Rev. Teri Peterson
The Good Life
3 July 2011, Ordinary 14A
At that time Jesus said, ‘I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.
‘Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, 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.’
Well friends, we’ve made it—into the long green stretch of the church calendar. This time of year in the church is called Ordinary Time—which does not mean Boring Time! Here Ordinary means that this is not a season focused on a specific aspect of Jesus’ life—as Advent and Christmas, Lent and Easter focus on the mystery of incarnation and salvation. Instead, the readings during Ordinary Time seek to show us what it means to be a Christian in the everyday, in the ordinary. In the northern hemisphere this is also the season of growing—and here in the church community we too focus on growing. Our paraments are green to represent life and creation growing and bearing fruit, and we look to our lives as Christians to see if they too are growing and bearing fruit.
There are an awful lot of agricultural metaphors going on here—greening, growing, bearing, yoking…next week there will be seeds and dirt, the following week there will be weeds as well as crops…which makes it hard, I think, to contemplate these scripture passages in our not-very-agricultural lives. Sure, some of us garden, but even so the vast majority of us have little experience of an agricultural mindset or of the practices that would have been obvious to a farmer in a traditional society like Jesus’. When Jesus talks in agricultural language, he’s speaking the language of the people. When we read his words, we have to work at what that might mean. A good example is right there on the cover of your bulletin—Kim and I had a discussion this week about whether most people would know what this is a picture of. A I thought it was obvious, but she thought it was confusing and looked vaguely like something else unless we added the scripture quote underneath. It’s a yoke, of course—a piece of equipment used to hitch two animals together and to a piece of equipment, such as a plow. But few people in our context see things like these outside of museums anymore—so much of our farming is done with machinery, and so few people are working the land, that a yoke is an antique, not an everyday, ordinary item.
For Jesus and the people in his community, the yoke had a double meaning. The most obvious is the one used for oxen or donkeys to do the farm work, but there are also words like those in Isaiah 58: “Is not this the fast that I choose, to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, to break every yoke?” A yoke is a system, often a system of bondage—whether that system is economic, political, or intellectual. Sometimes people are put under the yoke by an oppressive power, as the Israelites had been by the Babylonians, or as they were under the Romans. Sometimes the yoke is a choice—by choosing to follow a particular teacher, one took his yoke upon oneself. The yoke was the system of teachings, the philosophy, of the teacher. And sometimes a system that was supposed to be life-giving—like the Torah—is turned into an oppression, as we see with the wise and intelligent—the Pharisees and the scribes—who have made the good law of God into a religious and political system that oppresses people and needs to be broken.
So Jesus calls all of us who are caught in those systems, especially those who are weary of following all 613 laws to the letter and still wondering about the grace of God, especially those who believe God’s love has to be earned, to come to him and trade that yoke for another.
I always thought that the point of breaking the oppressive yoke was to be free. But we all know that isn’t exactly true—as a song we sang last week at 8.30 said, You Gotta Serve Somebody. The question is: will we be yoked to the letter of the law, yoked to the economic and political system, yoked to our possessions, yoked to our social status, yoked to our desires, yoked to our limited understanding of God, yoked to what we think the good life looks like….or will we come and slip into one side of a yoke where Jesus is on the other side, and partner with him in the work God has in mind for the world?
When a farmer has a new animal to train, he yokes that new animal together with an experienced one. That way the new animal learns the way while the experienced one carries most of the burden. Eventually the new animal becomes so experienced that he follows the way willingly, and finds the work easy, the burden light. His life is changed to follow a new direction.
Are we willing to take Jesus’ yoke upon us? Are we willing to take on his teachings, put them around our necks, and walk with him until we are so trained that our lives won’t go any other way? Are we willing to submit to this burden, knowing it means we cannot continue to pull our other burdens (however much those burdens may look like blessings)?
Submission is not a word I use lightly, but I think it’s what Jesus is asking for. We are being invited to come, to submit to a life that looks different from the one many of us would prefer. In the language just recently changed in our book of order, we are being asked to “submit joyfully to the Lordship of Jesus Christ in all aspects of our lives.” All aspects of life…when we come to take the yoke of Jesus, we tether our life to his, we commit to learning from him, and it will change us. Do we want to be changed?
I know that sometimes I want to go my own way, dance to my own drummer, wander off into another field. Sometimes those other ways look more attractive—they look so inviting with their power, prestige, fame or fortune. They look like blessings, not burdens, and we pull away, looking longingly at the other yoke. And sometimes, frankly, I don’t want to work, I just want to lay down in the field and have a snack, and stay that way, leading a life of leisure forever, doing nothing—I mean, can’t God work the plan without me?
This is the part where Jesus says his yoke is easy and his burden is light. When we are being who God created us to be, when we are doing our part in God’s great scheme, and when we are partnered with Christ in his yoke (which is not the same thing as trying to get Christ to partner with us in OUR yoke!), the burden is indeed lighter. Life doesn’t get any easier—in fact, sometimes it’s harder—and pain and sorrow don’t disappear. But we have a partner who helps us pull the plow, who teaches us the way, who reminds us who God is and who we are, and who gives freely of himself in order that we might have strength for the journey. We do not submit to the yoke and get left alone—we take Jesus’ yoke upon us, and through water and bread we are refreshed and fed so that we can do the work God has for us in the world. So come, bring your burdens to God, lay them down, and take on the yoke of Christ instead. Let your life be tethered to his, so that you may be transformed, and so work for the transformation of the world.
May it be so.