Sunday, July 3, 2011
Proper 9, Year A
Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30
I love a good paradox. And, this week’s lessons are full of them: Humble triumph, peaceful commands, easy yokes and light burdens … prisoners of hope. In Zechariah we hear the Messianic prophecy that is referenced in each of the four Gospels as they tell of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem on what we now celebrate as Palm Sunday, the Sunday before Easter. The Jews in Jerusalem that day would have remembered what the prophet Zechariah foretold as they witnessed Jesus arriving in Jerusalem on a donkey. And yet, therein lies the biggest paradox of all. They would have understood the meaning behind Jesus arriving in Jerusalem on the foal of a donkey and yet for many, he was not the Messiah they expected. The Messiah was God’s promised redemption for them and yet they wanted a Messiah, a savior, of their own design, one not coming humbly to rule in peace but one who came with chariots and war horses, the exact opposite of the prophecy they knew so well.
For us, sitting here in San Antonio, Texas a few thousand years later, what do we hear in this passage? We might hear things that resound with us as we celebrate our country’s birthday – national pride, triumph and victory, dominion from sea to shining sea (yeah, I know shining isn’t in Zechariah, but it is in Katharine Lea Bates’ lyrics – don’t tell me your mind didn’t put it in there when you read it). We might hear of a time we anticipate when there is no war and no suffering in our world. Just like the Jews in Jerusalem, we might hear a description of the Messiah that is very different from our own expectations or we might hear of a hope that we live with, the hope that holds us bound to God.
Long before Jesus rode into Jerusalem on the donkey’s colt, he knew his ministry and time would be full of paradoxes and contradictions. He did come, after all, to offer a Way of Life that is different from the world – we are to be in it but not of it. These people struggle with aligning their own wants with what they were told to expect. In Matthew, Jesus points this out. They are like children who want to dictate the rules of the game and then get mad when they can’t control what others do. They condemn John for not eating and Jesus for eating. They are experts in the religious Law but have forgotten the basics of mercy and grace, the very purposes of God’s law. They know God’s Law but not God. They have become prisoners of their own ill-fitting yokes whose burden was more than most could bear. They are not prisoners of hope but prisoners of their own struggle to save themselves by being good enough.
To be a prisoner of something is to be under the control of that thing and most often we think of it in negative terms such as a physical prison, an addiction, or an abusive and oppressive situation. Sometimes though we can use the term prisoner in a positive way like when we say “I’m a prisoner of love” meaning we don’t want to be without it. We choose to let our love of another and their love for us to determine our behavior; we give ourselves over to it. Zechariah knew this to be the case with hope as well. Zechariah offered this prophecy up as encouragement to the Jews who had returned to Jerusalem from their exile in Babylon and were in the midst of rebuilding their temple Their hope carried them forward through their struggles, trusting that God would send a Messiah to reverse the powers of the world and deliver and restore his people. He is telling them to let this hope take hold of them and become prisoners of it.
So, how do we, here and now, translate this ancient prophecy, this encouragement to become prisoners of hope? How do we let ourselves become prisoners of hope in the paradox of living in the now and not yet? The Messiah has come and yet we still live in struggle in this world. In the darkest nights of our souls, hope is that faint glimmer that urges us on even when we don’t want to, seeking to know God and trusting Him with our next breath, step, day, future.
But, wait, how can we seek God when Jesus tells us that no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom he chooses to reveal the Father. It sounds exclusionary but it isn’t. Jesus chooses to reveal the Father to everyone who willingly comes to him for rest and relief not power or riches. The rest that Jesus offers is not the absence of work but re-creation, renewal, and the restoring the proper authority of God in our lives. He offers rest to those who find hope in the paradox that God, our life source is the goodness out of which we are to grow into fullness of life and that life is a struggle, from birth to death. Hope is our response to that struggle.
Hope is that which allows us to turn unwanted change into willing conversion; to reclaim powerlessness as willing surrender; to surrender ourselves to the apparent contradiction of peaceful victory and humble triumph without chariots, war horses, or battle bows. We let go of our ideals of what we want a savior to be and accept the one God sent as he is – a humble, peaceful, servant who brings victory and triumph not as the world defines it but victory over a world that presents a false hope that we can save ourselves.
As prisoners of hope we have the freedom to admit our limitations and weaknesses, to admit that God is God and He created us to live in relationship with Him and with each other. We aren’t meant to struggle through life alone but in community so that in those times when we have strength and endurance that others do not have we can help them and vice versa. It is as prisoners of Hope that when we can’t see God we can ask others to point us in His direction because we know he is there; when we don’t have the words to pray, we ask others to pray for us; when we can’t think of a single thing to be thankful for, we can still offer up a prayer of praise and thanksgiving trusting that God is God.
Christian Hope is not the idea that if we believe the right things we will be without struggle in this world. Hope is born out of the struggles of this world and it is through struggle that we develop and grow. Christian Hope is that which enables us to keep our eyes turned in the direction of God even if we feel we can’t see Him, knowing that in the fullness of time we and all of creation will be gathered unto him, free from the struggles through which we have come to know Him.
Jesus taught in parables and paradoxes. His sermons and words often require us to struggle with the meaning. He didn’t do this to keep the meaning from us but to inspire us to delve deeper into our knowledge of God, to teach us how to seek with hope. Sister Joan Chittister defines struggle as “the process of evolution from spiritual emptiness to spiritual wisdom.” It is the invitation to live from deeper within our souls. Struggle is the foundation of hope.
My prayer for all of us is that we stay bound to the Hope which makes us truly free.