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My burdon is ... worthwhile

Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

Sunday Sermon

The Rev. Dr. Thomas A. Thoeni
Rector

Jul. 5, 2020

Text for today's sermon, Sunday, July 5, 2020
When I was in college, the president of the university used to say that only 1% of your education happens in the classroom; 99% of learning takes place outside of the normal lectures a professor would give. I would have to agree.

In fact, one of the great gifts of being in college is the number of opportunities for extra-curricular activities various shows, concerts and events, including guest lecturers.

One person who made an impact on me was the artist, George Sugarman.  He was a successful and prominent sculptor who visited my campus when I was in art school.  I don’t remember much about his lecture except for one quote.

Surprisingly for a sculptor, his lecture was on drawing and he told us that if we worked with charcoal or pencils we had only two tools in our toolbox: line and shading.  That’s all you can do when you draw in black and white.  You can place a line on the page or add shading to a page.

I have often thought of that in regards to being a preacher because in my vocation I really only have one tool in my tool box: my vocabulary. That is why words are so important to me.  That is why I am so curious to discover the words behind the words of our Sunday readings.

Sometimes the translations from Greek or Hebrew offer insights the English doesn’t offer. For instance, most often when the word world occurs in the New Testament, the Greek text doesn’t mean the earth and all that we see.  Instead the Greek text uses the word cosmos; a word we understand to mean the universe.  That gives a different perspective to such verses as, “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son.…”

Sometimes in studying the words and translation of a text I discover that a well known phrase from the Bible is actually a poor translation from the Greek or Hebrew.  We have a good example of that in today’s Gospel reading.

Our Lord says, “… my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”  My yoke is easy.  This is a commonly quoted passage, especially for Evangelicals, to highlight the comfort and rest that we can find in Jesus.  But it is a poor translation, though it is a very common poor translation.  Of the 20 different versions I checked, seventeen of them rendered this passage with the words easy.  But a common error is still an error.

So what is a better translation?  What does the Greek really say?  Part of the reason this is so commonly mistranslated is because there is really no English word that corresponds to the Greek here.  

But there are Bibles that mine the depth of this passage.  Eugene Peterson is a Prebyterian pastor who worked for years studying the Bible and producing a book called The Message.  It is an interesting blend of both translation and paraphrasing.  At times he fleshes out passages and provides a piercing and meaningful rendering of what the text means as well as what it says.

His version of the final verses of today’s reading offers a wonderful wording of this well-known but poorly understood passage.

Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you'll recover your life. I'll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won't lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you'll learn to live freely and lightly.

The unforced rhythms of grace…. That is, I believe what Jesus meant when he called us to a life that is useful but not necessarily easy. Our Lord is telling us that what he calls us to bear as his disciples is valuable, useful, worthy of our effort.

One focus of the Gospel of Matthew is the demand that Jesus places on his disciples. Throughout the Gospel, Jesus presents a call that is not easy but one that is worthy of our devotion. 

It was common during the age of the Gospels to question the validity and authority of the Pharisees and the keepers of the official faith and practices of Judaism.  Each of the Gospels, in its own way, presents Jesus as the true and authoritative leader of the people of God. Each of the Gospels tell us of the call Jesus placed on his disciples and upon us.  This call was not one of ease but of sacrifice and faithfulness.  But neither was it a call to burdens or drudgery.  

The Judaism of Jesus’ day was based on the Law of Moses, a set of 613 laws that proscribed and prescribed how a person would live, love, work, worship, play, raise children.  These laws were so sacred that many other strictures were developed to ensure that no offenses against God would be committed.  

But over time these mandates became the object of devotion itself.  Keeping the rules replaced devotion to God as the primary focus. It was in this light that Jesus told us, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens….” It was in this light that our Lord told us that his call, his discipline, was useful, worthy and valuable.  Jesus’ focus was on faithfulness to God and not to a set of rules.

Rules can be useful.  We as humans need limits and moral boundaries. But when the boundaries and rules become our primary focus they become idols that turn our focus away from God.

To this temptation Jesus offers hope and clarity. He calls us to set aside the burdens we take on thinking they will make us more holy.  He calls us instead, to take up a life with him.  He calls us to be yoked with him, to be in partnership with him. This connection, this relationship is one that brings us life, not death; a life worth living, not one of fear and dread; a life of call and vocation, not one of mere rules and regulations.

It is unfortunate that this phrase we hear this morning is so commonly mistranslated.  It is more important that we as humans seek what is valuable and worthy than seeking what is easy.  That is, after all, part of why we seek God.  We seek God to understand and know that there is more to this life than a life of ease.  Part of being human is to seek a life of purpose and worth. Part of the call of being a disciple of Jesus is seeking to live a life of purpose and worth. In this light our Lord calls us to live and work and love with him. Or, again to quote Eugene Peterson,

"Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won't lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you'll learn to live freely and lightly.”

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