7/04/2005

Sermon: No Heavy Burden.

Sermon for 7 Pentecost:

The Gospel read this morning can be viewed as a little drama in three parts: Jesus first prays to God, “I thank you Father…” He then, as a rabbi, comments on this prayer in a teaching for his disciples and perhaps some others close at hand. And at the last he addresses the crowd. We can even think about how we would stage this: The movement is from prayer, to teaching, to proclamation. So the gaze of Jesus might be up to heaven, then down and near to his friends and disciples, and then out across the heads of the people yearning to hear.

The last section is this wonderful and freeing statement: “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens and I will give you rest. 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. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

Many of you will recognize this phrase. It is the first of the comfortable words following confession in Rite I: “Come unto me, all ye that travail and are heavy laden, and I will refresh you.”

We all carry heavy burdens: some of them are in the normal sense spiritual – we grieve lost family members, lost opportunities, lost loves; we sorrow for things done poorly, wrongly, or not rightly; we feel the weight of our sins and our offenses.

Some of them are perhaps more social: the burden of debts, of responsibilities, of sick family members, of partners or children who have gotten bent or gone astray, of people we love being away in far off places: The load that is bourn when poverty, or illness, or violence is experienced.

And some are the burdens that come from participation in the life of the nation: the burden of taxes, of complex and often burdensome laws, the burden of large standing armies which seem both a necessity and are amazingly expensive, the burden of the use of power, both political and military, a burden we feel in the moral questions that unending war and eternal vigilance seems to raise.

These burdens are real, and we feel them in our lives. And to them we add the burdens of religion – the burdens of complex moral and ideological questions posed by religious teachers and communities as if they were crucial to our lives: all sorts of burdens (they often are stated as questions, the answers to them being both necessary and heavy on our hearts) – shall we receive communion in both kinds? Does the fetus have a soul? Is it ever permissible to marry after divorce? Does it make a difference how you sign the cross, or if you do? Can you eat meat on Fridays? Is the doctrine of the Virgin Birth biblically based? What does it mean to have a biblically based morality? And on and on.

What makes these religious questions a burden is that so much is said to hang in the balance: most particularly the matter of judgment by God, and the state of our souls.

In their most brutal form all these burdens are crushing: And the question arises, can we ever be free? Or are we imprisoned in the pit of despair, in the pit of our burdens?

In today’s reading from the Hebrew Scriptures, the prophet Zechariah proclaims, “Rejoice… O prisoners of hope.” And therein lies our freedom: if we see ourselves as prisoners to our burdens, then we will be finally crushed by them. If we see ourselves as prisoners of hope, then, while we still bear the burdens of the day we live in hope, not fear. And the first hope is that the burdens will be lifted, that we will be refreshed, released, given rest.

It is such hope that is at the core of Jesus’ assurance: “My yoke is easy, and my burden light.” What he brings is not new religious burdens but a freedom, one that comes from knowing God’s love and his own for us: the freedom of knowing that we are valued, worth more than many sparrows. Such hope is central to the religion we now call Christian.

On the Statue of Liberty, whose real name is “Liberty enlightening the world,” are written these words:

“Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me.

I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”

The hope that this place, the United States of America, would be a place where the burdens of poverty, caste and class, violence could be lifted, where there could be the hope of a new beginning, is central to the promise of the thing we call America.

We have the right, no the duty, to demand of the Church in these days that it not be a heavy burden. We have the duty to demand that the State in these days not be a heavy burden. There is no place for doctrinal damnation and denominational snit-fits in our hope in the faith – the spiritually poor and wretched deserve better. There is no place for fearful living, poverty in the midst of plenty, grinding debt and unending warmaking in our hope in the nation – the huttled masses, the wretched, the homelss and tempest tossed deserve better.

The image of the lamp lifted beside the golden door is a powerful one: Many have hoped that America might be the new Jersualem, the stronghold in which we are not prisoners to fear, but prisoners of hope. Perhaps liberty stand here, a secular version of Jesus, who if we remember stands at the gate and says, “Come unto me all you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.”

On this 4th of July weekend, we ought pledge ourselves to a nation that is not a heavy burden, and to a church that is not a heavy burden:

Neither Liberty nor Jesus had that in mind.

Amen.

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