Who here has ever watched NASCAR on TV? You know, big cars covered in advertisements racing around a track for hours in the blistering heat? Do we have any big NASCAR fans here today? Anyone who’s actually been to a race in person?

Myself I’ve never been to a NASCAR race, and it was never really something my family watched unless it was on in the background for cooking or cleaning house. What I did do though, was when my brother and I were kids, we had a NASCAR computer game. You design your car, give it all the best colors and decals and the best body shape, and then you drive around the track for what must have been hundreds of laps, trying to edge out the competition and eke out every last second of distance between you and the other cars. For those of you who really don’t get NASCAR because it’s just like forty grown men driving in circles, I sympathize. But I can speak at least for the computer game, there was strategy and tactics; driving close behind another car to cut down on wind resistance, shifting lanes at certain times to squeeze past a bottleneck, taking the turns at just the right angles and using just the right amount of gas and brakes… it was complicated.

And I was terrible at it. My brother and I both. You put forty-two cars into the race and we’d be lucky if we ended the race in thirty-fifth place. We just couldn’t figure out the tricks. How do you make any headway with all these cars zipping around you? It got pretty rage-inducing, especially with how many laps there were.

But then my brother and I remembered why we were playing a computer game in the first place. Somewhere along the line it was supposed to be fun. And all the tricks we were trying and all the effort we were putting into shaving every last second off our time just wasn’t cutting it.

So we found a new way to play the game. A much simpler way to play the game. And remember, this is on the computer, in the pretty low-tech ‘90s; there are no actual people involved here, and realism is a long way off. We decided that what we would do, is at the start of the race, instead of charging ahead full throttle and jockeying for position… we would turn around.

When the light went green, we would ease out of the pack onto the grass, wait for the cars to pass, and then get back on the track going the opposite direction. We would build up speed, just as much as we could, and then drive straight into the lead cars as they barreled along and watch all forty-two painstakingly rendered racecars fly up into the air in a gloriously vertical domino effect. This was 1990s graphics technology, mind you, so there wasn’t really anything in the way of flames or explosions, and they hadn’t even bothered putting actual people in the cars. This was like ramming Hot Wheels together in the basement, only on a much grander scale. Your car would fly a couple hundred feet in the air, and so would half of the rest of them—two at a time, four at a time, eight at a time as the impact rippled through the pack—while others would spin off to the side or roll upside down. Then you’d bounce on the ground, and the other forty computer controlled cars—who didn’t think anything was wrong with what had just taken place—would get back on their merry way trying to win the race like nothing had happened. So you could do it all over again!

In the end, my little brother and I stopped playing the game by the rules some group of computer programmers had come up with, and we stopped trying to come up with all these strategies and techniques to finally win that coveted first place trophy. We found the simple route much more rewarding.

I think in life it’s a general truth that we make things more complicated than they need to be. We add so many extra steps, we distrust evidence or motives when they’re presented to us, and we bend over backwards to find problems or create ways that everything is out to get us. We doubt things when they seem simple, or “too quiet.” We make mountains out of molehills because we don’t trust molehills.

The ten commandments make sense to us because it’s a list of complex rules you’ve gotta follow in order to be a good person. And obviously pleasing the God of the universe and “getting into” an afterlife of eternal paradise would be difficult. You do x, y, and z, you go to hell. You don’t do a, b, and c, you go to hell. You’ve got to walk a tightrope to get to heaven because it’s such a prize! Why wouldn’t it take all that work to get there?

Even just within Christianity wars have been fought over what you’re supposed to do in order to be a righteous child of God. How tragically ironic is that? People have been killed, outcast, tortured, because we are trying to figure out how to be good Christians. The protestant revolts in sixteenth century Germany, the Spanish Inquisition, the Fourth Crusade where Western Christians sacked the capitol of Eastern Christianity. In more modern times we see the Ku Klux Klan, which has long called itself Christian, and the hate-filled rhetoric of the Westboro Baptist Church and others. All in the name of what they believe should be the Christian way.

Now those are really dark examples of our human tendency to make Christianity complicated. But we see it in much less violent ways as well, in our own lives and the lives of those around us. We create hoops for ourselves to jump through in order to please God. You’ve gotta go to church on Sundays, or maybe we’re supposed to pray a certain number of times a day. There are plenty of Christians who believe that if you don’t confess Jesus as your personal Lord and savior before you die, your soul is forfeit. And in a lot of churches only certain people can take Communion, and then only when they’re old enough. You have to say the right prayers and sing the right songs, or God won’t be quite as pleased with us. Sure, God loves us, but God can always love us more if we try hard enough to get it right.

At least, that’s the attitude that Jesus encountered in first Century Israel. Two thousand years ago, our religious ancestors operated in a very Law-driven society. And you can’t see it because I’m speaking out loud, but in my sermon notes I’ve made sure to capitalize the word Law. The people that Jesus encountered sought to live their lives according to interpretations of religious law. Every aspect of their lives was codified based on what the religious leaders of the day understood as the will of God. In today’s rather high-alert, reactionary parlance, an American might consider referring to a way of life like that as “Sharia law.” And in first Century Israel, the Law their government was following so religiously was pulled right out of the books you’ll find in your pews today.

You see, wise men, religious leaders had for a long time been drawing out wisdom and interpreting Holy Scripture in order to determine God’s blueprint for a righteous life. It’s an admirable quest, actually. We ask the question of ourselves here at First Parish, and rightly so, “How does God want us to live?” I’m not knocking that pursuit, quite the opposite; in fact, a lot of my sermons weave that question in there one way or another. And our new Mission and Vision statement on the front of our bulletins is one attempt at answering it.

So Jesus travels around the land he was born into, preaching and teaching, encountering all kinds of people, and sharing his own way to live. Seeking to help people to answer that question, “How does God want us to live?” But the difference between Jesus and the religious hierarchy of the time was obvious right away. Sure, there were places where Jesus’ words harmonized with traditional interpretations of Scripture, but his ministry was in large part about challenging the status quo. About reinterpreting the way people had been framing God and humanity. But where our tendency is to make these things so complicated, and to build all these rules and guidelines and hoops to jump through, Jesus’ message was very different.

Sometimes we make things more complicated than they need to be. Jesus said in our Scripture for today, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants. 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.”

God can be simple. A righteous life can be simple. The wise and intelligent tied themselves in knots for centuries building complex interrelated systems to ensure that righteousness was done. They instituted pilgrimages, designed complicated sacrificial systems, decided which foods were acceptable to God’s sight and which foods were “unclean.” They outlined which deeds and which people were unclean, and proscribed techniques to purify yourself if you came in contact with such people or the works of their hands. Only priests were allowed in the holiest chamber in the temple, and your place in society determined just exactly how close you could get to that chamber.

In the face of all of this, what did Jesus have to say? That the depth of God’s wisdom was hidden from the wise and the intelligent, and instead was revealed to infants. Elsewhere in the Gospels, Jesus says, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.” Elsewhere he asks us to “change and become like children.”

The way a child looks at the world is simple. Refreshingly simple. The littlest children find it easier to be happy than adults. They make friends on the playground far easier than we make friends in the office building. They trust easier. They love more freely.

Complexity comes as you grow up. And it’s a natural thing. The world is complicated and it takes a lot to face it. We’d be fooling ourselves if we thought we could get through this world safely without building something around ourselves.

But righteousness doesn’t have to be complicated. Living into God’s will doesn’t have to happen through a thick net of doubts and fears and requirements and disqualifiers. The burdens that those Pharisees and teachers of the Law put on the people the first Century! The effort and precision that it took to please God! But Jesus came and said, “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.”

The world is complicated enough. The world is painful enough. The world is full of enough hardship and suffering. The world takes everything we have just to get through another week sometimes!

Religion should not be hard. Faith should not be another complication piled onto us by a difficult world. Christianity should not be a burden, or a weight that drags us even further down.

Faith is a place of rest. Putting our faith in God shouldn’t be harder than just plain living life; it should be easier. No analogy is simpler to grasp than when in the face of the Pharisees and all of God’s six hundred and thirteen commandments, Jesus boiled it all down to “Love God, and love your neighbor as yourself.”

That’s what we try to do here at First Parish Church, isn’t it? That’s what this whole vision and mission statement boils down to. If it didn’t, that would be a sure sign that we had made it too complicated. Then it’d be back to the drawing board, again… but I think we did all right here.

Following Jesus should be a load off, not a load on. God can be our pit stop on the long race of our lives. Our place to let our engine cool down, to refuel, and to have some work done on ourselves, so that we can keep on zipping around the track.

Jesus’ burden is light, and God’s revelations come packaged for the childlike. As the old song goes, “‘Tis a gift to be simple, ‘tis a gift to be free.” At First Parish we seek for our lives and our actions to follow in the way of Jesus, and if you really look… The way we see in the Gospels? Jesus’ way? Righteousness… sometimes it’s a lot simpler path than we make it.

Thanks be to God. Amen.