Sermon for the 5th Sunday after Pentecost (Lectionary 14A)
Sunday, July 5, 2020
Trinity Lutheran Church, Worcester, MA

Watch Here (Minute 27:50)

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

It may seem heretical to say on this weekend in which we celebrate our country’s independence, but if we’re being honest about it, don’t we have to admit, that we are not free, but we are prisoners?  Isn’t that what these past few months in the life of our country have taught us? 

The coronavirus pandemic stopped us in our tracks.  It made us realize we are prisoners in our bodies and to our bodies.  For the sake of the health, many of us consented to a form of house arrest over the past few months – staying home and not going out. No matter how strong and healthy and free we think we are – the reality is that a virus invisible to the naked eye ground so much of our daily life to a stop and made us prisoners for a time. 

And then, over the second half of the pandemic, our country wrestled with the reality of ongoing systemic racism and white privilege. Our streets were filled with protests in response to the murder of George Floyd and countless other deaths of unarmed black men and women in police custody. While some celebrate this country as a land of freedom and opportunity, protesters on the streets shouted at us the very real ways that freedom and opportunity is impacted by the color of one’s skin.   Some are prisoners today, both literally and figuratively, because of the color of their skin, and because of that, all of us are prisoners of injustice and cruelty.

And then, after all this, we come to our Second Reading today [Romans 7:15-25a] , Paul’s classic description of his struggle with sin.  “I am of the flesh, sold into slavery under sin,” Paul writes. “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate  (vs15). For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do” (vs 19).

I’m not sure if it’s comforting, or disheartening, to know that one of the greats in faith acknowledged his “slavery under sin” and his battle with sin.  I suspect, however, many of us can relate to Paul’s struggle. The good we want to do – we do not do … and that which we do not want to do – is what we do …

Yes, the truth, on this Independence Day weekend, is that we are prisoners held captive in fragile bodies susceptible to viruses … prisoners in an insidious system that assigns privilege and oppression based on skin color … and along with Paul prisoners to sin.  On this “Independence” Day weekend, it looks like the yoke’s on us. Sorry for the “Dad Humor” – but the truth is: the yoke’s on us!

In our gospel reading this morning Jesus gives us an invitation [Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30]. “Come to me, all you who are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest … Take my yoke upon you and learn from me,” said Jesus. “For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

Every time I hear this story of Jesus and the yoke, I think of the times as a boy I went into the old wooden machine shed on our family farm in Iowa. We rarely went in that machine shed – it held farm implements we only used once a year – and so for months at a time it went unbothered. Rats dug holes in the dirt floor, spiders spun thick webs that clung to your skin when you walked through, and birds fluttered through the broken window high in the peak. 

But, there hanging on the back wall, witness to days long gone, was a dusty, wooden yoke, used decades, and probably a century earlier, on the powerful draft horses that my great-great grandfather and great-grandfather would have used to till the land.  Whenever I saw the yoke, I imagined horses straining against the weight of the plow they pulled through the thick Iowa sod in the spring or the weight of the wagon full of grain they pulled in from the fields in the fall.  

The yoke was anything but a symbol of freedom – it was hard work and restraint.  So how does Jesus offer the yoke as refreshment from weariness, escape from burden, and rest from toil? Nothing of what I know about a yoke promises an easy, light, restful path. What is the easy and light burden Jesus leading to rest that Jesus invites us to receive? 

Our Gospel reading records Jesus’s observation that: “We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed and you did not mourn.” What Jesus pointed out was the heaviness and burden that people carried in their hearts.

The people were so weighed down they couldn’t be bothered to dance with those who were celebrating or mourn with those who were mourning.  They were so turned inward and away from others they were dead to the world. The Apostle Paul wrote that “the wages of sin is death” and these people who could neither dance nor mourn were dead to those around them. To a people laboring under real weight and burden, Jesus offered the yoke not as more work to do, but as relief and escape.

We know the heavy burdens people bear today: shattered dreams and unfulfilled expectations, self-image in comparison with one another, the very real burdens of financial debt and obligation. Some have wondered what the suicide rate and mental health toll during this pandemic time will amount to as people carry the weight of economic disruption alone and isolated from systems of support.  In response to the people then, and in response to us today, prisoners weighed down and dead in sin as we are, Christ offers the yoke of salvation.

It’s been pointed out that yoke often pairs together two or more animals. This pairing, this yoking, lightens the load and makes the work easier for each animal.Seen in this way, the yoke is not a chain of punishment, but a lifting of burden by distributing responsibility.

On my desk is a gift to me from Pastor Eric VanLeeuwen, a member of this congregation who now lives in Minnesota. The gift was a ceramic cross (pictured above) made in Central America, the cross being held up all around it by the hands of a community of people carrying the cross together on their shoulders. People in my office often comment on it – it’s a beautiful reminder that when Jesus calls us to pick up our cross and follow, when Jesus invites us to receive the yoke he offers, we do so in community with the whole people of God.

On Monday of this past week, we celebrated the 50th Anniversary of the ordination of women in the Lutheran Church.  Those ordinations didn’t just happen. Leading up to those first ordinations, women did the heavy lifting of bravely setting out into a world dominated by men and making a case that God had called them to ministry, and men who did the difficult work as advocates convincing other men this was the right thing to do, to share power with women, and to recognize their calls to the ministry of Word and Sacrament.  

In their work half a century ago, those pioneers and advocates lifted the cross together and made the road lighter and easier for women today. Pioneers and advocates today, working for racial justice, trans justice, economic justice, all work to lift the burden for others and make the road easier. In a community of justice, where people turn to each other and demand whole, balanced, and right relationships of love – the weight and burden of oppression, sin, and injustice is lightened.  

I was heartened during the pandemic, that though the church building was closed, the church as the living people of God remained alive, open, and active. People checked in on one another and cared for one another, members were financially generous and continued to support the congregation financially and gave additional donations to be mindful of those in need, committees and Council continued to meet to carry on ministry to one another.  Together, yoked to Christ and to one another, the burden was lifted and the load lightened.  I pray that as we return to this building, we always remember it is just a building, and that church is the people of God, yoked together in love faith, and service.

The Good News today is that we are yoked with Christ who yokes us to each other. 

In the promise of baptism is the promise that each one of us is yoked to Christ. At this weekend’s online liturgy, Joel Cummings was baptized. In the promise of baptism is the promise that God yokes God’s self to Joel, and to us, forever! God bind’s God’s self to us:  naming us and claiming us as beloved members of the communion of saints.   

At this weekend’s in-person liturgy, Pastor Ann Burgdorf Affirmed her Baptism as we received her into membership of Trinity Church. By becoming a member of Trinity, Pastor Ann is yoking herself with us, and we are yoking ourselves with Pastor Ann.  In faith, we see this as a mutual and reciprocal relationship, yoked together in faith in Christ, to lift the burden on the road of faith as we live as the people of God.  

Friends in Christ, the good news today, on this weekend of independence, is that we are prisoners.

As a gift of faith, yoked to Christ in the promise of baptism, we become, as Jeremiah wrote, prisoners of hope.As prisoners of hope, we know that Christ has overcome sin, Christ has overcome death.  Joined to Christ in faith, we are lifted from the crushing burden of sin, despair, and death, into life with Christ, in the communion of saints, forever.

In faith, let us turn from the weight and burden of a life lived for self in sin. In faith, let us accept the yoke of Christ, the yoke of life and salvation. Together, strengthened, encouraged, and nourished as members of the communion of saints, may we become a people of freedom, life, and salvation. 

Thanks be to God.