Thursday, July 6, 2023

The Better Burden: A Homily For the Sixth Sunday After Pentecost

Preached at All Saints, Collingwood, Anglican Diocese of Toronto, 9 July 2023

Readings for the Sixth Sunday After Pentecost, Genesis 24:34-38,42-49,58-67; Psalm 45:10-17; Romans 7:15-25a; Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30


28 "Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. 29 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. 30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light."



Let’s say you were given the opportunity to create a new sign for this church.  The sign has room for a catchy phrase, something that will get people’s intention?   What would you put on the sign?


Would you want something sharp and attention getting, like the sign along Hwy 26 near Elmvale that says “TIME TO COME TO THE LORD?”  Or maybe a scripture verse, something well known like John 3.16, “For God so loved the world, etc”?


Well, I once had to make this very decision.   I was responsible for the chapel of a small military base out West, and I got a call from the Base Maintenance office to say that  they wanted to replace the old sign on the front lawn with a new one.  “What do you want on your sign, Padre?’, they asked me.


I thought long and hard about what sort of sign might attract the many young soldiers passing through the base, many far from home, tired and stressed after long wargames out on the prairie.   The verse that kept coming to mind was from today’s gospel, Matthew 11:28:   "Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.”  That verse beautifully captured the sense of welcome and peacefulness that I wanted the chapel to offer to its visitors.




It may not surprise you to learn that the following verses, 11:29-30, did NOT make it onto my sign.   For one thing, there wasn’t enough room, but even if there had been room, I wanted to avoid the two mentions of “yoke” and the word “burden”.  Neither word seemed to offer the right sort of invitation to someone who’s been sweating for weeks at a time under a heavy pack and helmet.   


I confess that I was playing a bit of a marketing game.  At some point, if people come into a church and hang around long enough, they’re going to hear Jesus make demands on them.  Ask people what they want, and they’ll likely tell you, they want to be free to make their own decisions.   When the idea of the good life, to quote the old Eagles song, is to be “running down the road, trying to loosen my load”, who really wants to be yoked or burdened?  


 The late American preacher Timothy Keller said of passages that we can get a sugar high if just read the bits we like and ignore the larger picture.  So it is with Mt 11.28.   Rest!  Who doesn’t want rest?   Rest is good.  The problem, though, Keller says, is that we don’t want to ask, “rest from what”?    Do we even know the burden that Jesus is asking us to lay down?  Do we even know why we’re weary?


Weariness can have many causes; one might be physically weary, either from infirmity, age, or stress. We might be spiritually weary from pursuing life goals and ambitions that have turned out to be costly, empty and dissatisfying.   We may be weary from the demands of our egos to meet some impossible standard, or from the crushing feeling that we haven’t met others’ (or our own) expectations.   


One of the insights that Keller has, I think, is that Jesus says “my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.   Jesus is talking about the relief that relationship with him offers as opposed to the burden of what we’ve already attached ourselves to.   It’s not that we were like wild horses, happy and untamed before religion came along to tame us. That’s a spiritual myth. No, the truth of it is that ever since we started to become adults we were already broken in, loaded down, and pulling something.   That’s what yokes are, large beams or collars that attach one of more creatures to something that they must drag forward.


If you listen to Keller’s sermon on this passage, his attempt to explain a yoke his urbane, New York City congregation is pretty funny.  He could have used other images to make the same point.  Think of Jacob Marley’s ghost in Dickens’ Christmas Carol, chained to the coffers and cashboxes that were his master in life. 




Or think of Robert de Niro’s conquistador character in the film The Mission, tying himself to his rusting armour and dragging it through the jungle as penance for killing a man.   

Even people without an active religious worldview can recognize these images as reminders that there are moral laws in the universe, and spiritual consequences for breaking them. I don’t think most people see themselves in these images, but I would agree with Keller that most people, even non-believers, know that there is something called divine law.  


They know that they shouldn’t lie or cheat, they know that they should love their neighbour, they know that they should be better people, and they either burden themselves with guilt for falling short, or they act out defiantly.  Either course makes people weary.   So if there is a way to speak to the secular folks around us about what Jesus offers, then I suppose it depends on getting them to think about what they might be yoked to and burdened with, and what they think freedom really is. 

While Jesus’ invitation to become his disciples may use the uncomfortable language of the yoke/burden, the larger context of Matthew 11 makes it clear that this is a pretty good deal he is offering.   Earlier in Matthew chapter 11, we learn that John the Baptist, who is in Herod’s prison, has sent a message asking Jesus if he is the savior that the people have been waiting for:


2 When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples 3and said to him, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’ 4Jesus answered them, ‘Go and tell John what you hear and see: 5the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. 6And blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me.’     


If we hear all of Matthew 11, then, Jesus is offering good things: healing, wholeness, restoration, resurrection.   It is all we would expect of the Messiah and Saviour and then some.  So why the language about yokes and burdens?


I think that today’s second reading from Romans helps us to understand the gospel better, because when Paul writes about sin, he is talking about something which looks like freedom but which is actually a yoke and a heavy burden.  Paul’s theology, because it depends on terms like “the flesh” and “the body”, is often taken to mean that he hates the physical human body, which in contemporary society is celebrated as the source of beauty, sex and power.   In fact, as I understand it, Paul what Paul means when he says “the body” is in fact the whole human condition, which consistently brings us up short of our ideals.




For Paul, even when we know what God wants of us (“the law”), we fall short because of our imperfect human nature.   For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.” (Romans 7:23)  


Sin for Paul includes all the things – our impulses, temptations, thoughtless and weak moments – that cause us to fall short of the good life that God calls us to.   Often we mistake sin for something that seems like freedom, and learn the difference too late.  A fun trip to the casino might lead to poverty, sexual fantasy might lead to adultery and broken relationships, while a seemingly harmless racial stereotype or joke can lead to hatred and bigotry.   Sin can be anything that seems to promise escape, fun, and freedom, but which can lead to captivity and constraint.  Our popular culture and advertising offers endless examples, from wealth to sex to beauty.


When Jesus calls us to follow him, he offers us true freedom but it is the freedom of discipline and the ability to say no to false freedoms and bad choices.  The theologian David Lose notes that “We don't like (the word no) because it is, well, just plain negative. Even more, it stands in our way, negating our immediate desires and wishes, with holding something from us that we want.”  Saying no to ourselves or to those we love and care for may be difficult because it negates an impulse or desire that might seem like a good idea at the time.


Lose also notes that the church needs to work hard to recover an idea of discipleship that actually connects our faith lives to our real lives.   Putting on the yoke of Jesus means that there we give God a say in what we do with our bodies, about the kinds of words that come out of our mouths ad keyboards, how we spend our money, and all the myriad choices that we make in a typical day.   This a huge idea that needs far more time and attention that I can devote to it at the end of a summer sermon, but it is a something that always needs to be foremost in our minds as we think about what it means to be followers of Jesus.


 I think of the things I can’t let go of, and wonder what other invisible burdens the people around me are carrying.   I think of Jesus, waiting to set us all free of these burdens, and calling us instead into a life of true freedom.  To be yoked to Christ is to be in constant relationship with him, constant friendship and guidance, so that Christ will never ever let anything else burden us, who he has saved from sin and death. 


Those of you who are Anglicans of a certain vintage, you will recall that in the Service of Holy Communion according to the Book of Common Prayer, there were four quotations from scripture that were collectively referred to as the Comfortable Words.  One of them is taken from today’s gospel reading from Matthew 11:


Come unto me all that travail and are heavy laden, and I will refresh you. St. Matthew 11.28


Taken together, the four quotations of the Comfortable Words functioned as an assurance of salvation.  They assured the would-be communicant that he or she would be welcome at the table of a loving and gracious God who had forgiven our sins.  In a very real sense, these words reminded us that there are no barriers between us and God.  They were comfortable in the sense that they eased the troubled and guilty soul and allowed us to relax into God’s love.  That’s the freedom that we find at Christ’s table, and in Christ’s yoke as his friends and companions.

Saturday, July 1, 2023

What Reward Do We Want? A Homily for the Fifth Sunday After Pentecost


Preached at Prince of Peace, Wasaga Beach, and St. Luke’s, Creemore, Anglican Diocese of Toronto, Sunday, July 2, 2023.  Readings for this Sunday:  Genesis 22:1-14; Psalm 13; Romans 6:12-23; Matthew 10:40-42 

41Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous;  (Mt 10.41)


Imagine that you saw a Lost Cat sign on a telephone pole, and then you see the cat in the photo.   You call the number on the sign, the owner comes, and collects the cat.   Would you ask for a reward?  


Now imagine that you helped someone find something valuable, perhaps a new smart phone, or a beloved piece of jewelry.   Would you ask a reward?  


I could imagine some different answers to these questions.    An animal lover would probably decline the reward, and would simply be happy to know that they had united a fellow animal lover with their pet.    The person who helped another recover a valuable piece of property might be content to know that they’ve been a good neighbour.


What if it was you that lost a valuable item?  Would you offer a reward, and if so, why?    Your decision would probably come down to your feelings about other people.   Can you trust others to be good neighbours who would show you the kindness you would show them?   Or would you hope that a reward might work against their baser instincts?  Maybe some easy money as a reward would appeal to the finder more than the trouble of trying to sell your lost valuable.   

The decision to offer a reward would be a hard one.  You’re essentially betting on whether the person who found your valuable is a moral or an immoral person.


I’m asking these questions to get us thinking about why we live our lives as Christians.    Do we try to be good followers of Jesus in order to get our heavenly reward?    Or do we try to be good disciples because our lives as Christians are their own reward?  It’s complicated, isn’t it?  I suspect that most of us would say, both, really.   We want to have the promise of eternal life that Jesus offers us, but we also try to live a Christian life because it’s the best way of life we know.   Let’s look into it a bit, starting with today’s gospel.


Today’s gospel reading comes at the end of Matthew 10, and all of that chapter is Jesus giving instructions to his disciples before he sends them out.  Jesus  tells them to preach that the kingdom of heaven has come near, cure the sick, raise the dead, cast out demons, and do all of this without any expectation that they will get paid for their good deeds:  “You received without payment; give without payment” (Mt 10.8).  Jesus tells them that they will be entirely dependent on the kindness of those who receive them, and if no one shows them kindness or hospitality, then move on to the next town and try again.


Jesus also warns them that this work will be downright dangerous.   You’ll be put on trial, Jesus warns them, you’ll be badmouthed, accused of being in league with the devil, you’ll be whipped and driven from town to town.    And what’s more, Jesus doesn’t even promise them danger pay.   He does say that they will receive a prophet’s reward, but even that sounds ominous, as it doesn’t always end well for prophets in the Hebrew scriptures.


Jesus does say that everyone who welcomes the disciples and help them will share in their rewards, but he never says what that reward will be or when it will be given.   Sometimes Jesus speaks as if the reward will come down the road.   In the Sermon on the Mount, for example, he talks about comforts and blessings that will come to those who are suffering in the present:  12Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Mt 5.12).


Other times, Jesus talks as if the reward is in the here and now.    When he is asked about when the Kingdom of God will come, he says it’s here now: “For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you” (Luke 17.21).  Jesus heals and feeds people while he is with them.    He walks with his friends and disciples and teaches them while he is with them.  He promises that the Spirit will be with them after Jesus is gone, so that his friends will never be alone.   And he teaches them to do things, like eat and drink together, so that they will never forget him.   All of these things sounds like the reward is about knowing Jesus as a friend and teacher and companion in the here and now of our lives, which is how friendship should be.


When you think about it, the rewards of friendship are in the here and now.  A good friend is with you in moments of distress, and is there with you to celebrate good things.   A friend will open their door or take your call when you need them.   A friend will teach you things, advise you, call you out when you need it and help you be your best self.   At the same time, friendship is about sacrifice.   A friend may have needs, may make demands on our time, ask us for all sorts of help.   That’s ok.  The friendship is the reward.


Imagine meeting someone you really like and want to be with.  They tell you, yes, I will be your friend, but I’m really busy right now, so don’t ask me for anything and I won’t ask you for anything.   I don’t have time for coffee or visits and I won’t take your calls but trust me, one day I’ll have time for you, and it’ll be great, we will be such good friends.   How would you react?  Would you want to wait, or would you find someone else that could be a real friend in the here and now.


Or imagine that you join a church.   The people there say, we won’t give you a name tag because we don’t have time to know you.  We never have coffee hour and we never share meals.  We won’t pray for you or help you in rough times, but if you just give us money and say your prayers, one day you’ll go to heaven.   I think most of us would say, that’s not a church I want to belong to, and we’d go looking for a church that was a proper community. 


I was describing our life at All Saints to a newcomer recently and he said, “you guys really seem to like eating together” and said, “Yes, that’s kind of the point of being church.   It’s our time together around a table that helps make our community of faith real and enjoyable”.


So I would say that our lives as followers of Jesus, our lives in the church, are their own rewards.  We trust in the promise of eternal life, but we know that part of the reward is in the here and now.   Our community as believers, the friendship of our fellow disciples, and our friendship with Jesus are all their own rewards.   Jesus will ask things of us.  He asks us to think hard about how we use our time and our wealth.  He asks things of us.  He challenges our prejudices and he pushes us to  uncomfortable places and tells us not to go back to our old, self-centred lives.  Friendship with Jesus does involve sacrifices.   


So yes it’s human to want a reward.   We want the promise of eternal life.  We long to see that heavenly city where there is no pain or sorrow, but only light and joy.  We yearn to look again on those we love who have gone before us.   We have the promise of these things, and they are part of the reward of the Christian life.   But, for those of us who answer the call to follow Jesus, we find that following him in this life is it’s own reward, and the more we follow him, the harder it is to tell the gift from the reward.






Mad Padre

Mad Padre
Opinions expressed within are in no way the responsibility of anyone's employers or facilitating agencies and should by rights be taken as nothing more than one person's notional musings, attempted witticisms, and prayerful posturings.


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