5 Pentecost, Proper 9 – July 9, 2017
Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

Today I”d like to talk a little bit about perception.  Perception is the state of being or process of becoming aware of something through the senses. It is a way of regarding, understanding, or interpreting something; a mental impression or picture. It is intuitive understanding and insight.

In our gospel reading for today, Jesus talks about how we have perceived John the Baptist and Jesus, himself.

The crowds appear ready to judge only on the basis of the company these figures keep. John played the part of societal misfit, a throwback prophet whom many supposed was demon-possessed. Jesus, on the other hand, associated himself with sinners and tax collectors. Therefore, the crowds concluded, he must be “a glutton and a drunkard”. That people are so quick to dismiss a person’s merits on the basis of their perceived “affiliations” is apparently nothing new.

Jesus points out that God’s will has been made known in more than one way, through different kinds of mouthpieces, and yet still isn’t recognized. What are our expectations of a prophet’s vocation or the messiah’s behavior? And how do our expectations, and the little conditions they contain, prevent us from recognizing the will of God in human form?

These passages remind us precisely of our inability to box Jesus in.

David Lose describes it as something of a two-step waltz. The first step is to decide what you think God should be (and that is usually something that affirms what we already think, feel, believe and/or have done). The second is to judge all others – and that includes their beliefs about God – by this same notion.

That’s pretty much what’s going on in this scene from Matthew. John the Baptist comes along, and he doesn’t measure up. He doesn’t conform, to what the folks present think he should be like. He’s too reclusive, too ascetic, a loner, too somber and serious. He should eat and drink more. Then Jesus comes and he’s, well, too much the opposite. He drinks and eats too much, and with the wrong kind of people to boot.

We do tend to put Jesus in a box. We want God to match our picture, or perception of who we think God should be. Which is perhaps what’s so appealing about our own pictures of God. They don’t threaten us, don’t expect change from us, don’t ask us to do all that much, and don’t do much more than affirm us. And affirmation is great, even necessary at times. But it doesn’t save. And so God comes along,  first in John, then even more fully in Jesus,  in part to disrupt our pictures of God, our perceptions, to shake our hands loose from holding those pictures (which all too often can harden into idols) too tightly.

Having said that, it’s really not possible to live without some picture of God. And, simply because we’re human, and fallible, we’ll likely picture God in ways that are both helpful and unhelpful, clear as well as distorted. And so God comes and shows up where we least expect God to be in order to shake us up, in order to call what we thought we knew for sure into question, in order to surprise us by being so different from what we expected, and yet precisely what we need.

No wonder Jesus gives thanks that God has revealed all this, not to the wise but to infants, because that alone surprises us, makes us think twice, challenges our preconceptions.

Jesus does another thing in this passage as well, though. He doesn’t simply call our perceptions and expectations into question, but also gives us another picture. God is the one who bears our burdens. God is the one who shows up in our need. God is the one who comes along side of us. Nothing demonstrates this more than the cross –  God’s willingness to embrace all of our life, even to the point of death, in Jesus, to demonstrate God’s profound love and commitment, love and commitment that will not be deterred by anything.

It’s not necessarily what we want. We often would prefer a God who takes away our problems rather than helps us cope with them, who eliminates challenges rather than equips us for them, and who vanquishes our opponents rather than enables us to make peace with them. Again, it’s not usually what we want, but pretty much exactly what we need. Jesus says, “take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

It may be a challenge to buy into the notion that Jesus’ yoke is easy and his burden light. But perhaps much of the difficulty, heaviness, and exhaustion that we experience in ourselves, and that we witness in others, comes because we are making our own darn way – and making it difficult- rather than tending our connection with the one who wants to make the way for us and to work alongside us. Perhaps what Christ meant is not that walking with him is uncomplicated but rather that when we focus on our relationship with him, the road opens before us with less resistance and less striving on our part.

Double yokes are designed for working animals to pull in tandem. How might it be to imagine this as the kind of yoke that Jesus was talking about, a yoke that we don’t have to pull alone, a yoke that he wears with us? A yoke not for servitude, not for bondage, but a tool of connection, a way of being in relationship with Christ that makes our work easier, not more difficult. It’s this kind of relationship, this connection with the Christ who labors alongside us, that makes it possible to go into the complicated realms that our souls sometimes need.

The yoke imagery challenges us to ponder what we’re attaching ourselves to these days. What perceptions are we stuck holding onto? We always bind ourselves, however subtly, to something: people, places, habits, possessions, beliefs, ways of being in the world. What or whom are you yoked to right now? Have you sought these connections, or have you allowed them to be placed upon you by others? Do these connections deepen you or deaden you? Do they draw you closer to Christ or farther away from him? Do they connect you with the power, freedom, and choice that God gives you, or do they diminish your power, freedom, and choice? How might Christ be inviting you to live and work in closer relationship with him?

Today we welcome beautiful Autumn Rose Heston into the Christian life and faith. May she and all of us, in our living and our laboring, find deep relationship and rest.  Amen.