Fifth Sunday after Pentecost

Sermon for Fifth Sunday after Pentecost, Sunday, July 09 2017, 10:30 am
Mtr. Maggie Helwig, Church of Saint Stephen-in-the-Fields, Toronto
Gen 24:34-38,42-49,58-67; Ps 45:11-18; Rom 7:15-25a; Mt 11:16-19,25-30

They were not noticeably evil cities, Chorazin and Bethsaida and Capernaum, the cities for whom Jesus predicts the coming doom. They were not filled with the rich and powerful, they were not especially corrupt, they were not centres of Roman military force. Jesus spent a considerable amount of time in at least two of them, and clearly liked some of the people he met there. It doesn’t seem to have been any particularly egregious wrong-doing which caused him to express the anger we see in this passage.

Rather, at least judging from this passage, it seems to have been the refusal of most of the people in these towns to take a side, or even to take an interest, in a moment of crisis. They did not approve of John the Baptist’s asceticism and fierce demands for justice. They did not approve, either, of the radical inclusiveness, the almost promiscuous hospitality and love, which they encountered in Jesus. They did not want miracles, they did not want healing, they did not want the inbreaking of the kingdom of God. What they wanted, at least according to this passage, for things to be just ordinary. For everything to go on just as it was, without anyone trying to do anything troubling, anything extreme. They do not wish the world to weep or to dance, to grieve the wrong or to embrace the greater possibilities of life; they do not wish the world to change.

They did not want to rise up, not even for the voice of the bridegroom, not even for the breaking of spring. Because that is risk, the risk of hope and desire. The risk of another possible world. The risk of life.

With the coming of John the forerunner, and Jesus the Word, all of reality has reached a crisis point, a point when choices must be made. The people of these cities, on the whole, want to pretend that they need not choose, want the non-choice which is a choice for the status quo. But they do not have that option. Jesus’ predictions are not so much threats of punishment as a statement of fact—you can ignore a crisis point if you want, but it’s not going to ignore you. You can’t stand still on a moving train, as a civil rights activist put it once. All of reality is changing, and there is no neutral ground.

If we accept as ordinary, as normal, a society of injustice, of poverty, of suffering and oppression, then we have, without seeming to do a thing, made an active choice against justice. If we are not somehow, even in our small halting human ways, opening the door to the outcast, the wretched and lost and sick and strange, the troubled and the troubling, then we have made the choice of exclusion. If we are not willing to be open, to be available, to trouble and beauty, to the uncontrollable weathers of spring, we have turned from life to death. We must long for that spring, for the blossoms and the singing of birds. We must go on hoping for love and justice, even at the risk of our hopes in this world being shattered. Despite all our burdens, for all our labours, for all their real weight, we must join the general dance.

For it is as such that we are called—tired and worn and carrying the weight of our work and our world. Exactly as such, we are called both to rest, and to rise. It is the passage painted over our archway, the call to those who work and are weary, the labourers, the struggling ones, to come, to find the risk which is also our peace and our rest.

The image of the yoke is frequently misunderstood, I think. It tends to be presented as an image of some kind of disciplinary measure or difficult obligation, something Jesus imposes upon us to keep us in line or teach us a lesson or something. But what a yoke is about is making an already existing weight easier to carry, distributing it, balancing it, sharing it.

Rebecca, in our first reading, would very likely have used a shoulder yoke to carry water home from the community well, because the carrying of the water was unavoidable, but the yoke distributed the weight more bearably, freed up her hands, made the task lighter. In the context of agriculture, a yoke was used to share the weight of a plow between two animals, it was and is a kind and humane device, one which shares weight, shares work, makes it less difficult and damaging for everyone involved. It is a tool of balance, and a tool of community, an expression of relationship.

And when Jesus says, “my yoke”, he does not mean what he is sometimes presented as meaning—a yoke of which he has personal ownership, and which he applies to us in order that we must work for him. This is not that kind of God, God the taskmaster, the farmer driving his animals. This is the God who came to us in our human flesh, our human struggle and limit, who was hungry and tired and frustrated sometimes, who was tempted in the desert, the God who handed himself over to power in an act of ultimate vulnerability and love, the God who allowed us to kill him because he would not resist, would not be a power in the world of powers, the God who went down into death to free us from death. The yoke is the yoke which Jesus himself wears; it is the yoke which allows him to lift some of the weight from us, to share it with us, to make our necessary work in this thorny world easier, more bearable.

And that, perhaps, is what is lost by those who find the world already easily bearable, those who are okay with things as they are, those who are okay with themselves as they are, everything all right just as it is, the average inhabitants of Chorazin and Bethsaida and Capernaum. Enclosed in that false security of stasis, they are not open to the relationship into which Jesus invites us, the relationship in which we are invited to work together with God, to become a part of God’s life, to let our selves be linked with God’s own self.

To turn towards and into God’s desire, rather than all the disorganized, selfish, grasping desires which too often seem to make up the whole of our beings, that is not quick or easy. And all of us have known at some time or other what it is to see the just and loving choice, to want it, to want it desperately even, and to fail; to let the bitter, needy self prevail, to make someone else lose so that we can feel like winners, to make someone else suffer so that we can feel well. To slide into the safe embrace of the way things are, knowing that it is not the way things should be, but that it is, at least, easy. It is a real and all too familiar human dilemma which Paul captures here—to know the right thing, to want the right thing even, and to fail to do it, not just once but over and over and over. We are broken creatures. We do this. It is part of our burden.

But it it those who are burdened for whom Jesus came. All of us divided creatures struggling with our conflicting longings, all of us wanting to be good and failing. All those who know, one or way or another, that it is not quite all right, that things are not well as they are. All those struggling to survive in an unjust world, all the sick and the hungry and the worried. All those in pain and in grief and in love.

It may not always feel very easy; indifference, false neutrality, may feel easier. But it is not a real choice. Things fall apart, the world breaks in. And it is the relationship into with Jesus draws us, as he lifts the yoke onto his own shoulder to help us move forward, both grieving and dancing in the middle of the city, striving, thinking, caring. And never forgotten. Never abandoned. Never carrying that weight alone.