July 3, 2011

Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

Does Pleasing God Mean Pleasing Nobody?

Franklin Circle Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)

Cleveland, Ohio

Rev. Allen V. Harris

To hear this sermon podcast, click HERE:  110703Sermon

Today’s scripture text is one of those that, at least in it’s fullness, I rarely, if ever, touch as a preacher.  It has a peculiar combination of mystical allusions (children sitting in the marketplace playing the flute), mysterious secrets (God hiding things from the wise and intelligent), threats and promises (the section we didn’t read today) and a drastically different ending (profound words of comfort and sustenance).  It just seems to be too much of a Pandora’s Box for a preacher to dive into.

And yet, it has some real gems that are hard not to preach.  Of course, the aforementioned words of comfort and sustenance are some of the most memorable and personally powerful anywhere in the Bible: “Come to me, all you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.”  Many a funeral sermon, and even many a cemetery headstone, have used those words to soothe the suffering of the sorrowful.

The other gem, earlier in the text, can be a pastor’s pet dilemma.  “For John 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!’”  Who among us has not felt the tension of being “in the middle,” discovering you can’t seem to satisfy anybody, no matter how hard you try!

Taking a page from the Rev. James Daryl Schimmel, let me rephrase a familiar quote attributed to Abraham Lincoln, “You can please some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you cannot please all of the people all of the time.”  It’s so true: you can’t please them all.

I recognize that am a patient and understanding man.  I hear all sides of a discussion, and do well in responding to many varied perspectives.  In some significant sense you celebrated that last week, and I thank you.  Patience is a virtue, certainly.  But not everyone sees me as being patient.

Let’s be honest, most everyone who has met me has, at one time or another, whether for a brief fleeting second or for every single moment they’ve known me, thought to him- or herself, “That Allen sure is a people-pleaser!”  I get it all the time.  I’m a nice guy who has a reconciling and accommodating approach to life.  It’s natural for people to understand me as “people pleasing.”  In some sense, I’m appreciative because I think there is a certain grace in finding out what pleases someone and making that very thing possible. Romans 15.2 says, “Each of us must please our neighbor for the good purpose of building up the neighbor.”  Of course, it’s usually not offered as a compliment.  It’s more in keeping with what Paul says in Galatians 1.10: “Am I now seeking human approval, or God’s approval? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still pleasing people, I would not be a servant of Christ.”

Of course, as you have probably experienced yourself, most often the persons who charge me with being a “people pleaser” are usually accusing me of doing so when I have failed to do what they want me to do!  Which is to say, I am accused most of being a “people-pleaser” when I am not pleasing somebody!  This irony is rarely acknowledged by the person who is frustrated with my leadership because I did not do the very thing he or she wanted me to do.  Alas, the pitfalls of leadership.

In fact, I rarely see that what I am called to do as a pastor is to “please” anyone, except God, but, rather, I am called to serve everyone.  I seek to please no one.  I seek to serve all.  Like the motto of the Hard Rock Café: “Love All: Serve All”

Thus, for me, this passage represents both total freedom and total responsibility.  In Christ, I am freed from trying to please anybody, but I am responsible for serving everybody.  Pleasing someone is a very different thing from serving someone, and no one knew this better than Christ himself.  He watched how the people criticized John the Baptist for his radically austere and plain lifestyle and yet how they also criticized him (Jesus) for his generous and liberal lifestyle!  “There’s just no pleasing some people!” as my mama would say!  But Christ was completely free from the control that can come from being beholden to such fickle and self-serving people because he knew he was called, not to please, but to serve his sisters and brothers!

Later in Matthew, Jesus says of himself and those who would wish to follow him, “whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” (20:26b-28)

The joy of this “servanthood-not-people-pleasing lifestyle” is that we don’t have to do it alone.  Yes, there are others in and beyond the church who understand that all of life is a gift from God and serving our sisters and our brothers – all of them – is the responsibility of receiving such a gift.  But, more importantly, we are assured that Jesus shares this servanthood with us, even now, even here.

Single Yoke

Do you know what a yoke is?  It is a wooden, metal, and sometimes leather harness of sorts that goes around the neck of a beast of burden, or even a human being, particularly slaves, in order to make it possible for them to do work as we humans have need: usually plow fields or carry heavy objects.  Single Yoke - Carabao Cart, PhilippinesThere are two kinds of yokes, though: single ones and shared ones.  Single ones go across the neck and shoulders of one person or one beast and can be very efficient.  A single yoke can enable much more weight to be carried or work to be done simply by how it distributes the weight and the pressure.  Even so, many rests are needed and much physical injury can come from a single yoke.

But a shared yokeworks very differently.  It has two holes and requires twice as many creatures to do the same amount of work, but it distributes the load in such a way as to allow for either to pick up the slack when the other needs a bit more of a rest.

Shared Yoke

If shared by relative equals, an amazing amount of work can be done for much longer periods of time.  But not only does the shared yoke allow for the sharing of the load, it means there is built in company and companionship, even in the midst of hard work. (1)

“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.”

Shared Yoke - Oxen


This is what you’ve been hearing about, at least for the last two weeks from the sermons here at Franklin Circle Christian Church: grace.  Jesus is always in a shared yoke with us, with me, with you, and this is grace.  Jesus will not share in our people-pleasing activities, for he knows that they are all-too-often pointless, and rarely do they further a positive agenda along, at least for very long.  But he does share our servanthood with us.  Or, rather, if we let ourselves, we can seek to share the amazing servanthood God has called us to with Christ.

Thus, this scripture text really does belong all in one lesson.  For recognizing that our responsibility lies not in seeking the admiration and credit from pleasing people, but, rather, the respect and self-satisfaction from serving them is true freedom, indeed.  And, then, knowing the grace that comes in sharing this responsibility of servanthood with none other than Jesus Christ himself is truly and deeply gratifying.


(1) Barbara Brown Taylor, The Seeds Of Heaven: Sermons On The Gospel Of Matthew (Louisville, KY, Westminster John Knox, 2004), p. 21)