Archives for July 2011

Bring it here, Proper 13 (A) – 2011

July 31, 2011

Genesis 32:22-31; Psalm 17: 1-7, 16; Romans 9:1-5; Matthew 14:13-21

[NOTE TO READER: The Greek word “esplahnisthē” in the fifth paragraph is pronounced “Es-plah-NEES-thee.”]

Jesus’ cousin, the one who went before him to open the way, is dead. Both John and Jesus had started their brief ministries as courageous prophets, proclaiming God’s justice, calling people to repentance, inviting them to find their way to God. And now one of them, still young and vigorous, is dead at the hands of an immoral, weak king and his family. After hearing the terrible news brought to him by John’s disciples, Jesus withdraws to be alone, to grieve and to pray. This much we can guess, from the previous story on John’s murder and the beginning of today’s lesson.

Had such a tragedy happened to one of our close friends or cousins, our first emotion, even more powerful than grief at such a time, would be fear. “We’ve been involved in the same kind of ministry,” we would think. “We have called out the sinners and the powerful and the hypocrites, and we know what happens to prophets who tell the truth.” We would be afraid that death was just around the bend for us also.

Through human empathy, we can begin to imagine what Jesus might have felt after the death of John, but when it comes to fear, we have to rethink. We are confronted here by the one who always greeted his friends with, “Do not be afraid.” We can recognize in Jesus emotions that we, ourselves, have experienced; but fear is not one of them. What is probably evident in Jesus after the death of John is a sense of urgency – the realization that the end will come very soon, that when he sets his face toward Jerusalem he sets his face toward his own death.

But not yet.

For when he comes back from his time alone, he is met by crowds of people who have followed him and who are hungry for his words. He sees them, and as the Greek says in one powerful verb, esplahnisthē, he feels pain for them within himself, in his very body. First he makes them whole: he cures those who are sick. And as the other gospels declare when they tell this same story, he gives them the good news of God by teaching them. They are so riveted by him that they forget everything else. Twilight falls and they are still there as they have been all day long, men and women, together with children who are beginning to get restless and hungry.

The gospel writers disagree on who first noticed the failing light and the need for food – Jesus or his disciples – but notice they did. The disciples wanted Jesus to make an announcement, something like this: “Now, good people, you must go to the nearby villages to find food. We have no food here, so go in peace and take care of your own.” But as usual, Jesus surprised them. He said to his disciples, “You give them something to eat.” Not the general imperative, “Give them something to eat,” but the specific “You give them something to eat.”

We can hear their protestations: “But we don’t have any food, Lord. The baskets are empty; the food pantry is empty. We can’t feed so many people. Don’t you see? It’s physically impossible. Look, all we have is five loaves of bread and two fish, and there are nearly five thousand people here.”

We recognize the panic. We have been there. There is too much need in our world. Too many people unemployed, too many people hungry, too many people hurting. “We can’t do it all, Lord.”

But the Lord accepts no excuses. “Bring me what you have,” he says, and when the meager resources are brought to him, he does what they have seen him do again and again: he blesses the food.

Now, the temptation is great – and thousands have succumbed to it – to try to explain away what happened that day, on a deserted stretch of land near the Sea of Galilee. Interpreters have tried to rationalize the resulting abundance of food. The reaction is understandable: It is frightening to stand in the real presence of the creative energy of God! In order not to be afraid, we try to explain it according to the laws of nature. But we cannot. When the eternal enters the temporal with such force, our finite minds either close up or become arrogant. So it doesn’t help to argue about the word “miracle” when we are confronted with this story. What matters here is that they were all fed.

God in Christ takes what we have, blesses it, and works his goodwill through this blessing. God wants us to be fed, wants us to be whole, wants us to be nurtured. Jesus sets an example for his church in this act of feeding the five thousand. The living Christ wants us to take what we have and offer it to God, no matter how little it is, no matter how meager our resources are. When it comes to the needs of his people, God will not take no for an answer. God will bless, but the rest is up to us. We bring the resources, and we do the work. It was the disciples who were asked to organize the people and who served the food that continued to increase because it was blessed by the loving energy of the Creator. How can the church do less?

First we bring our weakness to the altar, saying: “We can’t do it, Lord. The needs are too many.”

Then we answer his question, How much do you actually have? “Well, very little, five loaves and two fish.”

“Bring it here,” he says. “It is enough.” And he blesses it. Then, wonder of wonders, we discover that, yes, it is enough.

“And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full.”

It is enough and more than enough, the gospel tells us. This is the good news. Thanks be to God.

 

— Katerina Whitley is the author of “Light to the Darkness” (Morehouse Publishing, 2008) among other books. She lives and writes in Boone, N.C. 

Abundantly present, Proper 12 (A) – 2011

July 24, 2011

Genesis 29:15-28 and Psalm 105:1-11, 45b or Psalm 128 (or 1 Kings 3:5-12 and Psalm 119:129-136); Romans 8:26-39; Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

Today let’s picture the world as an ungainly, promising mass of dough. In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

The comedian comes out on stage, and starts his routine. In a rapid-fire monologue, he serves up jokes. His timing is masterful, and the one-liners burst forth in succession, with precision, so that you can’t help but laugh.

Jesus comes out in front of the crowds and starts his teaching. In a rapid-fire monologue, he serves up parables. His timing is masterful, and these word-pictures burst forth in succession, with precision, so that you can’t help but see.

Here there’s a similarity between Jesus and a stand-up comic. The comedian makes you laugh; Jesus makes you see. And what you see is something of the kingdom of heaven, that realm where God’s sovereignty is recognized.

The routine Jesus offers in today’s gospel is a bonanza: five short parables in a row. All of them are gems. Parables about a mustard seed, treasure buried in a field, a pricey pearl, a fishing net. Then there’s the one we might focus on this morning: the parable about yeast in the flour.

It’s a one-liner. You might have missed it if you sneezed when the gospel was read. It goes like this: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.”

Three measures of flour. Do you know how much that is? About eighty pounds! This woman is not Martha Stewart whipping up a couple delicate, exquisite little biscuits that together weigh less than a canary. No, no. This woman is a baker!

She’s emptying sixteen five-pound bags of flour into the biggest mixing bowl you’ve ever seen. She’s pouring in forty-two cups of water. She’s got a mass of dough on her hands that weighs over a hundred pounds. Kneading this lump of dough, shaping it, pounding it. It looks like some scene at the end of a professional wrestling match. Here we have a no-nonsense operation. Sports fans, this is baking at its best. A woman, with her apron dusted with flour, her ten fingers deep into the dough – she’s a combination of Julia Child and Hulk Hogan.

“The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.” Jesus tosses out this parable, this one-liner, and he does so for a purpose. Just as the stand-up comic wants us to laugh, Jesus wants us to glimpse the kingdom of heaven, that realm where God’s sovereignty is recognized.

Take another look at that huge mass of dough. It’s not just flour any more. The yeast is in the dough, invisible, but permeating the mass, and having its effect. A mystery is bubbling away inside, with much more happening than meets the eye.

As this process continues, the hidden will become manifest. There’s no way to stop it! The movement from mystery to manifestation: Jesus presents this to us as the pulse of the kingdom of heaven. Here is how God’s sovereignty becomes apparent: it resembles the strange transformation that turns flour into dough.

We get to watch the baker woman at work. We’re invited to look at this process and see it for what it’s worth. But if we’re to get a glimpse of the kingdom, if we’re to look down to the center of this parable, then two things are asked of us: we must be patient, and we must exercise discernment.

Yeast takes a while to work, and its working is mysterious. So we have to be patient as the dough rises and comes to life. This dough is not a dead lump, a hopeless, shapeless pile, but instead a universe where opportunities become real. The baker woman is at work with our life, our circumstances, and the people around us. Nothing is outside this lump of dough.

We need to be patient and to exercise discernment if a lump of dough is ever to be bread for the world. And we must exercise this same patience and discernment about the universe. Life is something other than a pile of flour and a bit of yeast. Life is an ungainly, promising mass of dough, on its way to becoming abundant bread. Just as yeast permeates the entire lump, so the kingdom is present everywhere, and everywhere it becomes manifest for those with eyes to see.

If we look around us and within us, we can recognize the presence of the kingdom. That kingdom is at work, just as yeast is active in the dough. And as yeast is invisible and known by its effects, so the kingdom is hidden, concealed, buried deep in ordinary circumstances, yet known by its effects.

Look at your life in the light of grace. Something is there for you to find – whether you feel happy or sad, whether your life seems successful or disastrous, whether you call yourself a winner or a loser. That something is the activity of the kingdom, yeast bubbling away in your corner of the lump.

And when you find the kingdom among the realities of your life, nothing prevents you from finding this same kingdom present as well in the circumstances around you, in the lives of other people, and everywhere you choose to look.

There’s one caution to keep in mind. The kingdom does not come with brass bands. It is not the subject of headline news and public-relations efforts. We are talking here about yeast working invisibly in the dough, a hidden yet potent activity.

As it takes faith to believe that bread will rise, so too faith is necessary to see the kingdom manifest in the everyday and the ordinary. We must exercise patience and discernment wherever God places us. Then we will see that what seems like a dead lump is in fact bubbling with divine life.

So may each of us go forth this week, and encounter places and people and circumstances, and look there for the kingdom: not as distant, but near at hand; not as obvious, but hidden; not as static, but alive and becoming manifest; a kingdom making room for all of us.

When we look for the kingdom, then we find it present, abundantly present. And when we do, then we have more reasons to give thanks than we ever expected.

We discover it’s true, that one-liner Jesus tells us. All the world is a lump of dough, flour with yeast mixed in, and SURPRISE! God’s a baker woman making bread.
— The Rev. Charles Hoffacker is an Episcopal priest and writer. He is the author of “A Matter of Life and Death: Preaching at Funerals” (Cowley Publications, 2002). 

I can feel them in there fighting, Proper 11 (A) – 2011

July 17, 2011

Genesis 28:10-19a and Psalm 139: 1-11, 22-23 (or Wisdom of Solomon 12:13, 16-19 or Isaiah 44:6-8 and Psalm 86:11-17); Romans 8:12-25; Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

In a classic strip of the famed “Peanuts” newspaper cartoon, Lucy explains to her little brother Linus about the existence of good and evil. She tells him that he, like others, have inside these two forces. Linus looks at his stomach with a distressed look on his face and declares, “I can feel them in there fighting.” Humorous, but true.

In today’s gospel, we find Jesus telling a parable that uses a similar image – good wheat and evil weeds, fighting it out in a farmer’s field. It’s also the same story in whatever newspaper any of us read this morning – good and evil fighting it out in the world. There is a force at every level of existence that works against what is good and what is God. There is a force that seeks to destroy the loving nature of creation. There is a force that exerts every effort to suck the lifeblood out of everything that promotes prosperity and health and hope and peace and joy. Throughout the ages, the faithful have personified this sinister force by many names: Satan, the devil, Beelzebub, Lucifer, or “the evil one.” By whatever designation we choose, its intent, its nature, is to un-make what God has created and to deface, distort, and destroy whatever good it may latch onto, as it eats away at it with parasitic intensity.

Through today’s parable, Jesus gives us an illustration of the power of the evil force that can invade every aspect of life. He makes this clear by painting a picture of weeds growing alongside wheat, imitating the good grain and intertwining its roots and growth with what was planted by the farmer, who stands for Christ. And how did the weeds get into the field? Jesus says simply that the weeds came from an enemy, the devil, the evil one.

“An enemy of God” is as good an answer as we will ever find for the source of that which works against God. In the service of Holy Baptism, we know this enemy as “all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God,” or as “the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God,” or as the source of all that draws us from the love of God. We recognize at the very beginning of our life in Christ that we are constantly invaded by the “weeds.”

And though we renounce the evil that the weeds represent, we also recognize something else in our baptismal vows. We see that our lives, like the field in the parable, grow with evil intertwined among the grace, love, and godly obedience that we promise to trust and employ in our Christian living. And we know from experience that no matter how intent we are to follow our vows, none of us will ever totally avoid the corrupting influences and tempting thoughts that lead us to go against the values of God.

Maybe that’s what makes so many of us anxious to do something, anything, about perceived forms of evil in our close communities and in the wider world. In today’s parable, Jesus has the slaves ask almost immediately whether they should destroy the weeds. That sounds like a natural reaction, doesn’t it? What farmer would not seek to destroy weeds that suck vital nutrients from a well-planted crop? Wasn’t that our first reaction when we experienced the evil of the 9/11 attacks? When human beings think they know the source and reality of evil, they almost always want to pinpoint it and do away with it as swiftly and certainly as possible. Seeing with what we assume is a crystal-clear view of what is good and what is evil, we move ahead, absolutely certain that we are right and just in eradiating what seems obviously ungodly.

But history shows how often this is folly. Any number of “witch hunts” reveal that they were more about making the hunters feel secure than actually doing something about evil. Still, we often have a strong urge, when threatened and fearful, to find something to cut out, weed out, push down, crush, or otherwise stop and destroy. Should we not admit that this kind of behavior often simply functions as an escape from a more complex reality? That’s the argument Jesus seems to be laying out in his response to the slaves who would dig out the weeds. Wait, he has the farmer insist, until time for the harvest, because the process of ripping out the weeds will certainly destroy the wheat in the process. Doesn’t this ring true in the depths of our confessions? Don’t we really know this truth – that the evil is strongest when it disguises itself as good and manages to incapacitate the creatures of God with the resulting confusion?

This truth is hard to accept, as we find Jesus telling us something we really don’t want to hear – to leave the judging until later, to recognize that throwing the weeds into the fire is God’s job, not ours. When we encounter what we see as evil, we want to find the source and destroy it. We often are impelled by the false wisdom of, “Don’t just stand there, do something!” But as he so often does, Jesus uses this parable to make us rethink our human reactions, and he turns us in an opposite direction by having the owner say, in effect, “Don’t just do something, stand there!” Wait to let the nature of the godly prosper and prevail in due course. Profoundly, Jesus is leading us to cease chasing after the bad, and rather concentrate on the good.

The farmer could tolerate the actions of his enemy because he knew he would make it all right in the harvest, reaping the good and destroying the bad. Jesus is saying to us that we can relax in knowing that we don’t have to be in the judging business or in the business of destroying that which would work against God, because the owner of the farm, God himself, will make it all come out right in the end.

So we are left, finally, with a teaching that we would do best by paying less attention to the weeds – the evil in life – and simply staying away from it. Better for us to spend more time tending the wheat – the good in life – fostering its growth and putting it to use as Jesus would have us do, following the values of God’s Kingdom.

Like Linus of the Peanuts cartoon, we certainly recognize in ourselves and in the complex workings of the world in which we live the conflict that Linus experienced as a fist fight in his gut. Yet in the unlikely teaching of the wheat and the weeds, Jesus leaves us with a counterintuitive approach to dealing with this anxiety. What it means to respond in this way to any evil – ranging from the horrors of terrorism to the selfishness of not caring for a neighbor in need – leaves us fighting against the very nature of our worldly humanity, fighting against nearly every instinct we feel, and against nearly every example we learn from history. To even suggest such an approach is bound to lead to harsh and bitter disagreement, if not utter disbelief, on the other side of the debate. In the conventional wisdom of the world, the teaching of this parable seems crazy and impossible.

Yet we know that it is possible from studying the leadership of those like Henry David Thoreau, Mahatma Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, who chose not to tear at the weeds, but to nurture the wheat. They learned what they practiced from our Christ. Jesus reminds us, too, that those who choose to use the sword ultimately die by the sword. Indeed, at the decisive moment of his ministry, Jesus left the ultimate exclamation point on the meaning of today’s parable. Dying on the cross, he did not seek to destroy his enemies who sowed the lethal seeds that choked out his life. Rather, he forgave them. He looked to God to sort it out in the end. And we can – in the best moments of living out the vows of our baptisms and as we faithfully look at the end of the passion story – discover that the power of the Resurrection proves the truth of the parable of the wheat and weeds. In so doing, we will recommit ourselves to leaving the weeds to God. In so doing, we will, in ourselves and in the world around us, turn all our hearts and souls to nurturing the wheat that God has given us.

 

— The Rev. Ken Kesselus, author of “John E. Hines: Granite on Fire” (Episcopal Theological Seminary of the Southwest, 1995), is retired from full-time, active ministry and lives with his wife, Toni, in his native home, Bastrop, Texas.

Let anyone with ears listen!, Proper 10 (A) – 2011

July 10, 2011

Genesis 25:19-34 and Psalm 119:105-112 [or Isaiah 55:10-13 and Psalm 65: (1-8), 9-14]Romans 8:1-11Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

Southern California is a maze of concrete freeways: two lanes, four lanes, eight lanes, high-occupancy vehicle lanes, special-use lanes, bus lanes, peak-hour reversible-direction lanes, and more. A literal maze of concrete interconnecting over 8,000 square miles.

Southern California drivers fear the radio announcement that a sig alert has been issued on their route. A “sig alert” is when there’s a traffic incident that will tie up two or more lanes of a freeway for a couple of hours or longer. At these times, traffic comes to a complete standstill. There’s great irony in being stopped on the freeway beneath a sign warning of a maximum speed of 65 miles per hour; during a sig alert, 65 inches per hour is more likely.

During a sig alert, some drivers become impatient. They honk, pound their fists on the dashboard, or even get out of their cars to try to see what’s going on. However, more patient drivers, knowing that they are powerless to change the situation, might take note of their surroundings. And if they do so, they’ll see that through the feet of concrete and rebar that make up the freeways, there are tiny cracks. And through those cracks, weeds and small flowers have somehow managed to take root and grow. Talk about hostile ground!

Today’s gospel reading from Matthew is the familiar parable about the sower. The sower who indiscriminately sows seed in different types of ground, and the relative success, or lack thereof, of that seed to take root, grow, and flourish based on the soil type on which it falls.

This is the first parable that appears in the Gospel of Matthew. The New Interpreter’s Bible explains that the Greek word for “parable” is parabole, which simply means “something cast beside,” something to explain or clarify. But it isn’t quite that simple. In Jesus’ parables, something from everyday life is “cast beside” something else, often in new and unexpected ways, to open the listeners’ hearts to new truths that may have different meanings in different situations. As Biblical scholar and professor David Mosely noted in a recent lecture, parables are not Aesop’s Fables that we can distill down to a one-line teaching that is applicable to all situations. The meanings are polyvalent, having more than one strain, and are often difficult to discern.

But in today’s gospel reading, we are fortunate that Jesus actually provides an interpretation. This parable is one of the few times when Jesus explains what he means. From his explanation we can ask ourselves, “What type of ground do we provide for God’s seed?”

Is your heart like the path in today’s parable, impenetrable to God’s word? Are you like the hard, concrete patch of freeway, impenetrable to the seed of God’s love to break your surface and transform your grey, exhaust-stained surface? Maybe you remember a time on your own spiritual journey when you were closed to the Christian message. Or maybe you came here today as a favor to a friend or family member, but you didn’t expect anything in your life to change. You’re not really receptive to the Word to break open your life and change you forever. If not, that’s OK. For everything there is a season, and from today’s parable we learn that God is an indiscriminate sower, always there with an infinite supply of seed should the smallest crack appear in the surface of your heart.

Or maybe your heart is rocky ground. Maybe the Word of God took root in your life at some time in the past, but then hard times came along and the ground became hostile for your faith growth.

A young Episcopal widower tells a story about how, after the death of his spouse, a group of Christians from another worshipping community came to him. They assumed he was angry with God, blaming God, and ready to close off his heart. He remembers being a bit perplexed; his experience was that God was there, grieving deeply, and sustaining, supporting, and holding him in the palm of God’s hand. This man’s seeds of faith had been properly watered and nourished, and had grown into a faith that sustained him during a very hard time.

Maybe in your life you’ve come to a point where you’ve been angry at God, pointing a finger in blame. It’s easy to do. Most of us don’t navigate the freeway of life without hitting a major pothole or even coming across a bridge that has been washed out. But if we have been open to the Word of God and have nourished that Word in a worshipping community that proclaims a compassionate God of love, hard times become a greater opening for God’s love to flourish and grow rather than faith-destroying obstacles.

Maybe your heart is surrounded by thorns. Maybe you’ve heard the Word of God, but the lure of all that the secular world offers has diverted your spiritual journey. Much like coming across a “road closed” or “detour” sign on the freeway, you were on the right path, but earthly cares diverted you. There are the obvious diversions, including wealth, power, addiction, and lust. But there are the not-so-obvious ones as well, such as complacency or self-pity, or even a preoccupation with good things, like work and volunteer activities. To avoid diversion on our road of faith, we must make sure that all we do in this life branches from the stalk of God’s Word growing in our hearts.

And finally, there are the lucky ones. Those followers of Christ who are open to the Word of God, understand, and yield a great crop. Comparatively, it is like being stuck on the freeway during a sig alert next to a beautiful and lush park. You look from your vantage point at the poor flowers who have struggled to grow in the hostile environment of a crack in the cement and compare their experience to the experience of the trees, flowers, lush grasses, and shrubs growing on the adjacent ground. Those trees and shrubs never struggled; never felt the rush of a semi-truck over their surface. They were never choked by exhaust. For them, growth has been seamless. If your spiritual journey has been like that of a tree in the park, give thanks. You are fortunate. Pray for the flowers trying to grow through the freeway below, be patient, and help to nourish those other flowers in whatever way you can.

This parable ends with Jesus saying, “Let anyone with ears listen!” Yes, from this parable we can extrapolate that 75 percent of the seed will fall on ground that ultimately will not yield fruit. But we also learn that God is an indiscriminate sower. That God continues to cast seed, regardless of the type of ground. And that ultimately, against the odds, God’s seed bears fruit and yields. And that is the Good News. Let anyone with ears listen.
— The Rev. Suzanne E. Watson currently serves as priest-in-charge at Saint David’s Episcopal Church in San Diego. Prior to moving to San Diego she served at the Episcopal Church Center in New York City for over three year in the areas of strategic planning and collaboration, Center direction, and small church ministries. She has also served in congregations in New Zealand and Carmel, Calif. She is a graduate of the Church Divinity School of the Pacific and a proud mum of three teens and a tween.

Independence Day (A,B,C) – 2011

July 4, 2011

Deuteronomy 10:17-21; Psalm 145 or 145:1-9; Hebrews 11:8-16; Matthew 5:43-48

As our nation celebrates its 235th anniversary, reflection on our liberty, freedom, and relationship with God, the giver of all liberty, is a good exercise.

We learn from the passage chosen from Deuteronomy that the foundation of our liberty is conceived in justice, that our “great God … is not partial and takes no bribe … executes justice for the orphan and widow, and loves strangers, providing them food and clothing.” What might we find were we to lay this standard up against our political realities?

The writer of Deuteronomy also exhorts the hearer to love the stranger and fear the Lord. In our time, that is not a popular standard. Rather, the reverse seems to be what we hear: people talk of loving God but fearing the stranger. Of course, we all know we got this way by straying from the fundamentals of liberty and justice for all. Yet people keep trying desperately to come to America for those very things: the justice of a paying job, the liberty to be free from corruption and sinister dictatorships.

In the passage from Hebrews, we look at the faith of Abraham and Sarah, who see themselves as strangers and foreigners on earth who seek a homeland, people who desire a better country. That is the desire that still dominates much of our civil discourse and should be the standard of our Christian community. A better country means, in the terms described in Deuteronomy, a just country for everyone, including the stranger – for all of us are in some way strangers seeking a better country.

It is common to talk of disillusionment and be discouraged about the future of our nation, our culture, and our society. Christians are called to be un-common in the way we talk about these things. We maintain a critical and sometimes prophetic stance about injustice and the treatment of the poor and oppressed, so we cannot join the chorus of those who are only negative. We see in our own failures the need for us to place ourselves under God’s gracious leadership. Without that, we have nothing to offer that is Good News. As it says in today’s reading from Matthew, “And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others?”

So, what is the Good News in a time of economic uncertainty and national disillusionment? The Good News is that we find in those very strangers who come among us, in those who would perhaps be our enemy, the future of peace through just relationships with all of our neighbors.

Recently the Dalai Lama spoke to several university communities while visiting America. He said he loves America because of its passion for energy, new ideas, and continuing exploration and change. He also said he is grateful for our leadership, but questions our motives in some of our political decisions. His message of peace echoes the gospel reading for today, that loving our enemies and persecutors is the only way forward.

Christians are called to be advocates of the Good News of Jesus Christ. That is how we celebrate our freedom, and that is how we proclaim our liberty. Taking on that Good News means we have to change our values to those of Christ. We cannot ignore the stranger among us, nor can we write off our enemies. But we do just that all the time. Jesus calls us to a higher standard, one that includes struggle, misunderstanding at times, and the possibility of failure.

What we have done as a church in the last few decades, learning how to speak civilly about our differences, attempting to reconcile with those who differ from us, taking up the cause of justice for those who are treated unjustly, has thinned our ranks, but it has also perfected our faith. That is something to celebrate in a nation where it is still possible to proclaim and expect liberty and justice for all.

In the Mid-South there is a group of people from the Marshall Islands who have come to live and work under the Compact of Free Association, an agreement entered into between our government and nations in the South Pacific. These are people who have left extreme poverty to come and work, mainly in meat-processing plants. They, along with Latinos from Mexico and Central America, form the backbone of a work force that provides our food, adds to our tax base, serves in our military, and generally leads law-abiding lives. Engaging with these “strangers” is a rewarding challenge.

One new Episcopal church plant has embraced these strangers and finds itself growing from their ranks. As they join the church, a whole new culture of Christian growth of liberty and freedom emerges. That is the vision of Deuteronomy, the faith described in the passage from Hebrews that desires a better country, and the Good News that moves from greeting only those who are like us to embracing the stranger and finding in that embrace the God of liberty and justice for us all.
— Ben Helmer is the vicar of St. James’ Episcopal Church in Eureka Springs, Ark.

Come to me, Proper 9 (A) – 2011

July 3, 2011

Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67 and Psalm 45: 11-18 or Song of Solomon 2:8-13 (or Zechariah 9:9-12 and Psalm 145: 8-15); Romans 7:15-25aMatthew 11:16-19, 25-30

“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.”
— The Rev. Dr. Amy Richter serves as rector of St. Anne’s Episcopal Church in Annapolis, Md.