Thursday, July 2, 2020

Prisoners of Hope (Reflections on Pentecost, 5, Year A)

Shoulder yoke | Photo Exhibits
“For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:30)

On hot and muggy July day 244 years ago, a colonial officer, Colonel John Nixon, stood in front of the Pennsylvania State House in Philadelphia and, with his booming stentorian voice, read aloud the text of a long document which declared that the American colonists were fed up with the crap they were taking from the British Crown and, since no redress of grievances seemed to be forthcoming, they just weren’t going to take it anymore. When the good colonel had finished his announcement, the bell in the State House was enthusiastically rung, proclaiming to all within earshot—and all the rest of us down through these 244 years—Americans[i] would henceforth be a free and sovereign people.

But what did “freedom” mean? What does it mean for us? Those enthusiastic colonists had to fight a bloody revolution to get free, and, when they’d achieved victory and thrown off the yoke of monarchial tyranny, they had to put the country back together again. The question would be how “free” is free? We still debate this. How much control should a government have? When a yoke is thrown off, what do we put back on? Some will always say government needs to get off our backs. “Don’t tell me how to live my life,” they say. “Government is doing too much!” Others will answer, “Government isn’t doing enough! We have a problem here, so why don’t they DO something about it..?!”

Yup. We Americans are typically human. That means we’re a pretty fickle bunch of folks. We’re just like the folks Jesus is dishing it out to in the Gospel lesson for Pentecost 5, Year A (Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30). I guess it’s hard to be a Savior when you’re dealing with folks who don’t seem to know what they want or what’s good for them. The people in Jesus’ day complained John the Baptist was too austere. Then they whined that Jesus was too liberal!

As wise or smart as we think we are, we sure seem to have a real hard time figuring out who we are or who we should be. Just look at our situation today. Every night on the TV news you see people with their shorts bunched up because they don’t want government in their face. They don’t want to be told they must wear a face covering in public. They don’t want government to shut down their business, or keep them from their gym, or tell them they can’t get a drink in a bar. On the other hand, they don’t want to catch or spread a potentially deadly viral infection either. Freedom can be a really puzzling paradox, can’t it?

You know who loved a good paradox? Martin Luther[ii]. In The Freedom of a Christian (1520), Luther wrote:

“A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none.”

That is, you are in charge of your own soul. No one can tell you how to worship God or how to believe—not priest, pastor, pope, or prince. You’re not even a slave to the Law, because obedience to the Law did not earn you Christ’s love. Christ gave you that love of his own free will. When you realized this, you were set free from sin, shame, and doubt. Of course, in the very next sentence Luther wrote:

“A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.”

So what’s up with this? Yeah, your soul is free, but free for what? You are free to choose of your own true and honest will to accept the bondage of the Law which pushes you to love God and love everyone else. If you love them, you will be their servant.

Sometimes this bondage and servitude may seem too heavy to bear. Nevertheless, Jesus promises us in the Gospel that his yoke is easy and his burden is light, and, should we choose to take his yoke upon us, he will give us rest. When we are finally released form the bondage of COVID-19, there will be more burdens to bear. Our congregation will be different. We’ll have to do the work of recreating a community that has been through an ordeal. We’ll have to hire a new Music Director and rebuild our worship program. When I look at what will need to be done, it seems exhausting.

The road ahead looks like the challenges faced by our colonial forebears who had set aside one yoke but needed to figure out what the next yoke should be. It’s also like the people of Judah in our Hebrew scripture lesson from Zechariah (Zechariah 9:9-12). They have been freed from bondage in Babylon, but now they have to figure out how to rebuild a nation in ruins. It looks like a tough job, and I have to wonder if they started to ask themselves if freedom was worth it.

But God always offers a word of hope. Zechariah tells them they’re on the road to a new kingdom. In this kingdom, the King won’t come busting in on a chariot or a war horse. He’ll ride humbly on a baby donkey, gently proclaiming peace. “Come,” he says, “all you who are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” It’s a word of hope, and it reminds me that, however tough the road ahead looks, a day will come when I’ll look back and say, “You know, that wasn’t really so hard after all.”

I can only ask God to make me that dutiful servant and prisoner. Like the folks in Zechariah’s day, we are politically set free, but we must always be prisoners of hope. Some say we can’t live on hope, but I maintain we can’t live without it.

Hope on, fellow servant, and enjoy the freedom of your bondage to Christ!

PS-For a shortened video version of this sermonette, click here.

[i] That is, Americans who were both white and debt-free. If you didn’t fall into those categories, you were still pretty much screwed.
[ii] Of course you knew that!

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