The Yoke's on Me
A Sermon based on Matthew 11:27-30
In today’s text, Jesus tells his followers that everything he says and everything he does comes to him from God, his Father [our father, your father]. "All things have been delivered to me by my Father," says Jesus, "and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son… and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him." (Matt. 11:27)
I trust we are here this morning 2,000 years later, because someone in our circle of family & friends, introduced us to Jesus, whose Spirit in turn revealed the true & living God to you & me.
Eugene Peterson, in his popular paraphrase of the Bible called "The Message" (page 1346, NavPress © 2002), says that this passing along of revelation from God to Jesus and on to us: "comes out of Father & Son intimacies and knowledge. (quote) No one knows the Son the way the Father does, nor the Father [God] the way [Jesus] does. But I’m not keeping it to myself [says Jesus]; I’m ready to go over it line by line with anyone who is willing to listen."
You and I have come here this morning, willing to listen to what Jesus says. More than that, we are willing to do what he proposes, to the best of our ability. That’s what it means to be a Jesus follower -- to be "Christ-like" -- with the same attitudes and approaches to life that characterize Jesus in the Gospels.
Last Sunday, we heard a list of "eight traits" that mark a person as one of Jesus’ disciples: we call them "Beatitudes"
We who are poor in spirit, who are meek & humble, who mourn and who hunger for righteousness; we who are merciful, pure in heart, and who strive to be peace-makers, even if it means facing public conflict and risking personal persecution… such persons are congratulated by Jesus: called "blessed". We, says he, are to be called "children of God"! Ours is the kingdom of heaven. We shall see God! We shall be comforted… We shall be satisfied… The meek shall inherit the Earth!
(Actually, with all the violence and corruption we hear about in the news -- the rudeness and greediness in some of the highest circles of global finance, business, media, and politics -- maybe the meek should be given our choice of planets!)
The point is: last week we began to go over, line by line, some of the characteristics of Jesus’ attitude & approach to the social problems of his day which, if we who follow his lead were to do them, the world would begin to change!
However, 15-minutes of announcements, and 15-minutes of communion service, took half of the worship hour before I even got up to preach. Time constraints did not permit me to go very deep last week. Beyond noting, first, that to be "pure in heart" has to do with one’s personal integrity, consistency, and transparency -- in which one’s motives and intentions are articulated in our words, and those words line up with our deeds (walking the walk not just talking the talk) -- and, second, that it takes strength of character and courage to see "humility" as a virtue in the face of competing social pressures to put oneself and one’s agenda "first" -- I had little time to unpack and to apply Jesus’ Beatitudes to our daily lives.
With your permission, I’d like to do that for a few minutes this morning.
As I said last Sunday, what it means to be poor "in spirit," as well as to be meek and merciful, does not mean becoming a doormat, or eating humble pie; it’s to look at yourself realistically, without puffing yourself up with undue pride nor disregarding your shadow side.
To be poor in spirit and humble means that you are willing to look at yourself realistically, much like we may be seen from God’s perspective: "warts & all". We know our shortcomings and weaknesses, not just what’s "boast-worthy." We recognize our mistakes and our spiritual inability to "pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps", so we turn to one another in the community and to a Higher Power for aid. We are aware of our inadequacies -- those places in our spirit where we need to grow; those situations that have become self-serving instead of adding value to the whole of life.
It’s like coming before God in one’s mind, and saying: "God, you’re awesome; you are great! And I’m just a little cog on the wheel of reality; just one piece of your grand creation. Oh, I’ve got my own little world – my job, my family, my car… but it’s crumbling, God. I’ve been doing my own thing, and it’s not really getting anywhere. ("I can’t get no satisfaction!") I’ve gone to the end of the rainbow, and there’s no pot of gold. I’ve been seeking happiness everywhere people said it would be found, and I’ve come up empty; alone." Now what?
And the Lord responds: "I’ll tell you what we’ll do. Let’s back-track a bit and look at how you’ve been living your life. Let’s look for those places where you’ve been full of yourself instead of being poor in spirit. Let’s look at those places where you’ve taken advantage, because you could, instead of being humble or merciful. Let’s look at those places where you’ve pushed your emotions down deep, so as not to feel the pain, to the point now where you cannot even mourn. "Unless these things get rectified, we’re not going to find fulfillment."
I think it’s like this: unless we think that we have a need, we’re not going to be interested in what God can do in our lives. Our interest and emphasis will be on what we can do for our-selves. We ask ourselves: what’s in it for me? Why should I care about somebody else’s lives?
It’s kind’a like the first step in A.A.: Unless we admit we have a problem, and that we are unable to resolve it on our own, we’re not going to use the process of recovery that is available to us. The root problem in seeing the "blessedness" (or happiness) of the eight Beatitudes is refusing to admit: "I am spiritually poor. On my own I’m incapable of entering the kingdom of heaven, or submitting to God’s Rule."
When I think of a person who was "poor in spirit," I can’t help but think of Mother Theresa, who served the lepers & the dying people in the streets of Calcutta. Where did she get her strength and her dedication to her calling in the midst of squalor and poverty… and very little support from her church hierarchy? I believe she took Jesus’ "yoke" upon her shoulders, so that in the midst of her labor [her being heavy laden], she found rest. I think of St. Francis of Assisi, who turned his back on his family’s wealth and the glory of being a Christian Crusader, to serve the poor in Italy, rebuild dilapidated churches, embrace the natural environment of plants & animals, and preach peace. How did Francis maintain his spirit and commitment in the face of privation and hardship, as well as persecution from his own Church [and political] leadership? I think it is because he heard Jesus say: "Come to me, all who labor & are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle & lowly in heart & you will find rest for your soul." (Matthew 11:28-29) 5 In the Bible, I think of the Old Testament character: JOB, who says, after losing his health & wealth & all of life’s comforts: "Naked came I into the world, naked shall I depart. Blessed be the name of the Lord." (Job 2:21) His wife, bless her heart, doesn’t quite share Job’s easy-going acceptance of loss, so she says: "Sweetheart, why don’t you just curse God and die!" (Job 2:9) Job replies: "What? We should accept blessings from God’s hand and then refuse to accept trouble?" Even in all this suffering, we are told that Job said nothing against God.
To be "humble", "meek", "poor in spirit", "pure in heart" is to continue on (faithfully, relentlessly) under whatever load of affliction -- to wear the yoke, to bear the cross -- coming to God in the end of one’s life with the earnest plea: "Nothing in my hands I bring; simply to thy cross I cling." (Rock of Ages)
We can do so, not because we are strong in ourselves, but because we realize that we have no strength on our own to win life’s battles -- no wisdom of our own to solve life’s riddles, no merit on our own to win God’s favor. No tribute to bring, no sacrifice to offer. Because we are "poor in spirit," we look beyond what we can accomplish on our own, and trust the goodness of God for our success and spiritual treasures. Realizing our own weakness, we seek our strength in God.
That’s why I wear this clergy collar! It is not to show off some academic credential – like the fact of being a Rev. Doctor, church official. I am that, but that’s not why I wear the "yoke".
It’s not to demonstrate to the viewing public that I am a "holy man" or "a man of the cloth" (as it used to be said). That is my role in this congregation, of course: set apart by ordination to be your Pastor & Teacher (a "Parson"), ordained to minister among you and represent the congregation in the community.
No, I wear the "yoke" because it gives me strength and direction in my walk with Jesus, and in my role in God’s Church.
When I put on a clergy-shirt, and insert the collar, it’s like harnessing a horse to pull a cart, or a wagon, or a plow. The stole that I wear in worship is a visible representation of the reins. If Jesus pulls on the right side, I turn right; pull the other, I go left; pull on both at once and I either come to a halt… or (like a stubborn mule) I get pulled forward. I give control of my professional life to the one who pulls the reins on the harness. And even though you all pay my salary (through your pledges!), you don’t set the direction, nor steer me, as we journey together as a church. The Church belongs to Jesus, whose yoke I wear.
In fact, it is more than just getting into the harness with Jesus… A yoke attaches my harness to my invisible partner, the Holy Spirit, who pulls right alongside me. God’s Spirit knows where Jesus wants us to go; and God’s Spirit has a lot more strength and unseen resources to get the job done! I’m in the yoke right beside the (invisible) Holy Spirit, and that’s a powerful place to be! Jesus sets the direction, pulls on the reins, says "giddy-ap, go" (clicks encouragement **) and we move out to do the work of the Church, which is to save the world… from itself.
I’ll admit it’s a humble image – wearing the collar like a horse’s harness, like a beast of burden -- yoked like a team of oxen or other work-animals, pulling a plow or a wagon or a cart. But it fits me perfectly! In all of my 34 years of ordained ministry thus far, if I am "on duty" serving the church, you’ll see me in a collar – because I’ll be pulling in a direction set by Jesus, and it is sometimes well outside my personal comfort zone or area of expertise! But I don’t worry about it, because I’m not alone. The Holy Spirit is my invisible partner in this yoke on me.
Wearing the yoke keeps me focused, moving forward…
Wearing the clergy collar keeps me open to God’s leading through Jesus, who says to us -- to you as well as to me (and to Mother Theresa and to St. Francis and to Job): "Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light." It is a personal invitation for you to do (privately) what my clergy collar does for me (publicly).
You may ask: Rev. Lance, you get paid to wear the yoke; you get rewarded. But what’s in it for me to get into the harness with Jesus? Well, what were some of the rewards offered in the Beatitudes?
Blessed are the poor in spirit, theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven. Those who mourn, shall be comforted. The meek shall inherit the earth. Those who hunger & thirst for righteousness, shall be satisfied. The merciful shall obtain mercy. The pure in heart shall see God. The peacemakers shall be called children of God. Those are some pretty great rewards!
Now, it would be nice if the "reward" for being that kind of a person held out the promise of earthly wealth! Success in every endeavor. Prosperity around the next corner. But it doesn’t.
To wear Jesus’ yoke -- which would include following the principles of the Beatitudes (and to receive their eight blessings/ eight happiness’s) -- is no divine guarantee that we will ever get rich, or even that we will rise very far above the "poverty level," for that matter. (Just think Mother Theresa, St. Francis…) The meek, merciful, peacemakers don’t usually rise to the ranks of the Fortune 500. No, they will not be the ones to profit by the tax-reform legislation working its way through Congress. No, those rewards will be reserved primarily for corporations (windfall tax-reductions) & for the estates of multi-millionaires. 8
The point is: people who follow Jesus’ values are not promised high stakes in worldly goods, but rewards of a different nature.
In Jesus’ mind, life’s highest goal is to be a full participant in the kingdom of God… God’s will being done on earth, as well as it is in heaven. And for that to happen, all that is required is faith in God’s promises, trust that Jesus is onto something, and that even his death at the hands of his persecutors did not end the blessings, the happiness’s, the congratulations due to those who follow his Way (his Beatitudes). Those who sense a "poverty of spirit" in themselves will seek and find a rich and ready supply in the mercy of God.
Let me close with Eugene Peterson’s version of today’s passage about "taking Jesus’ yoke upon us." From The Message we read: "Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me [says Jesus]. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me, and work with me – watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me, and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly." (The Message, page 1346, Matthew 11:28-30) Amen. morning –in fact every time that I come into this sanctuary –I look into the radiant face of Jesus in the stained