Sunday, July 6, 2014

Sermon Proper 9 Pentecost 4 - July 6, 2014

That American prophet Bob Dylan,
hero of the counterculture of the 1960s,
went through a born-again phase in the late 1970s,
and some people insist that a biblical spirituality pervades almost all his music.
He wrote the following verses,
which I am not going to attempt to sing.
But maybe you’ve heard the song:

You may be an ambassador to England or France
You may like to gamble, you might like to dance
You may be the heavyweight champion of the world
You may be a socialite with a long string of pearls.
But you're gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed
You're gonna have to serve somebody,
It may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you're gonna have to serve somebody.

Now, how depressing is this?
Especially on Fourth of July weekend.
We have just shot off fireworks and waved the flag
in celebration of freedom, of independence?
Of not having to serve anyone?
Bob Dylan tells us that we’re gonna have to serve somebody.
As an American, that’s quite upsetting to me.

And yet Bob Dylan is on to something.
We Americans trumpet our freedom,
and yet how often do we Americans complain
about high taxes, the high cost of living,
high-handed government officials,
the high cost of war both in financial resources and in human life,
high amounts of stress?
It would seem that American freedom is not so free after all.
Of course we are always free to complain.
Being patriotic is not a matter of always agreeing with the way things are now.

But we are not free because of the world we live in.
We are not free because there are other powers in the world.
Gas prices are so high because of the demand for fuel in China
and other places in the quickly developing industrialized world
that has taken the industry from Pittsburgh and Detroit.
They themselves will reap both the benefits
and the high costs of pollution that Pittsburgh used to know.
We are not free of war because there are people out there
who want to kill others to get what they want.
We are not free of the constant pressure
to do more with less money and less time.
We are not free of the social issues and debates
that wrack our nation,
whether about gay marriage in the state and the Church
or about the health care system or abortion.
We cannot get free because we are born into a world
and into a society which predates us
and shapes us for good and for ill.
Boy, this is depressing.
Maybe today you should have gone to one of those churches
that have the big flags on the screens up front.

And what is even worse?
What we said before the service.
‘Most merciful God,
we confess that we are in bondage to sin
and cannot free ourselves.’
This was Paul’s cry from the heart,
that even though he wanted to do what was right in God’s sight,
he found that there was always something twisting even his best intentions,
something that kept him from doing what he wanted to do.
He called himself ‘wretched,’
and he wasn’t just talking about himself,
but he was saying that the experience was common to all humanity.
This is true whether in the political arena
or in the personal arena.
Ugh. Yuck. I’m even bringing myself down.

I often quote Anthony Bloom’s Beginning to Pray,
and he said this:
‘There is a passage in Dickens’s Pickwick Papers
which is a very good description of my life
and probably also of your lives.
Pickwick goes to the club.
He hires a cab and on the way he asks innumerable questions.
(Here I should interrupt and say that
of course this cab is not an automobile,
but a horse and a carriage.)
Among the questions, he says ‘Tell me, how is it possible
that such a mean and miserable horse
can drive such a big and heavy cab?’
The cabbie replies,
‘It’s not a question of the horse, Sir,
it’s a question of the wheels,’
and Mr Pickwick says,
‘What do you mean?’

The cabbie answered,
‘You see, we have an excellent pair of wheels
which are so well-oiled
that it is enough for the horse
to stir a little for the wheels to begin to turn
and then the poor horse must run for its life.’
Father Anthony concludes,
‘Take the way in which we live most of the time.
We are not the horse that pulls,
we are the horse that runs away from the cab
for fear of its life.’

On the way in here most of you saw the yoke in the narthex
which normally hangs in the stairwell of the Christian Education building.
This yoke is what a beast of burden wears.
It is a symbol of servitude.
What in many ways we have been saying
is that we ourselves are burdened
with burdens we don’t want,
burdens we didn’t choose,
burdens we have tried to throw off
but we have only tightened the reins,
shifted the weight.

The good news that Jesus offers us is that
the alternative to being burdened is to be burdened.
We think the opposite of servitude is freedom,
but in actuality the opposite of servitude is servitude.
Dylan said, ‘It may be the devil, or it may be the Lord,
but you gotta serve somebody.’

‘Come to me, all you labor and who are heavy laden,
and I will give you rest.
Take my yoke upon you,
and learn from me,
for I am gentle and humble-hearted,
and you will find rest for your souls;
for my yoke is easy and my burden is light.’

In Jesus’ time,
the people of Judea and Galilee,
the people to whom he ministered,
were under the thumb of Rome,
bearing the yoke of an empire,
a yoke which they could not throw off.
Is Jesus calling them to a revolution,
to substitute Caesar’s lordship for his?

No, he will not set himself up as a rival to Caesar.
His lordship is of a different character.
He will not ride into Jerusalem on a horse,
poised to go to war for the rightful throne,
but instead on a donkey,
refusing to use power against power.

And when he urges us to take his yoke upon us,
his lordship, his domination, is of a wholly different character
than the domination of the world.
The external circumstances of our lives do not change;
but they are put in their place.
In a way, it doesn’t matter who is in charge at the moment,
for God is in charge in every moment in the only way that matters.

Maybe you know people who get themselves worked up every day
over what they see on Fox News or hear on NPR
or read in the Post-Gazette.
I think they are carrying heavy burdens,
heavy burdens of worry for others and self and even for God,
as if the events in the world around us
could mean that God’s authority itself is not only challenged,
but even in question.
It is not that our concern for others is groundless,
but we are too often afflicted with a burden we cannot move,
a disappointment and a weariness with the world,
and we have no rest.
To such as these Jesus says,
‘Come to me.’
Come and find rest from the One
who refused to allow himself
to despair even when confronted with the sin of the whole world.

Maybe we are driven by the urge to do more,
the urge to do everything before we die
or to give every opportunity to children and grandchildren
because we are so worried that our happiness
depends on how much we’ve done.
Those who are working and those who are retired
both complain about how busy they are
and take a certain pride in that busy-ness.
We are always on the go.
To such as these Jesus says,
‘My yoke is easy, and my burden is light.’
For these people, hearing Jesus’ words about rest
can seem like a fantastic dream.
And yet, worshiping God
is not another accomplishment we need to check off our to-do list,
but being in God’s presence
helps us to remember that what we accomplish
is less important than we think it is.

 And of course there are those of us
who cannot find rest
from illness, pain, guilt, grief, or anxiety.
For us Jesus calls us to exchange their overlordship
for his gentle yoke,
and hear his restful word that not even these
can separate us from God’s love
and that one day we will know God’s love alone,
which is eternal.

May God grant us to bear Christ’s gentle yoke,
so that in his service we may know the perfect freedom
of life with Christ our Lord.