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The Liberating Yoke

July 7, 2014

“The Liberating Yoke” Matthew 11:16-30 © 7.6.14 Ordinary 14A by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

Country singer Kacey Musgraves has a catchy tune addressed mainly to girls and young women. Called “Follow Your Arrow,” it goes in part like this: “If you save yourself for marriage, you’re a bore. If you don’t save yourself for marriage, you’re a horrible person. If you won’t have a drink, then you’re a prude. But they’ll call you a drunk as soon as you down the first one.” Whether you’re thin or fat, you’ll be criticized. If you don’t go to church you’ll be consigned to eternal fire, but if you sit on the front row in worship others will label you “self-righteous.” She concludes: “Can’t win for losing. You’ll just disappoint them” (http://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/kaceymusgraves/followyourarrow.html).

Human nature never changes, does it? Our delight in judging is timeless and universal. She’s singing in the 21st century, but in the 1st, Jesus called his generation spoiled children who couldn’t be satisfied. No game was good enough or the one they wanted to play. Neither wedding dance nor funeral mourning was appealing. In like manner, John the Baptist was too stand-offish and weird, refusing to socialize and have a good time; he had to be crazy. Jesus liked to laugh and party, eat and drink, and he was a glutton and a drunk. “Can’t win for losing. You’ll just disappoint them.”

The crowd’s dismissal of John and Jesus was their way of neutralizing them. Neither exhibited the proper demeanor and character of a prophet, so no one had to listen to them. Neither the harsh demand nor gracious invitation satisfied the requirements of true religion.

Apparently the crowds, the cities that experienced miracles, and the scribes and Pharisees know everything. They’ve got God figured out. They know how he’s supposed to act, what the proper teachings and requirements are, and what John and Jesus proclaim don’t match the checklist. And they’re either tiresome in their holiness, in the case of John or embarrassing in their ebullience, as Jesus was seen to be.

If you’ve been there, done that, seen and tasted and heard it all or think you have, then there is nothing more to be learned, no surprises, no new insights around the corner or in the next conversation. All that awaits you is boredom and cynicism, a constant effort to maintain your status as someone with privileged information and extraordinary taste. No wonder we talk about someone laboring under a pretense. Being right, being in control, being critical, being perfect, excluding everyone but yourself from the circle of those in the know is tiring, stressful, burdensome. As someone has put it, “…in Jesus’ eyes, many things we view as blessings are actually burdens. These would include, both in his time and ours, judging others, viewing oneself as occupying a superior position to others and entitled to a more comfortable life with more material possessions, and making a vocation of excluding and avoiding the unclean and the sinner, those on the bottom rung of the social ladder” (Alyce McKenzie, http://www.patheos.com/Resources/Additional-Resources/Lay-Your-Burden-Down-Alyce-McKenzie-06-27-2011?offset=3&max=1).

Oh, but for those who don’t have everything figured out, who know what they don’t know, who make no attempt to put God or other people or themselves in a box, what wonder, what newness, what relief and rest await! Jesus calls them “little ones,” “infants.” They are vulnerable and open and dependent on a loving parent for everything. They have a great deal to learn, and every day is an adventure of discovery. Jesus identifies fully with these, calling himself “humble” and “lowly” even as he claims full authority from the Father, exclusive and intimate knowledge no one else possesses, even as he does deeds that show he is Wisdom itself.

What does he promise? The invitation to rest has been so generalized it’s hard to hear it as Jesus intended. We have made it the stuff of inspirational posters and embroidered pillows, funeral liturgies and Communion invitations. We would love for Jesus to be telling us we can and do have relief from our stress and worry and tragedy and pain and grief if we will but trust him and learn what he teaches. But his followers, as we well know, are not spared any of that. Relief from the strain and concern of daily living is not what he’s offering.

We might understand our Lord to be speaking of the Sabbath rest, foreshadowed in ceasing from labors on the Lord’s Day to turn aside to worship, then fully granted to us when we die and to the whole creation when God makes all things new. But even that is not what Jesus means.

Instead, what Jesus promises all who will give up their pretense, their power, their prejudices and learn from him is rest from the burden of religion. That may come as a surprise. How can Jesus not want us to be religious? But consider that in his day, the Pharisees and their kind had laid upon the common people heavy requirements to fulfill, down to minor details of living, but ignored what truly mattered to God. Later in Matthew, Jesus condemns them for their hypocrisy: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel!” (Matthew 23:23-24)

Isn’t religion, any religion, including Christianity, a system of doctrines, practices, rituals, rules, and procedures? It’s often more about the needs of an institution to perpetuate itself than about the hunger of people for meaning and hope. It starts becoming about prayer books and hymnals and Books of Order and voting and serving on committees and councils, even just keeping the lights on and the piano tuned, and fails to pay attention to the cries of the hurting and the lonely and the burdened. It tells us what to believe, even if the doctrines make no sense; whom to trust, even if they are not worthy; how to behave, even if following the rules makes us joyless slaves; and whom to exclude and despise, even when Jesus told us to love our neighbors. No wonder so many are adding their names to the list of those with no religious preference, leaving churches, and joining the ranks of the spiritual but not religious.

Jesus offers us not religion, but relationship. Not more doctrines or lists of rules, but the spontaneity of love. He invites us to apprentice ourselves to him, to do what he does, say what he says. Though we submit our necks and shoulders to the yoke of his teaching, we are not weighed down under a chafing, burdensome load. Instead, we find he is our partner in the yoke, and grants us joy and freedom.

The 20th century theologian Paul Tillich once observed: “We are all permanently in danger of abusing Jesus by stating that He is the founder of a new religion, and the bringer of another, more refined, and more enslaving law. And so we see in all Christian Churches the toiling and laboring of people who are called Christians, serious Christians, under innumerable laws which they cannot fulfill, from which they flee, to which they return, or which they replace by other laws. This is the yoke from which Jesus wants to liberate us. He is more than a priest or a prophet or a religious genius. These all subject us to religion. He frees us from religion. They all make new religious laws; He overcomes the religious law… (“The Yoke of Religion” in The Shaking of the Foundations: 99).

He goes on: “We would turn down His call with hatred if He called us to the Christian religion or to the Christian doctrines or to the Christian morals. We would not accept His claim to be meek and humble and to give rest to our souls, if He gave us new commands for thinking and acting. Jesus is not the creator of another religion, but the victor over religion; He is not the maker of another law, but the conqueror of law. We, the ministers and teachers of Christianity, do not call you to Christianity but rather to the New Being to which Christianity should be a witness and nothing else, not confusing itself with that New Being. Forget all Christian doctrines; forget your own certainties and your own doubts, when you hear the call of Jesus. Forget all Christian morals, your achievements and your failures, when you come to Him. Nothing is demanded of you, no idea of God, and no goodness in yourselves, not your being religious, not your being Christian, not your being wise, and not your being moral. But what is demanded is only your being open and willing to accept what is given to you, the New Being, the being of love and justice and truth, as it is manifest in Him Whose yoke is easy and Whose burden is light” (The Shaking…: 101-102).

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