Sermon by Burton Cooper
Gen 24; Rom 7:15-25; Matt 11:16-30
Come to me
All you who are weary ...
And I will give you rest.
Take my yoke upon you …
And you will find rest in your souls.
For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.
These lovely words, so beautiful, (they) evoke the great sadness that pervades human life, the tears of being, the inevitability of loss and death, some of which comes to us through our body’s natural vulnerability to illness, accident and aging, but so much also we bring upon ourselves by our proneness to error, our inclination to aggression, our selfish impulses, our narrowness of vision. It’s no wonder, then, that there are times when we grow weary, particularly those times when our own personal history or the history in which we live grows dark, when so much seems to be going haywire: in our economy, in our political life, in our culture; and so much seems to be going bloody: terrorist actions senselessly taking innocent people’s lives, warfare in the cities of Iraq and Syria, killing, destroying homes, uprooted lives. So those words, “Come to me all you who are weary,” they strike with a great weight of meaning, for they meet our needs for respite from all this darkness. And when we ask ourselves what gives these words their power, why do we feel healing through them; or perhaps those questions need rephrasing, for do we not sometimes ask ourselves, how can these words have power when we are all too often told that the universe originates in a great explosion, without apparent purpose, hurtling particles of matter and energy ever outwards, forming clumps, stars, galaxies, planets, one planet, as far as we know, finding itself, accidentally, having the conditions to form life. I think we all know the answer to that question, for those words of comfort, of healing, they come to us not from the voice of physics but from our listening for another voice, the voice of inwardness, the voice of spirit, speaking to the cries of our soul, to the intuitions of our mind, appearing in the gospels, written documents arising out of a community of faith, a community that has experienced forgiveness, purpose, meaning, dignity, new life --- aspects of being that our soul yearns for and thrives on, just as our body yearns for and thrives on food and water; and that new community of Christians, like our universe that is forever impelled outward, finds itself impelled outward, proclaiming to all it can reach, at some cost to themselves, (proclaiming) its revelatory, comforting, healing message: that a great love has come amongst us, and that there is a reason for, a purpose to, that great explosion, a ground of being whom we call God, and that God is of the kind that cares for the world, loves it, has mercy upon it, purpose for it; and that the world is of the kind that is open to God’s love, can feel God’s compassion, can know God’s forgiveness, can respond to God’s purpose.
Sisters and brothers in Christ, all this is true, and yet nothing is simple, certainly not faith. Listen again to these words of comfort: “Come to me all you who are weary, Take my yoke upon you, And you will find rest in your souls. For my yoke is easy.”
I doubt that many of you will be surprised when I say that there is a catch in these words, a paradox, that its affirmation of comfort comes with its own contrary, its own antithesis, for --- and here is the catch, the “catch 22” --- it is as true to say that the yoke of Christ is easy and our souls find rest in it, as it is true to say that the yoke of Christ is difficult and we find striving in it, and frustration. And it’s Paul, profound theologian and true saint that he is, (it’s Paul) who experienced early on, before the gospels were even written, this paradox in the life of faith, and provides the reason for it in just one amazing line in his letter to the church in Rome, the one we heard read this morning. I’m sure you are all familiar with the line:
“For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.”
This sounds like an exaggeration; of course, we do good things. So how are we to interpret Paul? For that matter, how are we to interpret Luther and Calvin who talk in a similar way, as do older versions of the Book of Common Prayer which had us confessing that “there is no good in us.” Perhaps these words are asking us to see that even in the good we do there is a negative element, some evil of destruction. Our Civil War and World War II are large examples of how doing good --- for certainly it is a good to end slavery and stop Nazism --- involves us in doing evil --- for war, even a good war, involves killing and invites barbarities, evils. A more personal example is the issue of abortion, an issue that would be less polarizing if both sides would admit there is no perfect, all good resolution; that there is a destructive element no matter which way we go on it. Or Paul’s words may be alerting us to our narrowness of vision, a narrowness that leads us to deem good what is only a good from our class perspective, or religious perspective, or ethnic or gender or racial perspective. Paul, himself, once thought it was a good thing to stone Stephen. Then there are the evils that result from actions which may seem good, but which have terrible, unforeseen consequences. The Iraq War. for example, I don’t want to belabor the point, it’s a difficult one, an unhappy one, perhaps best summed up this way: we find in ourselves a desire to do the good, we have a capacity for morality: we can be generous, disinterested. We, also, have a capacity to do great harm, and, despite our efforts, we seem to lack the ability to refrain from harm. So we come to Christ, we read the gospels, and we find ourselves coming to one who asks us to turn the other cheek, to give up our cloak, to walk the extra mile, to give to the poor, to care for the oppressed , to visit the imprisoned. These are good words but they strike us as hard; they feel like a heavy yoke, for it runs against our basic instincts, loyalties, to care first and foremost for our children, our spouse, parents, friends, career, colleagues, ethnic group, religious group, nation. And hearing Christ’s demands upon us, and knowing these as the good, the absolute, ideal good, and yet for all sorts of reasons, even good ones, we fall short of these demands, so that we may find ourselves saying with Paul, “I do not do the good I want … Who will rescue me?” and find ourselves answering as Paul answers, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord,” for Christ’s yoke is grace, Christ’s yoke is forgiveness, Christ’s yoke is mercy, compassion, for we find salvation, as Paul says, not in our works, but in our faith, in our inward acceptance of God’s grace, Christ’s forgiveness, which heals our spirit, frees us, and sends us into a community of sisters and brothers in Christ, a community which welcomes all to God’s grace and calls all to do God’s love, to live out the spirit of Christ.
Thanks be to God for this great mercy.
Thanks be to Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.