|Sermon by: The Rev. R. Casey Shobe
Episcopal Church of the Transfiguration | Dallas, Texas
July 9, 2017
Fifth Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 9
“Yoke of Jesus” Proper 9A
As best as I can tell, everyone who longs to know God lives in a tension between grace and works. On the one hand, we want to believe in a God of grace, a God who comes to us totally unprompted, who isn’t perturbed by our faults and failings, and whose love isn’t earned by all our little dog and pony shows. On the other hand, we live in a scorekeeping-obsessed world, so it’s hard to get the idea out of our head that there really is a big scoresheet to life. As Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “I may believe that I live by God’s grace, but I act like a scout collecting merit badges…I may believe that my life depends on God’s grace, but I act like it depends on me and how many good deeds I can perform, as if every day were a talent show and God had nothing better to do than keep up with my score.”
Here I’ll be honest with you: I want God to notice my merit badges. I want God to notice my little song and dance and give me a good score. I always have…and I know that many of you labor under this same desire, too. It’s the idea that good people get what they deserve, and bad people get what they deserve. Good actions get God’s favor and blessing, and bad deeds get God’s ire and condemnation. (And obviously I’m the former.)
Now, there are two big problems with a scorekeeping faith. The first is theological, and is articulated no better than in the letter of Paul to the Romans that we’re hearing in church on Sundays this summer. In it, Paul is very clear that God is not persuaded by our good deeds to love us. God is inherently loving, and there is no amount of good deeds that can or ever will “buy” God’s love or favor, as though life is some sort of cosmic transaction. Because to believe we can acquire God’s love by some action on our part eventually leads us to believe that we are in charge of our own salvation, that we can “good-deed” ourselves into heaven. But one of the most fundamental Christian truths is that we can’t. We need a Savior. We need Jesus Christ.
But the second big problem with a scorekeeping faith is much more practical, and I would say, observable, in that it simply doesn’t match what we see in real life. When you really pay attention, it turns out that there is no correlation between people who do good – who are truly, genuinely selfless and kind and generous – and the sort of rewards they receive in life. Life is not fairly balanced in its rewards for the good, because God is not a vending machine into which we pump prayers and nice actions to extract good things back, good things typically being prosperity and happiness and good health.
The most obvious examples of this truth are the saints, down through the centuries, who are models of righteousness, and if anyone deserved to get God’s good treatment because of how they lived, it was these women and men. But history shows us that they often faced grueling hardships and crises and difficulties. And the same is typicially true for the faithful today. In just the last few months, I’ve noticed that some of the best people I know, people who actually do the sorts of things the rest of us generally give lip service to – things like taking in foster children, or spending dozens of hours each month volunteering for charities, or even leaving the corporate rat race behind and going to work full-time trying to help others – these folks are also facing cancer or grappling with how to help their struggling kids or trying to overcome addiction or dealing with bitter turmoil at their business. They are some of the best people I know, and some of the most faithful, and yet their lives are far from easy or simple or smothered in some sort of “prosperity.” So, from pure observation, it doesn’t make sense to say that God operates on a scoresheet and rewards people according to their good deeds.
Actually, it turns out that the Apostle Paul believed quite the opposite. In the bit of Romans we heard this morning, Paul has this to say: “I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand.” He was talking about his own situation, and the struggle he had consistently doing what is right. But I believe he’s describing something that stands up to observation for all people. Those who risk their lives for the sake of others, those who are selfless and compassionate and brave and step into complicated and perilous places of our world specifically in order to serve the Kingdom of God, they often experience greater hardships than those who sit on the sidelines of life, passively believing things but not doing anything in response. I have found that those who not only want to love God with every fiber of their being and their neighbors as themselves, but are really doing it, they often reap further challenges, not rewards. As Paul says, in such cases evil lies close at hand, ready to put up stumbling blocks, to lay traps, to cause havoc, to weaken and degrade and exhaust the righteous.
A decent litmus test to know if you’re living a bold and righteous life is whether or not you get push-back. If you think you’re loving and serving like Jesus, and things actually get easier and better and safer for you, it probably means you’re headed in the wrong direction. On the other hand, if things get harder and more complicated, if it feels like some sort of cruel force is mounting against you, then it probably means you’re headed in the right direction. Some of this push-back is internal; it happens in our own minds and hearts. Paul seems to have struggled with this, and I know I do, too. It’s the voice of cynicism and pettiness and weariness that whispers at us as we consider how to do what we know to be right, a sinister little voice that slowly twists and perverts our good intentions or convinces us not to bother at all. Yes, evil can lurk within us, right in our own hearts and minds.
But some of the push-back is genuinely external. It’s in the status quo of injustice that doesn’t seem to budge; it’s in the genuinely malicious people who say and do cruel things to us; or it’s in the financial problems that make us so worried about our families or our homes or our futures that we give up on our noble pursuits. I just reread Taylor Branch’s Pulitzer Prize-winning history of America in the 1950s and 60s, and the resistance he describes to the Civil Rights movement is this sort of evil force, a mix of hate and racism and apathy, which combined to besiege those who poured out their lives for the sake of justice.
“I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand.”
Well, as Christians we do the good not because it earns us easier lives, nor because God is counting our merit badges so that we can earn a reward, and certainly not so that we can earn God’s love, but because doing the good is simply what we are made for. It is who we meant to be, and what we meant to do. Loving God and loving our neighbor is not a game we play to score points, but a command that aligns with the divine image implanted deep down in our core. When we act sacrificially and graciously and lovingly, when we behave righteously, we are enacting the truest versions of ourselves. We are being who we are meant to be. It’s not about earning something, or getting something, it’s about being who God made us to be. Even though it’s hard, even though it may seem strange and foreign at first. Even though evil may lie close at hand and retaliate against our efforts.
But if this seems daunting and intimidating, if it seems like I’ve just made the worst pitch for the Christian life in the history of preaching, just remember the invitation of Jesus: “Come to me all who are weary and 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.” (Mt 11:27-30) I’ll tell you, I used to wonder if Jesus was being a bit ironic here about his yoke being easy and his burden being light. I mean, elsewhere he tells us to take up our crosses, which doesn’t sound easy or light to me. But in recent years I’ve come to learn something about yokes that helped me understand that Jesus isn’t being ironic or snarky. Some of you likely already knew this, but it turns out there are two basic kinds of yokes that can be used to bear burdens: single ones and shared ones. Single yokes are efficient. By placing a yoke across the shoulders and fitting buckets hung from poles on either side, a person can carry an impressive weight. You won’t be able to bear the burden long, and your back will throb and ache, and you’ll have to set it down fairly often, but it is possible to transport large weights from one place to another with a single yoke.
But a shared yoke works differently. It takes at least two creatures, of course, but if they are well matched, these two creatures yoked together can carry a load all day long. That’s because in a shared yoke, one can rest while the other pulls. They can cover for each other without ever laying the burden down, because the yoke is shared. They can take turns bearing the brunt of the load, and when the day is done, though they may both may be tired, neither is spent or exhausted, because they have worked as a team.
We are mistaken if we think that the only way to please God is to load ourselves down in a single yoke with the heaviness of good deeds and blameless lives. And we are mistaken if we think that whenever hardship befalls us, even when we’ve been doing our best to live out our God-given goodness in the world, that it’s because God doesn’t love us or care about us. And we are mistaken if we think that the burdens we shoulder are ours only, that in the end, it’s up to us alone to live out the enormous and difficult work of loving God and loving our neighbors as ourselves. Because when we accept Jesus’ invitation, when we join our lives to his, we are yoked together to one who has strength to bear the burden with us, and more than half the yoke lays across his shoulders. He knows how to help us through hardships and obstacles, how to resist the evil that lies close at hand whenever we pursue the good. He knows how to lighten our load and bring rest to our souls.
So come to him, all you are weary,
all you who carrying scoresheets,
all you who are facing slings and arrows
in response to goodness and mercy,
all you who are struggling to live out
your God-given goodness in a world run amok,
come to him,
yoke yourself to him,
and he will give you rest.
 Barbara Brown Taylor, The Seeds of Heaven (Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), 19.
 Taylor, 21.