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First Presbyterian Church

Dr. Stuart R. Gordon

September 1, 2019

The View from Down There

Psalm 138; Matthew 11:25-30

Lillian Daniel preached a sermon several years ago in which she let her hair down about the frustrations of being a preacher getting lectured by folks who are “spiritual but not religious.” It’s not that she denies them their religious freedom; it’s that she resents how they talk to her as if they’ve made some mind-blowing discovery that no one ever thought of before.

“These spiritual-not-religious adults don’t want to hear about God at church, but they seem never to tire of hearing about God from their own children. These are the people who keep sending out the emails with ‘cute things kids say about God.’”

A mother says, “My kid said, ‘Mommy, I think God is like the rainbow.’ Can you believe the wisdom of that?’” Daniel isn’t impressed. She says sarcastically, “These people’s children are always theological geniuses.”

After not only letting her hair down but seemingly pulling some of it out, Daniel shares one more anecdote, one from a father of a teenager, who quoted what he saw as a profound theological insight. “Listen to what my son wrote. ‘Children are starving with empty bellies in faraway lands. They have nothing to eat. All around them they hear the sounds of gunfire and bombs going off. And it made me realize that we are so lucky. We are so lucky to be living here and not there.’”

The dad explained, “I had tears in my eyes when he said that. I was blown away and I realized that he gets it, he really gets it. It was gratitude. That’s our religion – gratitude. And at that moment, when he recognized all that suffering and how fortunate he was, I could not have been prouder.”

Daniel concludes, “What’s missing from that worldview – and this is no fault of the teenager – is something you might get in a Christian community, a perspective that would take you from feeling lucky for not being hungry to actually doing something to feed a hungry person. This dad was happy to stop at the self-made religion of gratitude, like a person who fills up on the deep-fried appetizers and doesn’t order anything else from the menu. He may not feel hungry for dinner now, but that snack will not sustain him” (The Christian Century, 09/20/11).

It would be tempting to hear in Jesus’ words from Matthew 11 a kind of spiritual-but-not-religious theology. When he prays, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and intelligent and have revealed them to infants,” it would be tempting to conclude that what emerges from the mouths of children is a special revelation to the world. All of Jesus’ sayings about children have been subject to such misuse, to a sentimentalized glamorization of children and childhood. There was nothing glamorous about childhood in the ancient world. Remember child sacrifice?

No, Jesus is not thanking the Father that children get it and adults don’t; he is using the word “infants” as a metaphor. He is contrasting people who think they are so smart to people who are modest. He is contrasting people who imagine that they can make up a real religion of their own to people who realize that only God is God, and we mortals need to trust this God.

It’s not every day that you stop to consider the presence of other gods around you. It’s not every day that you bother to consider that modern people do, in fact, craft contemporary idols. Now, I won’t claim that everyone has a god and just doesn’t want to admit it; I do think that’s possible, but I have other fish to fry today. I just want to acknowledge that the Psalmist’s prayer isn’t outdated; it’s relevant today. “I give you thanks, O Lord, with my whole heart; before the gods I sing your praise.”

People make up religions all the time, and with those religions their own gods – which, by the way, we are all free to do. Lillian Daniel says, “If we made a church for all these spiritual-but-not-religious people, if we got them all together to talk about their beliefs and their incredibly unique personal religions, they might find out that most of America agrees with them. But they’ll never find that out, because getting them all together would be way too much like church. And they are far too busy being original to discover that they aren’t.”

Our Lord Jesus was acutely aware of the problems of bad religion. No religion is immune to abuse. No religion, given that it is a human activity, is pure. Karl Barth stressed this for Christians in the twentieth century. We ourselves must be able to distinguish between the Christian religion and the Lord Jesus Christ. We trust the Lord Jesus and proclaim him; we do not trust and proclaim Christianity. We gauge our faithfulness to Jesus partly by our willingness to critique our own religion.

Jesus embodied this when he offered an invitation to his own people: “Come to me, all you who 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.” Jesus wasn’t talking to people who were tired from a long day’s work. He was talking to people whose religion had become burdensome. He was inviting folks who just couldn’t keep up with the Pharisees to stop trying.

While it’s risky to summarize Phariseeism as “legalism,” there is no denying that Jesus condemned the Pharisees of his day for their excessive concern with religious practices while ignoring weightier matters of the law, like justice and mercy. Jesus condemned them for too much religion that had little to do with loving God and loving one’s neighbor. Lillian Daniel might say that current versions of bad religion err on the other side of the coin: they aren’t legalistic, but they say very little about loving God and loving your neighbor as yourself. Maybe on both sides of the coin, the problem is with being a little too enamored of one’s own religious experiences. It was G.K. Chesterton who said, “How much larger your life would be if your self could be smaller in it” (quoted in The Week, 06-09-19).

How about that as a helpful guide for your religion? “I must decrease, so that Christ might increase.” God hides his revelation from the proud and gives it to the humble. As the Psalmist says it, “Though the Lord is high, he regards the lowly; but the haughty he perceives from far away.”

James Daneher, who teaches at Nyack College in New York, noticed a few years ago that even religious people in our day seem to value celebrities over more modest people of faith. He believes that what sets saints apart from celebrities is that saints seek littleness, whereas celebrities are expected to enlarge themselves, to increase their following, to be bigger than life. He says, “The saints are different . . . not in being sinless but in the awareness of their sins and need of repentance. Unlike . . . trying to cover or excuse sin in order to appear sinless, the saint exposes his or her sin in order to become ever more aware of God’s forgiveness and love” (New Blackfriars, Vol. 90).

Though Daneher uses that term “saint” in a specialized sense, I think we Protestants can claim it as a guide for all Christians. When we overhear Jesus praying to the Father, giving thanks, we’re let in on a not-so-well-kept secret: knowledge of God is a gift, not an accomplishment. No matter how spiritually sophisticated one may be, or how popular one manages to become, without the revelatory gift of God, it’s all nothing.

It’s worth noting that both Psalm 138 and Jesus’ prayer to the Father look upon a life of faith as a work in progress: The Psalmist often says things like, “Though I walk in the midst of trouble, you preserve me against the wrath of my enemies.” You can’t read this prayer and conclude that a life of faith is ever simple, ever as carefree as one would like to think. And when Jesus says that his yoke is easy and his burden light, you can’t conclude that with Jesus there is no yoke, no burden. Lillian Daniel’s critique of the bad religion includes this: “God is in the sunset? Great, I find God there too. But how about seeing God in cancer? Cancer is nature too. Do you worship that?”

So, I’d like to offer an old alternative to being grateful that you’re lucky not to be hungry like other people are. How about saying “thank you, God” every day at that very point when you are hungry – because hungry is what every person is, every day – and you acknowledge God’s kindness in your food. It’s the wisdom of saying the blessing before every meal. Not only do you acknowledge the food; you acknowledge your need – your persistent, never-ending need that emerges every time your stomach growls. Simply to say the blessing is an exercise in decreasing so that Christ might increase. And how much larger does your world become when you become smaller in it?

Several years ago, my brother and I went to a homecoming celebration at the church where we grew up, where our father was the pastor for 29 years. Since we hadn’t been there for a long time, we both were curious about the church manse, the house where we grew up. The current pastor was hospitable, and invited us to come by after lunch just to see the place. My hunch is that you’ve had a similar experience in your adult life.

We parked on the street and walked up the sidewalk. We rang the bell and he greeted us. He thoughtfully gave us freedom to wander around that house on our own, to reminisce. And of course, the first impression we had was that it wasn’t nearly as big as we remembered it!

When you’re a child, the world looks very big. Your yard is huge, as big as a football field. The lavatory in your bathroom is so high you need a stool to brush your teeth. And the sofa is so big you can make a fort there, big enough for you and a few friends.

When you become an adult, the world seems to shrink. Growing up is a good thing, and becoming responsible is necessary. But when it comes to religion, we can get confused. We can forget that in our relationship to God, maturity never means independence. Wisdom doesn’t mean self-sufficiency. It means knowing who feeds you, knowing whom to thank. And there is something about being part of the church, the community of faith, that teaches you more than “I’m so lucky I’m not hungry.” It teaches you, “My hunger reminds me that we all depend on God. And Jesus’ yoke is a yoke of sharing.”

You know, that God bothered to take on flesh in Jesus, to live with and among us, is enough to make a person reconsider just what perspective is best in this life. We assume that God’s perspective is a bird’s-eye-view, an eye-in-the-sky view, the high-up perspective that sees everything at a distance. But God did come down, becoming flesh. God does reveal himself not to the wise but to the infants. God perceives the haughty only from far away, but he regards the lowly from close-up.

In other words, good religion is love for God and love for your neighbor. When your stomach growls and you remember to thank God, you don’t separate yourself from other people who aren’t so lucky; you bind yourself to other people who are needy like you. And that yoke of Jesus leads you to share your bread with the poor. It’s an easy yoke, but it’s a yoke all the same.

That, fellow spiritual and religious people, is the view from down there. It’s the God’s-eye view of things, if Jesus can be trusted.

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