Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | July 6, 2008

2008.07.06 “Religion for Losers?”

Central United Methodist Church

“Religion for Losers?”

Pastor David L. Haley

Matthew 11: 28 – 30

July 6th, 2008

“Come to me, all you that 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. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”  – Matthew 11: 28 – 30, from The New Revised Standard Version

It was around 1990 that television mogul Ted Turner made the remark, “Christianity is a religion for losers.”

In all fairness, since that time Turner, 69, has apologized, saying, “I regret anything I said about religion that was negative.” “As I get older, you know, I get more, you know, more tolerant,” Turner has said.

And, in all fairness, philanthropically, since that time Turner has also done some amazing things. In 1997, he founded the United Nations Foundation with a $1 billion donation. Only 3 months ago, in April, he launched a $200 million partnership with Lutherans and Methodists to fight malaria in Africa.

So, while Turner might not make that remark today, it’s not the first time that accusation has been made about religion in general, and Christianity in particular.

From the beginning, Christianity was a religion for the dispossessed, as Jesus opened wide his arms for those others had scorned, even burdened. In the Gospels we see Jesus welcoming and dining with lepers and prostitutes and tax collectors, “sinners,” as they were called, “the last and the least.”

This continued as Christianity spread, becoming less a religion of the well born than of the dispossessed. What St. Paul wrote of the Corinthians could have been said for Christianity across the board: Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth.” (I Corinthians 1: 26)

Even after becoming the official and majority religion of the empire under the Emperor Constantine in the 4th century, Christianity, as its best, continued to practice the compassionate ethics of Jesus, caring for widows and orphans and the imprisoned and oppressed. For example, during times of plague, while others fled, it was often Christians, who, at the risk of their own lives, stayed and cared for those infected.

While to many this was compassionate, to others it smacked of delusion and weakness.

For example, the German philosopher Frederick Nietzsche said that “Christianity was from the beginning, essentially and fundamentally, life’s nausea and disgust with life, merely concealed behind, masked by, dressed up as, faith in “another” or “better” life.” (Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy, p.23, Walter Kaufmann translation)

And almost everyone has heard Karl Marx’ accusation that “religion was the opiate of the people.”  The full context of his remark is even more revealing:

“Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions.” (Karl Marx, Contribution to Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, Introduction.)

In other words, religion is for losers.

Even if you do not agree with Nietzsche or Marx or even Turner at his worst, sometimes we wonder if it’s true?  Too often religion in general, and Christianity in particular still seems to be the province of the weak and helpless, women and children, people who seem to be constantly floundering in life rather than prospering.

But here’s the point:  at some time or another in life, we are all losers.  We run the race and we lose.  We fight the battle and we lose. There is disease, and disappointment, and sin, and heartache, the things that William Shakespeare called “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.” Whoever you are, if you don’t think you’re susceptible to this, you’re living in delusion.

If you think I’m too harsh, let me tell you I’ve seen it.  My years not only as a Pastor, but as a Fire/Police Chaplain & Firefighter/Paramedic gave me a front row seat on the bad things that can and do happen to people.  I can tell you, you only have to carry the body of a dead child once to be changed by it for the rest of your life.

Even to billionaires like Ted Turner.  I understand that Turner grew up as a deeply religious boy, even intending at one point to become a missionary. Then, when he was a teenager, his younger sister Mary Jane contracted a form of lupus, and suffered terribly before dying a relatively short while later. All his prayers for her recovery — an hour a day, he said — were for naught. “She used to run around in pain, begging God to let her die,” he recalled. “My family broke apart.” I thought, ‘How could God let my sister suffer so much?'”

If you’ve been there, or had similar experiences, or ever thought such things, you understand what it feels like to be a “loser.”

And that’s also why you will so welcome the gracious invitation offered by Jesus in today’s text: 

“Come to me, all you that 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. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

Perhaps even Jesus struggled with the fact that, in his own time, there were people who, shall we say, “had no need of his services.” He compared them to stubborn, spoiled children, who, when the dance music was playing, wouldn’t dance; and when the funeral music was playing, wouldn’t weep. 

They had two perfect options, at the opposite ends of the spectrum. But not only would they not join either option, they criticized both:

“For John [the Baptist] came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon’; the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’”

The only way Jesus could understand it, or at least the way he put it, was that God had “hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will.”  It’s not always wisdom and intelligence and drop-dead good looks and inherited bank accounts and privilege that count; sometimes these are impediments to the God-life.  And thus who responds and who understands remains a mystery.

            Lest you think that sounds like some kind of divine predestination, hear again Jesus’ invitation: 

“Come to me, all you that 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. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

            Are there those here today, “weary”, and “carrying heavy burdens?”  Are there those here today seeking rest for their souls?

        It’s perhaps not been acknowledged enough that over the last year, almost everybody has had a hard time of it. While we have not experienced the death and destruction as some parts of the world, life for most of us has gotten harder, not easier. The price of gas continues to go up, and with it the price of everything else.  Except our income and investments, which continue to go down. Many people have been sold a bill of goods by the housing and lending markets, and foreclosures and bankruptcies have skyrocketed.  Meanwhile, the powers that be have primarily been on the side of the oil companies and the banks and the lenders and the credit card companies.  Health care is harder to afford, even out of sight for many people. And this war, both in Iraq and Afghanistan, goes on longer than WWII and soon longer than the American Revolution, threatening the lives of our sons and daughters, with no end in sight. Do you feel weary, are you carrying a heavy burden this morning?

        I know some of you struggle in your families and homes. As the great Russian author Leo Tolstoy said, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”  Sometimes it seems so rarely that life works out like we want it to, and we struggle with spouses, with sons and daughters, yes, with parents.  Are you weary of that struggle, are you carrying a heavy burden here this morning?

        I know some of you struggle with issues of physical and emotional health.  If there is anything you’ve learned, it is that the answers are never exact, and the only thing certain is the expense.  Many issues of physical and emotional health are rarely, if ever, “solved”, and we must struggle with them over and over again. Truth is, there are in any congregation those who struggle with drugs and alcohol, with feelings of despair and even of suicide.  Are you one of those weary of that struggle, are you carrying a heavy burden here this morning? 

        There are some of you here today — and many more not here — who struggle with faith and religion. For some of you, religion — perhaps the religion you were brought up in — is a greater burden than blessing, as was the religion of those Jesus preached to.  Paul Tillich, perhaps the greatest theologian of the last century, has a sermon on this text called “The End of Religion,” in which he says that, as a child, this was one of his favorite texts.  And, as an adult, it remains so.  And he goes on to explain why:

“Believe me, you who are religious and Christian. It would not be worthwhile to teach Christianity, if it were for the sake of Christianity. And believe me, you who are estranged from religion and far away from Christianity, it is not our purpose to make you religious and Christian when we interpret the call of Jesus for our time. We call Jesus the Christ not because He brought a new religion, but because He is the end of religion, above religion and irreligion, above Christianity and non-Christianity. We spread His call because it is the call to every man in every period to receive the New Being, that hidden saving power in our existence, which takes from us labor and burden, and gives rest to our souls.” (Paul Tillich, The Shaking of the Foundations, chapter 11, “The End of Religion.”)

        If you are more burdened than blessed by your religion, then give it up, and accept Jesus’ gracious invitation today:

“Come to me, all you that 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. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

        It is no less than a call to follow Jesus, not before or not after, but alongside.  In which there is a yoke to be worn, and a burden to be borne, and lessons to be learned, but also, a rest — a deep rest — to be gained.

Who of us losers wouldn’t want it?


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