atheism with a glorious story about the capacity of human beings to break their own chains.  Instead of looking to what we might buy or consume, or to the light of human reason, contemporary spiritualities look to the deepest self for inspiration, that which is called, variously, ‘the god within’, the ‘best self’ or even the ‘collective unconscious’.  Whatever the language, whether Jungian or pagan in origin, the belief is the same: that we can somehow liberate ourselves, that the human spirit is unquenchable, and that it is able to rise above its sins and misdemeanours in order to make the world anew.  From a Christian point of view, from the point of view of the Apostle Paul, we cannot.  And I submit to you that the real history of human civilisation bears witness to this.  Whatever our aspirations, even if they are informed by that other story told by Jews or Christians, we fail to meet them.  Over and over and over again.  That is the true burden of our human condition.

‘Who can rescue us from these bodies of despair?’ asks the Apostle?  Only Jesus Christ.  Only the one who comes to us extra nos, as the Latin theologians styled it, from the ‘outside’ to share with us the free gift of God’s acceptance, love and transforming Spirit. For the gospel-writer, for Matthew, the gift-nature of salvation is expressed in the language of revelation: 

I praise you, Father, Lord of all creation, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the learned, and revealed them to little children. Yes, Father for this is your good pleasure (Matt 11.25-26)

Here, on the lips of Jesus, Matthew locates an origin for our liberation which comes from somewhere other than ourselves - our imagination, our reason, even our buying power.  It is the light not of our reason, but of revelation, the self-revelation of God in Jesus Christ.  For Jesus goes on to say,

All things have been given to me by my Father.  No-one knows that Son except the Father; and no-one knows that Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him (11.27).

The point here is that, like little children who are able to simply trust in what their parents give them and tell them, God gives the gift of salvation to all who are able to receive what is revealed in simple faith.  To put aside all they think they know and simply embrace what is given.  What is given, then, is a capacity to re-know and re-shape the world according to what is revealed in Jesus Christ.  It is the putting off of the old yoke of servitude to the way things are normally known and done in favour of the new ‘yoke’, a yoke that is not our own but that of Christ.   In one of the very many paradoxical moves of the gospel story, Matthew promises that all who come to Jesus will find that his own particular yoke is ‘easy’, and his burden ‘light’.  The word 'easy' should not, of course, be taken to mean that life with Jesus will be all beer and skittles.  It certainly is not!  Following Jesus is so deeply counter-cultural that his followers are very often persecuted and maligned for their lack of assent to the status quo.  The claim is, rather, that in following Jesus each person will find a way through life which 'fits' and addresses their most genuine needs and longings.  Not the needs and longings which are created by the ascendant powers of the society in which we live.  But the more fundamental needs and longings which everyone has . . .  for a home, a love, and a truth.   The yoke of Christ disciplines our hearts to acknowledge these longings, and to seek their fulfilment through a relationship with God.

Allow me to close with a three simple observations about taking the yoke of Christ for today.  First, I believe Jesus is calling us to faith, faith in what God has revealed in Jesus Christ.  It is the faith of the bible, of the ecumenical creeds and of all Christian thinking that springs from these fonts.  Faith is a simple acceptance of these things, a leap into the unknown by which we might then, paradoxically, re-understand everything we thought we understood but did not.  Faith is not - please understand! - without thought, reason or imagination.  It is, rather, a thought and imagination that allows itself to be disciplined by the self-revelation of God in Jesus Christ, so that the entire world of what we know and imagine can be re-thought, re-imagined and re-reasoned in its light.

Second, I believe Jesus is calling us to prayer and to a deeper communion with God.  Prayer is the well from which we draw the essential water to sustain our journey in faith.  So let me ask this of all of you.  Do you pray?  Do you know what prayer is?  Do you know how to pray?  If the answer to any of these questions is no, then I would urge you to seek counsel and direction from a person you respect in the faith.  Because prayer is at the centre.  Without prayer, there is no life with God.

And finally, I believe Jesus is calling us to live with integrity and justice in our relationships with other people and with all life on our planet.  That includes our families and love ones, certainly.  But it also includes the more complex relationships we have with people far and wide, across the whole expanse of this web of life we call the earth.  If we are genuine in our desire to take the yoke of Jesus, then it matters whom we support and don't support in our spending patterns and in our choices as consumers.  It matters that we say or don't say things when the world is taken over by pokie machines or homophobia or whatever.  It matters that we do or don't do things in the face of poverty and violence and corruption.

The yoke of Christ calls us to discipline and to a life of dedicated labour after the way of Jesus.  But it is also the promise of blessing, rest and healing in gentle communion with God.  This stole that I wear as a minister is a symbol of the yoke of Christ which I am vowed to carry all my days.  But each baptised Christian has made a pledge no less demanding and no less rewarding.  I encourage all of you to explore that pledge anew this day.