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“‘The Yoke of Grace’”

July 5, 2017

“The Yoke of Grace” Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30 © 7.2.17 Ordinary 14A/Independence Day by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

The first time I heard the 1812 Overture, composed in 1880 by Tchaikovsky, was on a TV commercial when I was a boy. The ad was for a certain puffed cereal, and the maker was claiming the breakfast food was so light and airy because “it is the cereal that’s shot from guns.” The tune for that jingle was the finale of the Tchaikovsky piece. Sing it to yourself. I apologize if it sticks in your head.

Anyway, the overture has become associated with Independence Day fireworks since Arthur Fiedler first used it during a concert by the Boston Pops in 1974. And that’s appropriate, since Tchaikovsky intended it to celebrate freedom and commemorate the defeat of a tyrant, namely, Napoleon.

On September 7, 1812, the French despot’s Grande Armée met the forces of the Russian general Mikail Kutuzov at Borodino, 75 miles west of Moscow. The Russians were defeated by the seemingly invincible French, losing 100,000 defenders. The Napoleonic troops reached Moscow only to find the city almost deserted. As one source describes the situation: “With resources depleted and supply lines overextended, Napoleon’s weakened forces moved into Moscow, which they occupied with little resistance. Expecting capitulation from the displaced Tsar Alexander I, the French instead found themselves in a barren and desolate city, parts of which the retreating Russian Army had burned to the ground.

“Deprived of winter stores, Napoleon had to retreat. Beginning on October 19 and lasting well into December, the French Army faced several overwhelming obstacles on its long retreat: famine, typhus, frigid temperatures, harassing Cossacks, and Russian forces barring the way out of the country. Abandoned by Napoleon in November, the Grande Armée was reduced to one-tenth of its original size by the time it reached Poland…and relative safety” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1812_Overture).

The jubilant strains of another hymn to freedom from oppression rang out many centuries before, not in a concert hall or a cathedral, but on the shores of the Red Sea. The Israelites had just passed over “with unmoistened foot,” through the waters, as the hymn puts it (St. John of Damascus, “Come Ye Faithful, Raise the Strain”), and they were going wild with celebration of the goodness of Yahweh in defeating Pharaoh and his pursuing army, as invincible as any Napoleon could muster. The Egyptian emperor had been a cruel, genocidal taskmaster, directing not only that bricks be made without straw but also that every boy baby of the Hebrews be killed.

Such an experience left the Israelites with no taste for monarchs and their unquenchable thirst for power and domination. For them, there was only one Sovereign, Yahweh, the Lord, who had delivered them from Egypt. To show loyalty to him alone, they bound themselves in covenant to God and took on themselves what they called the “yoke of the Torah,” the instruction, the law, of God. No other monarch could claim their obedience.

The Torah provided a sense of unity, identity, and connection to the Hebrews as a people. The laws and rituals gave guidance and meaning. To follow and practice them afforded a man or a woman a sense of belonging in and to a community that shared a bond with Yahweh, who had called Israel his own “special treasure.”

But as time went on and new parties and philosophies arose within what was by then Judaism, obedience to the Torah became not a privilege, but a burden. That was thanks to well-meaning religionists who were trying to make sure the law was rightly observed. They thought that surrounding the Torah with rules and regulations would ensure that it was kept. For example, on the Sabbath no one was supposed to work. But what was work? How far could one travel on the Sabbath? Only an expert could understand all the ins and outs, the nuances. Common people wanting to live a faithful life now found the task nearly impossible. A religion once full of freedom and joy at deliverance from a cruel ruler by Yahweh’s hand now had become the tyrant.

To people yearning to breathe free again, to be loosed from the bonds of compliance with endless rules laid down by religious bureaucrats, Jesus gave his marvelous promise of rest. Whoever they might be, they were invited. They only needed to be people whose backs were breaking under heavy loads imposed without their consent.

Our Lord’s voice speaks to us as well from the gospel today: “Come to me…” He offers freedom to all who carry cruel burdens, who cry out for deliverance from oppression and servitude. Maybe someone is like Paul, agonizing over the things he or she wants to do and doesn’t and the actions he or she takes that are shameful and wrong, but are done anyway. Another labors under the load of oppressive religion, like so much of Christianity today, that frowns on questions and shuts down choice, imposes rules for every aspect of life, and causes the believer to live in fear of a mistake, lest he or she face eternal judgment. Or how about the person who always has to be right, perfect, the best, the most stylish, and on and on? What a burden that must be! One writer put it this way: “…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.

Or how about the burden we are all under these days, namely, the oppression of Too Much Information from social media, TV, the Internet, friends, family, spin doctors? Pastor and blogger John Pavlovitz wrote recently: “There was a time (not that long ago) when you’d come across a headline or read a news report informing you of a tragedy happening somewhere in the world. You would see it once and be informed and moved, and you’d begin to process your grief and craft a fitting response to it all. The burden of the story was real—but it was proportional.

“But now, each headline or news report is immediately (sometimes simultaneously) accompanied by a few hundred or even a few thousand people’s version of the same story flooding into our timelines and news feeds. People may be relaying their shock or lamenting the damage or questioning the implications; perhaps providing follow-up stories or acting as reporters—but the net result is that we are now awash in multiplied devastation and sadness. We’ve been thrust into perpetual urgency because this single bit of very bad news has been so magnified by the real estate it is given. Every notification raises our heart rates and our sense of doom and ushers in a growing sense of hopelessness” (http://johnpavlovitz.com/2017/06/27/death-thousand-tweets-avoiding-despair-social-media/). And I haven’t even mentioned the burdens of responsibility or poor health or grief or guilt we all bear in some measure every day.

Jesus promised freedom from such and other burdens to his first audience and us. But the liberty our Lord brings is not autonomy nor does it mean the end of troubles. How many think freedom, such as we celebrate on the Fourth, means doing whatever we want, whenever we want? Some years ago, a reveler in Brooklyn was interviewed by CNN on the night of Independence Day. Illegal fireworks, which the man had used, had caused 400 house fires an hour. The fire department couldn’t keep up. Asked if what he was doing wasn’t crazy, the man replied: “Crazy? This is the Fourth of July. This is what liberty stands for. This is freedom and liberty” (reported on Headline News 7.5.90). Freedom equals doing my own thing, without regard for anyone else. Truth is what feels right to me. Indeed, in our “post-truth” age, facts don’t matter anymore; it’s emotion, our feelings about whatever the issue might be.

Instead of the kind of freedom that leads us to shun community, Jesus calls us to take on ourselves a new yoke, the voluntary burden of discipleship, as we learn from him. The rest found in following his teaching is the freedom to reach our potential, the power to overcome sin, the strength to endure even suffering for his sake, the joy of service in which we live out our identity as children of God.

No wonder the church father Clement of Rome called the yoke of Jesus “the yoke of grace.” When we shoulder it, we look next to us and see Jesus bearing it with us, in the person of our brother or sister in the body of Christ. The Danish philosopher Sӧren Kierkegaard explained the benefits of shouldering the yoke together, entering into the rest Jesus promised. In his work Purity of Heart, he wrote: “In the press of busyness, there is neither time nor quiet for the calm transparency that teaches equality, which teaches the willingness to pull in the same yoke with other men, that noble simplicity that is in inner understanding with every man. There is neither time nor quiet to win such a conviction. Therefore in the press of busyness even faith and hope and love become only loose words and double-mindedness.”

Willingly following Jesus in the midst of a community of people of the same heart and mind is what it means to shoulder his yoke of grace, and it’s the way we find rest. We shoulder each other’s burdens, just as Jesus did ours.

You may know the story of a popular song from back in the day. Someone came upon a young child carrying another, almost as big as he was. When asked if the burden wasn’t cumbersome and hard to bear, the kid answered: “He ain’t heavy; he’s my brother.” The Hollies took that line and wrote a song around it that encouraged us to bear burdens out of love for each other on the long road, “with many a winding turn,” that is life.

“He ain’t heavy; he’s my brother.” As so it is when we shoulder a load willingly. The church father Augustine said it: “Nothing seems severe to those who love what they do. The yoke of Christ is easy to those who love the Christian way of life, and who depend upon the grace of God to renew and restore” (source unknown).

“Come to me, all who labor and are heavily burdened.” After the Czech Republic was freed from the Communists near the end of the last century, the philosopher Erazim Kohak wrote in Harper’s about life under the authoritarian regime. Everything, he said, was “an unceasing, wearying effort, when there was no spontaneity…a laborious charade…the fatiguing effort to sustain a façade lacking conviction and spontaneity” (7.90: 17). What did the Czech people want most after being freed from their labor and heavy burdens? Designer jeans? More food and supplies on the shelves? Maybe. But more than that, Kohak said they wanted to “live in truth, spontaneously….” And truth not defined as how I feel or what everyone believes about a subject or issue or what gives the best TV ratings, but something objective.

“To live in truth.” When we learn from Jesus, that’s what we do. We embrace his teaching, enter into a covenant with God in Christ. We live in the company of other yoke-bearers, who pull together, bearing each other’s burdens. That’s rest. That’s salvation. That’s freedom.

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