9 July 2017
The readings set for today each have their own logic, but taken together they fail to cohere in the way that we sometimes experience. We could pursue anyone of these three readings, and with sufficient time we would find that each offers us profound spiritual wisdom. Indeed, we did a little of that in our discussion last Wednesday morning.
The first reading from Genesis 24 continues the story of Abraham, and today we see the beginning of the transition from Abraham to Isaac. As always, the Psalm serves as a response to some aspect of the first reading: in this case to the experience of a young woman who is leaving her family of origin to join the family of her new husband, a man she may not even have met prior to the marriage being arranged. That whole scenario triggered some interesting reflections on family, culture and faith when we explored these texts last Wednesday morning.
In our second reading, we hear Paul at his most vulnerable. In this section of his letter to the Romans, Paul speaks of his personal distress as he finds himself unable to live up to his own expectations as a person of faith. Again, this is a passage that triggered some significant reflections as we discussed Paul’s words last Wednesday morning.
Today’s gospel reading presents Jesus engaged with people whose response to his own ministry and his own actions was very mixed. We sometimes think how wonderful it would have been to hear and observe Jesus directly during his life in the first century. Surely, we think, it must have been so much easier to respond with faith when Jesus was right there in front of us. Not so it seems. Today’s gospel invites us to explore more deeply our response to God’s call.
Already you can see that each of these readings invites us to explore different aspects of faith. But we only have time for one sermon, and the sermon can only go down one track. So let’s focus on the gospel this week, having spent a considerable amount of time with the Old Testament readings over the past couple of weeks.
Take my yoke upon you
In today’s Gospel we find these words on Jesus’ lips:
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. [Matt 11:28–30]
For Anglicans who grew up with the old prayer book, the Book of Common Prayer, these are very familiar words. They form part of the so-called comfortable words which generations of Anglicans heard just before coming to communion:
Hear what comfortable words our Saviour Christ saith
unto all that truly turn to him:
Come unto me, all that travail and are heavy laden,
and I will refresh you.
Long before the BCP, these words will also have sounded familiar to Jewish ears in synagogues across the Middle East. Similar things were said by Lady Wisdom as she invited people to embrace the demands of Torah and find their burden was light, and the yoke was easy. Here are three examples from the Wisdom of Jesus son of Sirach (written about 180 years before Jesus):
Come to me, you who desire me,
and eat your fill of my fruits.
For the memory of me is sweeter than honey,
and the possession of me sweeter than the honeycomb.
Those who eat of me will hunger for more,
and those who drink of me will thirst for more.
Whoever obeys me will not be put to shame,
and those who work with me will not sin. [Sir 24:19–22]
Draw near to me, you who are uneducated,
and lodge in the house of instruction.
Why do you say you are lacking in these things,
and why do you endure such great thirst?
I opened my mouth and said,
Acquire wisdom for yourselves without money.
Put your neck under her yoke,
and let your souls receive instruction;
it is to be found close by.
See with your own eyes that I have labored but little
and found for myself much serenity. [Sir 51:23-27]
Listen, my child, and accept my judgment;
do not reject my counsel.
Put your feet into her fetters,
and your neck into her collar.
Bend your shoulders and carry her,
and do not fret under her bonds.
Come to her with all your soul,
and keep her ways with all your might.
Search out and seek, and she will become known to you;
and when you get hold of her, do not let her go.
For at last you will find the rest she gives,
and she will be changed into joy for you.
Then her fetters will become for you a strong defense,
and her collar a glorious robe.
Her yoke is a golden ornament,
and her bonds a purple cord.
You will wear her like a glorious robe,
and put her on like a splendid crown. [Sir 6:23-31]
You may recall that Matthew was writing his account of the Gospel to address the needs of Christians with a strong Jewish background. In his Christian community in Antioch around the end of the first century such people needed to know that following Jesus did not mean they were rejecting their spiritual legacy as Jews.
When Matthew chooses these words from the wider oral tradition of the early church, he is inviting his readers to link Jesus calling them to discipleship with the older traditions of Lady Wisdom inviting people to take her yoke upon themselves, and discover that the religious life is not a heavy burden, but rather a source of joy and strength.
Such words were familiar to people in the past, but the recent national census data suggests that they would be rather unfamiliar words to most of our neighbours.
Accepting the yoke of religion is not something with broad appeal these days. Yet maybe this ancient wisdom still has something to teach us today. Maybe it also speaks to the matters we shall be engaging with in our mission planning session directly after the service ends?
What might it look like for us as a faith community to accept the yoke of Christ?
At a time when fewer Australians want religion of any kind, what if we choose to be different?
What did the yoke of Holy Wisdom look like to ancient Jews and to those first Christians? And how might it look to us today?
COVENANT – at the heart of Judaism and Christianity there is a deep sense that we are in a covenant with God. That covenant is initiated by God as an act of grace, and we respond to that divine initiative by choosing to live within the covenant; by accepting the yoke. To put that in more everyday terms, we experience life as a profound gift, and we choose to live with a mindset of gratitude. One reminder of that dynamic in the life of faith is that our distinctive act of worship is the Eucharist, a Greek word that means thanksgiving.
COMMUNAL – our response to God is communal. We need others to travel with us on the path. We do not make this journey alone. Our religion is not about solitary achievement, but about shaping and sustaining healthy and grateful communities. Further, as a ‘church’ rather than a ‘sect’, our sense of community is large and inclusive. Everyone is welcome. We have soft boundaries. People can come and go. It is OK.
EARTHED – as grateful beneficiaries of God’s goodness, we are deeply connected with the earth and the intricate web of life in which we participate. We are not seeking to escape from this world, but to live faithfully and gratefully within this world. The ancient Hebrew creation story captures this well with its delightful pun: the earth creature (adam) is fashioned from the earth (adamah). As people of the earth, we have work to do: whether we still work the soil or now create digital content. We are engaged in the web of life as stewards of creation. It is our destiny and our vocation. And our joy.
COMPASSION – hard wired into our stories of faith is the idea that we are people of compassion, people who care about justice, people who welcome strangers, people who protect the vulnerable (‘widows and orphans’ in biblical terms). When people of power exploit others, drive them into poverty, and force them into slavery then people of faith speak truth to power, often at great personal cost. Jesus is our model. The symbol of our faith is a cross, not a rocking chair.
RITUAL – we know the power of ritual to express our gratitude for the gift of life and to sustain our commitment to lives of justice and hope. Yes, our worship can become jaded and our rituals can degenerate, but good liturgy enlivens and transforms. We need more than words because humans are more than word processors. We need colour, music, movement and incense. The whole person needs to be caught up in our grateful response to the God ‘in whom we live and move and have our being’.
Later this morning we shall devote some time to discerning what taking up the yoke of Christ looks like here in the Bay, and how that may unfold in the next few years.
I do not know what ideas will emerge from this process, but I am confident that as we take up the yoke of Christ and send our roots down deep into our local community here in the Bay, God will use us to make a difference in the lives of other people.
First we shall make Eucharist together, and then we shall seek the wisdom of God for the task before us.