Lessons for Proper 9, Year A: Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67; Psalm 45: 11-18; Romans 7:15-25a; Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30
On June 26, we celebrated an important anniversary. It wasn’t a personal anniversary of a wedding or obirth or a move or a job began – the kinds of anniversaries that reflect who we are and celebrate the shaping events of life. It wasn’t a public anniversary like the remembrance of a nation being born. No, this anniversary went largely unnoticed but it was the 20th anniversary – perhaps we should have gotten some china (that is the traditional gift at a 20th anniversary, right?). That’s right, the 20th anniversary – it was 20 years ago, June 26, 1997 that JK Rowling released Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, the first in her to-say-the-least blockbuster series of novels about the wizarding world and the students of Hogwarts School. Some might scoff or chuckle and say how unimportant is such a thing. But the characters of JK Rowling have walked with a generation of our youth – Harry and Hermione, Ron and – my favorite – Mr. Weasley have walked with and guided and helped bear the yoke of so many.
Part of the reason is that we have trouble seeing that, to quote Gerard Manley Hopkins, “The earth is charged with the grandeur of God” – it makes no sense to us. Our imaginations, our sense of awe and wonder, our belief in the movement and action of the Holy Spirit is greatly diminished. But Harry Potter and Hogwarts – and yes Lewis’ Narnia, the Jedis of Star Wars, and many similar stories – capture our imaginations. It’s because it is so other than what we know and what we are used to. It’s not really of “the Force” or the magic, its that these stories explore a world teeming with possibilities, of a world where the supernatural bumps against the natural regularly, where things aren’t always as they seem.
A few years back this prayer was written, using the language of Harry Potter,
Almighty God, we praise you for creating all things in your image: muggles and wizards, beasts and humans, the magical and the mundane.
Grant us, O Lord, to trust in you with all our hearts. Remind us that our hope does not lie in philosopher’s stones or deathly hallows, but only in your hallowed name.
Merciful God, teach us to walk humbly. We confess that we often raise our wands at the evil we see in the world, ignoring the darkness lurking in ourselves.
Forgive us for creating social systems that marginalize and oppress. Stir our hearts to build relationships with house elves, muggles, squibs, and all who are made vulnerable by injustice. Give us courage to advocate on their behalf, confronting those who would exclude them from our communities.
As we thirst for justice, let us not resort to the unforgivable curses of violence and oppression. Remind us of a power beyond our own, a power beyond the reach of any magic.
God of Truth, you’ve taught us that the world cannot be divided into good people and Death Eaters. For whether we are sorted into Slytherin or Gryffindor, we are all in need of grace; our foreheads bear the searing scars of our own brokenness.
Yet, according to your mercy, no one is ever beyond redemption; help will always be given to those who ask. As you have shown mercy to us, teach us to show mercy to our enemies and the friends who’ve betrayed us.
Thank you for establishing your kingdom here in the wizarding world-an upside down kingdom where infants disarm dark lords, the foolish speak truth, and those who gain power are those who don’t seek it. Thy kingdom come.
But its not just that JK Rowling showed us the supernatural through Hogwarts and Harry and Hermione and the others, she also helped make it easier to see it and to explore it and to enter into it. I remember when Harry Potter first became popular, it was decried by some in religious circles as satanic and a danger to children – the magical world would suck them in, away from God, and spit them out into an evil and harsh world. I think, however, that the opposite might be true – that through the exploration into the mystical in Harry Potter and in Narnia and Lord of the Rings and others, we see that through trust and companionship, the yoke of the journey is “good” and can be borne and has a just and righteous end.
Today we hear Jesus, the gentle master call to us, “all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens.” Jesus here is talking to those who are on the religious journey, seeking God, and relationship with God. He is calling to himself the religiously exhausted – those who see the mystical and spiritual life as beyond their abilities, who are tired of the usual ways of finding some peace with the divine and have achieved only frustration.
The real clue to this is the fact that a yoke was the common symbol for the Law of Moses, especially for the details of the law and the minute, ever-expanding demands of the legalism of the Pharisees. And throughout his gospel, Matthew presents an exaggerated picture of the Pharisees, a caricature as it were. This is why Jesus says that the wise and intelligent – the religious leaders – have missed the point. He then adds that only the Son knows the Father.
The yoke of the Pharisees, their demands that you have to do this and this and this exactly right in order to matter to God, in order to be a decent person, in order to be loved or counted significant – that yoke Jesus rejects, even though it was the yoke of the wise and intelligent.
That yoke, the yoke of seeking God by keeping the rules, by doing what somebody or anybody or everybody else says is the thing to do, by trying to get it right all the time and so living constantly in fear of getting it wrong, that yoke leads those who wear it to “labor and be heavy laden.” It leads to living in what Paul just called “this body of death.” It leads to a religion and a life of fearful obedience to a multitude of petty dictates where the spirit is deadened, and where some measure of success is more likely to lead you into self-righteousness than into the heart of God.
To go scurrying about with the notion that if we could only figure out the right thing to do – the right way to act, the right words to say, the right way to do the rituals – then we would be all right, is to skate on the edge of magic, as if we could conjure up God’s acceptance. It will only ensure frustration and exhaustion. God’s presence with us and God’s love for us are never the results of our actions. He is in charge; we are not.
In response to all of this, Jesus says, “Come to me.”
Not to a new law, not to a new teaching, not to a secret interpretation or a hidden loophole, not to a list; but “to me.” Come to Jesus.
“If you seek God; if you seek love; if you seek a life that makes some sense; if you want a way of understanding the world that allows you to deal honestly with what happens and not be destroyed; if you want to be who you are created to be – if you want this, then come to me.”
It’s a call to relationship – to relationship with Jesus and to relationship with the community that continues Jesus’ life and ministry. Remember today’s collect, in which we are reminded that God has taught us that all the commandments are kept by loving God and our neighbor. Such is the yoke of Christ.
One more thing: In many translations, Jesus calls his yoke “easy.” Now, that’s an unfortunate English word; it makes it sound like everything’s a snap, that very little effort or energy is required to do it. And as anyone who has tried to live the life of Jesus knows, that’s just not true. The New English Bible’s translation is better: It reads, “My yoke is good to bear.”
The point is not that this yoke, the Lord’s call to relationship, makes no difference or asks nothing of us – quite the contrary. The point is that it fits, it’s the right size, so it works – it leads to God, and it brings with it wholeness and a peace.
To come to Jesus is to discover, as Paul discovered, when he asked, “Who will rescue me from this body of death?….Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” Indeed, “there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”
We are invited to a new yoke, not to a law, or to a set of rules, but to a person and a community built around that person. And the yoke is good to bear. It leads to life.
Jesus said, “Come to me if you seek God, if you seek life, I will give you rest.”