Romans 7:15-25a; Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

When I became a parent, I promised not to tell stories on my kids, but I’m telling this one, not because it’s about my son, but because this happened in church. It was early in our summer move-around time, and the kids were playing well on the front steps during worship, but he and M decided to focus on the same toy. To keep the peace, they were escorted from the room. There is something like a natural law (as Paul said in Romans 7:21): in a world full of toys, any two toddlers will choose one to fight over. This is what we call “original sin.” And I mean that even as, as a dad, I’m daily floored by the amazing, loving, generous, sweet things my son can do. Both parts of our reality are true.

Human nature is deeply ambivalent. We are capable of great good and terrible evil. This is the heart of Paul’s description in Romans – not just about himself, but also about him – he’s talking about all of us. Our translation uses “human nature” to mean what Paul said of “the flesh,” that aspect of us that is bound by sin. That’s a sensible translation into modern language, but it throws us slightly off the mark, I think. As humans, we’re also striving for righteousness. We’re able to want the good, as Paul says human beings want, but we simultaneously slip into the wrong. That’s the truth of human nature, that we’re always both gracious and awful.

In his conversation with the religious leaders, Jesus finds himself tied by the ways we try to resolve this ambivalence. We often claim the good for ourselves and project the bad onto others. Like this, the people Jesus was addressing had chosen never to be pleased. By way of background, John’s disciples had come to Jesus to ask if he was the Messiah. Then Jesus addressed the crowd: “you disliked John’s piety, and you dislike my disregard for piety. What do you want?” The people avoided taking seriously either John’s piety or Jesus’ freedom. We often find religion either too stuffy for our tastes or too free-spirited to seem “holy.” So I find myself working hard to take my faith seriously without necessarily looking like it. It’s like following Jesus becomes a PR issue. Jesus didn’t worry about that perception, however. He put it simply: wisdom is as wisdom does.

My PR issue is why I struggle with what to do around civic holidays like the Fourth of July. I’m not sure how much to celebrate this country (because love it and I’m grateful to live here), and how much to acknowledge its faults (because discontent is a form of patriotism, and it’s a freedom for which many of you have fought and sacrificed). So I find myself trying to walk this line, to choose both sides of that dilemma. But the real choice isn’t between loving our country and seeking to make it better: we identify places to improve because we love our country and its ideals.

I think that’s the key to the Romans reading, too. The ultimate choice is not between freedom and responsibility, flesh and mind, celebration and sadness. That spectrum simply exists, and it’s real. The real choice is between life and death, integrity and falsehood, condemnation and forgiveness, grace and shame. We choose death, condemnation, and shame when we try to conquer self-love by the resources of our own will. We choose falsehood when we avoid accountability for our pain and others’ – or when we pretend we can or should fix everything around us. We choose condemnation when we force the paradox of life to resolve, as if we haven’t always and all of us been saints bound by sin.

Instead, Jesus invites us to make his choice: to side with life, integrity, grace, and forgiveness. To bear with ourselves and with the others who live as humans with us. He invites us to engage in his work, to take on his yoke – reconciling, feeding, and healing, without regard for whether or not people are “deserving” or “fair” – just living in grace. “Take my yoke and put it on you.” That sounds like another wooden beam that was laid on Jesus’ shoulders, doesn’t it? “Take up your cross”? And that’s probably intentional, isn’t it? The invitation is to join Christ in surrendering our life to God’s gracious purposes, to share freely, truthfully, and lovingly with all people.

Choosing truth and compassion means seeing death, mixing sorrow with joy, and bearing with sin even as it tries to take over our best intentions. But that’s just it. To choose life is to live graciously, to forgive even to the end. Not to destroy what doesn’t fit, but to love it into place. It’s to practice gentleness and humility, giving rest to each other’s souls.

This is Christ’s invitation to all who bear the burden of our culture’s double-bind, humanity’s inability to effectively choose the good, our greed for whatever it is we don’t have. Yes, know that truth, but know that God’s love is still greater. Know that we can, in the midst of human nature, choose life, forgiveness, and grace. And when we do – as we live into it – the burden of that choice becomes light and joy, life and forgiveness and peace. Thanks be to God, who does this through our Lord Jesus Christ!