Saturday, July 2, 2011

The Yoke of Christ: a sermon on Proper 9A

I am now quite certain that Fr. Jim is taking his vacation during this month because the readings are fairly lackluster. The reading from Genesis has to do with the marriage of Isaac to Rebekah. I could preach on marriage—but after the vote in NY last week, I don’t think that that would be politic. But I would point out that if you think that today’s values regarding marriage can be found in the lives of the patriarchs, I would suggest you re read this passage. Over the next 4 weeks we are going to hear some of the stories related to this Abrahamic family. If you plan to model your lives after them, I would suggest you get into family counseling now. Because there is nothing more dysfunctional than what we see in the line of that will produce David and then will produce Jesus. These are the stories of the line of Jesse. This is our family history—the kind of stories that are told whenever the family gathers.

I learned the stories of my forbearers—the stories of the great grandfather who fought in the Civil War or the grandfather who was so seasick on the passage over that he did not go on to Australia as he had planned. That is what is portrayed in today’s readings reading from Hebrew Scripture. They are important stories to our family and the stories of the Patriarchs are important to our Faith Families. 

The reading from the epistle is Paul agonizing about what is law and what is grace. He knows his own propensity for sin and temptation. But he also knows that before he can even ask, his forgiveness is already accomplished in the love that Christ has for him.

But it is in the Gospel that we hear those words we all want to hear:

“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."

If there were any more ‘comfortable words’ in Scripture, I don’t know them.

Most of us are not aware of what a yoke is. Carrying water is not something we have to do. But when I was working in Mexico when I was in my youth, we would see children carrying 2 buckets of water suspended by a rod that was carried across the shoulders. This is a yoke and one that made it easier to carry than using just one’s arms. Also the word is used for that apparatus that harnesses oxen together so that they can utilize the strength of both animals. This was a common enterprise in the Middle East during Jesus’ day.

It was so common that by the 3rd century before Christ, the yoke was already an analogy for Torah—the teaching of God found in Hebrew Scripture today. Jesus is using that analogy in today’s passage. “Take my yoke upon you.” Jesus was preaching to the people who followed him to embrace the teaching of God. Take the Torah and yoke with it—use the teachings of God to give you strength to face life.

When I was in college, I did not know the joy of the law of love. It was only when I was able to surrender to the love of Christ that I was able to really know what it meant to be loved unconditionally. I had always envisioned the do’s and don’ts that seemed to articulate faith in the 1950’s and 60’s as foolish and bothersome. At that time we had ‘blue laws’ in TX. Our schools and social lives were much constrained by the Baptist lobby. There was no liqueur by the drink in TX. And I didn’t think I wanted to connect myself with ‘church’ or ‘faith’ that would demand adherence to such laws. So I avoided God and church until I no longer had answers how to live my life that made sense. I didn’t want to submit to the ‘yoke’ of the laws.

When I did finally allow myself to be loved by God, I heard this passage quite differently. No longer did I have to carry my burdens by myself. The image changed from that little Dutch girl carrying pails of milk on her shoulders to being yoked WITH Christ to live a life worthy of the calling of God. The problems of teaching in South Oak Cliff during de-segregation fell away because I was yoked with Jesus to face each new day. No longer did I have to carry the load alone. I had Christ walking with me.

The law of God is not a heavy burden. Sometimes it is hard to stick with it when we are overcome with our own wantonness. The teaching of Torah is still important today. It is a good way to evaluate how we are living together in shalom—peace. It is a good way to find the principles of Torah in our lives—principles of honesty, truth, how to deal justly with those around us, how to care for the poor among us, how to deal with respect with one another. And even though some of the laws are arcane, (such as not wearing cloth of different threads, or stoning one’s children when they are disobedient) they do still give us principles for living together that are wise.

There is another word in this passage I want to bring up. And that is rest—the word in Greek is anapausis and it is the same word that is used in the Greek Old Testament to translate ‘Sabbath rest’. Jesus was inviting the people who were following him to observe the ‘Sabbath rest’ of studying Torah. Many times this passage in Christian parlance is used to remind us of heaven—that heavenly rest. But I think that is a mis-understanding of the text.

When I lived in Binghamton, NY there was an Orthodox synagogue just a block from my house. Every Friday night I would watch the men walking to shule, their heads covered, their tallits trailing from their coats. Then on Saturday morning, the whole family walked to temple services often gathering with other families also walking from their homes. Sabbath rest meant that every aspect of life rested—meals were prepared on Friday so you didn’t cook. The lights in the house were not turned on so you went to bed early. The TV didn’t go on, the computer was silent—everything centered on studying and talking of Torah—God’s love for the people. It was a way of life.

Jesus invited his followers to ‘learn from him’. He invites US also to learn from him. He invites us not to a ‘heavenly rest’, but a willingness to rest in him—to study our faith—to center our lives on him to live lives that are transformed by that unconditional love that God has for us.

Friday I got a knock on the door and it was a couple of Jehovah Witnesses who had come to the door. Now, I don’t know much about the Witnesses, I have always groaned when they came to the door with their tracks. But this time I invited them in. I was up front with the women who were there that I wasn’t about to become a Jehovah’s Witness but I did respect the denomination because my neighbors were Witnesses and I saw how they lived their lives. They were good neighbors.

What I met was a woman whose life had been transformed by faith. She wanted to talk about what it meant. I love to talk about faith too. We don’t share the same constructs to our faith, but we did share a common experience that faith had changed our lives—that yoke had become easy—the burden was light because we had submitted to the yoke of God and found that our lives had become much easier because of it. She is coming back next Friday and we are going to share Scripture.

On this long weekend of rest and pause, I would like to invite you to observe a Sabbath’s rest—a day in which you can let yourself to dwell in and on God. We don’t have to observe the rigidity of the Orthodox Jew, or cloistered life of a monk. Just find someone with whom you can share your love of God, the Holy, Jesus, the Spirit. It may be with words; it may be with music. It may be on Mon, or Tues or whatever day you have—take a Sabbath’s rest. For God will yoke with you and make your burdens light. AMEN


Dorcas said...

"If you plan to model your lives after them, I would suggest you get into family counseling now."

That was pithily (is that a word?) put. kidding. They are example of what not to do.

I once preached a sermon about Rebekah...what happened to her...she started out as adventursome, ready for change, kind...and a lot more good things that we can surmise from the few facts we know. She ends up quite otherwise. I think patriarchy happened, that's what.

It wasn't a popular sermon. LOL

Muthah+ said...

No wonder you aren't preaching for the AoG these days, Dorcas :>P At least with Episcopalians they won't run me out of town; they laugh. Most of them have never read Genesis anyway, so...????

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