God’s Yoke and Burden

RCL Year A
The Third Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 9

Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67
Canticle: The Song of My Beloved (Song of Solomon 2:8-13)
Romans 7:15-25a
Matthew 11: 16-19, 25-30

Most readings of Jesus’ words give us the picture of a loving, pastoral person who speaks softly and kindly, never ruffling anyone’s feathers — except for the despised scribes and Pharisees. Maybe an occasional reaction to Peter or James and John, or to his own family, but usually, a soft spoken, almost other worldly healer. Our Gospel lesson this morning is an exception. Here we see the Jesus of the scandal in the Temple, overturning tables and cracking a whip to drive away the money changers. I’m not an actress, and I can’t read the passage with the force and tone it deserves. So I ask you this morning to hear Jesus’ words as spoken with the strength of passion.

Jesus sounds like he’s just about fed up with people and their lukewarm responses to his words of urgency. His message, of course, was the reality of God’s love for every person and God’s forgiveness of every sin. But that love is the most powerful force in the world, and God’s love acts with a might that reverberates with all kinds of implications. Jesus shows God’s love to be in direct opposition to the powers of the world. To accept God’s love and the changes it will bring is a challenge, a throwing down the gauntlet, a drawing of a line in the dust. And so Jesus’ primary message of love is spoken in words that demand action to honor the dignity and worth of all people. He is a man of peace, but being truly peaceful can only come from the root of deep passion.

“To what will I compare this generation?” When Jesus speaks of “this generation” it is never in complimentary terms. They are like children who can’t agree on a game to play. They are never happy; there’s always something wrong, something that doesn’t suit them. Each child wants his and her own way with things, and the effect is of each child living in an individual universe. John’s call was too strict for their taste; Jesus enjoyed life too much and kept company with the wrong people. There’s always a mind to criticize others and little passion for commitment. Time and energy are wasted; mission suffers. We’re reminded of the never ending arguments in our government and in our church. It’s the vast sea of people who suffer neglect as their leaders bicker.

Don’t we know people like that? Nothing is ever right, just the way they want it, and so they refuse to enter into any commitment or effort that’s offered them.

Can we even see ourselves as some of the children in the marketplace? Disapproval becomes an excuse for taking no action, making no commitment, having no passion. And the result is always that: no commitment, no action, only complaining that the action being suggested isn’t just the action we would design. Where there is no passion, there are always excuses for doing nothing.

Jesus has faith, though, that over time, the way of justice will win. “Wisdom is shown to be true by her fruits.”

Jesus’ frustration with people’s refusal to hear his words and repent and live differently can’t be limited to his own generation. It seems to be a natural human tendency to dig between our faith and our actions a great pit, deep and wide. We make a point of separating church and state, and we use that principle, foundational in our country, to excuse us, often, from becoming involved in matters of social justice. We forget that the separation of church and state has to do with the intent that one church, denomination or faith not be sanctioned and supported by the government. It also means that our churches are not to support candidates for public office. It does not mean that the church is not obligated to preach the Gospel of God’s love to be lived out in compassion and to call her people to a passion for justice for all people that will be fulfilled in political and social action.

It’s so easy today, as, I suppose it is in every generation, to become complacent. One of the reasons for the fall of the Roman Empire, as I learned the list in 10th grade World History, was complacency. Another reason was the widening gap between the rich and the poor. Can we hear any bells ringing?

It seems that the older and more affluent we grow, the more reasons we can come up with not to hear the voice of love. As Jesus put it, the “wise and intelligent” have reasons of their own to protect their positions and hold on to their power. Only the innocent, the infants, those who suffer and those who are powerless, can hear and understand. The “wise and intelligent,” though, could hear if they chose to.

Nina Tottenburg, last Friday, on NPR’s Morning Edition, was reviewing some of the decisions of the Supreme Court this term, several of which favored big business at the expense of individual people. She then projected the trend into next term and named the issues that will come before the Court: health care overhaul, affirmative action, immigration and possibly gay marriage.

We have the best and the most viable structure of government that’s ever been imaged in history. It provides well stability and balance against the whims of any time or age. Elected officials and an independent judiciary are a good balance. There is, though, in any institution the possibility of influence and the attraction of personal gain, and we see today the sorrow of human failure more clearly than ever before in history. The principle of our democracy that the responsibility lies with the individual is more central than ever. That responsibility is never to be taken lightly and never to be eclipsed by the lure of self interest. Our faith, as well as our democracy, insist on that.

And so we have to ask: How does this generation avoid hearing Jesus’ words of God’s love for all people? We are part of this generation, and we have to say that our society has not solved the problems of poverty, medical care, housing, hunger, homelessness, peer pressure, substance abuse and its prevalence. We have not even solved the puzzle of the human heart’s ability to feel deep pain and empathy and at the same time to protect itself from them and turn away. What does each one of us have to do to hear Jesus’ words and take them into our heart? The first step is really, truly to desire to do that.

Tomorrow we’ll celebrate the 235th birthday of the greatest country the world has ever known. This is a time to give thanks for the leadership of the past and to ask God to guide our leaders today and in the future. It’s a time to ask God to shake us up so we hear God’s Word and respond with less self interest and more compassion. And it’s a time to remember that a country can only hear God’s call as her people hear God’s call: in God’s love for all people God’s call to compassion for all people. We must never become complacent in that, and we cannot expect our nation or our church to do anything we are not willing, ourselves, to do. We are, after all, the Church and the nation.

Hearing and responding to God’s words of love always calls for repentance, repentance every new day and every new hour. We can be sure the forces of evil never rest luring us away from God’s call. Complacency, excuses, are good cover for the more comfortable ways of self interest. The call to bring compassion and justice to all people is a call to look hard at where we put our energy and our love and how and where we give our resources. Might we be more gentle in our use of the earth God has given into our care? Could we give a little more of our resources for the good of others and give up something we do for ourselves? Why not give some time to making our desires known to the people we elect to make our laws? Can we give more time to prayer?

I’m not sure exactly what Jesus meant by his yoke being easy and his burden being light. The commitment to trusting God’s love and the justice it demands of us is a harder commitment than the life of complacency and acceptance. Jesus, after all, was crucified for demanding of power that which power wasn’t willing to give.

But if Jesus meant that the burden of his call is to be known as a conscience free of the burden of guilt, a heart free of the yoke of self interest, the knowledge of God’s presence bearing the heavier side of Jesus’ yoke, then we can hear that. And how might we compare the yoke of pleasure for today, or even for a lifetime, with the joy of eternity?

We might try to read more of Jesus’ words as spoken with force and passion.

Please pray with me the collect for our nation and her people. It’s on page 258 of the Prayer Book:

Lord God Almighty, you have made all the peoples of the earth for your glory, to serve you in freedom and in peace: Give to the people of our country a zeal for justice and the strength of forbearance, that we may use our liberty in accordance with your gracious will; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Hoy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

The Rev. Mary B. Richard