Proper 9, Year A
"My yoke is easy and my burden is light" (Matthew 11:30).
Wasn't it just last week that we were hearing about how followers of Jesus must take up the cross? Cross-bearing is certainly NOT a picnic. Wasn't it just the week before last that we were hearing about how friends, neighbors, and family of Jesus' followers will hand them over for flogging and even death? How on earth could Jesus say that his burden is light?
But he does, in this Sunday's gospel. And it's true, for at least two reasons I can think of.
One is that the Cross is light, compared to some of the burdens that people and powers want to lay on us. I think about this all the time in the parish where I work now [but only weeks longer, due to staff cutbacks -- please feel free to download my C.V. if you need a consultant or staff person with expertise in congregational transition and development, formation, ministry with GenXers and the Millennial Generation, and biblical studies!]. As I've preached on before, our culture can lay some very heavy burdens on us if we don't examine very carefully and prayerfully the presuppositions we grow up with. The congregation I work in now is one of the most succesful groups of people I've ever been in. Incomes are far higher than average, houses are bigger and more expensive (great schools, right on waterfronts for sailing), careers are more prestigious, and cultural ideals of married two-parent families and white picket fences are disproportionately high.
And many, many people in this community are severely and almost constantly stressed. The high school youth group picked "Under Pressure" as the theme for their last retreat, and spoke, wrote, painted, sculpted, and prayed movingly about the pressure they feel to take all of the right classes, get the right S.A.T. score, participate and win prizes in innumerable extracurricular activities, get into the right university, and choose the right major so they can get afford to buy a house in a similar community and have kids who are achievers as they are. And that pressure starts earlier and earlier, felt even by kids in elementary school.
For the most part, they inherit that kind of pressure from their parents, who feel it just as keenly. The expensive houses that get kids into the right schools require very high mortgages. If just one thing goes wrong -- someone loses a job, a family member has a health crisis, the housing bubble bursts -- there's a LOT to lose. So it's all the more important to really shine at that 60-plus-hour-per-week job with the two-hour (or more, depending on traffic) commute. Those who don't move up often get moved out.
All of this comes at a very high price, and it can take a very heavy toll. And here's one of the saddest ironies of the whole thing:
Yes, part of what perpetuates this cycle is the way that parenting itself has become another arena for achievement (and for feeling guilty as well as shamed if we don't achieve highly enough), my experience suggests that the main fuel under this pressure cooker is an outgrowth of love, the desire to pass on the very best to our children and to give them every chance to be happy and fulfilled.
St. Paul could relate to those of us caught in this kind of viscious cycle, as he was at one point caught in one of his own. He loved God. Loving God means, among other things, loving God's word in scripture and striving to do God's will on earth. Paul's love was so visceral and so passionate that he felt personally charged with confronting those who got it wrong, and whose lives, however much guided by misguided ideals, were bringing disaster to themselves and to Israel. Paul's love was so deep, and so deep was his desire to see all nations streaming into a restored Zion under the leadership of the Christ, God's anointed, that it even drove him to persecute Christians. The irony, as Paul came to realize with Jesus' intervention on the road to Damascus, is that when he was persecuting Christians, he was persecuting the very Body of the Christ he sought.
But Jesus intervened. Jesus showed Paul not only that he was wrong about who in this situation was the vanguard of God's work (not Paul, but the Christians), but also that Paul was wrong about the solution (blessing, not persecution). So when Paul cries out in Romans 7, "who will rescue me from this body of death?" he knows the answer: Christ, and specifically, living in unity and engaging in ministry with the full Body of Christ. The zeal of Paul the persecutor was pure (by the way, in Acts, Paul is called "Saul" after his Damascus Road experience; he didn't change his name, but simply used the more Hebraic name among Hebrews and the more Greco-Roman name among gentiles), and was all the more destructive for its purity when it was even slightly misdirected. And when we get confused and start thinking that achievement is what will give us and our children abundant life, we get caught up in a cycle at least as seductive for us as Paul's cycle was for him ...
... until, that is, Jesus intervened. And that's the source of our hope too. One reason it's true that Jesus' burden is light is that it's light in comparison to the other burdens that fall on the shoulders of people who think they're going to be unencumbered. If we're not intentional about seeking the God of Israel as incarnated in Jesus, then our culture is only to happy to slip its own burdens on our shoulders -- all the pressure and anxiety of a life based around achievement and conformity to cultural ideals, an inheritance for our children that they start experiencing as their own as soon as they learn to read the worry on our faces. If that's the best someone is offering me, I think I'll go with whatever's behind door number two.
But more importantly, and most compellingly, we can say that Jesus' burden is easy and his yoke is light because it is. That I can opt out of the burdens my culture wants to place on me raises my hope that I might be able to opt in to something better, and the Good News is that the best option -- abundant, joyful life, freedom from anxiety, and real, deep, big-enough-for-the-world love is available to us in Christ Jesus. We bear the Cross not as one person alone, but with the whole Body of Christ, and Christ's presence with us brings strength, courage, and peace. When we confess Jesus as Lord, we are not only joining the triumphant and true king (or, as Desmond Tutu puts it, "the winning side," as God calls the poor and marginalized); we are becoming citizens of God's peaceable and just kingdom, "prisoners of hope" (Zechariah 9:12) even as we bear the Cross, restored and freed for eternal and abundant life in service and community with all whom God loves.
Thanks be to God!