A sermon by David Barton
at St Mary’s Iffley
Sunday 9th July 2017
Those two readings, the epistle (Romans 7:15-25) and the gospel (Matthew 11:16-19, 25-end), fit together beautifully, though I agree it isn’t at once obvious! They are about something absolutely central to our Christian understanding and experience. And they are also wonderfully observed about human nature. Take that picture Jesus paints of children playing and then falling out with each other. It’s been a long time since I was a teacher, but I every time I read that I have a memory of doing playground duty.
School Playgrounds are the most extraordinary places – particularly those in London. At least here in Oxford there is the sight of grass and trees! In London, schools have a patch of tarmac surrounded by high, red brick walls. Most of the time it’s barren, empty. But into it pour a couple of hundred children or more, all at once, and as long as they are there, there is mayhem. Children burst out, screaming their delight at the sudden release. Pity the poor teacher or teaching assistant on duty. Footballs fly around and dribble through children’s legs regardless of who is playing or not. Skipping ropes threaten to catch round their necks, and in the corners little groups of quieter children devise their games.
If you are on playground duty you have to keep the lid on all of this, and sometimes it’s in the quiet corners that the play goes badly wrong. “Sir, they won’t let me play. They say I’m sad.” Or “Sir, tell her. She keeps on laughing and its annoying us.” You do your best to reason about it – shouting over the general noise. Failing that you take the rejected child by the hand and walk off, hoping it will all pass over.
Jesus here deliberately puts his finger on a key lesson of all growing up from childhood onwards. And it’s also one that is utterly key to the kind of life Jesus calls his followers into, one that remains to be learned again and again, well into adulthood: learning to stand in someone else’s shoes, learning that we can’t always have our own way. How many conversations did I have as a teacher (and even more and a headteacher!), unpicking the more intractable playground disputes and classroom troubles! And I was always struck by the fact I needed the advice I was offering just as much as the children! We must learn how to listen to other people, respect their feelings, just as we want them to respect ours. Realise that we are all different, and learn to make space for that in our minds. Learn to live with the disappointment of things not being quite as we would want. Because having a code of living which always puts me and my needs first only leads to unhappiness.
Now think of that, and turn to that passage from Romans – which is at first sight rather odd. It’s about the law. Jewish law was widely admired in the Roman world. Jews were respected on account of their highly moral way of life. Paul admires the law. But his point was that it does not really get to the depths of us. You will remember Jesus illustration about adultery. It’s exactly the kind of point Paul makes. We may behave, we may keep the law about adultery, but that does not stop the emotions and feelings. When I was a stand-in RAF chaplain, a young service man once came to see me. He was a devout catholic who had stopped going to Mass in the local church. It troubled him, and he was a bit frightened of the Catholic chaplain. So he came to me! He hummed and ha-ad for ages and then at last blurted out: “There are just too many pretty girls at Mass. I can’t stand it!”
It’s a clever illustration by Jesus. Outwardly we can keep the rules, but it doesn’t touch the inside. Paul and Jesus are getting at a whole range of things here, not just adultery. The sudden bursts of anger when something unexpected happens, and spoils our plans. Feelings of resentment against another person, or plain, irrational dislike of them. Envy – a feeling that we have been left out, overlooked. Unlearned lessons about the I and the Me. The Me which always, in our lives, (as much when we are old as when we were young), puts us at the centre of everything. Notice how Paul frames this argument: I…I…..I… (21 “I”s in that passage!)
And, as Paul knows, the heart of Jesus’ message is the opposite of that: self forgetfulness. That is key to discipleship. Denying ourselves, taking up the cross of self and putting it on our shoulders. It’s a command to move self concern out of the way. Jesus wants us to clear our vision – not look at the world through the lenses of our own problems. Then we will be able to see is the world as it really is. It is shot through with the glory of the kingdom of God, if only we had open eyes to see that.
It a wonderful passage from Romans: Paul remembers his old struggles. And then there is that sudden shift, from “Wretched man that I am” to “But thanks be to God through our Lord Jesus Christ” The whole passage changes gear. As if in that moment he remembers the love and the forgiveness that met him on the Damascus road. He saw that in Jesus. In that moment everything he struggled with fell way. From then on for Paul rules ceased to be important: God love in Christ became his only guide.
In the 13th Century, at about the time they were knocking out the east end of our church to build the new sanctuary that we have now, in Germany there was a famous preacher called Meister Eckhardt. Eckhardt preached in German, which was unusual. Hundreds flocked to hear him and, interestingly, we still have his sermons, written down by his disciples as he preached them. So we know that he would lean over the pulpit and say to people “Go out from yourself. Leave everything behind.” (What he meant was, all the baggage of our self concerns) And he would imagine someone shouting up and saying “What Sir! Everything?” “Yes everything!” he would reply. I remember, a number of years ago, being on retreat and suddenly feeling the need to do just that: to forget myself. To drop everything. And I felt frightened. These concerns had occupied me for so long…become my defences perhaps. It felt a bit like dropping of a cliff. Except that the discovery, as the days passed, was the opposite of that: of warmth and love and of being profoundly held.
I think this is an experience that belongs to many of us, though there are so many different ways people experience it. Someone came to see me a few years ago, and she told me that she had been in her kitchen, when suddenly a whole change of perspective came over her. She felt herself embraced and loved, surrounded by an immense mystery. Nothing particular triggered this. Nor was she a particularly religious person. But it changed everything for her, and what she stumblingly called God became a lived and deeply personal reality. She has responded to that ever since.
But for most of us, I think, it’s not that. It’s just the simple process of saying our prayers and reading the bible and coming to church and living as best we can, which over time simply changes us. And then one day we look back and realise how blessed we are, how loved, how much we are cared for.
Jesus and Paul want us to make that discovery. And when we do, we realise that we are not the agents of our own lives. The one who loves us from the heart of the universe is that. That sounds like dependency. And I suppose it is. But what we get in return is a gift of life, and joy and freedom, welling up from the deepest most part of ourselves. Just read the last three verses of that Gospel. That, and more besides is what we are given.
‘Come to me, all you that are weary and are 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.’