Proper 9A Sermon (1996)

Proper 9 (July 3-9)
Texts: Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30;
Romans 7:15-25; Gen. 24


‘I don’t understand what I do! The things I’d like to do, that I should do, I can’t seem to do them. Instead I seem to do the things I hate, the things I know are wrong!’ Can you relate? It’s about time, right? Finally, something from Romans this summer that we can easily understand! This passage from St. Paul immediately strikes a chord with our experience. It’s refreshing — isn’t it? — after the sort of passages we’ve dealt with from Romans these past number of weeks. Ideas like the First and Second Adams, or being baptized into Christ’s death, do not translate so immediately into experience. We have to wrestle with them a bit. But not this morning’s passage! How true!

Our passage is also somewhat re-assuring. St. Paul was perhaps the greatest of saints, yet in this passage he seemingly expresses the same kind of struggle as a sinner as the rest of us do. It’s reassuring to think, ‘Hey, St. Paul went through the same thing that I do! He’s a saint…maybe I can be, too.’ In fact, this became a central idea for Martin Luther, that all Christians are both saints and sinners at the same time.

Oh, oh! But now we’ve gone from something we can easily relate to, to one of those difficult ideas, again. “All sinners yet all saints.” There is a tension here, if not an out-and-out paradox. It’s difficult for us to understand how we can be both sinner and saint at the same time. Because of that, there is a controversy over how to interpret this passage from Romans 7. Many Christians through the ages, trying to be serious about living a new life in Christ, have had trouble with these words. They ask, “Could Paul really have struggled so, after turning his life over to the Lord?” They suggest that Paul is really looking back to his days before his Christian conversion, before meeting his Lord on the road to Damascus.

Let’s try to get back to our more immediate experience with an example. These days, there are those who make a distinction between being cured from a disease and being in the process of recovery from a disease. In short: recovering but not cured. Does that help us to understand being a sinner and saint at the same time? The experience of a recovering alcoholic is a good model to keep in mind. Even when one wins the victory over drinking by giving it up, it is not a complete cure. The recovering alcoholic has learned not to say, “Gee, I’ve won. I’m not an alcoholic anymore.” No, the alcoholic is still stuck with the same flesh and blood which reacts to the substance of alcohol in an addictive way. But the recovering alcoholic has won to the extent that alcohol no longer has complete reign over his or her life. It no longer holds the power of death for that person. And the only way alcoholics can achieve that is by turning the reins of their life over to another higher power, to God. As St. Paul said in our lesson from Romans last week, either you are a slave to sin, or a slave to God. Just so, the recovering alcoholic has to learn that the only way for alcohol not to rule your life is to let God rule your life. There’s really an excellent theology in A.A., in Alcoholics Anonymous.

* * * * * * * Our gospel lesson seems very different than our second lesson, but I’m going to risk trying to relate them. One way in which they are similar is the ease of relating to them. Our gospel closes with very familiar and comforting words: “Come to me, all you who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest….For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” These words have brought immediate comfort to countless Christians through the ages. They are words we often use at funerals, to comfort those who bear the burden of grief. They are words that come to us with comfort in the face of many of life’s burdens. And rightly so.

Yet we may miss our chance this morning if we don’t at least try to go beyond their immediate impact, as we did with our second lesson. A gifted theologian of this age, Paul Tillich, once wrote a sermon that pushed in this direction. I’d like to paraphrase him here:

It is the general human situation to be heavy laden and to labor under a yoke which is too hard to be endured. But what kind of burden is this? We may think first of the burdens and labors that daily life imposes on us. But that is not indicated in our text. Jesus does not tell us that he will ease the labors and burdens of life and work. How could He, even if He wanted to? Whether or not we come to Him, the threats of illness or unemployment are not lessened, the weight of our work does not become easier; and the sorrow over the passing of friends or parents or children is not overcome. Jesus cannot and does not promise more pleasure and less pain to those whom He asks to come to Him. On the contrary, sometimes He promises them more pain, more persecution, more threat of death — the “cross,” as He calls it. All this is not the burden to which He points. (1)

So what is the burden to which Tillich thinks Jesus is pointing to? His answer will probably come as a surprise: religion. Religion, says Paul Tillich, is the burden which Jesus has come to save us from!

Sound ridiculous? What about all the millions who have practiced the Christian religion, you say? Well, that may be true. Many millions may have responded to the Gospel by practicing the Christian religion, but Tillich doesn’t think that the latter was the purpose for which Jesus came, and died, and rose again. Jesus came to establish, once and for all, a restored relationship with God, not a religion. In fact, religion (not to be read “Church” here, which is instituted by Christ) tends to be a human institution that weighs us down perhaps worse than any other. I think that we can read religion in the place of the serpent in that story from Genesis 3, where we read: ‘Now religion was more subtle than any other creature that the Lord God had made. It said to the woman, “You will not die if you eat from that tree. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”‘ Religion can be like the most beguiling of all creatures in offering us a knowledge which is not ours to have. We cannot be like God. Yet religion, above all others, has convinced millions that they can now take the place of God, knowing good and evil, and laying their judgements upon themselves and others.

This is what connects us back to our lessons from Romans, where basically the matter that Paul has been trying to lay out for us is the danger of religion. That’s what all the his talk about the Law is about. When he speaks negatively of the Jewish Law, he is speaking largely in terms of what we mean by “religion.” The Law in the hands of people like he himself had been, a Pharisee, becomes a means for spelling out precisely what is right and what is wrong, a means of being deceived into thinking that they could “be like God, knowing good and evil.” God’s gift of the Law had itself become twisted by our sinful human nature. St. Paul thus reaches a crescendo with this morning’s passage, making it clear to us that our human perspective on what is good or evil does no good in our ability to actually do the good. Trapped under the burden of religion, human beings come to sing the lament that Paul describes: “For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I don’t want to do — this I keep on doing.” We can become trapped by religion, which is “at work in the members of my body.” Religion, under the power of sin, becomes a dis-ease from which we need relief and unburdening. And who will rescue us from this body of death? “Thanks be to God–through Jesus Christ our Lord!” says St. Paul.

That is how we can be both saint and sinner at the same time. Like the alcoholic, the disease is part of our body. Short of our physical death, we cannot seem to let it go. So let me suggest this: perhaps the church is supposed to be a sort of Religiholics Anonymous–that is, if we don’t turn the church into a religion. That’s why so many alcoholics have turned away from the church, I think. Because they felt condemned there by people who thought they were like God. No, I submit that Jesus meant for the church to be sort of a Religiholics Anonymous, a group of people who stopped playing the games of religion, a group of people who were humble and gentle in heart, like Jesus, and stopped pretending they were better than everyone else. We are a group of recovering religiholics, saints and sinners, at the same time. And the real grace is that when we really are the church, instead of just another religion, a load is lifted. And that helps with so many of those other burdens we carry, like mortgages and car payments and wayward children, for we no longer have to play all those games of being better than everyone else. We don’t have to play games of having bigger and better houses, classier cars, and the best behaved children on the block. We no longer have to carry that burden of trying to be better than everyone else. Then all those things we do have become blessings to be shared, rather than burdens.

So thanks be to God who sent the Son to rescue us from this body of death. Jesus calls to us again this morning from his holy table, “Come to me, all you who are weary and heavy laden. 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.” Amen

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Emmaus Lutheran,
Racine, WI, July 6-7, 1996

1. Paul Tillich, “The Yoke of Religion,” Shaking the Foundations, New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1948, pages 93-103. An online version can also be accessed courtesy of Religion Online.

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