Ironic Jesus

Sunday’s Gospel lesson is a doozy, and reading it in context doesn’t seem to help.  After sending his Apostles out with the instructions we’ve heard over the past three weeks, Jesus returned to his own ministry of healing and preaching.  Matthew doesn’t reiterate Jesus’ message, but we know that on this missionary journey, like all the others, he has be proclaiming that the Kingdom of God has come near.  This is the same message that John the Baptist preached during his ministry at the Jordan (see Mt 3).  Interestingly, it is during this time that John, now in prison, sends his disciples to ask, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”

It is in response to this question from John the Baptist that Jesus engages in the teaching we will hear on Sunday.  The seemingly random aside about children in the marketplace, the woes to unrepentant cities that the lectionary skips, and even this prayer to the Father about thing hidden from the wise, are all a result of John’s somewhat surprising questioning of Jesus’ Messiahship.  But what really strange about all of this is how Jesus wraps it all up by saying, ““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.”

crown-thorns2

That’s a serious eye roll, Ironic Jesus!

Is Jesus being ironic here?  After a chapter of pretty difficult apocalyptic teaching, he’s going to end with “my yoke is easy and my burden is light”?  Has he not heard himself for the last five minutes?  He has literally just condemned Bethsaida and Capernaum, the home towns of several of his disciples, to a fate worse than Sodom for their unbelief.  What is easy about this faith if John the Baptist can’t handle it?  How light can the burden possibly be if these towns filled with faithful Jews can’t carry his teaching?

Preachers, and by that I mean, I tend to isolate this final verse from the rest of the lesson and talk about how a Rabbi’s yoke was his teaching, and how Jesus’ commandments to love God and love neighbor would seem downright easy compared to the teaching of the Pharisees, but in context, what Jesus is suggesting is downright heavy.  That is, until we remember that the task of the disciple is not to accomplish faith on our own, but rather to allow Jesus to carry it for us.  John was struggling.  In prison for his teaching and looking at the horizon of his own demise, he wanted to be sure that he had done the right thing.  His faith faltered, if only for a moment, and he looked for reassurance.  What he got was the word that being in prison was exactly where he was supposed to be, and that while his burden seemed heavy, God was there to help lighten the load.  His death would not be in vain.  His faith, unstable as it might have been at the time, would not fail.  The burden of following Jesus, even to death, is light because we are not invited to carry it alone.

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The Yoke of Jesus Really is Easy – a sermon

You can listen to today’s sermon on the Saint Paul’s Website, or read on.

Life is full of joys and burdens.  In fact, most things in life tend to vacillate between those two extremes.  Work, for example, can be something that is life-giving and full of joy, or it can a life-sucking four letter word that feels like an overwhelming burden.  On the other hand, an extra day off, like I had on Thursday, can be the source of great joy: the opportunity to sleep in, spend extra time with family and catch up around the house.  Or, when there is a sermon to write and a two year-old who won’t take a nap, it can feel like quite a burden indeed.  Home-ownership, parenthood, even faith in Jesus Christ can at times be joy-filled and at other times feel like a heavy burden upon our souls.

This is, of course, nothing new.  Religion has had its fair share of ups and downs over the past several millennia.  In our Old Testament lesson this morning, we hear the familiar, yet puzzling words from the prophet Zechariah who calls the people of Israel “prisoners of hope.”  Hope, it would seem, could never be a burden.  Isn’t hope always a positive thing?  When we speak of the Kingdom of God, we talk about God offering hope in the midst of despair.  How could hope be such a burden that Zechariah would liken it to a prison?  According to the prophet, the hope of the people has been placed in the false idol of “we’ve always done it that way.”  As a people living in captivity, the Israelites had decided that the only way God could be at work was by setting them free from their bondage.  They were incapable of imagining that God could be present in their current situation and so their dream of a military victory over their captors became their burden; they became prisoners of their own misguided hope. The prophet invites God’s people to give up the burden of their history and to look with joy for ways in which God was at work even in the midst of their hardship.[1]

Our Gospel lesson tells a similar story, but thanks to some clever slicing and dicing by the Revised Common Lectionary, you’d never know it.  This morning we find ourselves halfway into the eleventh chapter of Matthew, but before we can understand Jesus’ words about his light burden and easy yoke, we have to understand what is happening in the larger story.  Having finished giving his disciples some instructions about what it means to welcome and be welcomed in last week’s lesson, Jesus began to travel from town to town teaching and preaching the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven.  In the meantime, John the Baptist had been arrested by King Herod, and while in prison, he had heard about what Jesus was up to.

John had plenty of time to think and reflect on his life and ministry while shackled underneath Herod’s castle.  He remembered the throngs of people who had come from all over Judea to hear him preach repentance.  He recalled with fondness the cool waters of the Jordan River where he had baptized thousands upon thousands of people, washing them clean from their sinfulness and inviting them into new life.  He remembered especially the day that his cousin arrived at Bethany Beyond the Jordan looking to be baptized.  After some protesting, John relented and dunked his sinless cousin in the River, when all of a sudden the heavens were torn in two, the Spirit of God descended like a dove and lighted upon Jesus and a voice bellowed, “this is my beloved Son with whom I am well pleased.”  For John more than almost anyone else, it was clear that Jesus was God’s Anointed One, the Messiah, who had come to set Israel free and bring forth the Kingdom of God.  Yet, as John heard what Jesus was up to: how he spent all of his time on the margins of society; how he did all of his preaching and teaching in back water towns; how he had ventured into unclean Samaritan territory and even spent time talking to a woman there; how he touched lepers and dead bodies, upset the powers-that-be by healing on the Sabbath, and cared for those who couldn’t help his career; John began to feel the burden of doubt replace the joy of faith in his life.  The weight grew and grew until he couldn’t stand it anymore.  He needed a clear answer.

Was this Jesus really the one?  The burden of doubt weighed heavy on John’s soul as he sent a few of his disciples to find out for sure, was Jesus really the Anointed One, or should they be looking for another?

I think most of us can relate to John the Baptist’s struggle.  We who follow Jesus know the joy that comes from life in his Kingdom, but it doesn’t take too long to feel the burden of doubt tugging at our hearts.  What started out with the promise of an easy yoke and a light burden can increasingly become a cart too heavy to bear.  Just as in the days of Zechariah and the days of Jesus, we’ve allowed others to create a religion that isn’t based on the joy of God’s steadfast love, but on the heavy yoke of man made rules and the illusion of “the way things have always been.”  Christians of all creeds and stripes have tried to enforce upon others precisely how they must live and shop and vote in order to be faithful disciples.   On one side of the aisle, there are those who would burden us by saying that the only true followers of Jesus will vote Republican, eat delicious chicken sandwiches at Chik-fil-a, and shop for craft supplies at Hobby Lobby while carrying a loaded assault rifle.  On the other side, there are those who would burden us by saying that the only true followers of Jesus will vote Democratic, eat fairly traded, environmentally friendly burritos at Chipotle, and shop for giant mayonnaise jars at Costco while bending all guns into plowshares.  We see so much hardship being placed on people’s backs in the name of God’s Anointed One and we begin to wonder.  Is Christianity really the way?

For two millennia, people have come to Jesus carrying the heavy burden of expectations, frustrations, guilt, and doubt, and again and again, Jesus replies with words of comfort.  “Come to me, all you who are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.”  My brothers and sisters, Jesus’ yoke really is easy, kind, and gentle.  His burden really is light.  If we would just stop adding unnecessary burdens to the load.  If we would stop allowing others to throw heaping helpings of burdensome expectations on our backs.  If we could just live into our Collect for this week and accept the gift of grace that is God’s Holy Spirit, we could certainly find our way back to joyful faith in Christ Jesus.

Jesus’ yoke is simply this: love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength and love your neighbor as yourself.  For two thousand years, people have done their best to interpret these two rules by making them more and more burdensome, but the simple truth is, as the Psalmist declares, “God is gracious and full of compassion, slow to anger and of great kindness.  The LORD is loving to everyone and his compassion is over all his works.”  God loves the Green Family who own Hobby Lobby and God loves Ruth Bader Gingsburg.  God loves gays and lesbians and God loves the Cathy family, owners of Chik-fil-a.  God loves Charlton Heston and God loves Gabrielle Giffords.  And the truth of the matter is that the only burden that following Jesus puts upon us is that we should love them all too.

Life is full of joys and burdens, but only one of them is a fruit of the Holy Spirit.  Follow Jesus with joy in your heart, let the grace of the Holy Spirit equip and encourage you, and for the love of God, don’t take on the burdens that someone else would try to place upon your faith.  Set us free, dear LORD, from the weight of our burdens and help us to find joy in the ease of your yoke.  Amen.

 

[1] Margaret Odell, workingpreacher.org July 6 2014

The Burden of Doubt

There are a lot of things in life that weigh us down. Stress might be the number one culprit of the burdensome life. Brain chemistry issues can lead to depression which can become a weight too heavy to bear. Money running out before the month does weighs heavy on many people in America these days. But in the realm of religion, Christianity in particular, my gut says that doubt is the heaviest spiritual weight. And it isn’t just a modern phenomenon.

Finding the context of a given lectionary text is always important.  Given that this is my first week back after three weeks up at Sewanee, I’ve been a bit behind schedule in my exegetical sermon prep this week, but I have finally realized that this Sunday’s lesson has a weighty context indeed.  JBap is rotting away in Herod’s prison, a victim of his own piety, Herod’s weakness, and Herod’s [brother’s] wife’s cunning.  Sitting in jail has given JBap plenty of time to reflect on his life and ministry, and as he pondered on these things, doubt began its insidious creep.  Jesus, whom John baptized, was clearly the Anointed One, God’s beloved Son, and yet his ministry didn’t look like the one who would come to restore Israel.  Jesus spent way too much time on the margins: in back water towns; beside unclean water wells; engaging with people who couldn’t further his career politically or militarily.  And so JBap began to wonder.

Is this Jesus really the one?

The weight of his doubt continued to grow until he couldn’t stand it anymore, and he sent some disciples to ask Jesus if he really was the one.

I think many of us can relate to John’s plight.  We who have decided to follow Jesus have, at first, gladly cast off our burdens and taken up his easy yoke.  In time, however, we’ve noticed the load getting heavier and heavier.  Even as Jesus invites us to stop adding things to the wagon, we begrudge him for not making things lighter.  Doubt creeps in and weighs us down even more.

Is this Jesus really the one?

Again and again, Jesus answers our doubts in the same way he did JBap’s.  “What do you see?  What have you heard?  The blind can see.  The deaf can hear.  The captives have been told the Good News.  My yoke really is easy and burden really is light.  If you’d just stop adding unnecessary burdens to the load and follow my way, you’ll understand.”

It is hard to give up those burdens, to be sure.  Somewhere deep down inside, we really like the idea of being able to carry all our crap with us.  But it holds us back from our full potential.  It keeps the Kingdom at bay.

Is this Jesus really the one who can set us free?

Yes. Yes he is.

Jesus’ Yoke Isn’t Easy Either

It is true that the Revised Common Lectionary has, by way of Matthew’s Gospel, yoked us to an uneasy set of lessons for Sunday.  It is also true that the though Jesus assures us that his “yoke is easy and his burden is light,” follow him really takes some work.  Hard work.  I’m often reminded of the cost of discipleship in my day-to-day life as a priest in the Church.  I’m keenly aware of the things my family and I have given up to follow the Lord.  I see and hear from people all the time who are seeking after the Kingdom knowing full well that life would at least seem easier if all they had to care about was their own well being.  It was Sunday’s Collect, however, that brought the difficulty of discipleship into sharp focus.

O God, you have taught us to keep all your commandments by loving you and our neighbor: Grant us the grace of your Holy Spirit, that we may be devoted to you with our whole heart, and united to one another with pure affection; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Preachers often try to make the Great Commandments sound a whole lot easier than they are, but the reality is that loving God and loving neighbor are downright impossible.  Day after day, we seek after our own gain.  Day after day, we find new ways to strain relationships.  Day after day, we know the right thing to do and don’t do it.  As the Psalmist says, “my sin is ever before me.”  The yoke of following Jesus isn’t necessarily easy, but the good news is that we have someone to share the load.

The Collect for Sunday goes on to ask for help by way of the promised Advocate who will walk with us in Jesus’ absence.  With the help of the Holy Spirit, which is a free gift of grace by faith in Jesus Christ, we are able to bear the burden of the yoke of discipleship.  With the help of the Holy Spirit, it becomes possible to have our hearts, our whole heart, devoted to the Kingdom.  With the help of the Holy Spirit, it becomes possible to have pure affection for our neighbor, even and especially the one who really gets under your skin.  The yoke of Christ isn’t easy.  In fact, it is impossible to carry on our own.  However, the promise of Jesus is sure, his yoke is made easy by God’s gracefilled gift of the Holy Spirit.

This Yoke Ain’t Easy

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, then you know that when I was ordained, I took a vow to “be loyal to the doctrine, discipline, and worship of Christ as this Church has received them” (BCP, 526).  I take this vow very seriously, and though I’ve been known to skirt a rubric every once in a while, I’m not apt to do so without careful theological reflection.  That being said, I really want to invoke the opinion of the Dean of the School of Theology at Sewanee who says that the Book of Common Prayer ends on page 808 and consider the rubrics concerning the Lectionary “back matter.”  I’m especially interested in the penultimate line on page 888 which reads, “Any Reading may be lengthened at discretion.”  Oh how I wish that it said “Any Reading may be shortened or lengthened at discretion.”  I’d cut verses 16-19 and 25-27 from this Sunday’s Gospel lesson.

In the final part of Sunday’s lesson, Jesus promises that his yoke is easy and his burden is light, but I’m not sure that can be true given his prayer to the Father, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent” and the bit about children making fun of each other in the market place.  The latter is so culturally dependent as to be impossible to not misunderstand and the former sounds so very closed minded and Gnostic.  Thankfully, I’m not left to my own devices and by virtue of my ordination vows, I’m required to deal with the tough stuff from Jesus and not just preach fluff.

I was sharing all this with my Rector who chuckled and said, “what if God is hiding the Kingdom so we’re intentional about looking for it?”  This is, I think, a great word for anyone who would take seriously the task of preaching the Gospel this week.  Are we being intentional about seeking out the kingdom – sifting through and learning from the hard stuff as well?  Or, are have we settled into a yoke that’s too easy and a burden too light?