By Rev. Chris Jorgensen
June 28, 2020
Video of the whole service: https://www.facebook.com/hanscomparkchurch/videos/571589563547794/
Scripture: Matthew 11:28-30
I love this scripture from the Gospel of Matthew. Let’s read it one more time.
[Jesus said…] 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.”
Before I went to seminary, almost ten years ago now, my first ministry was volunteering to visit with people who were in assisted living and skilled nursing facilities. This scripture was my go-to scripture to read to folks who were struggling – whether it was with health or loneliness or even facing death. I would read this before leaving my visits with them. I believe it gave them comfort, and it certainly gave me comfort reading it.
I think that’s all well and good. Sometimes we pluck a scripture from the bible, and it speaks to us in a certain way at a certain time. That’s fine. But comforting people who are sad or experiencing illness is not what this scripture is actually about. Context is important.
So let’s talk about the context of this scripture today. First of all, I want to read to you a verse just a few previous to this one. Matthew 11:25 has Jesus praying, and he prays these words, “25 “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants.” Before Jesus offers these words of comfort, he observes that it is the infant who really understands the love of God.
I couldn’t help but think of Baby Izabella who was baptized today when I read this. Izabella, this infant, understands God’s love. She understands. She understands God’s love in every embrace from her dad, her mom, her grandma, her grandpa. When she is being held and cuddled and comforted by them, she understands the love of God that is poured out all of us.
She also understands the love of God when her parents teach her with infinite patience and gentleness. I saw on Facebook this week that Vanessa was teaching Izzy how to gently pet their cat, Louie. Now, I didn’t see exactly how Vanessa taught Izzy, but I am quite certain she did it with patience and love and gentleness – just like I did when I taught Baby Ruby how to pet our cats.
So Izzy knows the love of God, and she also knows God’s yoke. A yoke is something that is used to train and order one’s life. Izzy knows what God’s training, what God’s teaching is like. Jesus says my yoke is easy, and my burden is light. Like a mother gently showing her baby how to care for a cat…God guides us to be people of love and gentleness, through God’s own love and gentleness.
We all know that. Anyone who has been loved and adored as an infant knows that. Yet at some point we forget. We lose the sense of God’s unconditional love and God’s gentle yoke. We start to believe that God’s yoke is more like a list of rules, or like a slap on the hand, than the gentle direction of a parent.
We start to believe the messages of our culture that we are not good. We are not enough. We must be different or better or more than what we are – in order to be acceptable. So we start to judge ourselves, and we start to judge others. Sometimes, we do that with harsh and angry words. We simply forget. We forget that gentle and easy yoke. We forget that when God corrects, when God directs us, it is always to teach us to be more loving. It is never about putting unreasonable or unattainable or burdensome restrictions on us.
And now, we are back to my point about context: the context of this scripture in the Gospel of Matthew. When Jesus talks about “burdens” in the Gospel of Matthew, he is not talking about sadness or health concerns. He is talking about burdens put on folks by uncaring religious institutions. In Matthew 23:4, Jesus says this about the scribes and Pharisees, the religious authorities of his time: “They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them.” Jesus is not happy with this. He says, repeatedly, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees.”
Those heavy burdens that the scribes and Pharisees put on folks, in the original Greek language, is phortion, and the only other place the word phortion shows up in the entire Gospel of Matthew is in today’s scripture. Jesus says, in contrast to the heavy burdens, in contrast to the unreasonable religious requirements of the scribes and Pharisees, Jesus’ burden is light. Jesus’ yoke – his system of guiding us into spiritual growth and discipleship and into deeper love of God and neighbor – it is easy. Jesus doesn’t make impossible rules so that people can be excluded. He makes love the ultimate law, and even infants know, that love is natural and easy.
Receiving the love of God is the most natural thing. Yet how often do religious institutions choose to be more like the scribes and Pharisees of Jesus’ day?
As we observe Pride Sunday, the celebration of the full inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer persons in our church and in our community, I think it’s important to acknowledge that the church hasn’t always been a source of comfort for LGBTQ folks or their families. I have heard so many stories about this. Faithful, church-going parents who know that it is the most natural thing in the world to love their child unconditionally: to beam at them like Stephen and Vanessa beam at Izabella. To guide them with all love and gentleness. Then when that child comes out as gay or lesbian or transgender, their church tells them that love is wrong.
I can think of few bigger tragedies than a church telling a queer person they cannot be who they are AND be loved by God – or a church telling the parents of a queer kid that they cannot fully love and embrace their own child. I cannot think of a greater religious burden to put on people than to say, “You must deny who you are” in order to be loved. Or “You must not have a partner to share your life with” in order to be loved. Or, God forbid, “You must not support your child in order to be accepted here.”
That’s what the church has done in the past. That’s what some churches continue to do, and that’s why we don’t just quietly accept everyone here. We say clearly and out loud that you and your children are fully loved and affirmed by God whatever one’s sexual orientation or gender identity. We will not ask you to reject yourself or a member of your family in this place.
We say it out loud because the church has sinned by placing those burdens on folks and families in the past. Now, we are fixing it because we were wrong. We can do that in the church. We’ve been wrong before, and we’ve fixed it before – or at least are working toward fixing it fully. We were wrong when we said people couldn’t get divorced. We were wrong when we put black churches into a segregated jurisdiction in the United Methodist Church. We were wrong when we said women couldn’t be preachers. And we were wrong to put burdens that were impossible to bear on LGBTQ folks and their families.
Now, I want to tell you this is not just about LGBTQ folks. We are all blessed when we recognize what Jesus’ gentle and easy yoke means. It means that God loves all of us unconditionally – like a parent or grandparent delights in a newborn baby. It means, because of God’s love, we don’t have to desperately seek the approval of humans who, from their own brokenness, would choose to judge and condemn us for whatever reason. It means we can be vulnerable before God about the times we fall short, when we really don’t act in loving ways toward one another, and God will gently and lovingly help us grow.
The depth and breadth of God’s love for us is so hard to really accept and really understand.
But Baby Izabella understands it every day.
Perhaps, as the newest member of our family of Christ – which truly does include all people – she can help show us the way.
Thanks be to God.