Mt. McKinley in Alaska, originally known as Denali, "the Great One." .... "Lead me to the rock that is higher than I; for you are my refuge..." (Ps. 61:2-3)

       "Who do you say that I am?" Jesus asked.  Simon Peter answered, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God."  And Jesus answered, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! ... You are Peter (petros), and on this rock (petra) I will build my church..."  Jesus then began to speak of the rough road ahead. And Peter took him aside and rebuked him... "Get behind me, Satan!" Jesus replied. "You are a stumbling block..."
                                                (Matthew 16:13-23)

May these words of this Peter be like a rock,
not a stumbling block!

"Learning the unforced rhythms of grace"

Message preached July 7, 2002
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland USA

based upon  Matthew 11:28-30

Order of Worship

            As some of you may be aware, I had an "interesting" trip to Louisville a week ago Saturday for our denomination's Annual Conference. Flying out of Baltimore-Washington International Airport, I arrived in plenty of time to wait through the various lines in which one needs to wait in these post-September 11 days. The line to check my suitcase was one of the longest I've ever been in, though it moved quickly. Then came the wait at "security." Once through that I tried a line to grab some lunch before my flight, but it wasn't moving fast enough. I arrived at the gate and everyone was already lined up to board the plane, with me toward the end. I was two persons away from handing in my ticket and heading down the ramp, when alarms went off, lights began to flash, and the door was shut.

            "Do not move! Stay where you are!" a voice said overhead. For twenty minutes everyone in the entire concourse did so. Fifteen minute after that we were all told to pick up our bags and exit the concourse. The people already on board all the planes were told to deboard and head to the terminal building also. We're talking thousands of people, walking without much guidance, like sheep without a shepherd. A couple hours later, my feet were sore from standing, when finally they brought us back through security. It seems someone had left the concourse for a cigarette and failed to go through security on the return. I arrived in Louisville 3 hours later than expected.

            It was not with a little irony that, as I stood waiting in the terminal, mumbling like everyone else about the "jerk" who caused this mess and the newly commissioned "Transportation Security Officers" who seemed quite inept at directing people (hadn't they thought this through beforehand?), the text I brought with me to ponder in preparation for this morning was running through my mind:

         "Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens (well, my suitcase was already checked), 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."

         Somehow, I don't think Jesus had this situation in mind when he spoke those words. After all, it was only a minor inconvenience and, after the events of 9/11, much preferable to possible alternatives. Placed in the context of Matthew's gospel, these words of Jesus were directed toward those whose understandings of God and the commandments received through Moses were becoming unbearably heavy to carry.

            If you will, picture the Torah, the Law of God, in a slightly different way. Instead of words upon a page, think of it in terms of what someone hiking through the wilderness might wear. I am no expert in this field, but I do know that a certain kind of outfit is required for such a journey, including good footgear and a pack of some sort that will help in carrying the supplies needed along the way. A very important point is that you travel as light as possible, with just the essentials you need.

            The Torah was originally intended as the essentials necessary for the journey of faith by God's people. Unfortunately, over the years the children of Israel added to the list, packing on and in much more than was necessary for the trip. For every "thou shalt" or "thou shalt not" there was multiplied many more commandments, such that the backpack grew in size to overpower those who had to carry it. By the time Jesus came along, it was too heavy for the journey. It was enough just to stay in one place, if not even fall backward under the load.

            Jesus was sent by God to restore the original vision. Some think he did away with the Law, but that would be like telling someone to walk naked through the woods. "I came not to abolish the law, but to fulfill it," he said (Matthew 5:17). Instead, he lightened the load to include the essentials, and walked with God's people, showing them the way to travel. I like how Eugene Peterson paraphrases these words in The Message. Listen.

            "Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you'll recover your life. I'll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me - watch how I do it." This next phrase is a gem: "Learn the unforced rhythms of grace." ... "Unforced rhythms of grace" ... Every week, when we gather to worship, we sing. Part of the reason we do that is to remember the songs of Zion and get back in touch with the rhythm of the Kingdom walk, such that as we travel the rhythm of God is helping our feet to move forward. Isn't that how it is? "Learn the unforced rhythms of grace," Jesus said. "I won't lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you'll learn to live freely and lightly."  Marvelous!!!

            Let me end with a story from the journey of this past week's Annual Conference. I wasn't so sure what was going to happen along the way. Some contentious issues were before us, which we handled in the best way we could. The hardest had to do with homosexuality. Almost twenty years ago, the wisdom of our Conference when it met right here in Baltimore was to, in effect, state that to be a practicing homosexual is not consistent with living the life to which Jesus calls us. The question before conference this year had to do with whether or not someone who is a practicing homosexual (i.e. not celebate) can be ordained to the set-apart ministry.

            That this issue even needs to be brought up was offensive to some in the church. To others who see gay persons in the church with gifts from God that they feel should be recognized and used, the 1983 stance was unacceptable. That this issue didn't explode like a grenade on the conference floor, as it has in other denominations, is due to God working through our moderator and other leadership. There was much discussion, believe me, but the spirit of the body was not full of rancor. The end result was that Annual Conference (the highest authority in this - your - church) decided, by a two-thirds vote, that it was not consistent for a practicing homosexual to be ordained to the set-apart ministry.

            Now, that is not to say that this decision was painless. Several persons, whom I love dearly on all sides of this issue came away wondering whether there was a place for them any more in this church - whether the church was growing too conservative with less space for those who disagree, or too liberal for keeping on pulling in a direction that seems so wrong. Where was I in all this? Let me put it this way - I agreed with what Conference decided. It was, however, a difficult and painful decision.

            My story has to do with the final worship service at Conference. In it, moderator Paul Grout shared with us about what he called the "kingdom of (his) childhood." He had drawn a huge, illustrated "map" of his community growing up, complete with the woods he played in and the ball field upon which he and he brother spent many hours in warmer weather. Where was the center of this "kingdom," he wondered aloud, then answered as he pointed to the house, and then to the table around which his family gathered. A table with chairs had been placed on the stage to visualize this.

            Around this table growing up, with his father on one end and his mother on the other, his brother on one side and he just across - at this table he knew he always had a place. In this place he knew he was loved unconditionally. When his mother stepped outside on a summer's day and yelled to him and his brother, by name - "Come home," he knew he had a place...  At this point in the service, moderator Paul then spoke directly to us who were gathered there and recognized that, for whatever reason, many of us that day wondered if we had a place at the Lord's table in the Church of the Brethren. When he said this, numerous persons stood up throughout the auditorium. He then called us all to the Lord's table, by saying all had a place, and were loved unconditionally.

            Deacons stood with bread and grape juice throughout the place and all were invited to come. It was powerful. What happened next for me made it the most moving service I have ever participated in. Something in me turned my gaze up the bleachers behind me to a young man standing. Something in me moved me up the steps (against the flow of traffic) to this man. I asked him if he was standing because he didn't feel he had a place at the table. He nodded. I didn't ask him why. Instead I asked, "would you come to the table with me?" He nodded, and we walked there hand in hand. As we took the bread, the deacon looked in our eyes, called us each by name (we were wearing nametags), and said, "there is place at the table for you." As we dipped our bread together in the juice, another deacon said the same thing. We ate and embraced. I will remember the name of this young man!*

            We come now, with the "unforced rhythm of grace" to a time around the Lord's table. "Come to me," Jesus says to each of us by name. During the singing of the next hymn our deacons will distribute the bread (we won't ask you to come forward like at conference). Could we do something different this time, however? As you pass the basket to the person beside you, would you tell them - "there is a place at the table for you" ?  ... Would you now come with me to the Lord's table?


*I discovered later that that this young man had apparently been one of about 200 persons who attended a gathering at the conference of people hurting over the action just taken by our denomination. Calling themselves "Voices for an Open Spirit," they stood during the closing worship to express their concern over the lack of inclusion of gays and lesbians in the church, as well as the larger brokenness, lack of openness, and disunity in the denomination on a host of issues and in general life together. Another meeting was held at the National Older Adult Conference in September with an even larger attendance. A network is developing, according to the 9/7/02 Church of the Brethren "Newsline." Group members are contemplating possible queries to the 2003 Annual Conference; plans for a fall gathering of the group are under way.

online resources for this scripture text

For commentaries consulted, see Matthew.


2002 Peter L. Haynes

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