Archive for July, 2011

Yoked Together

Wednesday, July 13th, 2011

A Meditation for July 3, 2011
Scripture: Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

After Jesus finished instructing his disciples in the art of ministry, he sent them out two by two. Then Jesus took off on a journey of his own, preaching and teaching throughout Palestine, to the disciples’ own home cities. Jesus, like the disciples, like us, in fact, was no stranger to rejection. Not every stop on his journey was successful, to say the least. We know this because verses 20-24, which are missing from today’s reading, comprise the “Woe to You” verses. For example, “Woe to you, Capernaum! It will be more bearable for Sodom on the day of judgment than for you.” Jesus goes on to list several other cities where his message of healing and justice was rejected, and these pronouncements seem almost like curses.

Remember that Capernaum was Jesus’ adopted home town. To hear how shocking that “woe to you” was to his audience, imagine if a local son or daughter came home and said, “Charlottesville is going to straight to hell!”

I’m guessing the lectionary, the ecumenical guide to scripture reading and preaching that I follow, left out “the woes” because Jesus’ anger and reproach can be upsetting. I don’t blame the lectionary editors, it’s human nature to want to avoid conflict! We all want to get past the challenge and the fear and the anger, and get to the good stuff at the end.

Do those of you who grew up in church remember this passage?

“Come unto me all ye that labour, and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” Ah!!! Sometimes it just feels good to read the King James Version of the Bible, particularly when verses are comforting.

But we’re not going there yet. It did occur to me that perhaps I should just stand up and read that and then sit down. But before we jump to those beautiful verses, let’s wring some more juice out of the reading as a whole. Now surely, Jesus’ experiences of inhospitality, rejection and discouragement in his preaching journey influenced the rest of what he had to say. In addition to pronouncing woe on several cities, Jesus reflects his frustration at the capriciousness of people. He reminds us that we are like children sitting in the marketplace, calling out to others: “We played the flute and you wouldn’t dance; we wailed and you did not mourn.”

This refers to the contrast between Jesus (who usually wasn’t dreary) and John the Baptist (who certainly wouldn’t dance.) John fasted and lived simply in the wilderness; he was austere, formidable, challenging—very much a doom and gloom preacher crying, “Repent!”—and so some people thought he was possessed.

Jesus, despite his occasional lapses into hurt anger and judgment, was known to party. He and his disciples drank wine and ate good dinners when they could, and picked wheat when they couldn’t. That got Jesus labeled “drunkard and glutton,” which interestingly, is the beginning of a capital charge under Jewish law. According to Deuteronomy 21:20, the parents of a rebellious son were to bring him to the elders, state that he was a drunkard who won’t work or obey his parents, and then the young man would be stoned, to “keep evil from taking hold in the community.” Tough times!

Jesus has his finger on the problem: you’re a drunkard or you have a demon; dancing or mourning; however you size it up, everyone has an opinion, and you just can’t keep everybody happy.

Pastors and worship committees know this very well! Passions about worship run deep, especially at Sojourners. You not only have a history as a new church start with lay-led worship, but you have grown and added members from many different, and no, faith traditions, which make people expect different things in a worship service. Being “non-hierarchical” is a value of Sojourners, but it is hard to know what that means when the pastor is primarily responsible for worship. For instance, some adore the sharing of joys and concerns, yet others think they are not prayerful enough. Some people like me to sum up joys and concerns in a closing prayer, because they can’t hear unmiked people very well; others prefer silence. Some dislike communion ushers while others don’t like the crowding and confusion that occurs when everyone is left to their own devices in how they line up to receive communion. And so on.

It basically comes down to this: how do we best get connected to God? What kind of ritual brings us closer to each other and to God? See if you can visualize this ancient spiritual diagram. A large circle represents the community. In the middle is a smaller circle, which represents God. Each person in the community is like an arrow pointing inward to God. The nearer each person gets to God, the closer he or she gets to other people in the community. The closer you move towards your neighbors, the closer both of you move towards God.

The question for both the people of ancient Palestine and of Sojourners is, “What kind of leader helps us best to access the holy—an ascetic prophet of the apocalypse, like John? Or someone who gets involved in daily life like Jesus, who may be judgmental at times but who honors all people? Or someone entirely different?

Sometime in the not too distant future, you all will have the chance to hear the sermon of the pastoral candidate that the pastor search committee has selected for you. And those of you who are official members of the church will get to participate in the selection process and decide whether that pastor will be the one to lead you into the future or not. Either you will come to consensus on that person; or, you will not and you’ll start over. And what will get you through this struggle of discerning the right pastor for you is the yoke that you wear.

I wear a stole in part to remind me, and you, that I wear the yoke of Jesus. You each bear one, too, only yours is invisible, as mine is during the week. In Jesus’ day, yokes were used on oxen to assist them in turning the earth and doing other agricultural and construction tasks. They look heavy and scratchy and uncomfortable. But note that Jesus says his yoke is easy and his burden light. What’s that about?! We must remember that the people in Matthew’s time, when this gospel was written down, had lived through the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, and brutal suppression of the Jewish revolt by Rome, including so many crucifixions that the Romans ran out of trees. Matthew’s audience had a pretty high standard of what is heavy and what is light!

Remember also that looks can be deceiving. Those heavy-looking wooden yokes were whittled to fit the oxen. The oxen would not have been able to do their job if the yoke was ill-fitting or too heavy.

More important, Jesus’ yoke is easy for us because we are yoked together with him in love. He is pulling right beside us. If we stumble, he is right there to catch us and sweep us along. The only burden he lays on us is love: love of God, love of self, love of neighbor. This is not totally easy, is it! Because love requires dedication and occasionally even selflessness!

But on another level, it IS easy—because we love a God who first loved us. Even if you didn’t experience that love as a little child, even if you haven’t felt that love before, know now that God loves you far more than you can even ask or imagine. You bear a yoke that God has whittled just for you, and Jesus is pulling right beside you. And every member and friend of Sojourners is pulling with you, too. Thanks be to God!