Sunday, April 28, 2013

My Yoke Is Easy

My Yoke Is Easy
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
April 28, 2013
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Matthew 11: 20-30 

Let us pray,
Help us to see despite our eyes
Help us to think outside of our minds
Help us to be more than our lives      
For your eyes show the way
            Your mind knows the truth
            Your being is the life.

20 Then Jesus began to denounce the cities in which most of his miracles had been performed, because they did not repent. 21 “Woe to you, Korazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! If the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. 22 But I tell you, it will be more bearable for Tyre and Sidon on the day of judgment than for you. 23 And you, Capernaum, will you be lifted up to the skies? No, you will go down to the depths. If the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Sodom, it would have remained to this day. 24 But I tell you that it will be more bearable for Sodom on the day of judgment than for you.”
25 At that time Jesus said, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. 26 Yes, Father, for this was your good pleasure.
27 “All things have been committed to me by my Father. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.
28 “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, 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.”[1]

Many of you have been reading Leif Enger's Peace Like a River over the last month. I was actually thrilled and overwhelmed by every one's willingness to read it. I first was introduced to it in seminary. I was taking a literature and theology class, and it was one of the eight novels that we read during the course. I was instantly hooked, especially by the opening scene. Having had bouts with pneumonia at a young age, I understood very intimately the intensity it's basic dilemma, being born without the natural capacity to breathe. And then to be given breath, as the first of many miracles, so simple, so poignant, I was  hooked. I want to read part of that scene to refresh our memories, or to share it with those who have not read it. It goes like this:

From my first breath in this world, all I wanted was a good set of lungs and the air to fill them with--given circumstance, you might presume, for an American baby of the twentieth century. Think about your own first gasp: a shocking wind roweling so easily down your throat, and you still slipping around in the doctor's hands. How you yowled! Not a thing on your mind but breakfast, and that was on the way.
When I was born to Helen and Jeremiah Land, in 1951, my lungs refused to kick in.
My father wasn't in the delivery room or even in the building; the halls of Wilson Hospital were close and short, and Dad had gone out to pace in the damp September wind. He was praying, rounding the block for the fifth time, when the air quickened. He opened his eyes and discovered he was running--sprinting across the grass toward the door.
"How'd you know?" I adored this story, made him tell it all the time.
"God told me you were in trouble."
"Out loud? Did you hear Him?"
"Nope, not out loud. But He made me run, Reuben. I guess I figured it out on the way."
I had, in fact, been delivered some minutes before. My mother was dazed, propped against soggy pillows, unable to comprehend what Animas Nokes was telling her.
"He isn't breathing, Mrs. Land."
"Give him to me!"
To this day I'm glad Dr. Nokes did not hand me over on demand. Tired as my mother was, who knows when she would've noticed? Instead he laid me down and rubbed me hard with a towel. He pounded my back; he rolled me over and massaged my chest. He breathed air into my mouth and nose--my chest rose, fell with a raspy when, stayed fallen. Years later Dr. Nokes would tell my brother Davy that my delivery still disturbed his sleep. He'd never seen a child with such swampy lungs.
When Dad skidded into the room, Dr. Nokes was sitting on the side of the bed holding my mother's hand. She was wailing--I picture her as an old woman here, which is funny, since I was never to see her as one--and old Nokes was attempting to ease her grief. It was unavoidable, he was saying; nothing could be done; perhaps it was for the best.
I was lying uncovered on a metal table across the room.
Dad lifted my gently. I was very clean from all that rubbing, and I was gray and beginning to cool. A little clay boy is what I was.
"Breathe," Dad said.
I lay in his arms.
Dr.Nokes said, "Jeremiah, it has been twelve minutes."
"Breathe!" The picture I see is of Dad, brown hair shot and wild, giving this order as if he expected nothing but obedience.
Dr. Nokes approached him. "Jeremiah, there would be brain damage now. His lungs can't fill."
Dad leaned down, laid me back on the table, took off his jacket and wrapped me in it--a black canvas jacket with a quilted lining. I have it still. He left my face uncovered.
"Sometimes," said Dr. Nokes, "there is something unworkable in one of the organs. A ventricle that won't pump correctly. A liver that poisons the blood." Dr. Nokes was a kindly and reasonable man. "Lungs that can't expand to take in air. In these cases," said Dr. Nokes, "we must trust in the Almighty to do what is best." At which Dad stepped across and smote Dr. Nokes with a right hand, so that the doctor went down and lay on his side with his pupils unfocused. As mother cried out, Dad turned back to me, a clay child wrapped in a canvas coat, and said in a normal voice, "Reuben Land, in the name of the Living God, I am telling you to breathe."" 

The great thing about a novel is that it can make us feel and experience things we could never imagine ourselves going through in real life. Most of us cannot imagine not being able to breathe. Breathing is a reflex. Most of us do not even have to think to breathe. You can sit in church, right there in your pew, and breathe, off and on throughout the service, without even realizing that you are, but the moment you stopped breathing, you'd surely know. You'd surely panic, and I bet others around you on  your row would also know. They'd be jumping to your aid. Doing whatever they can to help you. Breathing is a given; not breathing is an emergency, a tragedy, a catastrophe. Breathing is life and not breathing is death. It's that simple really.
And so he does breathe, his father get's him to take that first breath. His lungs are not fully healed yet at this point; his lungs are still "swampy", but as readers we are introduced to the first, of many miracles surrounding Reuben's father, Jeremiah land. A baby, born and in this world for 12 minutes plus without breathing, and survives. I remember when Clara was born 1 year ago today, she didn't breathe for about 40 seconds, and it seemed like an eternity, so I cannot even imagine 12 minutes, but his father's command fills his swampy lungs. At one point Reuben, who stands as the narrator of the book, makes the statement that he believes that the very purpose of his life, the reason he breathed that first breath and is allowed to breathe each subsequent breath is to witness to the miracles of his father. He says, "The answer, [to why he survives] it seems to me now, lies in the miracles. . .
Being a witness, he has thought a lot about miracles, what they are, and what they do, what their function is in this God's world. He says.

Real miracles bother people, like strange sudden pains unknown in medical literature. It's true: They rebut every rule all we good citizens take comfort in. Lazarus obeying orders and climbing up out of the grave--now there's a miracle, and you can bet it upset a lot of folks who were standing around at the time. When a person dies, the earth is generally unwilling to cough him back up. A miracle contradicts the will of earth. My sister, Swede, who often sees the numb, offered this: People fear miracles because they fear being changed--though ignoring them will change you also." 

It is this idea that connects the novel to our gospel reading. In the first half of the gospel reading from today, Jesus is denouncing all of the cities where he performed miracles, but the people in all of them were unchanged and unaffected by what they observed, saying woe to them, that their fate will be worse for them than it was for some of the ill fated Old Testament cities like Sodom and Gomorrah. But it was this line that really glues down the connection. Jesus says,  "I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. 26 Yes, Father, for this was your good pleasure." Yes the little children, and therefore Enger puts the truth in the mouth of Swede, who is quite the prodigy and voice of unique wisdom throughout the book, despite being the youngest character. How many miracles in our world do we  miss or simply ignore because we are unwilling to change as a result of them? It is quite an indictment of us and our place in the world, what we hold fast to, what we question, and what matters and doesn't matter. But woe to us, because not being changed by a miracle is being changed by one. It would seem that ignoring miracles is part of the essence of sin. And this truth, truly profound, comes out of the mouth of the child, the youngest. Yes this passage seems truly central to the themes of Peace Like a River, and I couldn't help making the connection, but where the gospel goes next gave me pause.
The gospel passage goes from woe to these cities, to my burden is light and my yoke is easy. Come to  me all that you are heavy burdened and I will give you rest. Doesn't that echo the title of the book, Peace Like a River. Now for those of you who've read it, is it a book that has a lot a peace in it? Does it appear that the life the Land family is living is easy, without burden, laden with an easy yoke? They all struggle, not just the narrator, but also his sister, his older brother, even his father, who can work the miracles, he levitates, he heals a pockmarked face, he evades police checkpoints unmolested, he even rides a tornado for miles, and there are so many more, but even he struggles with his faith, wrestles with God, literally, at different times throughout, yelling, questioning. . . it doesn't seem like a "easy yoke" or a "burdenless existence." It seems heavy, not light. And so even amidst miracles, and faith there is struggle, yet there is something that is "easy" for Jeremiah Land.
He sacrifices himself, he trades places with his son, he saves him, giving himself up instead. And it turns out that, that is the easiest thing in the world. It doesn't seem easy on this side of things, in apprehension, before, but in the moment it's different, and in the moment we get a glimpse of the other side, the peaceful side, the peace on the other side of the river, and think about it. It would be easy to trade places with your child in a situation of pain, hurt, of struggle, even so far as death, without thinking you'd do it. Why because of love, and the fulfillment of love is that full type of sacrifice, and because it is so natural, it's easy, it's light. This, I believe is the yoke Jesus talks about, that no matter how heavy the cross is, how much pain it is, love makes it light. Without love there is burden, with love their is ease. Without love there is stress, with love there is peace. Without love there is death, but with love there is life. We are talking about sacrifice, and ultimate sacrifice, but the burden is light because of love. Yoke is a great word, because a yoke is something that tries to balance and separate the weight of a load, sharing that load, the other reason that Jesus' yoke is light is because he is inviting us to share in work he does right next to us. He may be asking us to make love sacrifices when he says love your neighbor, or God, or even your enemies, but he walks that road with us, he already has up to Calvary.
In our world filled where the blinders of sin, the fears that we have, the terror of the last two weeks, the renewed sense of mistrust, the danger, the mortality, the cruelty, amidst all of it are some glimpses of miracles beyond our imagining, reminding us that God actually did create this world, that God is in control of this world, and that Jesus walks with us, making our burdens light with love, and woe to us who misses them being unwilling to change. I'd like to close with a poem I wrote a couple of years ago. It seeks to remind us of this goodness, the miracles of our world. It is called "Where I would Like to Live." I actually posted it on facebook the day after the bombings in boston, a fried had asked me how to talk to her 4 year old son about what happened because he had accidentally scene what was on the news. I told her to tell him the truth, to hold him tight and tell him the truth, and then to read this.

I'd like to live in a world
Where a baby's cries
Are calmed in a mother's embrace
Where smiles will lighten the sternest face
Where history is forgiven if not forgotten
And everyday is a new chance at grace.

I'd like to live in a world
Where heroes strive
To save one in need
Where people act outside of greed
Where love is present everyday
And sweet fruits grow from every seed. 

I'd like to live in a world
Where chocolate and peanut butter
Found a taste for each other
Where people find a friend in their brother
Where day is lit by a shining star
And the night twinkles with a billion other. 

I'd like to live in a world
Where there are plenty
Songs for me to sing
Where everlasting is found in a ring
Where colors bless the evening sky
And people find joy that only love can bring. 

I'm glad I live here on earth
Where all this is possible
And happens nearly every day
Where God hears when we pray
Reigning deep within all of our hearts
And allowing us to follow His perfected way. 

And that way is sacrifice and love, be moved by the little miracles, be inspired by examples of love, and go and do likewise. Amen

[1]The Holy Bible : New International Version. 1996, c1984 (electronic ed.) (Mt 11:20-30). Grand Rapids: Zondervan.