Monday, July 7, 2014

Sermon: "The Yoke's on You"

Rev. Maureen Frescott
Congregational Church of Amherst, UCC
July 6, 2014 – Fourth Sunday after Pentecost
Psalm 145:8-14; Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

“The Yoke’s on You”

Think about for a moment how you would complete the following sentence:
“Life is _________”

What word would you choose to fill in that blank?
Life is good?
Life is challenging?
Life is unpredictable?
Life is a burden?

How we fill in that blank may depend on our disposition – whether we choose to lift up the highs or the lows of our lives, but it may also be a reflection of what we’re experiencing in the moment, as there are times when we may gleefully say that life is good, or fun, or rewarding, and there plenty of other times when we would insist that life is hard, unforgiving, and downright exhausting.

Exhausting is the word I would choose this week.
But that’s to be expected after having spent 9 days on the Senior High mission trip with 26 teenagers and 10 adults living and working and driving to and from the Appalachian mountains of Tennessee.

I think it was around day four, when we all looked at each other and said,
“My God, it’s only Tuesday - we have five more days of this!”

At that point we had three teenagers who had thrown up during the night and were out of commission with a stomach bug, and panic was setting in over who would be next. 
Others in our group were complaining of sore throats, head colds, and dehydration.
We had several teens who were feeling home sick, and we had teens and adults who were anxious about health concerns of loved ones back home.
On top of all this, the work we were doing was hard.
Replacing roofs, rebuilding decks, crawling under trailer homes where only animals and insects dared to tread. All of it in the blazing hot sun and sudden downpours that are typical of late June in Tennessee.

Thrown into this mix were the challenges of our accommodations – sleeping bags and air mattresses on a church floor, sharing living space with two other youth groups from different parts of the country, and four outdoor showers for 70 people and only a small window of time each day to use them.

The trip also featured a travel night spent in what turned out to be a very sketchy motel in Virginia, a harrowing van ride on a narrow mountain road in a driving rainstorm, and the realization that on our work sites we were for the most part unskilled laborers being entrusted with technical construction projects, armed with only a written instruction manual and limited tools and materials.

For most of the trip it felt like we were flying by the seat of our pants.
Both on the work sites and at the church, teens and adults alike were functioning in crisis mode for a good chunk of the time.

It was exhausting.
And it was so, so worth it.

It’s often said that we go on these church mission trips to help the “less fortunate” among us - as if we’re knights-in-shining-armor swooping in to lift up those in need because God has blessed us with the means to do so.

But as anyone who has been on trip like this will tell you there are no “saviors” and “victims in need of saving” in this story.
We’re all just people reaching out to each other.
We may live in disparate circumstances and have different life experiences but we come together to learn from each other and do things for one another… because we feel this pull inside of us that we just can’t ignore - this pull that says we’re all God’s children, and we’re all deserving of love, and happiness, and a sense of security and comfort in our lives.

Mission trips are life-changing experiences for everyone involved.
As a group we helped five families in eastern Tennessee live more comfortably and securely in their homes, but we received just as much in return.   And I’m not talking about gratitude.

Some of the families we worked with did express gratitude with an outpouring of hospitality, cards, and letters.
But the other families were either absent or showed open discomfort with our presence, either out of embarrassment of their living situation, or because of the tiring task of playing host to an endless stream of strangers in their home, day after day for weeks on end.

Yes, it would be nice if everyone we served in life expressed gratitude for what they’ve been given, but as one of our teens so wisely said on our final night in TN – we weren’t down there fixing houses because of the thank you’s and warm hugs we would get in return…we were there to serve others because it was the right thing to do.
Because it was the loving thing to do.
And we do it regardless of what we expect to receive in return.

But the truth is, we did receive so much in return.
As a church group from Amherst, NH we may have had the means and the method to dedicate a week of our lives to helping five families in Appalachia, but our teens and our adults took back so much more than thank you letters and a set of new construction skills.

One of our freshmen girls learned that she had the capability and the strength cut metal rebar in the hot sun for hours, because she knew it would be used to hold up the underside of someone’s home.
One of our junior boys learned how to tape and mud drywall, and after he saw the home where he’d be working he very maturely admitted to feeling ashamed for complaining about the night we spent in a not-so-clean motel, when some families lived in much worse conditions every single day.
And one of our senior boys learned how to fix a roof, and he also learned just how much the younger teens look up to him as a leader and a role model, and that they see his quiet, reserved manor as a strength and something to be admired, and not something he should ever apologize for.

As always, our group itself was a source of comfort and strength for our teens.
They leaned on each other and they lifted each other up.
We had freshmen on their first trip away from home who rose to the challenge and discovered a sense of resiliency they didn’t know they had, and we had seniors on the brink of college, who felt loved and safe enough within our group to express their fears and vulnerability, and in doing so gave everyone else the permission to do the same.

This kind of communal support is something to be celebrated and cherished, at any age, and it’s a wonderful illustration of how all of our individual burdens are lessoned when we take them on as a community.

In our gospel text today, Jesus talks about easing our burdens and our weariness by bringing them to him, because his yoke is easy and light.
This yoke that he speaks of is the yoke that all Jewish rabbis offered their followers. The yoke, or mantel that was placed upon a student’s shoulders was unique to each rabbi, and it consisted of the rabbi’s teachings and his understanding of what it meant to live and follow the law as a person of God.
Jesus declared that his yoke was easy and light not because he didn’t believe in upholding the Jewish law or because his standards were much lower than other rabbis.
Jesus’ yoke is easy and light because it removes the burden that we’ve mistakenly placed upon ourselves and instead places it upon God.
This burden is the belief that says we have to earn God’s grace, love, and forgiveness. This burden causes us to feel apart from God if we fall short, and prods us to keep tabs on everyone else and where we rank in God’s favor in comparison.
This is the burden that Jesus says we can toss aside.
Because God’s grace and love are given unconditionally to all.

But what about the other burdens that we carry?
The burdens that we weigh us down because we’re imperfect beings living with other imperfect beings in an imperfect world?
This is where Jesus offers us the yoke of community.
This is a yoke that is not confining but freeing.
This is the yoke that tethers us to one another and makes the individual loads that we carry so much easier to bear.
Because we’re not built to carry all of our burdens on our own.
None of us is strong enough to do that.

But knowing that doesn’t stop us from trying.
How many of us keep our struggles to ourselves, because we fear that others will see us as weak or vulnerable?
How many of us fear that if we lean on others too much they’ll grow impatient with us and drift away?
None of us wants to be a burden on others.
So we carry our burdens in silence.

Jesus’ frustration with the generation of his time was that they too were hesitant to accept the light and easy yoke that he was offering.
It all sounded too good to be true.
John the Baptist had been rejected by the masses as being too “out there” to be taken seriously, with his “turn or burn” message and his austere ways that were extreme even for first century Palestine.

But Jesus seemed to take it too far in the opposite direction.
Rather than reject the fallen and the ostracized he befriended them.
He ate and drank with them.
Surely the burdens that these people carried were too great for God to overlook – addiction, prostitution, greed, laziness – these bottom dwellers were the black sheep of their families who took much more than they gave and tried the patience of the good hearted folks who attempted to reach out and help them.
Surely they didn’t deserve the attention of the man who claimed to be the Messiah who had come to save the people of God.
The people of God were worshiping in the Temple and working for a living -  not drinking the day away or begging for handouts in the street.

This fickle generation who scoffed at Jesus’ ability to judge who is worthy of God’s saving grace and who is not, is not much different than our own generation.

In Tennessee, when the adult leaders of all our work teams gathered each day to share stories about the families we were helping, it was all too easy to allow judgment to creep in.
We remarked on the cleanliness of their homes, the way they treated their children and their animals, the money they spent on cigarettes or alcohol or other extraneous items, the presence of a big screen TV or a cell phone in a run down trailer home (regardless of how old or outdated the technology seemed to be), and the lack of gratitude or warmth shown to those of us who had come so far to help. 

It was all up for judgment, as if any of us would fair much better if we allowed a group of random strangers to peek in our closets, listen in on our family squabbles, or question our need for financial aid for our children’s schooling or tax breaks for our businesses when we seem to have more than enough money to spend on cable TV and double mocha lattes.

Who gets to decide who is deserving of help with their burden and who is not?  
Not us, says Jesus.
This yoke that he speaks of ties us all to one another.
Our burden is lightened by our participation in community, and we in turn help lighten the burden of others, whether we’re aware of it or not.

On our trip to Tennessee, our teens and chaperones learned things that will stay with them for a lifetime, and every family we worked with made that possible simply by asking for help.
We are yoked to one another, whether we like it or not.
And as Jesus has tried to teach one generation after another, life is so much easier if stop trying to carry all of our burdens on our own, and stop arguing about who is worthy of having their burdens eased and who is not.
It may be a cliché to say, “Let go and let God handle it” but in this case that’s exactly what we need to do.

So I’d like to revise my response to the question I asked at the beginning of this sermon.
Life during our nine days in Tennessee was exhausting…..but it was also challenging, fulfilling, and good.
Because we had each other to lean on in our weariness, and our heavy burdens were made light in each other’s presence.
Because God was present with us….then, now, and always.

Thanks be to God.


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