Saturday, July 5, 2008

8 Pentecost

July 6, 2008
All Saints Episcopal Church
Valley City, ND

Matthew 11.16-19, 25-30

When we think of yoke, we no doubt think of something that weighs heavily upon us. We think of something a beast of burden carries on their backs. We can’t imagine anything worse for us. Why would we want an extra burden in our lives? We have enough burdens as it is. We are all truly “weary and carrying heavy burdens.” And sometimes these heavy burdens truly affect our bodies.

I, for example, recently went to the chiropractor. To actually seek help from a doctor or chiropractor shows how desperate I was. Last week at this time, I was miserable with pain. I had had a terrible back ache that seemed to move up my back and finally settled in my neck. I couldn’t turn my head without pain. I woke up in the mornings in a frustrating agony. So, finally, I called and got an appointment. I went in, and the chiropractor had me lie down on my stomach. He then touched a very tight, hard place at the base of my back. He said, “Here it is. This is the source of your problems.” He went on to say that it probably came from stress. Finally, he said to me, “Father, you’ve been carrying some heavy burdens on your back, haven’t you?”

We all do, don’t we? We are all carrying around things we probably should have allowed ourselves to get rid of some time ago. So, the last thing we want at this time in our lives is to take on another burden.

The fact is, taking on Christ is equivalent to taking on a very heavy burden. Being Christians means living with a burden. It means we have a structure, a framework that directs our lives. Still, I think, most of us, even us Christians still bristle when we describe our faith in such a way. A yoke on our backs confines us. It does not allow us freedom.

We, as humans, and especially as Americans, love our freedom. We love “elbow room.” We don’t like anyone telling us what to do and forcing us to go places we don’t want to go. But the fact is, when we take Christ as our yoke, we find all our notions of personal freedom and independence gone from us. No longer do we have our own personal freedom No longer do we have our own personal independence. What we have is Christ’s independence. What we have is Christ’s freedom. Our lives are not our own.

As Christians, we can claim no personal independence over our own lives. Our lives are guided and directed by Christ. Our lives our ruled over by Christ. The yoke of Christ means that it is Christ who directs our yoke. It Christ who directs us, if we need to, to go the places Christ wants us to go and do the things Christ wants us to do. It is our duty to be a beast of burden for Christ. And if we let Christ direct us, nothing wrong will happen to us. Christ will not lead us into places in which we will b e hurt or harmed. Christ will always lead us along the right path. Christ will direct us where we need to go.

Now I say all of this to you as though I am fine with all of this. I say this to you as though I have completely surrendered myself to Christ as his beast of burden. I’ll be brutally honest with you, however. I find much of this very difficult to bear as well. I have always been one of those independently-minded people myself. I have never liked being told what to do or what to say by anyone. I have always preferred doing things on my own. And for years I struggled with this scripture in my own life. I did not want to surrender my personal independence and my personal sense of freedom.

For me, however, I learned how to accept this scripture in a very practical way. What a lot of people don’t know is that each of these vestments a priest wears has a prayer that goes along with it. As the priest puts on each articles of clothing, he or she can say a prayer to remind them that each article of clothing has symbolic meaning.

For example, when I put on the alb, which is the white robe under these vestments, I pray, “Make me white as snow, O Lord, and cleanse my heart; that being made clean in the blood of the Lamb I may deserve an eternal reward.”

When I put on the stole, the scarf-like vestment I wear around my neck, I pray: “Restore unto me, O Lord, the stole of immortality which I lost through the sins of my first parents and, although, unworthy to approach Thy sacred Mystery, may I nevertheless attain to joy eternal.”

And when I put on this chasuble, this green vestment I wear over it all, I pray a prayer that directly quotes our Gospel reading for today. The prayer is, “O Lord, who hast said, ‘My yoke is sweet and my burden light,’ grant that I may carry it to merit Thy grace.”

In many ways this prayer defines for me what ministry is all about. When I put on this garment, symbolic of my ministry as a priest, I am reminded of the yoke, of the burden, I carry every day. In a sense, as a priest, my life is not my own. My life is fully and completely Christ’s. And my life is fully and completely Christ’s Church. As a priest, I don’t always do what I want, I don’t always go where I want to go. I try to do what Christ wants and I try to go where Christ leads me. More often than not, my own arrogance gets in the way, my own fears cause me to shrug off the yoke of Christ, and my own selfishness leads me to do only what I want to do.

The fact is, my priesthood doesn’t just happen out of the blue. My priesthood, my ministry, stems directly from my baptism. It is a response to the promises that were made for me when I was baptized and which I re-affirmed at my Confirmation. So, when I talk about my life not being my own, it is not confined to just me as an ordained priest in the Church. Rather, through baptism, we are all called to ministry, to a priesthood of all believers. We have all, through our baptism, taken on the yoke of Christ. Because, through baptism, we have been marked as Christ’s own forever and we have been given a yoke that we cannot shrug off. Our lives are not our own. Through baptism, we are Christ’s—and our lives belong completely and fully to Christ.

Now all of this might seem confined and difficult to accept, but Jesus says, in no uncertain terms, that his yoke is not quite like the yoke put on a beast. While that yoke is heavy and unwieldy—it is a tedious weight to bear for the animal—for us, he tells us, his yoke is light and the burden easy. It is a burden that we should gladly take on because it leads us to a place of joy and gladness. It is a yoke that directs us to a place to which we, without out, would not be able to find on our own.

We, in our arrogance, in our self-centeredness, in our selfishness, can not find the Kingdom of God on our own. Only through Christ’s direction can be we be truly led there.

The yoke of Christ is, in an outward sense, a simple one to bear. The yoke of Christ consists of loving God and loving our neighbor as our selves. It is these two commandments that have been laid on our backs and by allowing ourselves to be led by them, they are what will bring us and those whom we encounter in this life to that place of joy.

So, gladly embrace the yoke Jesus laid upon you at baptism. For taking on the burdens of Christ will not be just another burden to bear. It won’t cause you any pain. It won’t give you aches and pains that will settle in your back and neck, like the others burdens we carry around with us in this life. But rather, the yoke of Christ is what frees us in a way we cannot even begin to understand. It is a freedom that we find in Christ.

“Take my yoke upon you,” Jesus says to us, “and you will find rest for your souls.” Take the yoke of Christ upon yourself with graciousness and you too will find that rest for your soul as well.

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