Sunday, July 6, 2008

The Proper of the Day: The Eighth Sunday after Pentecost

Sarah and Rebecca, Virtual Israel Bible Museum

It was a good day at St. Thomas's Episcopal Church. We gathered as we do every Sunday to encounter the Word in Scritpure and Sacrament and to celebrate God's presence among us. Today we heard the story of how Rebecca came to be Isaac's wife, heard St. Paul lament about how no matter how he tries he can't seem to do thre right things, and heard Jesus give the amazing invitation to come to hom, all who are heavy laden. Here's what I offerred at the pulpit of St. Thomas's. As always, I welcome your feedback and comments!

St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church, Vernon
Proper 9A RCL 2008
Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67; Psalm 45:11-18; Romans 7:15-25a; Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30
The Rev. R. F. Solon, Jr., Vicar

May these words be in the Name of Him whose yoke is easy and whose burden is light. Amen.

Each generation, it seems, has an invention or device that defines the generation and what it stands for. We’re in the Internet Age now. We use the Internet and computers for all kinds of time and money and people savings. America and the whole world could not exist as we do today without the help that computers give us. A lot of it is invisible, but those computers are still there, running quietly, doing what they have been designed to do. Remember the Year 2000 scare of ten years ago? Predictions of the near collapse of civilization didn’t come to pass, of course, but they seemed very understandable. We’ve come to depend on computers in nearly every aspect of our lives. It’s like that in every age. At various stages of human history, various labor-saving devices have been invented to make life easier, often in the area of transportation or construction. In the 20th Century it was the automobile and airplane. In the 19th Century it was the train and the steam engine. Earlier ages saw widespread use of wagons and carriages and sophisticated sailing vessels. Before trains and for indeed thousands of years it was the horse and other beasts of burden that were the principal means of transport. We could harness multiple animals together with a yoke – a beam of wood that fit across the shoulders of mules or other animals that forced them to walk together. The advantage was two animals tired out less quickly and could plow tough ground more easily. The yoke was possible the first labor saving device after the domestication of animals themselves.

That’s not the yoke that Jesus is talking about in today’s Gospel though. The yoke he is talking about – and this is separate from yolk, too, which is the yellow part of an egg – is similar to the animal yoke, but used for people. People, after all, were the very first transportation mechanisms. At first, we dragged or carried stuff. Some bright person figured out that if we put a beam across our own shoulders and hung stuff on either end, we could stand upright, using the natural strength of our backs and hips and shoulders to help us carry burdens longer and with more ease. So a yoke was a device to make people carry heavy things. To “lay down the yoke” was to subjugate a conquered people and make them slaves. To “take on the yoke” meant the same thing, to become slaves to otherwise take on forced labor. It wasn’t a complimentary thing. A yoke was something used to make it possible to carry and move heavier things than one could do alone.

But there’s another way to look at what a yoke was and does. A yoke is used to make a heavy burden easier to carry, but what if that burden is something you want to take on? Then it’s not a negative thing, but a positive one. It becomes not a subjugator, but a liberator. A yoke then becomes something willingly taken on, to help with a willing burden.

There’s a modern day version of such a yoke that many of us have seen. The backpacks that our thru-hiker guests use are very sophisticated pieces of equipment. I tried one on the other evening with the hiker’s permission and I could tell how well it fit and worked. They’re designed to distribute the weight of one’s hiking supplies across the shoulders and hips in a way that allows one to travel many miles a day without too much strain – as long as you’re in reasonable shape! But the point is, a thru hike is something one presumably does willingly. I mean, walking 2,174 miles is a very long way! And so you’d better have good supplies and a way to carry them all. A hikers’ backpack, a yoke, if you will, helps with that in the very best sense.

Today’s Gospel is an amazing testimony to Jesus and what he does. In this passage Jesus issues a unique invitation to his hearers then and to us now. “Come to me, all you that are weary and are heavy laden, 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.”

What Jesus is inviting us to do is put down the yokes that other people have put on our backs, as well as the yokes and heavy burdens that we ourselves have placed on our own backs. I’m talking about the burdens of hurt and pride and envy and distrust and all the other stuff we carry in our hearts and in our souls. Jesus is inviting all of us this very moment to look at ourselves and feel the backpacks we’re carrying. And Jesus says, there’s no need for that. Take those packs off. You don’t have to carry them around any longer. Those backpacks filled with enmity and self-pity and anger toward each other and our own selves – life’s too long to have carry them, far longer than the 2100 plus miles of the Appalachian Trail. Even our own stuff is too heavy. Look at St. Paul. He admits in today’s reading from Romans’ that there are times even he can’t seem to stopping sinning no matter how hard he tries. We’re all like that. Jesus says, Take all that off. Instead, take on his yoke. It’s light – far lighter than any of those other ones you’ve been carrying for all this time. His yoke is easy and his burden is light. My yoke, Jesus says, is not one of those heavy yokes imposed by others. My yoke is designed to carry easily the burden I offer. That burden is simply to live life as God’s loved and forgiven children. Love God by loving your neighbor and yourself. That’s all. No one comes to the Father except the son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him. Guess what? Jesus says, I choose to reveal God to anyone and everyone at all who seeks me and him! That’s the burden I offer. And the yoke I give to make it even easier is the gift of my very presence. You actually don’t have to carry very much at all. I’ll do most of the work.

Once you put down all those other burdens, you will find rest for your souls, and really for your whole self. You don’t have to hold on to your anger or pride or embarrassment or anything else that’s wearing you down. Because you are a loved and forgiven child of God, you don’t have to worry about what others think or say or do. You can act like a loving and forgiving person toward all those around you. Your relationship with God who loves you can never be bent, can never be broken. You can then practice extending that assurance to those around you. You never have to pick up the heavy backpacks of other peoples’ expectations or desires or ill will or hurt. You can leave them on the ground. You don’t need them anyway. You have all you need in the backpack Jesus wants to give you. It’s an easy backpack, too. Let go of that other stuff. Just put it down and walk away from it.

My friends, that’s the essence of the Good News itself. It’s the Lord himself who extends this most sublime invitation. We can, if we choose, take up the yoke of society’s expectations; of all the things we think we need to do to be happy, healthy, and wealthy. Jesus says we don’t need to, and it’s actually a mistake to do so. The values of society are false ones, Jesus says. They are heavy burdens, burdens so heavy we don’t even know that we aren’t walking, but that we’re really only crawling along at best, suffering under the values and expectations of a society that does not really want us to walk upright and secure in the trust in God’s love and forgiveness. Don’t listen to that stuff, Jesus says. Learn from me instead. For my yoke is easy, not like the yoke of the world. My burden is light, not like the crushing backpacks of the weight of the world. You can’t find rest with those backpacks on, but you will find rest for your souls with my backpack.

Today each of us has the opportunity to put down our burdens of sin and take up the oh-so-light burden of God’s love. And the yoke he places across our shoulders is not the heavy kind of yoke, the kind that slaves wore. The yoke Jesus gives is the kind of yoke, like a modern hikers’ backpack, that helps us with the weight we carry. And that yoke is his very self, the self we encounter every Sunday at the Communion rail in his own Body and Blood. He gives us of himself first. He makes it possible to easily shoulder the not-very-heavy weight of the forgiveness we have as God’s sons and daughters. Not much of a burden at all. A burden each of us carries with joy and hope rather than despair and doubt.

That backpack I tried on last evening wasn’t very heavy – possibly 20 pounds at the most, because it was partially unpacked. The hiker told me that full weight for her was around 30 pounds or so. It’s a good thing it wasn’t full, too, because I’m actually a bit sore in my back, and I had that thing on for maybe two or three minutes at most. Can you imagine how tired and sore your spirit is from carrying around all those backpacks containing the world’s burdens, burdens you didn’t even ask for? You don’t need that. I don’t need that. Jesus doesn’t want to us to have to deal with that. Jesus says to let it go. And you and I and all who wish it will indeed find rest, true rest, for our souls. Amen.

And the appropriate selection from The Messiah:

O God, you have taught us to keep all your commandments by loving you and our neighbor: Grant us the grace of your Holy Spirit, that we may be devoted to you with our whole heart, and united to one another with pure affection; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.



Doorman-Priest said...

Fine sermon!

Grandmère Mimi said...

Robert, very nicely done. Ah, the burdens we place on ourselves may be the heaviest of all.

RFSJ said...

Thank you, RB and Grandmere Mimi!

Troglodyteus said...

My backpack has many pockets and pouches
and I have chosen to fill every single one.
Some of them even have welded zippers.

Thank you for so capably helping me to focus.