Genesis 24:34-67, Psalm 145:8-14, Romans 7:15-25, Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30
Imagine a very large church – maybe our St. Mark’s Cathedral in Seattle. Imagine going into it on a quiet day to see what it’s like. Going in as a tourist, maybe. You sit down in a pew to rest your feet. You gaze around, and you realize you’re hearing a voice. It’s not the verger, asking if you’d like a tour. It’s not a homeless person sheltering in this warm place, upset that you’re being a disturbance.
It’s music. It’s a child’s voice! A clear, pure voice. There’s sunlight streaming through the beautiful windows, and it colors everything you see. The child’s voice rises into that color and fills every bit of space. Singing hymns. Advent hymns, Christmas hymns, hymns for Epiphany, everyday hymns for the long green season. You are enchanted.
Finally the voice stops, you hear the sound of a book closing and the singer appears. He’s not very big – he’s maybe about nine. Let’s give him a name. How about Brendan? It turns out that he sings in the children’s choir in this church, and he was simply going through his hymnal, singing his favorite hymns.
He invites you to sit with him for Evening Prayer. Before the service begins, he helps you find your place in the Prayer Book (as if you need the help). He whispers rather loudly. He squirms. Kicks his feet. Points out interesting features of “his” church. Some adults in surrounding pews glare at him, but he seems not to notice them. Or -- he chooses not to notice them.
Children are like that. Persistent – and perceptive. He has chosen to sit by an adult who will be patient with him.
In today’s Gospel Jesus is using the image of children singing in the marketplace. They’re singing to make a point. Usually singing children project a playful image of innocence, like Brendan’s. An image of light-hearted fun. Think of jump-rope songs. Playground songs.
But Jesus is putting a very different slant on this image. This children’s chanting is sharp-edged. They have a serious message: they’re saying -- We’re trying to tell you adults something really important, but you keep ignoring us. We give you every chance, but you still ignore us. That’s a pretty powerful image, one such as Jesus is quite capable of painting.
Jesus himself might have been feeling like the children here. Ignored. John the Baptist had been preaching and baptizing, but now that he’s in prison, Jesus has taken up his ministry of teaching. Both men have been calling the people to return to a faithful life, albeit in very different ways. John preached a confrontational message and modeled an ascetic lifestyle; he wasn’t invited to many dinner tables. Jesus’s lifestyle suggested a somewhat more joyful announcement of the coming of the kingdom. He ate and drank with all sorts of folks without reservation (for that matter, without reservations). Yet he was accused of being a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners. Evidently neither John nor Jesus could win.
What was wrong with all those people? Couldn’t they see that John and Jesus were inviting them to return once again to a faithful living out of their covenant, to a more honest living out of the law that says to love as you would be loved, to behave towards others as you would want them to behave towards you, to follow Bishop Curry’s Way of Love? Jesus even tells his listeners that if they would just come to him, he would lovingly give them rest. If they would take his yoke on themselves, they’d find it easy and his burden light. That sounds wonderful – and simple -- and doable. Or does it?
‘Course not. At least it’s not simple – because like Paul, we still struggle with accepting Jesus’s message. In his letter to the Romans, Paul says – For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want--is what I do. Does that feel familiar?
Unhappily we tend to condemn or ignore people who demand that we consider how selfish and damaging our own lifestyles can be, to the environment, to the economy, and to those around us. We’re tempted to condemn those who tell us to change. Sadly when we observe people who take Jesus’s command to love and respect all God’s people – we’re apt to see that they are being condemned or ignored. And we might feel insulted when people challenge us to model that love – after all, aren’t we already doing that?
Nevertheless, often in our hearts we know the good we want to do, but when push comes to shove, we shirk it, or we give in to the evil we don’t want to do. I’m getting uncomfortable with that word “evil.” Close your eyes and picture evil. OK. Now think about not getting the kitchen floor mopped today – putting it off until tomorrow even though you promised to get it done. Or putting off making a phone call that you really should make. Or ignoring someone’s street corner plea for alms because if you give away the last of what’s in your pocket, you won’t have enough for that orange mocha latte that you’ve been craving all day. Those aren’t good things, but are they evil? They’re not evil the same way extreme cruelty is. But in God’s eyes, do you think evil is evil is evil?
Let’s consider what it is that makes it seem easier to do evil. Perhaps it seems easier to look out for ourselves, instead of putting effort into giving of ourselves to others. It can be easier to keep company with folks who are just like us rather than to put effort into listening to different ideas or rubbing elbows with people who don’t look or act just like us. (I’m not sure I should be preaching this here when we look at all that St. Mark’s and Chaplains do for others. But it does behoove us to be conscious of why we are doing it.) Nevertheless we might admit that in the church -- in Christian churches in general -- they might prefer to say we’ve “always done it this way” instead of trying something new, and maybe better.
Funny. It’s pretty easy to see a problem and understand the solution for the folks back in Jesus’s time, but we find it hard to make those same connections in our own lives. Rather like, from the 7th chapter of Matthew, “First take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye” (7:5).
Let’s think again about Jesus’s image of the children singing to us, and what they’re conveying. They offer us lots of messages in their many songs. Maybe even songs about yokes.
Those children’s songs – and John the Baptist – and Jesus himself – invite us to accept a yoke. Not a heavy wooden yoke such as Jesus, in his carpenter days, might have made for their neighbors’ oxen. But a loving yoke, a lightweight yoke, a light burden, such as Jesus the Son of God offers us. I picture bamboo yokes in China or Vietnam. They weigh much less than the yokes for oxen. And are the burdens we would balance on those yokes really that heavy?
Jesus offers his lighter yoke – and rest. So we can rest from our burdens – because Jesus will take them off our shoulders. It makes me think of the calligraphy on the wall in my bedroom. It says “Before you go to bed give your troubles to God -- He’s going to be up all night anyway.”
That’s not saying that we are being offered the chance to dump all our cares and work on Jesus when he talks about giving us rest. He’s offering us his yoke as the symbol of obedience to God -- not an oxen’s yoke, not even a human yoke so that we can haul two heavy buckets of water at the same time; it’s a metaphorical yoke. Like any other yoke, it makes bearing burdens easier.
If we can accept simultaneously his offer of the yoke and his offer of rest, we might begin to see more clearly the connection (dare I say the yoke?) between Jesus and the Father, and then see that same yoking connection between God and ourselves. Once we understand that, Paul tells us, we will be able to speak of God to others. Our lives will be yoked to and bound by and directed by the laws of the kingdom of God, the laws of love. We will be able to follow the Way of Love, as our Presiding Bishop says.
I was looking for something clever or trenchant or even funny to end this with, and I ran across some bits of wisdom from children. You might choose which one you like best.
No matter how hard you try, (you’ve probably heard this before):
You cannot baptize a cat.
You can’t trust a dog to keep an eye on your food.
And my favorite: Never let a three-year-old hold a ripe tomato