I.Theme – Lifting our burdens
"Bearing a heavy weight together" – Komarno, Slovakia
The lectionary readings are here or individually:
Sermon by Amy Richter for this week
“Come to me, all you that are weary and heavy-laden, 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.”
It didn’t help that she was already late for the meeting. Rushing past the sexton who was putting the recycling out, she had her own arms full as she tried to get the back door of the church open. Juggling her lunch bag, laptop bag, and pocketbook, she tried to pull the door open. She knew that in the humidity the door would often stick, but this time, it just wouldn’t budge. Not wanting to set anything down, she just pulled as hard as she could, hoping the door would budge and she could still make it in time. No such luck. She gave up and noticed the sexton was watching.
“Did you pull as hard as you could?” he asked.
“Yes, I gave it everything I’ve got.”
The sexton smiled and said, “No, you didn’t. You didn’t ask me to help you.” He walked over, took her bags off her shoulder and said, “Now try it.” The door came open on the first try.
In today’s gospel lesson, Jesus promises us rest for our souls by coming to him. He promises us that we can set down our burden and yokes and take up his easy and light ones instead. By talking about yokes, Jesus is using an illustration common in his time, but not so common in ours, at least in our part of the world. A yoke is usually made out of wood. It fits across the shoulders of the animal or person who is using it. With oxen, a yoke connects animals to each other and also to a plow or something else the animal is pulling. The purpose of the yoke is to harness the power of the animal to do the work required of it. Yokes are also used by people to carry water or other things.
Justin Martyr, writing in the second century, said that when Jesus was working as a carpenter, one of the things he made was yokes. Perhaps we can imagine Jesus making these wooden yokes meant to join pairs of animals together. Of course, the carpenter would want to make the yoke so that it would fit just right – not rub or be rough on the animals, but something that would truly help the animals bear their burdens, pull together, be more efficient as a team than either would be alone. We imagine Jesus the carpenter, sanding down rough spots, fitting the yoke, checking it, making it just right for the job – a perfect fit.
Jesus invites us to take a yoke just like this – made exactly for us by someone who understands what it means to bear burdens, someone who knows us each by name, knows our gifts and our needs, who does not want us to be wearied or weighed down. Jesus offers us a yoke, made by his own labor and love, made perfectly for us. And that’s not all; he offers himself as our partner in the yoke, the one who will help us bear, pull, carry – whatever we are called to do.
“Come to me all you that are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you … for my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
What a beautiful invitation. Jesus longs to give us rest from all the troubles and hardships and burdens we carry. All we need to do is give up our burdens, turn everything we carry over to Christ, and he will help us: a beautiful, utterly simple invitation.
So why is it so hard to do? Perhaps you are able to turn things over to God pretty easily. Perhaps you are good at remembering that you are not alone and that Jesus is standing beside you saying, “Come to me,” and you go to him. Perhaps you have learned that you are strongest when you ask for God’s help. Perhaps your first impulse when struggling with a tough problem or heavy burden is to “let go and let God.” If this describes you, well done.
If you are like many people, however, it is really hard actually to turn things over, even if we know in our heads that we’re turning them over to Jesus who stretched out his arms upon the cross that he might embrace the whole world and take all of our burdens on himself. It’s hard to go to Jesus, and give up our burdens to him.
Sometimes we forget he is there for us. Or we trust he is there, but we don’t really think he’s talking to us. “Oh, our problems are so small compared to other people’s problems, I really shouldn’t bother God with this,” as if God can’t handle our burdens, or is too busy dealing with others to notice us. No, Jesus was speaking in the plural when he gave his invitation, and he was speaking to everyone, everywhere, for all time and forever. You come. You take. Are you weary? Then this includes you. Do you have burdens, big or small? Then you qualify.
Perhaps another thing that keeps us from taking Jesus up on his invitation is that we don’t want to need help. We want to be strong and capable, and we think keeping our problems to ourselves, trying to do things alone, trying to muscle our way through anxiety by ourselves is proof of our strength and ability. We’re celebrating Independence Day this weekend, when our country became a country, independent from England. But we tend to want to be independent in every way. Can you imagine us celebrating Dependence Day? As Christians, we make a startling claim that we are always dependent, and that’s a good thing. Our gospel begins with Jesus giving thanks that those who get his message, those who really understand it, are like children, who are dependent and open.
Too often, we want to handle things ourselves, rather than use our real strength, which comes from handing our burdens over to Christ. Too often we are like the mountain climber in the old joke who slipped and fell on a difficult cliff. He grabbed a branch and hung on as tightly as he could. He shouted out, “Is there anyone up there? Help me!” A voice came from the skies and said, “I am all good, the God who loves you. I will save you if you let go.” The climber thought for a few moments and then said, “Is there anyone else up there?” Too often we are reluctant to let go. But Jesus has promised, we can.
If we are able to give things up to God, to take on Jesus’ easy yoke and light burden, we need to be open to the ways the relief will come. If you need healing from some despair, if you need help with some struggle, turn it over to God, and then be open to the ways that burden will be lifted. Say yes to the help that comes your way. God will help. But very often that help will come through people who will offer you comfort or direction. That help may come in little pieces that fit together into a whole, a life-giving, burden-lifting whole, but you need to say yes to the pieces.
Sometimes we don’t ask for God’s help, because we don’t think we’re actually deserving of it. Our need for help somehow tells us, not that we’re human, like everyone else, but that somehow we are fatally flawed, and undeserving, not worthy of help. We see ourselves as too broken to be of any use or value.
God never ever sees us this way. God knows where we are broken. God knows where we are hurting and aching, and chafing under our burden, and wants only to take that burden from us. God loves us and can use us, as weary and broken as we may be.
The author of this story is unknown. It has shown up in many places on the Internet in several versions, set in various countries, but the point of the story is the same in each case. A water bearer in India had two large pots, each hung on each end of a yoke he carried across his shoulders. One of the pots had a crack in it, and while the other pot was perfect and always delivered a full portion of water at the end of the long walk from the stream to the master’s house, the cracked pot arrived only half full.
For a long time, this went on daily, with the water bearer delivering only one and a half pots of water to his master’s house. The cracked pot was ashamed of its imperfection, and miserable that it was able to carry only half a load of water. One day it spoke to the water bearer by the stream. “I am ashamed and I want to apologize to you.”
“Why?” asked the water bearer. “What are you ashamed of?”
“I have been able to deliver only half my load because this crack in my side causes water to leak out all the way back to your master’s house.”
The water bearer replied, “As we return to the master’s house, I want you to notice the beautiful flowers along the path.” And as they went up the hill, the cracked pot noticed the sun warming the beautiful flowers on the side of the path. This cheered the pot some, but he still felt bad about being broken.
The water bearer said to the pot, “Did you notice that there were flowers only on your side of the path, but not on the other pot’s side? That’s because I have always known about your flaw, and I used it. I planted flower seeds on your side of the path, and every day while we walk back from the stream, you’ve watered them. For years now I have been able to pick these beautiful flowers to decorate my master’s table. Without you being just the way you are, he would not have this beauty to grace his house.”
We are all broken, all flawed, and all perfectly worthy, because of Jesus Christ, to receive God’s love and care. One of the burdens we can give up is the burden of thinking we need to do things on our own, that we need to match some picture of perfection, and that otherwise Jesus will not want to be yoked to us.
No, weariness is the only requirement to receive Christ’s rest. Having a burden we want to set down is the only requirement for picking up Christ’s light burden. Being yoked to something we need to let go of is the only requirement for allowing Christ to give us a new yoke, tailor-made for us.
“Come to me all you that are weary and are heavy-laden, and I will give you rest.”
Old Testament – Zechariah 9:9-12
The book of Zechariah is divided into two major parts (called “burdens”), the first part being written around 520 or so (right after the return of the Babylonian exiles) and the second being written around the time of Alexander the Great’s invasion (ca. 332). The tone of each of the sections is widely divergent, with the first part being very precise and advocating for the rebuilding of the temple and supporting the restoration of the Davidic line. The second section is not as precise, is not wedded to either temple or kingship
Our reading for today falls in the later section, which centers on a messianic vision that includes the whole of the country, not just Jerusalem. Here we see a kingly presence, one who is victorious, and who raises the opportunity for hope. For Isaiah, the person who brought hope was Cyrus the Mede, who indeed freed the Babylonian exiles. Isaiah spoke of a king coming from the line of David who would establish peace and rule with justice and righteousness forevermore (Psalms 72; 89:4; Isaiah 9:2-7). He spoke of a new David, a "shoot from the stump of Jesse," who would be concerned for the poor, rule with righteousness, and bring about shalom, pictured as peace among people and animals (Psalm 72; Isaiah 11:1-9)
Chapter 9 leads off with a series of prophetic sayings against a string of foreign cities whose residents are enemies of Jerusalem The LORD is portrayed here as the "Divine Warrior," sweeping down the Mediterranean coast and destroying Jerusalem’s enemies (1:1-8)
News of the destruction of these enemies is cause for rejoicing in Jerusalem, here named "daughter Zion" or "daughter Jerusalem." There is another cause for rejoicing. Triumphant and celebrating victory, a king is portrayed as entering the city. There is something unusual about this king. He does not come mounted on a white charger, riding high and looking out over his people. This king comes "humble and riding on a donkey."
Though a king of a different sort, this is the king! Verse 10 begins to sound the familiar messianic melodies from the royal psalms and the earlier prophets. He will initiate a disarmament program. Zechariah 9 concludes with more good news for the people of Jerusalem, announcing freedom for prisoners (11-12), further victories (13), and goodness and beauty for all (16-17). The messiah in this reading saves the exiles from a time of deprivation and hopelessness
Psalm – Psalm 145:8-15 Page 802, BCP
This is the only psalm purposefully designated as a “praise psalm”. Certainly there are others, especially the last six “hallel” psalms. This one, however, is specifically designated as such, “A David psalm of praise”. It is also an acrostic psalm, based on the alphabet. Verse one begins with the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, the second verse with the second letter, and so on down to the last verse beginning with the last letter (verse 13 covers two letters
Each verse is divided into two parts, which the NRSV and most other English translations make into separate lines
The lectionary selection, verses 8-14, covers eight lines of the acrostic, the Hebrew letters het to samek. The first two and last two lines (verses 8-9, 13b-14) testify to important features of God’s character and dealings with humans. The middle four lines (verses 10-13a) are addressed directly to God and focus on the glory and eternal nature of God’s kingdom. This alternation between testimony and direct address is common in the psalms
Verse 8 is a paraphrase of God’s self-revelation to Moses at Sinai: "The LORD, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness" (Exodus 34:6).
What is especially noteworthy about Psalm 145 is how the gracious character of God, initially revealed as a part of God’s relationship to Israel, is then extended to all of creation. Verse 8 reflects Israel’s traditional core understanding of God’s disposition towards Israel itself. Verse 9, however, immediately broadens the recipients of this disposition to include everyone: "The LORD is good to all, and his compassion is over all that he has made." The word "all" appears over and over in verses 9-14, a strong indication of the comprehensive scope celebrated in the psalm of God’s gracious dealings with the entire creation.
While verses 8-9 proclaim the gracious character of God, verse 10 begins the section of direct address to God. Tsubject shifts from God to those addressing God, stated as "all your works" in the opening part of the verse. Just as verse 9 asserted God’s goodness to all, so verse 10 reciprocates: "All your works shall give thanks to you." The reference to God’s "works" picks up on the language at the end of verse 9–God’s compassion is given to "all that he has made." Just as God’s own creation is the recipient of God’s compassion, so it is the creation, God’s own works, who return thanks.
How is it possible that all of God’s works will return thanks to their creator? The second half of verse 10 and verses 11-12 explain. At first glance, it might appear that verse 10b re-narrows the scope of God’s relationships with humans: "your faithful shall bless you" (the NRSV’s "all" here is not present in the Hebrew). Is the concern now only with God’s chosen people? The exposition in verses 11-12 of the way in which the faithful will bless God makes it clear that the expansive character of God’s grace is still in view. The faithful will bless God by testifying "to all people" (literally, "to the children of humankind" or even "to the children of Adam"). The faithful will testify of God’s glory, power, and mighty deeds. These verses thus present a certain challenge to God’s people–it is their task to proclaim God’s kingdom and mighty acts to all people, so that all of God’s creation may then give thanks to God in return.
The notion of God’s "kingdom" is central in verses 11-13a. Verses 11-12 speak of the glory of God’s kingdom twice. In verse 13a (the mem line), God’s kingdom becomes the subject of the sentence, and both halves of verse 13a express the eternal nature of God’s kingdom. This eternal nature naturally contrasts with the transient nature of all human kingdoms, and all other human institutions, for that matter. Similarly, the glory and splendor of God’s eliminates claims of glory that might be asserted by human governments or other institutions. Jesus memorably spoke of God’s kingdom as the treasure and pearl of highest value, worth selling all one has to obtain (Matthew 13:44-46).
Verses 13b-14 return to testimony of God’s character and deeds, as in verses 8-9. God’s faithfulness and grace are proclaimed, and as in verse 9 the emphasis is that they are present in "all" that God does–and therefore extend to all to whom God does them! God’s care of the faithful is the predominant idea. Verse 14 concludes our reading with a turn of emphasis that is perhaps surprising at this point in the psalm–God’s care for the fallen and bowed down. Though not a major point thus far, this picks up on the language of mercy and compassion from verses 8-9 and again emphasizes the universal outreach of God–two more uses of the word "all." Just as importantly, the verse reminds us that God’s glory and might does not merely contrast with human frailty. Rather, in God’s kingdom the frail and suffering are raised up and upheld by God’s glory and might.
Epistle – Romans 7:15-25a
Romans moves from two weeks focusing on baptism into a direct grappling with the ongoing influence of sin in our lives and in our bodies. By justifying grace, normatively conveyed in baptism, our sin is forgiven and we are cleansed and given power to live a new life. Simultaneously, we are given sanctifying grace to enable us to become entirely free from the power of sin in this life.
As Paul develops his argument in the letter to the Romans, he lists three points of freedom that come to the Christian devoted to a life in Christ. The first two freedoms precede our reading for this morning: 1) Freedom from sin and death, and 2) Freedom from self by uniting with Christ. In our reading today we see the third freedom – the freedom from the Law. He is on dangerous ground because many would hear his comments as encouragement to disregard scripture. That would have generated the same heat then as it would now. In a daring metaphor he speaks of entering a new marriage in 7:1-6 preceding our scripture. We are no longer married to the Law!
He imagines their outcry in 7:7. "Is the Law sin?!" Of course he doesn’t mean that. The last thing he wants to do is disparage scripture, but he wants to torpedo a spirituality which believes people will change by telling them (or themselves) to be obedient to the commandments
For here Paul is focusing on the human situation, just as Jesus was doing. Having outlined what is possible in the new relationship with Christ earlier in chapter 7 (vv 1-16) and explored the nature of our sinfulness (in very complex language and imagery) and its relation to the law (vv 7-13), he goes on to look at our humanity and how the very nature of our fallen human condition creates barriers between us and God
Paul has written of two ways of being:
-the old, where being subject to the Law, people continually contravene it (sin), are dependent on God’s love to restore them to harmony with him, and in sinning ensure that they have no spiritual life after death, and
-the new, attained through baptism, where through Christ sin is no more, and physical death leads to eternal life. But we have not yet fully attained the new, so we are still influenced by evil.
Now Paul asks: how could sin (personified) use the Law, which is good, to destroy humans? Humans are at fault, not the Law. He endures conflict between what he does, his “actions”, his exterior, and his “inmost self” (v. 22), his “mind” (vv. 23, 25). His true self abides by “the law of God” (v. 22), by God’s ways; it sees that what he does is not what he wills, and is what he hates (v. 15). ). Human nature when it is twisted by sin takes the commandments to serve its own ends so that commands end up not preventing but rather prompting sin. People find themselves wanting to do good (including God’s good Law) but end up not able to do it.
Vv. 17 and 20 seem to say that sin, not he, is responsible for his actions, but realize that the “sin” is his sin. He is caught up in sin; he wills to obey God, but he can’t! (v. 18). So it seems to be a principle of life (“law”, v. 21) that whenever he wills good, the devil is never far away. His body is “at war” (v. 23) with his being. It is God, through Christ, who “will rescue” (v. 24) him from this sorry estate.
He does three things in this passage:
1. He bares his own soul. “For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Paul tells us of an experience which is at the heart of the human condition. Paul writes. (v15). I don’t do the good things I want to do, and I do all the things I hate.’ Paul knew what it was right to do. He was steeped in the law, and knew every pathway, through the law, to righteousness. So why did he still sin? It’s the ‘split- personality’ of every Christian. We are all pulled in different ways.
2. He points to what his Jewish hearers and readers would already known. The Jews had defined the issue by saying that in every man there were two nature
William Barclay (‘The letter to the Romans ‘The Daily Study Bible’) puts it this way. "It was the Jewish conviction that God had made men like that, that all men had a good impulse and an evil impulse inside them … But the Jew was equally clear, in theory, that no man need ever succumb to that evil impulse. To the Jew it was a matter of choice.:
We have the law to give us that choice. If we follow the law, all will be well. But why, then, when I do follow the law to the nth degree do I still do what I shouldn’t be doing? So the law cannot always protect me from my own human failings. I will not be saved by the law but only by Christ.
3. When evil attacks, wisdom and reason cannot defeat it.
Our contrary nature cannot be overcome by intellect and rule-following. No much how great our human knowledge, it will always remain inadequate.
In that state I serve the Law of God with my mind or intellect but in my corrupted false self I serve the law of sin (or the Law as an instrument leading me to sin). So, you see, I am not opposing the Law of God; rather I am trying to say: people in that state are in a state of hopeless conflict. He follows this with the declaration that when we change states and enter the relationship with Christ we become freed from this chaotic situation and the condemnation it incurs. It is a saving wrought by Jesus Christ.
As William Loader writes “Paul’s fundamental insight remains: people are most likely to change when they experience the kind of love which helps them deal with the sense of inadequacy whether that is grounded in guilt or false guilt or simply in the sense of shame that expresses itself in seeing no value or place for ourselves. Radical love has the capacity to bring rebirth and make people new. Closer to Paul’s terms, we get set right by trust/faith in such love, and thus God’s goodness can reproduce itself in us."
Gospel – Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30
Jesus reflects on the resistance of the people to John and himself, prays to God, and invites the heavy laden to come to him
Earlier in this chapter, in response to questions from the disciples of John the Baptizer, Jesus has clarified the nature of his ministry (11:2-6) and then offered a longer description of the ministry of John himself (11:7-18). John is “Elijah,” a forerunner, a rough figure whose proclamation, which has apparently focused especially on judgment, has provoked strong reactions, including violence.
While Jesus, like John, announces the advent of the empire of heaven, his ministry has not resembled the harsh, abrasive cast of John’s, which is probably why John’s disciples have come to ask Jesus if he is really the one coming or not (11:2-3)
Before this text, Jesus condemns his contemporaries for not being open to neither his witness nor that of John the Baptist. Even the miracles he did failed to make them reconsider their ways.
1 vv17-19 Jesus is at pains to point out that the people are not happy, no matter what obvious goodness is placed in front of them . Jesus is attempting to get the hearer to understand the difficulty of his situation by comparing his ministry and personality with that of Saint John the Baptist
John the Baptist is an ascetic, living in the desert, separating himself from all that had the potential to tempt or corrupt him, anything that would make him deviate from his true path of devotion and holiness. He fasted and lived in isolation in order to preserve his purity. ‘He’s a demon,’ the people said. ‘He must be mad to cut himself off from all that we know and enjoy in our society.’ Jesus, on the other hand, lived a life fully immersed in the lives of the people of his day, spurning asceticism, engaging with people where he found them. And the people said, ‘He’s a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of all those who have the potential to corrupt, people like tax-collectors, every kind of sinner.’
Wisdom is shown by good deeds.
John might be criticised for his strange ways, but look at what he achieved. He had caused people to turn to God in ways that hadn’t been seen for generations. And the obvious point which Jesus is emphasising is this: the people might criticise Jesus for mixing too much in ordinary life and with ordinary people (and therefore, by implication, miss the whole point of the Incarnation) but in him, in this living presence of God among them, people were finding a new Way, and new Truth and a new Life, life in all its fullness, and a new way of living in God’s love as they ought to. Look closely and see what is obvious
2. vv. 25-26, Jesus thanks his Father for choosing the simple, uneducated (“infants”) over the religious leaders (“the wise …”). He is totally the Father’s representative; only the Father knows him, and only he and those he chooses know the Father.
The tradition of the Rabbis was to debate, to intellectualise God’s Word and Truth. But clearly, the intellectuals – the apparently wise and intelligent – had no use for Jesus, while the ordinary people – the metaphorical infants – saw a truth in him that was obscured by Rabbis. This is a condemnation of intellectual pride, of purity of dogma. This is a call for openness and wonder, as in the trust of a growing, developing, questioning, absorbing child
While the head can clarify, it cannot hold the Gospel on its own. Jesus is understood through the innocence of the childlike heart.
Give yourself to me in innocence and acceptance and you will find love and fullness beyond all measure
3. v28-30 . Ultimate words of comfort
In Matthew 11:25-30, Jesus asserts two messianic claims. First, only the Son can reveal the Father – verse 27 – He is the yoke -the way, the path, or the avenue to the Father.. And second, Jesus’ yoke is easy – verse 30.
He invites the downtrodden to accept his “rest” (v. 28) when they are overburdened. His use of the term ‘yoke’ draws on the contemporary image of the Divine Law, ‘the Torah’, as a yoke that disciplines people into the ways of God. Audaciously he refers to ‘his’ yoke. Throughout this Gospel, Jesus presents himself as the definitive interpreter of God’s Law. High and demanding as his Law may appear, it is made easy and light because he is yoked to us in love and it is in love that our souls are truly at rest. Love God and each other! He is both teacher and the one to emulate
It is a call to learn a new way, especially a new way of interpreting and understanding God’s will. That will, God’s Law, God’s word, was commonly portrayed as assuaging the thirst and feeding the hungry souls
For here is the ultimate reassurance from Jesus that if we move on from being contrary to being the accepting children God looks for, then we will know the peace which Jesus promises. When we are exhausted and weighed down by our burdens we have the promise of rest – because our weight is carried on the shoulders of Christ.
Jesus spoke to people who were desperately trying to find God, more keen than most to do good, and who were, paradoxically, weighed down by their own intellect and sense of failure to know and understand everything, and, therefore, to live an exemplary life.
Jesus does not say that all those who come to him will henceforth be yoke- and burden-free. And the rest Jesus proffers is rest for “souls” and not necessarily for bodies and minds. Jesus is offering here an inner peace, a divine peace, a holy peace that the world can neither give nor, therefore, take away. This peace will not deliver us from all harm or from all vexations in life.
III. Articles for this week in WorkingPreacher:
Old Testament – Zechariah 9:9-12
Psalm – Psalm 145:8-14
Epistle – Romans 7:15-25a
Gospel – Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30