Saturday, July 4, 2020

Dirges, Dances, and the Good Yoke of Christ: A Sermon on Matthew 11:16-19; 25-30

In April, my kids and I were doing our normal bedtime routine. A mixture of chaos, sibling battles, cries to “stop touching me,” and my occasional rants for them to sit down and listen to the story, we finally got to the not-so contemplative prayer that ends with an invitation for them to pray for something or someone. Sometimes it’s a friend, other times a relative; our youngest son used to regularly pray for seahorses. This particular night, our three-year old daughter, when asked, “I pray for soft things and rainbows.” Friends, I was not sure whether to laugh or cry. Either way, it was perfect. 

These last few months have been particularly hard and heavy, grey and dreary. And we are tired, wearied, and likely at the end of our ropes. Soft things and rainbows may feel like figments of the imagination and innocent, maybe naive, petitions of children in the midst of such pervasive unrest and angst. But maybe there is more than naïveté behind these prayers, maybe they are young offerings of hope in the midst of our laments. Maybe they are even signposts to this morning’s gospel lesson, where Jesus invites us, wearied an worn as we may be, to come to him and find the rest we need for the work ahead.  But before we go any farther, let’s pray. 

If am honest, I have never really liked this Scripture, at least not the end of it, which is where we will begin and then go backwards to the beginning. It’s not really that I do not like the text, more so that I do not like the translations. 

“Come to me all you who are weary and heavy burdened.” 

Sure. I am just fine with that. We get tired. The burdens we all carry are real. Whether the realities of this pandemic of COVID-19 or the pandemic of racism that continues to seemingly lack a vaccination let alone trusted treatments, add this to the daily grind of life in this rat race of the American “dream” that too often looks like a nightmare for far too many, these yokes are heavy. That’s not the issue. My struggle is with the closing lines, “For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” I have never understood how Jesus could say this in the same gospels where he calls us to carry our cross, give all we have to the poor, forgive enemies, turn the other cheek, put away swords, and work towards the liberation of the imprisoned, hungry, naked, and oppressed. This does not seem like light and easy work. These are certainly not calls framed by soft things and rainbows.

So a few years ago, I dug a little deeper into the text. I wrestled with it a bit and found that there was something to my angst about the typical readings of Matthew 11. A better way to read this would not be “my yoke is easy” rather, “my yoke is good, kind, and benevolent.” The word here is chrēstos, used throughout the New Testament to refer to the same kindness and benevolence of God that we are to show towards one another. It mirrors Micah 6:8, “what does the LORD require? Do justice, love kindness, walk humbly with God.” Still more, this morning’s Psalm 145 and the refrain of the primary characteristic of God throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, “The LORD abounds in loving kindness...The LORD is just in all ways and kind in all doings.” Kindness paralleled to justice and an extension of steadfast love is the focal lens of the biblical story. It is the yoke we learn to shoulder and share alongside one another, which guides us in good and right and true directions. It could even be said that this yoke of loving kindness and benevolence is the mark of discipleship that binds our wellbeing to the wellbeing of our neighbor.

This leads to the first of three questions that came to me this week, why are those Jesus calls to be yoked so very wearied and worn? "Come to me all you who are weary,” is more than the comfort we find with a good cup of coffee on our back patio that leads us to take a filtered Instagram picture to share with others. There is so much more to the fatigue of those Jesus draws to himself to shoulder the good and kind yoke of Christ- christos chrēstos. If we read Jesus’ sermon on the mount and the beatitudes, we gain a glimpse. Those Jesus called were the poor and the grieving, the meek and those hungry and thirsty for justice, the merciful and pure in heart, peacemakers and persecuted those who had surrendered everything for this new life in Christ and kingdom dreams for a better world.  They were the wounded ones with whom Jesus most fully identified and yoked. Friends, the yoke of Jesus is not easy, but it is so very good and kind and leads to a better and more just way of being. 

Over the course of the last few months, our Presbytery leveraged a series on our PresbySpeak Podcast (shameless plug), CyberPsalm Cafe: PresbySpeak for a Time Such as This. These hour-long episodes included conversations with children and youth workers, therapists and financial advisors, activists and advocates, and chaplains who have been on the frontlines of this pandemic and serving as the only human face not on a screen as patients take their last breaths. Recently, in light of the lives lost to police brutality and pervasive racism that particularly threatens Black lives, we hosted a prayer vigil led by African American clergy in our midst and a summit on race that combined both voices of color and white voices. While there is much hope to be claimed as the faithful of all ages and colors march and picket in cities and suburbs, to include Pottstown, the predominant emotion many are feeling- TIRED. Especially for those who identify as Black, weariness is real because they have shouldered this yoke so long, this yoke of injustice mixed with systemic racism in government and church systems. When we live in a land that is not truly our land, where liberty and justice are still not afforded to all, it’s no wonder exhaustion threatens endurance in what poet Julia Esquivel calls, “a marathon of Hope." Come to me all you who are weary and heavy laden- this is the modern context for Jesus’ incarnation of divine empathy that abounds in loving kindness.

This leads to our second question, who are we yoked to in this work of discipleship?  I am no agrarian farmer, but I do know what a yoke looks like. They are often designed for two oxen. Yokes are not for a singular cargo carrier. Do you follow? Jesus’ call to take his yoke upon us is a call to community. I imagine, depending on the size of the load, there would be multiple rows of yoked burden bearers to lighten the load. It calls to mind Jesus’ sending the disciples out two by two. Still, the question remains, who are we yoked to and whose burdens do we bear? I love Jesus’ prayer that prefaces this imagery, “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.” Jesus mirrors the lines he spoke in the beginning of today’s lectionary, “But to what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces calling to one another, ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed for you, and you did not mourn.” 

Dirges and dances and wisdom in this yoked life are revealed to children, the young ones for whom the ancient world cast aside without any status of significance. They were more akin to slaves. Friends, Jesus could not be clearer. If we are to take Christ’s yoke upon us, we are to look to those for whom bondage is their struggle, oppression their past and present history, and marginalization and exclusion the shadow cast upon them. And if this if this is your story- the good news is you are among those Jesus most prefers and calls beloved and wise in his dreams for the world made new. 

A few weeks ago, I ventured into downtown Coatesville, the small sibling city to Philly my family calls home. It was a day when nearly 1000 people took to the main street and march in protest and demand that Black lives matter. A community known for despair, disenfranchisement, and neglect, Coatesville is mostly shown on the news when things go wrong. Generations have come and gone and the narrative remains. But on this day, things were different. Young people were leading dirges and dances, literally, with signs in hand and printed shirts on their bodies. It was one of the most multicultural movements this community had seen- some neighbors compared it to the day Martin Luther King, Jr. visited this region in the 1960’s. I was blown away, especially by the young people, Black, Brown, and White, leading the way. And the community was covenanting to listen to them and others. 

The same held true throughout Greater Philadelphia and all across the nation, as streets were even painted with the messages of the movement. Still more, many who have been hesitant to sign up as allies to this movement previously were now taking to the streets- in the midst of the pandemic. Can you see and hear it? These are the neighbors and beloved bearers of the image of God we are called to be yoked to as disciples of Jesus, the crucified one who drives this loaded cart of truth and reconciliation. What might this yoking to the cause of justice look like for you? What might you need to read? Whose story might you hear? Whose wisdom do you need to finally acknowledge and inform your decisions? What privilege might you need to acknowledge? What cause might you financially support? How might you reframe your leadership structure? How will you vote? This is not easy work, but it is so very good and just and reflective of the loving kindness of God that shapes our discipleship. It is also a good word for us on this Independence Day weekend, as we remember our freedom came at a cost and many still do not know the fullness of this freedom. 

Which leads to the final question, “are you willing to shoulder the yoke of discipleship no matter the cost?” The discerning of dirges and dances, justice and peace, truth and dismantling of oppression is everything but soft things and rainbows. It will likely lead to tension and strife, strained relationships and difficult conversations. You may lose jobs and dollars, reputation and a fair amount of privilege, membership may decline, and donors may detract. But inaction is the greatest of privilege and the vilest opponent to the gospel. I think Jesus’ cousin, John the Baptist, knew this and is likely why he is given a shout out at the center of today’s gospel. Jesus and John both knew well what it meant to be misunderstood and slandered for those they chose to be yoked to and burdens they carried upon their backs. This work of loving kindness and benevolence ultimately cost them both their lives. Their vocation went beyond cliché and trendy slacktivism. Will ours, too, in this time and place? 

I love the words of Womanist theologian, ethicist, and activist, Emilie Townes, regarding this text, “In this ripening and ripening once again we discover God’s wholeness as we seek to integrate our faith into our daily lives. This transformative discipleship is hard, necessary, and sometimes very lonely work…In doing so, we are called to live out our possibilities and not our shortcomings by answering, ‘Yes!’ to God’s ‘What if?’ As we do so, the love of God revealed in Jesus’ witness moves us to grow in compassion, understanding, and acceptance of each other.” (Emilie M. Townes, FOTW 214)

In other words, the yoked life of discipleship will lead us to dirges and dances and back again, as we say yes to God’s “what ifs”? What if we yoked ourselves to the cause of dismantling white supremacy that continues to plague our communities as much as any virus? What if we yoked ourselves to the provision of quality education for all people in this country and as far away as India? What if we yoked ourselves to the dreams of safety and opportunity for the immigrant in our land?  What if we yoked ourselves to the elimination of medical debt and assurance that all could have healthcare not only during COVID-19? What if we yoked ourselves to caring for the environment so the air was clean everyday as it has been in the midst of this pandemic? What if we yoked ourselves to the petitions of indigenous peoples, on whose land we live? What if we yoked ourselves to the wisdom of people of color, LGBTQIA+ peoples, and children and youth who dream of a world where justice runs down like a mighty river? What if we yoked ourselves to all this and more as an extension of our discipleship? What if we worked, as 19th Century abolitionist, William Lloyd Garrison wrote in the preface to Frederick Douglass’ autobiography, “to be faithful, be vigilant, be untiring in your efforts to break every yoke and let the oppressed go free?”

We would be wearied without a doubt. But we would be wearied and worn because we are bound with those who have been broken and brutalized by the systems of our day. We would be wounded because we have shouldered ours and our neighbor’s oppression for generations and finally said, “enough!" This is what it looks like to live into the compassion and steadfast loving kindness of Christ who beckons all to come and find the rest each of us and all other bearers of the divine image need. This is the yoke of discipleship that leads us in dirges and dances of lament and hope, and the liminal spaces between, until all is well and good and right again. So may you, in all your weariness and with heavy burdens, come and follow the crucified and resurrected one, whose yoke is good and kind and burden just and right. May you follow this Jesus who offers more than soft things and rainbows, but assurance that the way of this gospel will ultimately lead to the kind of everlasting rest and freedom our souls and the whole creation most craves. Amen.