Wednesday, July 12, 2023

Sermon, July 9, 2023: Proper 9 Year A

 ' We can see the difference between Jesus’ burdens and the burdens of oppression other powers would lay upon us. Jesus says to his disciples, ‘Come to me; take my yoke upon you.’ He is honest that there is a yoke which tethers the disciple to him. Compare and contrast that with the lies of the powers who promise total freedom but which produce only servitude.'

Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble of heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.


St Stephen is part of a mission district of the North American Lutheran Church which includes not only urban and suburban Pittsburgh but stretches east and south into rural Appalachia as well as north into Western New York. As such, there are fellow believers not that far from us who can understand the paradox of this passage much more easily than we can.


For our farming brothers and sisters in Christ, the notion of pairing the words ‘yoke’ and ‘rest’ would be nonsensical and even laughable if the words did not come from the Lord Jesus. A farmer can immediately picture beasts of burden teamed together so that they cannot rest on the way, but must stay in motion so as not to falter and fall. They are driven by the other animals and forced onward by the human driver. Thus the plowing gets done and the field gets sown, but the animals are exhausted. Depending on the wisdom and compassion of the farmer, many may be broken down before their time.


Jesus compares himself to the gentle farmer who cares for his animals, not laying yokes upon them which are too hard to bear, which will wear them out and wreck them. This is a beautiful image, but we twenty-first century people may wonder why he uses this metaphor at all.


 After all, human beings are not beasts of burden, and we don’t expect God to treat us as such. We like to think of ourselves as intelligent beings free to fashion our own selves and live our own lives. Any perceived encumbrance laid upon us by another is to be challenged or resisted. Given the preexisting understandings we have, we would expect Jesus to say that he will lay no yoke or burden upon us.


But these understandings which are warp and woof of the culture in which we’ve been raised deserve closer examination. We are intelligent beings, yes, but are we free, and what does freedom mean? Yes, we are in a society dedicated to liberty and we have more political and personal liberties than many others. Indeed, it may be because of these political and personal liberties we enjoy that we assume too much that we can be completely free and independent.


The Bible disabuses us of the notion that we can be self-sufficient. Not only is the universe not of our own making, but every moment it is sustained by the power of God. We are placed in the only place in the universe accessible to us that harbors life. We are part of a biodiverse planet of plants and animals, not only evidence of God’s creativity but also his means of sustaining a habitat for all creatures. We are dependent upon other human beings for nourishment, shelter, safety, and many other things. Martin Luther says that when we pray in the Lord’s Prayer for daily bread, we are to remember that the daily bread that God gives includes:


Everything our bodies need such as food, drink, clothing, shoes, house, home, fields, livestock, money, property, an upright spouse, upright children, upright members of the household, upright and faithful rulers, good government, good weather, peace, health, decency, honor, good friends, faithful neighbors, and the like.


The table grace in Luther’s catechism begins with a verse from Psalm 145, a verse which we stopped just short of reading today: The eyes of all look to you, O Lord, and you give them their food in due season. You open wide your hand, and satisfy the needs of every living thing.


Perhaps one way we may take the yoke of Jesus is in cultivating a spirit of thanksgiving in our hearts and of petition for our daily needs. For those who ask and thank of necessity believe that they are not self-sufficient. They understand that the world and other human beings are not inert resources to be utilized but living gifts to be received from a loving God.


But the Scriptures also teach us that beyond our need for God’s creating and sustaining care, we also are in need of his help and salvation from powers that would drive us and lay burdens too great to bear upon us. Our conceits of personal freedom and self-sufficiency ought to founder upon our inability to disentangle ourselves from the sin which clings so closely and the powers of evil, however conceived, that drive us to anger, fear, desire to dominate others, envy and jealousy, self-indulgence, bitterness, hatred, and the like. These yokes are forced upon us, when we believe the false promises that we will actually have more freedom when we lie, cheat, steal, and do violence against others. Far from it, for we cannot free ourselves from the vicious cycles which are created when we live lives apart from God.


The apostle Paul was flabbergasted when he understood that despite his sincere desire to please God, he was so enmeshed in the ways of sin that would rise up unbidden in his life that he began to conceive of that sinful self as another self that lived within him and which he could not get rid of. Though he believed God had set him free, there were clearly times he experienced his life as one in bondage.


It is here that we can understand Jesus’ call to take his yoke upon us and learn from him – if we believe that if we are not yoked to him, far from being free, we will be yoked to some other power which desires to subjugate us. The powers of sin, death and evil are active in the world and wish to dominate our lives. If even a spiritual athlete like the apostle Paul cried out for rescue, what hope do we have?


 We can see the difference between Jesus’ burdens and the burdens of oppression other powers would lay upon us. Jesus says to his disciples, ‘Come to me; take my yoke upon you.’ He is honest that there is a yoke which tethers the disciple to him. Compare and contrast that with the lies of the powers who promise total freedom but which produce only servitude.


Jesus calls the disciples to exchange freely the false freedom offered by the powers in order to walk with him. While the powers demand we wear their yoke, Jesus invites. He will not force us to gladly hear and learn the Word, to receive the Sacraments, to ask him for what we need and thank him when we receive it. But if we take his yoke upon us, paradoxically, we will be freer than we ever have been, and given rest in his presence, we will cling to the hope of complete freedom from sin, death, and evil in the kingdom of God.


I am reminded of the modern-day story of Kim Phuc, who as a young girl in the 1970s was photographed running naked down a South Vietnam road, screaming out in pain because of the napalm sticking to her body. As an adult, she wrote of how her universalist religion of ancestor worship failed to help her move past her physical and spiritual pain, as it laid the entire burden of her healing of body and soul upon herself and the efficiency of her prayers. It was when she read the New Testament in a Saigon library that she found in Jesus Christ a God who bore her burdens, who freed her from her anger and hatred and bitterness. In taking his yoke upon her and learning from him, she found rest and peace and a hope for freedom from every suffering.[1]

May we, whatever burdens we carry, exchange them for the peace and rest we find in bearing the gentle yoke of Jesus Christ. Let us learn from him in whose service is perfect freedom, who lives and reigns with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.