No good deed goes unpunished. That’s the way I felt leaving the old man’s house, carrying a worn and musty easy chair precariously on my back, and attempting to shove it into a tiny hatchback Ford Escort. How did I get there? Here’s the story. I was a 22 year old minister in Caribou Maine—a senior minister I might add, which means of course that the thirty member church only had one minister and I was it. The Caribou church, like most Churches of Christ in New England, was virtually unnoticed by the town locals. I was going to change all that. So I helped the CCOC plan a ‘giveaway day.’ You heard that right, a ‘giveaway day.’ A giveaway day is a yard sale without price tags. The idea was simple, we would set up tables in the circular church parking lot and load them with items we no longer needed and let the locals paw through them and take what they wanted. The only thing we requested of them is that along with their items they take a small tract advertising the church and its ministries—we really had no ministries at that point—but we did have the giveaway day.
The congregation was a little unsure of the concept, but I knew it would work. I was determined to make it the biggest giveaway day Caribou had ever seen—which wasn’t very difficult, since as far as I knew it was the only giveaway day Caribou had ever seen. To ensure my success I took an ad out in the paper advertizing my ‘free of charge used furniture removal service.’ Let’s say you had an old ratty sofa, just call me up and I’d cart it out of your house for nothing. It was a win/win. You get rid of your furniture without lifting a finger, and I have plenty of recycled big ticket items to give away to the unsuspecting Caribou public. When the ad ran I waited anxiously by the phone. It didn’t ring. Then finally it did. The man on the other end said he had a chair he no longer needed. It took him a good deal of time to tell me about it, I was polite—to a fault. Anxious to see my plan working I told the man I was coming right over. A chair would easily fit in my hatchback I thought. I had no idea what I was going to do if someone called needing a wardrobe or a sectional removed. 22 year olds are not the world’s best planners.
When I knocked on the man’s door he opened it, gave a slight nod, and then took my out-stretched hand and pulled me inside. It was a bit unnerving, but I had to go in to get the chair anyway. I looked quickly around the sparse home. Nope, it couldn’t be that nice recliner, or that beautiful glider rocker—oh no, don’t tell me it’s that greenish-yellow crushed velvet monstrosity. It was. The man was not concerned about the chair, however. Apparently he knew my plan, and he knew who I was. We were not on equal ground. The first words out of his mouth caught me flat footed and slack jawed, “After you die, and before the second coming, do you believe that your soul is conscious and awake?”–so much for small talk.
I believe that my seasoned theological response was something, if not exactly, like, “Uhhhhhhhh.”
He continued by quoting, with his conception of the voice of God, from the book of Ecclesiastes, “The dead do not know anything, nor have they any longer a reward, for their memory is forgotten!”
About now I was fairly certain I had fallen into a trap, and indeed I had. What made matters worse is that eyeing the crushed velvet chair that was my prize I understood that I had sprung the deadly spring for nothing more than a crumb of moldy cheese. The trap was set with me in mind for this reason. The old man, as I soon learned, had once been in a knockdown, drag out, argument with the founding minister of the Caribou Church of Christ about the obscure doctrine known as “soul sleep.” The doctrine, popular amongst Seventh Day Adventists, and Jehovah’s Witnesses, said that when a person died there was no conscious state of existence between the time of the person’s death and the second coming of God. I had no idea why this doctrine was important, or why anyone would want to fight about it. It seemed to me that we’d find out soon enough. And the only thing I was thankful for as the man continued to assault me with scripture quotes was that he was closer to finding out the truth than I was. I listened. I nodded. I tried to change the subject. And finally, I did what the man had been waiting fifty plus years to hear, I conceded defeat. “Sure—what you say sounds reasonable enough to me” (I might have been crossing my fingers behind my back). There was utter glee in his eyes. He took me by the nice recliner, and we passed the beautiful glider rocker, and then, still smiling like he had a banana shoved sideways between his cheeks, he told me I was the proud new owner of a crushed velvet piece de resistance.
No good deed goes unpunished. I think Jesus must have felt that way when he addressed the crowds in Matthew 11. When John the Baptist came preaching repentance, with his austere and radical living, the people complained and said “He had a demon.” When Jesus came, eating with tax collectors and sinners, they said, “Look, a glutton and a drunkard.” You couldn’t move without stepping on someone’s sacred cow, or falsely parsing scripture, or trampling over some religious sensibility. You couldn’t move without inviting a knockdown, drag out fight over something that amounted to nothing. The only thing the people seemed united on was the tearing down of all those trying to make the world a better place.
Granted, Jesus was peddling something unusual—a giveaway day. You heard that right, a giveaway day. How do you peddle something you are giving away?—the crowds were a little unsure of the concept. But Jesus was undeterred. You will see—“wisdom will be vindicated by her deeds.”
Jesus had taken an ad out in the paper advertising the gracious will of the father. He had invited everyone over—the oppressed, the vulnerable, the forgotten, the neglected (the ‘infants’ as he called them), to paw through all his Father’s free stuff and to take whatever they needed. The only requirement was that they come to know him, and hear about his ministry. When the ad ran Jesus had waited by the phone. It didn’t ring. Imperial Rome didn’t call. The religious leaders didn’t call. The owners of the tenant farms never gave a buzz. Then finally, it rang. And on the other end of the line was an old forgotten one, who just wanted a little rest for his soul.
“Come to me, all you that are weary and 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.”
The lectionary has been following me this year like a shadow. If I stop quickly, the church calendar hits me from behind. It’s unnerving. It keeps grabbing me by the hand and pulling me into strange houses. The lectionary, the story of scripture, is coming up in a parallel line with my own life. So, on the eve of vacation to the northern regions of Maine, I am reminded of the one who offers our souls rest. I could use a little rest. My wife calls it a ‘change of scenery.’ “We need a change of scenery,” she kept saying, before she packed the kids up at 3 AM on Saturday morning and drove them to Maine. At 7:25 AM she sent me a cell phone photo of the 95 Bridge in Portsmith, NH. Once you cross that bridge you are in God’s country—Maine, the way life should be. Attached to the photo was the word ‘jealous’, followed by a question mark.
Yes, I am jealous—no offense to any of you, but I’d rather be there than here. My family is there. They are eating and endless buffet of food, and swimming in Mert’s pond, and having a bonfire, and singing songs. It’s a grand time. It’s peace, and rest, and there is a lifting of burdens.
Burdens—you have them too. Because there are those that will rob of you everything of which you take delight. They will lay burdens on your shoulders that are too much for you to bear. They will tie yokes around your neck and make you plow endless fields. Jesus was so frustrated with them. He was just trying to give freely the love of the Father. Why fight against that? Because privilege likes its place above—it’s lofty spot. It does not want to see burdens lifted. It doesn’t want to see souls resting. It wants to weigh you down with a yellowish green crushed velvet easy chair.
The kingdom of God, in contrast, puts the world on its head. The kingdom of God puts the oppressed, the vulnerable, the forgotten, the neglected (the infants) in a place of esteem, and lightens their load. Jesus pronounces to these ones–the heavily burdened and the weary–that he will give them rest. In a world of Roman imperialism, corrupt religious leaders, oppressive tenant farming, slavery, lack of social mobility, and deeply engrained notions of honor and shame, the bottom rung of society carried around endless heavy burdens to support the social elite. Jesus’ call to throw off the yoke of the oppressors and take on the easy yoke of Christ was indeed ‘good news.’
And today it’s the same good news—the coming kingdom is the removal of burdens for those who most need it. And we are proclaimers of that kingdom. We are putting ads in the paper, and carting away old and useless furniture. We are being dragged into strange houses—all so that the souls of the forgotten ones can find rest. So before I leave here, and travel to God’s country, let me offer you benediction. Bless you. Bless your hands, your feet, your strong backs, your willing hearts. Bless you when you go into strange houses. Bless you when you stuff hideous furniture into a tiny hatchback. Bless you when you become embroiled in a fifty year old conflict about nothing because you are trying to make the world a better place. Bless you in the work of the Lord. May peace be yours. May you find rest for your souls. May it always be giveaway day. Amen.