Sunday, July 3, 2011

Light and Easy

(A sermon on Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30 given at All Saints' Episcopal Littleton on July 3rd, 2011)

This morning’s Gospel is a good illustration of a preaching/teaching trap.

What I’m referring to is the tendency of the preacher when, upon finding a memorable, positive, sound-byte part of a text, to immediately focus on it and then quickly move the congregation towards real life applications. The draw of doing so is easily understood: having a text that needs little explanation allows for more time on developing the important “so what it mean for me” question. The part I’m referring to is:

“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest...For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

The assumption that we are likely to make concerning this text is that it’s a comparison between the way of Jesus and the way of the law. Jesus’ “yoke” is considered easy and his burden light when compared to following a bunch of laws.

The savvy fundamentalist preacher would now shout out, “It’s easy: All you got to do is be saved”, and the door would be opened to direct the sermon wherever one wanted.

Not only am I not certain that this conclusion works within the context of the actual passage, but I additionally feel obligated to discuss the idea of Jesus’ way being “easy” and of “light burden”. My observations suggest otherwise. We are called to an incredible amount of work that is costly: loving your enemies, striving for justice, wrestling with doubt, questioning assumptions...this is not easy at all! It can bring us into conflict with even those closest to us, and constantly challenges our routines. Living faithfully is hard work, and not without grief and pain.

I believe that in truth, today’s passage focuses on why people struggled with the implications of Jesus’ message.

Jesus starts out with a negative comparison: the children danced, but we failed to rejoice, and when they wailed, we did not morn.

Jesus uses this to illustrate the reactions to John the Baptist and himself.

John came solemnly declaring to prepare and repent, but people dismissed his call by focusing on his strange behaviors of not eating and drinking. “Crazy”, they called him.

Jesus comes and, as he says earlier in the chapter, “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”

But people do take offense: not directly criticizing his work, but instead point to his eating and drinking as proof that he’s of questionable character.

Despite being the virtual opposite of John, both get called degrading names.

Talk about an example of “Same-same, but different!”

It’s disturbing to realize how often this happens in our society today. When the news is something someone doesn’t want to hear, the easiest way to dismiss the message is to disparage the messenger.

“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.”

Upon returning to the familiar words, I am struck that this is not really a comparison between following the law or following Jesus. It is also not a declaration that the way itself is easy, without hard work. Instead, the words suggest that the spirit of our approach to God and life matters.

If it is not marked by both passion and compassion, it becomes a burden on our soul: a never ending exercise in futility. Even what is right becomes wrong. But if our heart is light and forgiving, gentle while passionate, the feel of the work will not be burden. In other words, our soul will indeed be cared for.

I am reminded of a story concerning a woman working in her garden on the outer edge of town. Along comes a man down the road, and asks her, “What kind of people live in this town?”

The woman replies, “What kind of people lived in the town where you just left?”

"Terrible! Bitter, dishonest, unhappy complaining people who only cared about themselves. I’m so glad to leave them behind."

The gardner shook her head. “I’m sorry to say that you will likely find the same people here in this town.”

“Unbelievable!”, exclaimed the man. "I guess I’ll go somewhere else.”

“Good luck with that,” sighed the woman.

Sometime later, another man walked by on the road, and asked the same woman, “What kind of people live in this town?”

The woman replies, “What kind of people lived in the town where you just left?”

“Wonderful. Thoughtful and kind people. Even in our differences and our conflicts, we managed to hear and care for one another. I hated to leave.”

The gardner extended her hand and smiled. “Don’t worry: I’m pleased to say that is about how you’ll find folks here.”

Thanks be to God.

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