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.
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.