Proper 9A Sermon (2002)

Proper 9 (July 3-9)
Texts: Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30;
Romans 7:15-25a; Zech. 9:9-12


“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” — Matthew 11:28

We celebrate our nation’s birth this weekend with somewhat muted spirits, aware that some among us still carry considerable burdens of grief, especially in New York, where the World Trade Center bombing left a huge void — not just with the hole in the ground, but with the hole in so many peoples’ lives. “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” I know colleagues in the New York area who are still very much addressing those burdens of grief and trying to help lighten the load with the promise of Jesus’ love.

We also make this year’s Independence Day celebration with determination to grow stronger as a nation. It has been a strength of our nation, in its 227 year history, to bounce back from difficult times, to pull together, and to do the things we need to do to grow. One of the things that has helped such a growing process, I think, is our ability to be self-critical. We have been able to see where things are wrong and to try to address. Freedom of speech and freedom of religion have allowed the critical voices to be heard. It is these voices of freedom, I believe, that has helped our nation to be more self-critical than any before in history.

It is in that vein that I would like to raise some questions this morning about the burdens we may be carrying for which Jesus can lighten our loads, burdens that might still be getting in the way right now of our country moving forward. We might begin by asking what kind of burdens we might be carrying. Or even more generally, are there burdens you are carrying in life right now, burdens that were perhaps even here last Sept. 10?

I would like to suggest that the most common type of burden we carry these days are burdens related to trying to keep up with the Joneses. Do you know what I mean? Perhaps even more so after Sept. 11, we have been becoming aware of our rampant consumerism in this country. We live lives of trying to keep up with our neighbors on all the stuff we can accumulate to make our lives somehow more comfortable, or more entertained, or simply more wealthy as a status symbol. We have to have certain kinds of houses, certain kinds of cars, certain kinds of electronics, and a certain kind of mobility. This all takes a certain kind of income, of course! And so we have two our three income families, working long hours, carrying large debt loads.

And what does this do to our relationships? We are aware of the fact that they seem more tenuous. Divorce rates have sky-rocketed. The gap between rich and poor has widened. Families seem to be growing apart. And then the challenge of spending time together as family can be felt as adding to the already cumbersome burdens of life in this modern world of material comfort but spiritual dis-ease.

That’s the bottom-line, isn’t it? Our burdens are spiritual ones. At the same time we seem to be reaching the level of material comfort that, for previous generations, was undreamed of, there does seem to be a spiritual burdening that goes along with it. And people are seeking spiritual direction along many avenues. The shelves at Barnes & Nobles are filled with not only books of the traditional religions, but perhaps even more so with books with spiritual answers from New Age religion and self-help psychologists.

So what about our faith? How can we contribute to lightening the burdens of our day and help be a part of this nation’s moving forward? How is Jesus’ yoke an easier or better one than the yokes we might currently be carrying?

I’d like to begin answering these questions today from the Second Lesson from St. Paul. He seems to really speak the burden of that internal struggle that often goes on inside of us. So often we find ourselves not doing what we would most like, and doing the things we know we don’t want to do. How does this happen? The answer, I think, comes just a few verses before where we pick up today’s reading. St. Paul is trying to figure out how sin takes control of even gifts like the Law, and he focuses on the commandment, the last one, “Thou shall not covet.”

You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor. — Exodus 20:17

Extemporize on last commandment.

  • The word “covet” here is simply the Hebrew word for “desire.” For example:
    • Genesis 3:6 So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate.
  • In other words, desire is normally mimetic. We catch it from others.
  • Keeping up with Joneses. Building resentment. More prone to violence.

What are the common consequences of mimetic desire, of coveting? The four commandments before it:

  • bearing false witness: slander, gossip, put-downs we tear each other down rather than build up
  • stealing: not just garden variety but what about Enron, or WorldComm, or Martha Stewart’s buddy
  • adultery: supported by the huge appetite for pornography, sexuality completely out of whack mixed with consumerist spirituality
  • murder: in addition to increase in rendom violence, we are more inclined to modern versions of sacred violence, wanting bad people dead, capital punishment

Overall, we become polarized, more divided up in camps against each other: liberal-conservative, Republican-Democrat, white people-people of color, rich-poor, men-women, gay-straight, you name it. That’s what Jesus is alluding to, I think, in the first part of our Gospel lesson. Extemporized explanation (using Bailie insights).

So how part the last part of the Gospel Lesson? How does Jesus lighten our burdens? First of all, he came to take them on. He took on the ways in which we become so polarized, our willingness even to kill in the name of justice. He took on those burdens himself. But he also had taken on our burdens in his living, too. He had healed the sick and preached Good News to the poor. He reached out to those whom we ordinarily leave out.

The irony, of course, is that he asks us to do the same: to take on each other’s burdens. To the eyes of this world, that will seem strange. How can you lighten your burdens by taking on other peoples’ burdens? Well, Jesus doesn’t say he’s going to take away all burdens, all yokes. He’s said he’s going to lighten the burdens. He’s going to help us exchange our difficult yokes for easier yokes. When we are caught in the traps of consumerism, of keeping up with the Joneses, our burdens become the difficult burdens of every person for him or herself. When we follow Jesus in the loving desire of God, a desire for every creature to thrive, we share one another’s burden and make them easier yokes. Eventually, we find the freedom that is even far beyond the freedoms that this nation stands for. When we find such freedom in Christ, we help to enhance and deepen the freedom we experience in this beloved nation of ours.

It’s the way our Lord wants us to remember him, to imitate him and to come to have his loving desire. Extemporize with Bailie summary using first eucharistic action: ‘This is my life. Here’s what I do with it: give thanks for it, because it’s not mine; let it be broken and given away.’ The Resurrection adds the dimension of life being given back: God is an eternal source of life, so we can risk giving ourselves away in faith.

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Redemption Lutheran,
Wauwatosa, WI, July 7, 2002

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