Proper 9 (July 3-9)
Texts: Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30;
Romans 7:15-25a; Zech 9:9-12
JESUS’ YOKE OF LOVE
Picture of yolk and yoke to teach kids that a yoke is learning to walk a certain path in life. Jesus was a rabbi, a teacher. He came to show us God’s way to live. Jesus said, “My yoke is kind.” (1) Jesus’ way is love.
On this 4th of July holiday weekend, we give thanks for this great nation of ours and its many blessings. We also pray for continued blessings — and in the biblical tradition going all the way back to Abraham and Sarah, we pray to be blessed so that we may be a blessing to others.
This can also be a time of taking stock. Are we being a blessing to others? Right now, it seems that what we are best at is disagreeing with one another. We are so polarized and divided amongst ourselves that it becomes difficult to focus on being a blessing to others. Consider the news story of recent weeks: neighbors from Central America streaming across our borders, with an increasingly alarming number of them being unaccompanied children. As the wealthiest nation on earth, is there any talk of being a blessing to others amongst the rhetoric?
And I’m most concerned with our role as peacemakers. As the reigning military superpower in the world, are we learning what truly makes for peace from our own tradition?
Brothers and Sisters, a theme with me over these past eight years is that we are journeying through a time of great change that we see about every 500 years — the last one being the Reformation that launched Lutheranism as a tradition. (2) What we need to emphasize, though is that the Reformation wasn’t just a time of great change in the church. The great seismic shifts that rocked religion quaked through all of European culture. The printing press was causing an information explosion like today’s Internet. The days of the Roman Empire was shifting to a rise of nationalism, that led to democracy and capitalism.
And one of the things that can happen at a time of great change is polarization — like we are also going through today. When one reads Luther, the Reformers, and the Catholic counter-reformers, it is striking how polemical their writing can be — sometimes with considerable vehemence against their opponents. In general, I’ve come to sift through some of the Reformation writings more carefully — aware that the positions could sometimes be too extreme because of the polarization. The early writings of Luther are the best, when he was focusing more on simply articulating his new insights, rather than the later Luther, who was always arguing with someone.
I’m sketching some features of times of great change in history because the First Century was another one of those times. In fact, as Christians we believe that it was the foundational change-point in all of human history. That’s why we mark time as B.C., Before Christ, and after. Human beings and human history will never be the same because God came into the flesh in Jesus Christ. God’s way for us to be human actually took on flesh and bones and became human so that hereafter human beings and human history are forever undergoing the transformation from our way to God’s way.
That’s the dynamic precisely at play in today’s Gospel Reading. Our human way was coming face-to-face with God’s way through an exchange between John the Baptist and Jesus, an exchange which is the focus of Matthew chapter 11 in its entirety. Today’s portion gives us the tale end of this exchange, the front end of which we read on the 3rd Sunday of Advent. Why Advent? Because John the Baptist is a featured figure during that season of preparing for Christmas. In Matthew 11 John has been following Jesus’ ministry from prison, where Herod has landed him. And he sends his disciples to ask Jesus if he is the One coming to liberate them, or whether it will be another. John has questions because Jesus seems to be putting a very new twist on their Jewish faith.
Today’s reading gives us the end of Jesus’ response to John, marking out the difference between his teaching from other rabbis — with the difference between our human way and God’s way being the underlying dynamic. Most other rabbis have a yoke, a teaching, that expects God’s liberator to someday free them by defeating their enemy’s army. Jesus in his answers is indicating that his path, his yoke, is completely different, confounding all the popular wisdom that has come before him. Jesus’ way may even scandalize or offend John the Baptist (11:6). In verse 12 (just four verses before today’s reading begins), Jesus tells them straight out that the kingdom of heaven is about choosing to suffer violence, as opposed to those who inflict it. His inaugural sermon was about turning the other cheek and loving one’s enemies as the true way, as the yoke that leads to peace. His yoke is about kindness to all, and he himself is gentle, nonviolent. It’s such a startlingly different way that it even represents a break from the one who came to announce him, John the Baptist. It’s one of those times of such great change that even wise adults must go back to being like infants to learn anew (11:25).
So we circle back to the point that we are once again in one of those times of great change, where we need to learn almost everything about our faith anew. That’s what has been happening to me for the past 20 years. Everything I learned in seminary I’ve had to relearn like a child starting over. In my newsletter column for this month I talked about the need for adult catechism. Martin Luther, who was in one of those times of great change 500 years ago, wrote a catechism for adults. The adults had to relearn the faith first, like going back to their childhood, in order to teach their children. I think we are in a similar place today.
And so I’d like to finish today with brief excerpts from the two books I recommend as adult catechism — especially with our call to be peacemakers in mind, as we take stock of our nation on this holiday weekend.
We wondered earlier if we are becoming too militaristic, if war has become to easy of an option for us. Do we need to challenge ourselves as followers of the Prince of Peace to be salt and yeast for Jesus’ yoke of love, for his radically different way to peace? The first book I’m recommending is written by a conservative evangelical pastor who has undergone a radical shift in his faith, and his way of reading the Bible, over the last ten years or so. It really resonates with my own conversion that I’ve shared with you over the past eight years. And it centers on the issue of violence and Jesus’ coming to launch God’s kingdom as a nonviolent alternative to our kingdoms — not some time in the future, but two thousand years ago when he rose from the violence that he underwent to begin saving us from it. The book is called A Farewell to Mars: An Evangelical Pastor’s Journey Toward the Biblical Gospel of Peace, by Brian Zahnd, and here’s a brief paragraph:
War is a thing of the past. War is anachronistic. War is regression. War is a pledge of fealty to a bloody past. War is a sacrament offered to Mars. War is a repudiation of the lordship of Christ. The followers of Christ must lead the way in imagining something better than war. Who are the post-Hiroshima dreamers who dared to imagine a world beyond war? John Lennon? Perhaps. (3)
Then Zahnd goes on to quote one of those dreamers. See if you can guess who this is:
Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired, signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed … The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities. It is two electric power plants, each serving a town of 60,000 population. It is two fine, fully equipped hospitals. It is some 50 miles of concrete highway. We pay for a single fighter plane with a half million bushels of wheat. We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than 8,000 people. (4)
The answer? President Dwight D. Eisenhauer in 1953.
And let’s conclude this morning with an excerpt from a book which is explicitly written as an adult catechism for today’s changing faith: We Make the Road By Walking: A Year-Long Quest for Spiritual Formation, Reorientation, and Activation, by Brian McLaren. This book is basically 52 sermons that follow the lectionary. The following excerpt is from the Palm Sunday chapter, which features today’s First Reading from Zechariah 9. McLaren imaginatively tells the story in the first person, from the perspective of a disciple:
We round a bend, and there is Jerusalem spread before us in all her beauty, the Temple glistening in the sun. A reverent silence descends upon our parade. It’s a sight that has choked up many a pilgrim.
But Jesus doesn’t just get choked up. He begins to weep. The crowd clusters around him, and he begins to speak to Jerusalem. “If only you know on this day of all days the things that lead to peace,” he says through his tears. “But you can’t see. A time will come when your enemies will surround you, arid you will be crushed and this whole city leveled . . . all because you didn’t recognize the meaning of this moment of God’s visitation.”
What a shock! From a shouting, celebrating crowd to the sound of Jesus weeping! From the feeling that we were about to finally win to a prediction of massive military defeat! From joyful laughter to tears!
As we continue descending the road toward Jerusalem, we also descend into the quiet of our own thoughts. We begin whispering among ourselves about what’s happening. Someone reminds us of the words from the prophet Zechariah (CEB): “Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion! Sing aloud, Daughter Jerusalem! Look, your king will come to you. He is righteous and victorious. He is [gentle] (5) and riding on an ass, on a colt, the offspring of a donkey.” A shiver of recognition runs through us.
“What comes next?” one of us asks. “What did the prophet Zechariah say after that?” Someone else has the passage memorized: “He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the warhorse from Jerusalem. The bow used in battle will be cut off; he will speak peace to the nations. His rule will stretch from sea to sea, and from the river to the ends of the Earth.”
Suddenly we feel the full drama of this moment. We recall another parade that frequently occurs on the other side of Jerusalem, whenever Herod rides into the city in full procession from his headquarters in Caesarea Philippi. He enters, not on a young donkey, but on a mighty warhorse. He comes in the name of Caesar, not in the name of the Lord. He isn’t surrounded by a ragtag crowd holding palm branches and waving their coats. He’s surrounded by chariots, accompanied by uniformed soldiers with their swords and spears and bows held high. His military procession is a show of force intended to inspire fear and compliance, not hope and joy….
It has been quite a day, a Sunday we’ll never forget, the beginning of a week we’ll never forget. What a wild mix of emotions! What a collection of dramatic moments! As we fall asleep, we ponder this: to be alive is to learn what makes for peace, It’s not more weapons, more threats, more fear. It’s more faith, more freedom, more hope, more love, more joy. Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! (6)
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Prince of Peace Lutheran,
Portage, MI, July 6, 2014
1. Using the word “kind” instead of the usual “easy” reflects a translation decision toward the more common way to translate the Greek word chrēstos. In fact, Matthew 11:30 is the only place chrēstos is translated as “easy” instead of “good” or “kind.”
3. Brian Zahnd, A Farewell to Mars: An Evangelical Pastor’s Journey Toward the Biblical Gospel of Peace [David C. Cook, 2014], page 185.
5. I replaced the usual word “humble” with “gentle” because of the connection with today’s Gospel. When Jesus, in talking about his yoke, says that he is “gentle,” the Greek word is praus, rarely used in the New Testament, but is the Septuagint word used to translate the Hebrew word in Zech 9 usually translated as “humble.” I assume the link of the word praus is the reason why Zech 9 is paired with Matthew 11:29 in the lectionary.
6. Brian McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking: A Year-Long Quest for Spiritual Formation, Reorientation, and Activation (New York: Jericho Books, 2014), pages 149-51.