This was Rev. Ryan Slifka's inaugural sermon as Minister at St. George's United Church.
St. George’s United Church
July 6th, 2014
Scripture: Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30
Fourth Sunday After Pentecost
By Rev. Ryan Slifka
New beginnings. What a week it’s been, too. A few challenges. But lots of excitement, and lots of energy. Excitement for the new minister, excitement for the church. Excitement for the future. I think the anthem, “Make a Joyful Noise” sums things up pretty well, don’t you think?
First service, first sermon too. A wee bit of pressure, of course. You’ve got to start off on the right foot. It’s gotta be a really good one. First impressions count. Funny, though, when I was listening to our reading from the gospel of Matthew this week, I heard something different. I heard something that I probably wouldn’t preach my first sermon on, if I had the choice. But I find that’s usually how things are with Jesus. He doesn’t always say what you want him to say.
So, what I want to say to you today, in the midst of our excitement, in this new beginning, is that things from here on aren’t going to be easy. They may be exciting, they may be wonderful and grace-filled, and they might be fun, even. But they aren’t going to be easy. They aren’t going to be easy.
We find ourselves roughly in the middle of Matthew’s story of Jesus. Jesus has just gathered his twelve disciples together, taught them his way the best he can. And then he sends them out to teach, and to proclaim his message, to get the news out to the nearby cities. Like newly ordained ministers fresh out of seminary, ready to gather their first congregations and take on the whole world. Some followers of a popular local preacher, John the Baptist, come to Jesus and ask him if he’s the one they have been waiting for, and Jesus, no fan of understatement, says “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, people are healed, the deaf hear and the dead are raised.” I mean, if my first ministry is half as good, we’ll be in business!
It looks like things are going to be a piece of cake. There’s change in the air and things are finally turning around. Imagine the excitement! Imagine the energy!
But this doesn’t last long. When the disciples finally arrive in the cities, there’s a generation of people who, no matter what Jesus or the disciples do, or say, simply don’t respond.
“To what will I compare this generation?” Jesus says. “Like children sitting in the market places, calling to one another—we played the flute for you, but you didn’t dance, we wailed and you did not mourn.” Jesus and the disciples are out in the market place—right in the center of town, in plain view. They are at the corner of Fifth Street and Fitzgerald. They’ve got the music on full blast, nobody seems to pick up the rhythm. Dirges are sung, and the deepest emotions are conveyed, but the people just walk on by. Blind people are seeing, deaf people are hearing, and even the dead are being raised—Jesus is pulling out every trick in the book to get this generation’s attention.
But Whether they dance, whether they wail, whether they do all the right market research, no matter what they try. This generation is not easily persuaded. They have their work cut out for them.
Our own generation, probably everyone who was born after the second world war, is not easily persuaded, either. Try as the church might to dance and sing, few seem to hear. We have our work cut out for us.
A few generations ago, it seemed so much easier. But now, the church—not just this one, but the whole North American church is struggling to find its way in a culture so different than the one many of us grew up in. If you played the flute, if you built a church, the people would hear and they would come. But now they don’t. And some are even hostile to Christianity, to the church, to religion in general—if you remember from the reading they first say John the Baptist has a demon, and then they call Jesus a drunk. It seems that no matter what we do or try, most won’t dance to our tune.
Once the music came naturally. The stories, the habits, the prayers, that everyone seemed to know at one point are no longer part of people’s every day experience. I’m reminded of when I worked at a grocery store stocking shelves and packing bags. At this store, like a lots of stores, they played music over the speakers at all times. I didn’t even like the music, but before I knew it, I’d be lip-syncing there in the aisle. Somehow, I’d built up a whole repertoire of K.D. Lang, Michael Bolton, and Celine Dion. It was all in the background, day after day. And so I could sing along.
A generation ago the music of faith was on all the time, everywhere. At work, at home, on TV, people were saturated with the Christian story, whether they wanted to be or not. And so when we sat on the corner and played the flute, people would know the rhythm. And they would dance along. But now we’re the only ones playing. We might play the tune, but people just don’t seem to dance. We might wail, but they won’t mourn. Things aren’t the same as they once were. Things aren’t going to be easy.
But even in the face of apathy, confusion, and outright hostility, Jesus doesn’t lose heart. First he says that even though a whole generation seems to be tone-deaf to his message, some will hear. Some will hear, and some will be made new.
Jesus’ first move is to prayer. “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. Yes, Father, for such was your gracious will.” Jesus thanks God for his failure to convince crowds of people. He seems to thank God that he doesn’t win followers easily. I mean, Jesus seems to think it’s good that the tune he is playing doesn’t come naturally to anybody. It’s not playing on the speakers down every aisle for every wise and intelligent person to take as common sense, but the “little children,” those who, in their deepest longings, hear the music, and they follow. Even though most won’t, some will hear. And some will get caught up in the music.
You can look no further than this pulpit. I didn’t grow up with hymns playing on the speakers in the background. I didn’t grow up going to church. I didn’t grow up saying the Lord’s Prayer in public schools. And yet a month ago, many of you took a bus all the way to Nanaimo to see fellow members of the Body of Christ lay their hands on me and entrust me to carry this story forward to the next generation. Somehow, one of the people of “this generation” finds himself drawn to the ministry, and called here to this congregation.
But, more importantly, look no further than the group of people gathered here. Look no further than yourselves. Of all the things we could be doing on a Sunday—and I’m discovering that there’s plenty to do in the Comox Valley on a Sunday—the Spirit has, in some mysterious way, in ways beyond our knowing, gathered us together in this place. Of all places. You might be new, and you might have been coming for a long time. This might be your first Sunday. We come for many different reasons. But you have come to this place, where we rehearse this ancient story, strange story, in hopes we might discover together where the Spirit of God is taking us next. And maybe, to learn the unforced rhythms of grace, following Jesus’ lead, and maybe we might even meet the One who wrote the song. And be changed by it. So my prayer at this time echoes Jesus: “thank you God of heaven and earth, for you have shown these things to those gathered here, even if it goes against the conventional wisdom of this generation.”
Though many will hear the flute, but won’t dance, some will. It doesn’t come easy. And Jesus seems to even prefer it that way.
Even with the most exciting start, we will still have our work cut out for us. Because the Way of Jesus doesn’t come naturally to this generation, or to any generation for that matter. Many will not hear, and many will not see. But I thank God for those of you who have, and look forward to walking this path together, as difficult as it may be. But we can take courage that in the days, months, years ahead, that God is already at work, making a new way forward. That for us thirsty people, we are already being given the water of life. That though you may find yourselves wearied and burdened, come and you will be given rest. That we who take up Jesus’ yoke, to learn from him, and to follow in his way, will discover that in doing so we are being set free, to be human, as we were always meant to be.
“Come all who are weary,” Jesus says. “Come with me and you’ll discover life. You’ll find real rest. “For my yoke is easy,” he says, “and my burden is light.”
And for this, thanks be to God.
 This is how Eugene Peterson translates taking on Jesus’ heavy yoke in his Message translation.