Yokes and Burdens (7/9/17)
El Greco, Saint John the Baptist
On Sunday, July 9th, our Gospel reading included two sections from the Gospel of Matthew. The first part of this passage is a little bit cryptic; when we read it out of context, its meaning isn’t clear. And then the Lectionary skips over a few verses and the lesson concludes with a very comforting thought: Jesus says, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” We like this Jesus; he’s not so confusing.
Next, Jesus tells the crowds that John was a true prophet, foretold by Scripture. Then Jesus takes the crowd to task for not believing in the miracles that they have witnessed; this is a call for discernment.
Good morning. It’s good to be back. I had a wonderful vacation, my batteries are recharged, and I know I’ll need that, with Vacation Bible School this week! I’d like to thank you for extending such a warm welcome to my dear friend, Jenn. She’s a gifted preacher and I’m so glad that we could have her here at Rehoboth while I was away.
So, an interesting thing happened on the Fourth of July, but before I get into that story, I need to ask how many of you are familiar with the social media platform, Twitter? For those of you who don’t know, Twitter is a place where people or groups can post short messages—no more than 140 characters per message. A character is a letter, a number, a punctuation mark, or even a blank space. That means the messages have to be really short.
On Independence Day, National Public Radio gave a live broadcast of the Declaration of Independence. The Declaration was read in its entirety on the air by the hosts, newscasters, reporters, and commentators from NPR. This is nothing new. NPR has done this every year since 1988.
This year, NPR did something else; they posted the text of the Declaration of Independence on Twitter. Now remember, tweets have to be short, so NPR divided the Declaration into about a hundred separate tweets. That’s where this story took an odd turn.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with NPR, it has a reputation for being a liberal news organization. While I don’t think NPR would describe itself that way, I think its audience tends to be more liberal, but I know a number of conservatives who listen to NPR on a regular basis. Of course, they don’t tell their conservative friends that they listen to NPR.
When NPR tweeted out the Declaration of Independence, Twitter blew up. That means that a lot of people read the tweets and commented on them. Some of those comments came from conservatives—who accused NPR of attacking Donald Trump with those tweets. One of the tweets of the Declaration read: “it is the Right of the People to alter or abolish it, and to institute new Government.” One person responded: “So, NPR is calling for revolution. Interesting way to condone the violence while trying to sound ‘patriotic’. Your implications are clear.”
Wait. What? What implications? What violence?
Another Trump supporter responded, “Propaganda is that all you know how?” These responders were completely unaware that NPR was tweeting the Declaration of Independence. They were so convinced of the liberal bias of NPR that they found evidence of that bias in those tweets of the Declaration. And they felt the need to call out NPR for its bias, because they didn’t realize that NPR was quoting the Declaration of Independence. All those responders could see was the liberal bias of an organization they distrusted. They didn’t take the time to read all of the tweets and they were unaware that NPR had been broadcasting the Declaration of Independence for nearly thirty years! Their own bias prevented them from receiving the tweets as an affirmation of our shared identity as Americans.
Now I’m not attacking anyone for being a conservative or a liberal or a Trump supporter, or anything like that. But I believe this incident reveals a lot about where we are as a society. And to be fair, liberals do this too. I bring this up because it’s current and because it’s a really good lead-in to our Gospel lesson.
In this morning’s reading, Jesus is speaking to a crowd of people. Now crowds are very important in the gospels. Any time that Jesus is speaking to a crowd, he is speaking to everyone, including us. In this case, Jesus is rebuking the people for not receiving him or for receiving the message of repentance that was offered by John the Baptist. Specifically, the crowd is that generation of people who have heard John’s message; they have also heard Jesus and seen His miracles, yet they have not come to believe.
And why not? Because neither John the Baptist nor Jesus the Christ fit the image that the people expected. This is what Jesus means when he says:
18 For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon’; 19 the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.”[h]
Jesus is calling out the people of that generation for not receiving the message, because they didn’t like the messengers. John the Baptist was too crazy, too radical, so the people could dismiss John’s message. In the same way, they could dismiss Jesus because he hung out with prostitutes and tax collectors, lepers and all of the undesirable people of Judean society. Jesus couldn’t possibly have been pure enough to be the Messiah; they didn’t have to listen to him.
Jesus could be dismissed in the same way that we dismiss stories from news outlets that we don’t like, or people whose politics we disagree with. And this is a real problem for us if we are to live into Jesus’ call to be disciples, and then to go out and make disciples of others. Our pews aren’t overflowing with new disciples.
Making new disciples seems like an overwhelming task.
It seems overwhelming in a society where the institutional church has lost its cultural status.
It seems overwhelming in a community where youth sports and activities are more important than worship on a Sunday morning.
It seems overwhelming when we realize how many people have stopped coming to worship, whatever their reasons may be.
It seems overwhelming when we look at the members who have passed away or have moved away, and have left a void in congregational leadership.
It seems overwhelming when we look at our shrinking budget.
And it truly seems overwhelming when we name all of these challenges. We grow weary. We’re exhausted by the very idea of all the work that we’re called to do. The problem is that we are focused on the task, rather than our identity in Christ. As Christians, we are called to be disciples and to make disciples. As disciples, we are called to participate in Christ’s work of reconciliation. This work comes to us only through our relationship, and that’s important. Jesus tells us:
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.”
Those heavy burdens may be poor health or poverty. The burdens can be our own personal politics or ideology—anything that separates us or cuts us off from one another. Jesus can lift these burdens from us, but we must be willing and able to learn from him, and then teach what we’ve learned to others.
The Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson II echoes this call. Dr. Nelson is the Stated Clerk of the Presbyterian Church, U.S.A. In a sermon entitled “When Our Backs Are Against the Wall,” Nelson challenged the congregation by asking an uncomfortable question:
Who have you told about Jesus Christ lately? Our faith ought not to be personal but used to help others along the way. We must remind everyone that every day we have, every joy, every pain, every sorrow, every struggle belongs to the Lord.
This is part of the teaching that we are called to do. To do this, we have to engage with people who look different from us, who come from different backgrounds, and who hold different beliefs. We have to listen to their stories, their joys and pains, and we have to accept the truth of their experiences, even if the truths they offer are uncomfortable. We must be willing to see the image of God in everyone we meet.
The rest that Jesus offers is not a break from doing the work of discipleship. Rather, Jesus offers us peace as we do the work. Over the next few months, it will be our task to search out the new ways in which this congregation is called to reach out and do the work of discipleship. At the same time, we must continue with the work that is familiar to us, such as Vacation Bible School, which begins tomorrow. May God bless us and guide us on these tasks and pour out His Holy Spirit upon us. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Now, beloved, as you depart from this place, remember that we are called to be the Church, the body of Christ in the world, the world today. Go forth and be instruments of God’s love and peace and reconciliation. Do not return evil for evil to any person, but know that we are all loved by God, and that we are called to reflect that love to everyone we meet. Go forth and be the salt of the earth and the light of the world. In the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord, let all God’s children say, Amen!
 Quoted in the Washington Post: Amy B. Wang, “Some Trump Supporters thought NPR tweeted ‘propaganda.’ It was the Declaration of Independence,” retrieved from: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2017/07/05/some-trump-supporters-thought-npr-tweeted-propaganda-it-was-the-declaration-of-independence/?utm_term=.25c1d027220b
 Wang, Washington Post.
 O. Wesley Allen, Jr. Matthew: Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries. Minneapolis: Fortress Press (2013), p. 128.
 Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson II, quoted in: Jerry Van Marter, “Stated Clerk tells Big Tent the church is primed for another Reformation,” retrieved from: https://www.presbyterianmission.org/story/stated-clerk-tells-big-tent-church-primed-another-reformation/
 O. Wesley Allen, p. 128.