Sermon: Proper 9 Year A
July 5, 2020
The Rev. Eileen Weglarz
Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67; Psalm 45:11-18; Romans 7:15-25a; Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30
As our world continues to be ravaged by COVID-19 and our lifestyles are totally disrupted, people are feeling anxious, impatient, frustrated, depressed, fearful, and critical. We are less busy with the things that normally hold our attention. We are bored with staying inside, refraining from seeing the people we love and doing the activities that animate us. We are sick and tired of being “sick and tired!”
The more cooped up we feel, the angrier some get. And our often kind and calm demeanor is turning testier and more critical. As human beings, when our world and our surroundings are rocked, when we feel we have lost control of our decisions and our lives, we react in different ways. Some become depressed and feel helpless. Others become angry and critical.
Into this kind of world came Jesus. In our gospel for today, Jesus describes a “generation” that is never satisfied, that is hypercritical, that is aggressively judgmental, that wants things to go the way they want and people to react the way they expect, according to their own personal preferences and standards.
When things don’t pan out the way they want, they become angry and spiteful, discontent, contrary, perverse, ornery, and impossible to please. They want people around them to “dance to the tune they play”—to decide how others around them should behave and live Or sometimes, they have no rhyme or reason to their critique at all, except that they want to express their distaste and dissatisfaction at anything to everyone around them. This kind of “ornery” behavior is not based in reason but simply in the desire to disagree—with anything or anyone other than themselves just because they feel a frustration or a pain inside they cannot appease.
Jesus directs this critique to those gathered to hear him speak, both to strangers and disciples alike. His sermons that day were stricken with grief and mourning over the arrest of his cousin John, who we refer to as John the Baptist.
I imagine Jesus too felt fear at what was to come next for him in his own ministry. Let’s face it, he’d already noticed that the public’s critiques of John for his asceticism were just as strong as their critique of his own manner of ministry—his joy in eating, drinking, and celebrating with friends, whom his critics called “sinners.” He could find no specific reason for their critique, except that they felt unrest within them due to their circumstances and culture, causing them to lash out irrationally at anyone around them suggesting anything at all.
The fact is, Jesus is pointing out a very human reaction, one that is typical in times of stress, fear, loss of control, or a culture of unrest. Any of that sound familiar? It’s no mistake that he addresses a “generation” and not a specific group of people here. Jesus is describing a cultural milieu. He is identifying cultural symptoms of storm and stress. He knows that he will need to minister not to logical, rational, easy people but rather to dissatisfied, unhappy, frustrated people—angry, ornery, depressed people. Jesus is describing a conflicted and angry but passionate culture, one not at all unlike our own.
Did you ever get in a “mood” where you felt tired, bored, frustrated, angry, because of circumstances out of your control, or just felt “ornery,” as if nothing could please you? Some of you probably have children or grandchildren who are feeling that way after being home from school months at a time. Maybe the conversation went something like this:
“Why are you looking so glum?”
“I don’t know. I’m bored.”
“What would you like to do?”
“I don’t know.”
“Would you like to play a game?”
“Would you like to help make lunch?”
“No.” (feeling more annoyed)
“Would you like to go outside?”
“No!” (feeling even more annoyed and slightly angry without knowing why)
“Would you like to clean your room?”
“No! Leave me alone!” (bubbling over and throwing a stuffed animal across the room)
In a 2012 article from the magazine Psychology Today, “The Art of Complimenting and Criticizing,” the author notes that human beings have two primary needs: to feel important and to feel loved. When we don’t feel important or loved, we feel bad, and those feelings affect both our self-perception and self-esteem.
The author also notes that we feel best about ourselves when we praise others. We damage our own self-esteem when we unnecessarily critique others. When we perceive ourselves to be kind and big-hearted, we feel good about ourselves. When we perceive ourselves to be critical and judgmental, we damage ourselves and our relationships with others and feel bad about ourselves.
Because people become more authentic, open, and trusting when they feel praised rather than criticized, the “art” of complimenting can nurture “relationality,” and therefore, better feelings for ourselves and others.
Nurturing “relationality” is, however, easier said than done. Generally, not just in our culture, but in any culture, critique elicits critique. Praise elicits praise. Critiquing well, therefore, requires maturity, forethought, self-esteem, and a non-angry approach. Being a kind person doesn’t mean never critiquing what feels wrong or upsetting or never expressing one’s disapproval if one feels slighted or hurt. But it’s vitally important to learn the genuine “art” of critique, which fosters instead of destroys relationships, which nurtures healing and change rather than exacerbating sorrow and pain.
Psychology Today’s article advocates that in order to critique well, we need to—
1) do it without any hidden personal agendas
2) be calm and stable and able to receive as well as give critique on the issue and
3) be socially intelligent (choose our moments carefully and strategically in approaching someone and cloaking our critique in a positive, accepting way). We must critique the behavior and not the person, as many of us might say.
In times of unrest, frustration, and anger, this is hard to do. That’s why we need Jesus more than ever. After Jesus’s defense of John and his cultural insights that day about the people of his generation, he ended his speech with an invitation:
“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, 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.”
Jesus is inviting those around him to rest from critique, to seek reprieve from conflict and complaint—but not just those who are the recipients of critique. No, specifically those of his generation who are the aggressors of critique! As all of you know, that “ornery,” contrary feeling that turns our pleasant personalities into perversity when we feel dissatisfied, bored, frustrated, or shut in is a symptom of a spirit of unrest inside.
Jesus knows how to read people. He knows how to understand our culture and the ways that people behave. And he knows that an unhappy spirit makes for judgmental and often unsuccessful, even harmful, critics. But Jesus’s answer is not just to give advice or admonishment or wag fingers in our direction. Jesus is the Master of the Art of Critique.
Instead, Jesus offers us a “yoke.” He offers to take the lead and bear the brunt of everyone’s frustration, anger, difficulty, and struggle. He offers us a rest from our internal conflict, and peace from our anger, a break from our never-ending frustration, a reprieve from our helplessness. Jesus offers to fight the fight with us, to give us back control over our lives by allowing us to glide in his powerful, safe, protective shelter.
It doesn’t mean we give up the fight, but Jesus asks us to trust him, to open up to him, to let him guide us in our efforts, so that we too can learn the relational art of critique, the kind that leads to change and healing, peace and humanity. Jesus came not just to tell people what to do and how to live, but how to feel peaceful in spirit and loving in heart. Friends, the artful heart is also a peaceful and positive heart, a content and stable heart.
The Christian Art of Critique is not something we can learn to “do” by following another rule or inhaling more wisdom, but by following Jesus. It’s simply allowing Jesus to take the reins and steer our lives, to come into our hearts and turn our stormy and conflicted dispositions into pools of still water.
When we are willing to seek rest for our souls in the welcoming yoke of Jesus, we will then be ready to enter into a world of unrest and be the peace within it, to give the world not mere criticism but artful critique, not simple reprimand, but creative recourse. Amen.
*Sermon Resource: ChristianGlobeNetworks, Lori Wagner.
 Psychology Today, “The Art of Complimenting and Criticizing,” June 11, 2012.