St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
The Church of the Incarnation, Jersey City NJ
July 6, 2014
Year A, Proper 9: The Fourth Sunday after Pentecost
Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67
Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30
The Doom of Independence
I hope you’re having a good Independence Day weekend.
Thanks to Hurricane Arthur, most of July 4th itself was pretty wet, but nowhere near as bad as it might have been. And then the rest of the weekend has been beautiful.
This weekend we celebrate independence.
Of course, July 4th marks the birth of our country when a group of generally wealthy white men formally declared our break from the British mother country.
Fortunately, in the Declaration of Independence those rich white men used beautiful and lofty language about our natural, God-given, equality and our “inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
Back in 1776, we had a long, long way to go to make those beautiful and lofty words a reality for all Americans. In the years since, we’ve made some progress thanks to the hard work, courage and sacrifice of many.
But, we don’t have to look far to know we still have a long way to go.
So, this weekend, we celebrate our independence from Britain.
And, maybe less consciously, we celebrate independence itself.
We deeply value our independence. Maybe too much.
And, we start valuing our independence at a very early age.
I’m sure we’ve all witnessed infants throwing tantrums because they can’t get or can’t do what they want – the frustration at not being able to get out of the playpen or the highchair. And, sometimes, I guess the tantrums are just fury at not being in control, rage at not being able to do it on their own.
As they get older, children are often on the lookout for ways to assert their independence.
Most of you know that I grew up here in Jersey City, in Country Village to be specific. For grammar school, my sister and I both went to Our Lady of Mercy, which, was our parish church.
But, when I was ready to start school, OLM hadn’t yet opened their kindergarten. So, I went to PS 30 on Seaview Avenue – not too far from home but as a little kid it felt like a pretty good distance, and it was certainly not in Country Village!
There was a boy the same age as me, named Michael, who lived across the street. As I remember it, our mothers would take turns walking us or driving us to and from school.
This must have gone on for months.
Then, one afternoon, we got out of school. I think it was my mother’s turn to pick us up. There were a lot of parents and other adults waiting, but I didn’t see my Mom.
But, I probably didn’t look that hard because I had gotten it into my head that Michael and I should just… walk home on our own.
I easily talked Michael into it and off we went. In my memory, we came out onto Gates Avenue, walked down Gates, across the four lanes of Kennedy Boulevard, to Seaview Avenue, to Romar Avenue, to Neptune Avenue, and then into Country Village and home.
Now, today we live in a much more safety-conscious world so I doubt Michael and I could have gotten to the Boulevard without the crossing guard or somebody asking questions about why these two little boys were walking home alone. But, back then, nobody asked any questions.
So, what happened?
I’m not sure about Michael but, of course, I got into big trouble.
It could have been bigger trouble. I could have been hit by car or abducted or gotten lost.
But, still, I got into trouble.
And, that’s what happens.
Now, don’t get me wrong, some independence is good – eventually I walked back and forth to school on my own - but when we try to be fully independent, when we depend only on ourselves, when we refuse to work together, and most especially, when we try to go it alone without God, we get into trouble.
St. Paul certainly understood that we get into trouble if we try to go it alone.
Today we heard one of the best-known passages from Paul’s Letter to the Romans.
Paul writes, “For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.”
Paul is writing in the first person but he’s almost certainly not talking about himself; he had a rather high opinion of his own righteousness.
It sounds like Paul is writing about those times when we fail to live up to our best intentions. Certainly that happens all too often, but Paul is after something bigger and more important and more frightening.
Paul argues that even if we do everything we’re supposed to do, even if we do everything right, even if we follow all the rules, even if we cross only at the crosswalk, even if we wait for the green light and the “walk” sign, even if we do everything we’re supposed to do, we’re going to get into trouble.
If we go it alone, we are doomed.
Paul argues that we’re doomed because sin is really powerful.
But, maybe just as important, if we go it alone we’re doomed because we’re not really made to be independent.
It’s just the opposite, really. We’re meant to depend on each other – to work together, to share each other’s burdens, to hold each other up, to walk together through the streets of life.
And, most of all, we’re meant to be dependent on God – the God we know in and through Jesus.
In today’s Gospel passage, Jesus is very critical of the people around him, this generation that has rejected both John the Baptist and him. Jesus is especially critical of the so-called “wise and intelligent,” the people most likely to think they can do it alone. It’s a pretty harsh passage, but then Jesus invites everybody, absolutely everybody, especially the weary and the heavy burdened. Which would be just about everybody, I think.
Jesus uses the image of a yoke, a wooden beam that allows oxen to pull their load – to pull their load together.
Jesus invites us to give up our independence and take his yoke upon us.
And, here’s the thing: when we give up our independence and follow Jesus, ironically enough, we become truly free.
When we give up our independence and follow Jesus we become truly free to live the lives we were made to live, truly free to journey home together – truly free to journey home together joyfully, lovingly, and safely.