“My Yoke Is Easy” (Matthew 11.30), given on 5th July 2020
One of the things which I’ve very much missed in our worship during lockdown is the music and the hymn-singing, for me such an important part of worship. And sadly the music hasn’t come over well on Zoom. So I was delighted when Georgie managed last week to get a good version of “O Lord, hear my prayer” (the Taize chant) which came over well, and I was able to sing along with it. It made such a difference.
And then for to-day, as I read through the Gospel reading, ending with Jesus’ words “My yoke is easy”, I found myself singing the Chorus “His yoke is easy…… and his burden is light” from Handel’s Messiah; and it has stayed at the forefront of my mind all week. I’ll come back to that.
It has amazed me how relevant our recent weekly Bible readings have been to the current situation. Bishop John was talking about ‘Liminality’, a time between two different situations or stages, with the challenge of leaving the old and familiar, and preparing for the new and different. Then Jenny H spoke about the ways we may respond to the challenge of change – just plodding on hoping for the best? Or rushing in blithely with new ideas and methods? Or with careful thought and research and planning? And whichever you do, there’s always the possibility of unforeseen difficulties, or unpopularity. Very challenging. And last Sunday Georgie was focusing on the need for welcoming, always being available, open and hospitable in how we proceed – with the likelihood of there being a cost, and possibly misunderstanding and opposition, just as Jesus warned his disciples. And our readings from Matthew’s Gospel spoke to each topic. Amazing.
Now, today’s reading (Matthew 11.16-19, 25-30) falls into three parts. First, the “singing, playing and dancing” (or lack of) part, where Jesus is commenting on the negative, critical response of so many of the people he was meeting. We have the saying “You can’t please all of the people all of the time.” For him it was more a case of “You can’t please ANY of the people ANY of the time!”
There’s a risk of this happening in the Church’s response as it adapts to new circumstances. Will the “tried and tested” still be satisfactory? Or will we have to use different methods to gain people’s attention and interest, which some say has been stimulated by the personal challenges of the lockdown, so that many new people have been viewing On-Line worship. Will what they see and hear continue to speak to them? And though attention needs gaining and keeping, it shouldn’t be a matter of finding what will simply “tickle people’s fancies” - with the risk of needlessly upsetting other folk and putting them off. We will need to seek carefully what’s likely to be best and to work best.
This leads to the second part in the reading, where Jesus reflects on the will and the mind of God, and gives thanks for it being revealed to Him, and through Him to his committed followers. We will need to remember that it’s the “Good News” we’re concerned with, and with communicating it and sharing it widely, in ways which are effective and genuine. So this time needs to be for us one of deep prayerfulness, as we seek guidance and keep our focus – what is the message? How best do we communicate it? What will “speak”? What will “work”? The “between time”, now, is important – to review, to rethink, to be refreshed.
Then, part three: the yoke. The Old Testament and the Pharisees spoke of “carrying the yoke of the Torah” (the Law, the Commandments and customs of God’s people). It was every Jew’s task and responsibility to carry that load faithfully, to “represent” true godliness – rather like us carrying on the Christian tradition. This was a heavy load.
Now, do you remember when you were a youngster and helping your mother to bring home the shopping from town? Or carrying the cases when you went on holiday (no wheels on cases then!) and your parents said “make sure you get two equally balanced bags/cases – it’ll be less effort, and more manageable.” That’s exactly what a yoke did – it balanced the weight to make it manageable. (And of course farming communities have known and practised this until only a few generations ago.) A well-fitting yoke, especially one made personally for you, made a heavy load possible, almost . . . easy – not in the sense of easy-peasy, no-problem, but manageable.
Here Jesus is contrasting the ill-fitting yoke of the Old Covenant, which folk found a burden, with his own specially crafted yoke, made to measure for each disciple. So, is he saying to us – learn from me, individually as a disciple, corporately as a Christian community; discover YOUR duty, YOUR particular share of the ‘load’ - through my guidance. And you will find that your yoke is well-fitting for the task, because it’s for YOU (I don’t use your yoke and you don’t use mine). And the load may well be challenging, hard-going, demanding, tiring . . . . . BUT YOU’LL COPE, and the load will not seem so heavy.
In the 1970s when the Charismatic Renewal was in its early days, we used to sing a very simple song: “Praise Him, praise Him, praise Him in the morning, praise Him in the noontide, praise Him, praise Him when the sun goes down”. And it had a verse which went: “Trust Him . . . . .”
So alongside Mr. Handel’s “His yoke is easy . . .” I’m going to be humming “Trust Him . . . when the sun goes down” as well.
It’s very easy and tempting to think that The Trinity is an “in” and esoteric topic for theologians and the like – far too complicated for us ordinary folk. Sorry; no, it’s not like that at all. It is very practical – for our thinking, our praying, our being a Christian, our faith in everyday life, our whole relationship with God, especially in times of challenge, change, unusual circumstances, decision-making.
Basically it’s about the main aspects, or facets, of God’s-nature-as-He-relates-to-us, or (if you like) as we experience Him. Remember, the word “Person” (Persona) meant a “Character” in a Roman theatre drama, as represented by a mask, by which you could recognise the character. So “Three Persons, one God” doesn’t imply three different centres of personality or being, but three main aspects, expressions of God’s Being.
First, there’s the Father figure (some today would want to include the Mother aspect as well) – the concept of the leading figure, head of the family, CEO, founder, owner, the sure foundation, one basically in control, overseeing, giving orders. making rules, offering suggestions and advice. That ‘Person’ needs to be there in our relationship and in our praying – especially in the listening, receiving part, as we try to discern guidance and insight. This doesn’t come necessarily as a direct “message from heaven” or as instructions in a handbook – although it may sometimes be like that; but more likely “. . . as things seem to work out as I pray through them.” As in “Mmmm, it seems all right, though I didn’t think so at first;” or someone says something, or you read something (especially in the bible), or words of a song or a hymn come to mind, that somehow “speak” to the situation. Yes, for some of us, on occasions, there may be a vivid encounter or a “voice”, but for most of us most of the time it’s less dramatic. I can think of instances of all the above, in my own experience and in the experience of others.
Then there’s the Son, the person of Jesus, our Saviour, our Lord, our Friend who walks by our side, often without our being aware of him. (You will doubtless recall the “Footprints” story, printed on Prayer Cards.) We need this aspect of God, because “The Almighty” can seem very remote, He doesn’t really understand, he’s not a human being, he hasn’t been through it . . . . Ah, but Jesus has. His knowledge and experience of human life with all its sufferings, and his friendship are vital for us.
And, of course, He is my Saviour, who personally delivers the Father’s forgiveness, can free me from my impurities, and shields me from spiritual harm. I need to know Jesus personally, not just as an amazing figure from the past, but personally present in my heart. I need to have invited Jesus into my life. For some people this initial awareness of Jesus’ personal presence is a marked decision, an event, an encounter. For others of us, it has been a process. But one way or the other, he is there; that’s the important thing.
Then there’s the Holy Spirit. This is where we’re into the practicalities of “being a Christian” - the feeling that we ought to undertake this, or think of doing that, or becoming the other; there’s the need to do something about this failing or this talent . . . . God seems to be saying and wanting something of me – and IT SEEMS IMPOSSIBLE. This was my experience when as a fairly new Vicar I believed that I needed to lead our Church in a new direction – not fundamentally “different”, but as a development. And I had the overwhelming feeling “I can’t.” But after prayer and loving ministry from others, there was a gradually increasing sense of “Yes, you can – WITH ME. Make a start.”
There will be occasions when it seems necessary to say something, pray something, or do something, especially for someone in trouble, with a problem or a need, or in a situation where there’s a need to move on, to develop, not stand still – and we feel “Lord, you expect me to . . . ?” We need to sense the response: “Yes, I’m WITH you – I’m IN you – and I will work THROUGH you.” We may need a time of prayer and ministry with a helpful person in order to “get going”, and specifically to ask “Lord, equip me with you Spirit . . . .”; and then we have to step out in faith and do what’s necessary when the opportunity comes. It probably won’t be anything spectacular. You may well soon forget all about it; and later on the person will say, “Do you remember when you said. . . ., told me . . . . , did such and such, helped me with . . . .whatever?” And you’ll truthfully say “No – no recollection of this.” But THEY have, and it was very important to them.
Last Sunday, Pentecost, Georgie said that there might well not be a “getting back to normal” exactly as it was, for the Church; and that to be the Church in the future effectively we are going to need to exercise the Gifts and the Fruit of the Spirit much more – and that’s not just one or two leaders, but many of us, perhaps everyone. So we need the ministry of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit (different focuses and roles in God’s activity), not just in our personal faith and lives, but also in our Christian service to others as ordinary Church members.
So, “All praise to the Holy Spirit, who alone enables us to call God our Father, and Jesus our Lord.”
Readings: Psalm 86,1-10. Matt.10.24-39
Last week Bishop John brought a word to us that many people had not heard before but which describes these anxious times we are living through; Liminality. That state of transition between one stage and the next in one’s life. A feeling of standing on a threshold, unable to go back but anxious about what is to come. In life the temptation is to rush from one stage to the next to get “through the gap between” as fast as possible, for example if you lose your job you try to get another one as fast as you can without thinking well maybe this is a time for a new direction, a new challenge. No, we usually prefer the status quo because that liminal space is uncomfortable, a time when change is happening and we don’t know what it’s going to bring.
The temptation is to try and stand still, like those people now who still have to be shielded in case they get the virus, which because of their state of health would probably kill them. But most people do not come and to that category and there are many who are still hiding away through fear, or refusing to pick up the threads of their lives because they are enjoying the respite from the trials and toil of life. Many others of course have to just keep on carrying on, their livelihood depends on it, or other peoples lives depend on them. They have not had the breathing space that has been granted to others, which is a shame because even though we may have found the lock down period a great trial it has also given us time to stop , reflect and pray about how life could be, may be should be in the future.
What does our gospel reading have to say to help us faced with an uncertain future as were the disciples when they no longer had their Lord among them in the flesh. Jesus knew they’d be scared, but they had no need to be, they were safe in God’s care despite what their enemies might do, and would do. He had their souls safe. They like us were probably worried about their bodies too!
And really no wonder. The next bit of teaching is very hard. “I have not come to bring peace but a sword” ugh! Don’t like that. And the rest of the passage goes on in similar vein. To be a follower of Christ was not going to bring about a bed of roses, Disharmony between people even in families, understanding that putting God first, and following Christ and his example is more important than tribal loyalties. This is a very hard message especially for people like me who value peace and concord between peoples as the most important thing, Jesus even said Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called the children of God.
However as followers of Jesus we have to stand up against things we see are wrong and not what he has taught. His most important lesson is one of a God of love, we need to hang on to that, while fighting injustice and those issues in our world today we can see are spoiling our world. Where things are unjust, downright wicked like the unjust treatment of black people, corruption in government and of people in positions of power, the greediness of those who have plenty over those who have not enough, people and institutions that exploit the poor, the weak, the worlds resources and despoil the planet for the sake of profit, well we need to stand up and be counted, but not with rioting or acts of violence, which breeds more and more conflict and violence, but with love and kindness, and the power of reasoned argument and doing whatever we can to support whatever is good and true, through prayer, example and personal action.
I have a friend in Lancashire called Felicity. If either of us writes something which might be published somewhere we send a draft of what we have written and ask, ‘comments please’. She responds – brutally: it is no use to me otherwise…. ‘You are repeating yourself’ … ‘Sentence too long’ … ‘What are you talking about’. It is a humiliating experience. She does the same when she writes something. Three weeks ago Felicity sent me the draft of an article she had been asked to write. I saw the word ‘liminality’. I commented ‘Nobody will know what you mean’ … She said, ‘everybody knows it’. I replied ‘nonsense’ and every time in the last couple of weeks I have zoomed someone I asked them – and they didn’t: one or two thought it was vaguely something to do with borders. I told Felicity. Apparently psychiatrists and sociologists talk about little else but as I am neither I hadn’t a clue what she was talking about. I had to look it up.
It’s a useful word because it describes where you and I are now. It means the process of passing from one way of life to another and what people feel and experience as they do so. Can you remember leaving school. Looking backwards it seemed as though all your life has been one thing - school. Looking forwards there is a new landscape - whole lot of possibilities – work, college, apprenticeships, gap year – new relationships, leaving home. And you have choice. Think of setting up home with someone else. Think of bereavement of someone close to you – the future is uncertain; the past has gone and will not come back.
Virtually the whole world is in this situation of liminality. The old has gone and, vaccine or no, we are in a new landscape. We can only see part of the future and we don’t much like what we see … unemployment … businesses going bust … only place for a holiday is a day at Skegness … social life changed. Have you noticed how our horizons have shortened? What are we going to do next week is often as far as we can go.
There are three parts to a liminal situation – before, during and after. And we can react in different ways:
Some people want to go back to the comfort of the past where we knew where things were. We have got to face up to the fact that everything is changed. Even the boss of Marks and Spencers has said ‘shopping will never be the same again’. Some are excited by new possibilities – which you want is probably up to personality – some people are ‘half full’ people, others are ‘half empty’.
And the second part of liminality is where we are now. For many it is difficult – and for the sick and those who are shielded (and their families), very difficult. Some are very frightened … some just bury their heads … some see new possibilities.
And the future – literally ‘God knows’.
The Bible reading describes a liminal time for the apostles. Jesus called them all together and said ‘You have seen me heal people. Now you go out and do it. As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near’. I have shown you what to do - now you go and copy me.
‘Lord, we would much rather see you do it’
Jesus raises their spirits:
‘See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves.’ A hostile world
“The harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers into his harvest.”
Disciples must have thought, ‘Here I am Lord, send him or better still, send her’.
Later Jesus did the same with 72 of his followers with the same instructions.
A liminal moment. His followers found they could operate without Jesus being there. They came back thankfully to Jesus, excited and thrilled.
It was a foretaste of what was to come later.
But these were only trial runs. After the ascension there was no wonderful Jesus to run back to. That is what Ascension and Pentecost is all about – ‘I am leaving you – now you go and do the same as you have seen me do. Go in the name of my Father, saved by my cross and filled with my Spirit and do and be the same’.
Think back to the disciples: they liked following Jesus around – He was famous – they had a bit of kudos when all the crowds came: like being the groupies of a rock star. He sorted out their squabbles, taught them wonderful things – even if they were a bit mysterious. But now Jesus said ‘You are on your own … go and preach the gospel yourselves’.
I can see why Felicity is talking about liminality. We are all there. The past is truly past. Some hope it is just a matter of getting through a few more weeks and everything will be back to normal. It won’t. We are facing what a lot of people are calling ‘a new normal’. We have mistreated nature and nature has bitten back - hard.
What about us Christians – we have suddenly been chucked out of the safety zone of our churches? We may or may not be able to creep back into them soon. But it will not be the same – my friends in Germany are allowed back now – they say they have to sit as far away from each other as possible, wear a face mask and never sing. They are given communion from behind a plastic screen keeping two metres from each other.
We have needed a different spiritual life – less dependent on church services and sacraments and fellowship. Just us alone with God – and Zoom. I could say much more on this but think how things have changed for us all.
There are many people facing their own liminality – their own new and rather desolate landscape. Young people are saying, ‘Where am I going to get a job? I’m supposed to go to college but I can’t meet anybody. When can I get together with my family?
There are threats all around – threats to health, threat to businesses, threats to our relationships. We are in a time of ‘liminality’ and it is very uncomfortable.
For Christians there is a rock. ‘Jesus Christ is the same, yesterday, today and forever’ (Heb.13.8).
Uncertain times – but the same unchanging Christ.
Worrying times – but the same dependable Christ.
Foggy times – but the same Christ to lead us into the unknown future.