Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Light to the Nations

It seems that some of you have noticed that I never posted my sermons from June or July.  Thank you for noticing.  Here they are...

Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30
A Sermon for the People of Holy Cross Lutheran Church
July 6, 2014

I think when most of us listen to the end of today’s gospel lesson, we tend to put on our pious ears and think “if I am having a hard time or if I am sick or dying, then Jesus will fix it.”  In this way, we regard Jesus as a genie-in-a-bottle kind of God.  If we do the right thing, think the right way, pray hard enough, Jesus will swoop in and grant our wishes for health of body or mind and ease of soul.

Sorry to be the one to inform you:  Jesus doesn’t work that way.   
The first hearers of this speech would have understood that the yoke Jesus is talking about is the Law.  Well, not the Law exactly.  Theologian Elizabeth Johnson says, “The heavy burden they (the Pharisees) lay on the people is not the law per se; it is rather their particular interpretation and practice of the law, which, for instance, excludes from meals the ritually unclean, places restrictions on the Sabbath that ignore human need, is zealous about tithing, mint, dill, and cumin, but neglects the "weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith".”  In other words, the Pharisees have expanded the Law so that it is no longer life-guiding gift from God.  Instead the Law has become a soul-sucking, shaming, impossible to honor and uphold rigid list of rules and regulations.  It has become a way of saying “You’re a bad person.  There’s no way you will ever, ever get it right…and so there is no way you are ever going to be “good” according to God or to us.  But you cannot give up trying…we’ll shun you for that!”  So there you have it.  Under the lonely yoke of the expanded Law, you can’t win for loosing.

Now remember, the religious leaders of that time were complicit in keeping the Romans in power.  They benefited by helping keep their own people subject to the tyranny of the Roman Empire.   Johnson reminds us, “…the ruling elite secure wealth, status, and power at the expense of the lowly. (but) Jesus rejects this social order as contrary to God's will.

To all those laboring under harsh religious and political systems (of the time), Jesus says, "Come to me... and I will give you rest." Rest here can refer to Sabbath rest, the rest of death, or rest from war when Israel's enemies have been subdued. Rest also functions as an image of salvation, of what will be when the world is finally ordered according to God's purposes....In promising "rest," Jesus promises life under God's reign in the new world that he is bringing into being.”

So what is the message for us today?

Theologian Karoline Lewis, pastor, preacher, and professor says, “To believe in Jesus is not escapism from burdens or struggles or the events in our lives that cause the kind of weariness that might strip us of our very souls. To be a disciple is to be yoked to Jesus.

We are yoked to Jesus, whose yoke is kind, good, useful (better translations than “easy”). Yes, it is still a symbol of burden, oppression, and hardship. But we can’t forget who is pulling the burden with us, with his head through the other oxbow.

With that truth in mind, I think this text says more than: you are not alone in your suffering. Although that is also true about this passage, nevertheless I think there is a promise that the load really will feel lighter. True, you are not alone. And therefore whatever burden you bear, you do not bear it alone. There’s the difference. There’s the good news -- realistic, good news we might actually experience.”

We are yoked to -- bound to -- Christ. 

In that simple sentence is both promise for us and mission for our lives. 

Now, perhaps we can blame it on the fact that I am married to a sailor, the aunt of one, the niece of another, the granddaughter of still two more soldiers, and the granddaughter of a Marine (yea, you counted correctly, that’s 3 grandfathers), or maybe it is simply because this week contained the 4th of July, Independence Day, or as I like to say, “Happy Birthday, America”.   Whatever the reason, history or proximity, all week, as I contemplated the gospel lesson, I kept hearing the words from Emma Lazarus’s poem “The New Colossus” in parallel to the words of Jesus.

“Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
"Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
These words are graven on a tablet within the pedestal upon which the Statue of Liberty stands.

And I wonder if Emma Lazarus was aware just how deeply her words paralled the words of Jesus.

"Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me.”

“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.”

Friday night, my family and I took to the streets of our neighborhood to celebrate the birth of this nation.  We shared meal with our neighbors and spent several hours igniting explosives, chasing children, and I, at least, spent some time thinking about how amazingly fortunate we are to be living in this country in this time. 

Because of the struggle of our national ancestors, we are allowed to gather here this morning and to worship and to talk about it openly afterward.  Because of their insistence, we have people gathered together in Washington, DC, who have promised to serve as our representatives so that our government doesn’t make decisions without our involvement…no kings or dictators here!  Because of the commitment of the brave signers of the Declaration of Independence, we still publically acknowledge the rights of all people to be treated with dignity and with respect and declare to this day, 238 years later, that these words are true:  “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”  Thousands of men and women have carried our flag and given their lives to defend those rights both here and abroad.  For Americans and for citizens of other nations.  And this nation, for more than a hundred years, has been seen as a beacon of freedom and opportunity in this world.  Not perfect, to be sure, but just as surely, striving toward liberty and justice for all.

Saturday morning, I read the news.  New bloodshed in Palestine.  Murder in Israel. Terror in Iraq.  A return to oppression in Afghanistan.  Kidnappings in Nigeria.  Threats from North Korea.  …And 25 new Americans naturalized at the White House.

We are blessed, brothers and sisters, to live in this country, and the whole world knows it.

With such blessing comes great responsibility. 

"Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”

“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.”
We are blessed beyond measure, my Christan-American friends.  Hear the Good News:  We are yoked to Christ.  “…whatever burden you bear, you do not bear it alone.”  We are yoked, we are bound to Christ.  And, as we carry Christ in us, we are yoked and bound to one another…and to the whole world.  All of us.  American, Iraqi, Palestinian, Israeli, Korean, Afghani, Nigerian, to all those laboring under harsh religious and political systems, and to our next-door neighbors…we are bound to one another by our Creator.  Called to bear one another’s burdens.  Called to be light to all nations…to this one and to all. 

How will you share that light as you move through your week?  How will you help bear the burden of the homeless, of the marginalized, of the oppressed, of the refugee…of your next-door neighbor?  How will you understand that you are not alone in your own troubles?  You are bound to Christ and to one another.  And in that binding…there is real freedom, life, liberty, and happiness. 


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