In rabbinical circles of Jesus day, when one spoke of a rabbi’s yoke, one was speaking of a set of teachings that the rabbi saw as being required of each person under the law. So when the young Pharisaical lawyer in today’s gospel asks Jesus, “What is the greatest commandment?”, he is asking Jesus to disclose his rabbinical yoke. Jesus tells him, “`You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: `You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” It is a clear, it is concise and it is a stunning statement. It is not original to Jesus of course, but it is his yoke – expressive of his way of living and moving in the world.
Earlier in Matthew’s gospel, in chapter eleven, we hear Jesus say:
‘Come to me, all you that are weary and are 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.’ (Matthew 11:28-30) So he is inviting those who would follow him to take his yoke of loving God and loving neighbor as their own. He describes this yoke as easy and light. And it was, in comparison to some of the other yokes offered by some other rabbis of that day whose yokes could be very detailed lists of regulations and restrictions - burdensome to understand and to adhere to.
But how do we hear these words of Jesus about his yoke in our present day world? Is Jesus yoke easy and light? In the complex world we live in we might look at this simple yoke – Love God, Love neighbor as self – and say “tell me more about how to do that!” It seems to me that one of the reasons that faith communities based on Biblical literalism grow in our present age is that people are looking for clear codes and detailed lists of rules to follow about how to live in an increasingly complicated world.
For better or for worse – and I am of the opinion that it is for the better, we Episcopalians are not Biblical literalists, and we do not promote one detailed code or list of rules to live by. If we were and we did, on this ingathering Sunday I would simply stand up here and say, “Everybody tithe, because that is what the Bible says to do”, and our budgetary problems would be solved. But no! We hold that God is guiding each one of us on a journey of discernment and deepening conversion when it comes to our lives as stewards of what God has given us, and each year this process of a pledge drive allows us the opportunity to grapple once again with the how much questions – how much can I give? How much more can I trust to God? How much deeper in to the life of God will this process draw me? Now understand me, I am not saying “Don’t tithe”! By all means tithe, or make the tithe your goal and take the next bold increase on the way! But do so not just because I or anyone else says to do so. Do it because it will draw you more deeply into God’s heart – because it is a real risk that you dare to take in loving God and God’s beloved community of the church more fully.
As you have heard in our stewardship moments from fellow parishioners over the last several weeks, this stewardship journey into deeper trusting love of God is one full of all sorts of letting go of old ideas, inspirations from on high, and realization that the life of this parish depends on what we can do together as fellow journeyers. It is all about loving God, and loving neighbor as self – for us the yoke of Jesus is enough, when it comes to making these stewardship decisions, and when it comes to many other aspects of how we will live the lives God has given us.
Jesus question back to the Pharisees designed to break them out of their constricted, rule bound way of approaching God and others.
In our Gospel for today, when Jesus is finished giving his yoke to the young lawyer and to us, he asks a question of his own. He asks ‘What do you think of the Messiah? Whose son is he?’ Writing about this turn around question of Jesus in the Christian Century Magazine many years ago now Anthony B. Robinson wrote:
“…frankly the Pharisee’s question about the greatest commandment seems more useful and more interesting. ‘Whose son is the Messiah?’ hardly seems a burning issue.
The Pharisees do not hesitate to answer. The Messiah is ‘the son of David.’ Their response suggests that the Messiah is a known quantity, has a place in the line of succession, and fits into the scheme of things- or at least into their scheme of things. But Jesus is not finished. Quoting the 110th Psalm, Jesus finds David referring to the Messiah as ‘his Lord’ and asks, ‘If David thus calls him Lord, how can he be his son?’
The question is a kind of riddle. I wonder if Jesus smiled as he asked it Riddles are great levelers. So long as you puzzle for answers according to acquired, predictable and ‘right’ ways of thinking, you will be stumped as were the Pharisees. ‘No one was able to give Jesus and answer, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions… Maybe Jesus is saying that the important thing is not so much having the right answer as changing direction or orientation. St. Gregory of Nyssa observed, ‘Concepts create Idols; only wonder comprehends anything.’ Jesus seems to be trying to usher the Pharisees toward wonder.” (Anthony B. Robinson, The Christian Century, Oct. 6, 1993)
If we let ourselves get stuck in a place of worry about how we are going to survive as a parish with the rising costs of the ways we currently undertake our ministry, we will have little time to step into the place of wonder that Robinson says Jesus is inviting us into. Our human reason clearly tells us many of the ways we have lived in the past, as parishes, as a nation, as inhabitants of this planet, are not sustainable. With regard to our parish budget, we will either have to give more in pledges, earn more through fund raising or the vestry will have to make some decisions on what to change in our expenditures. Where wonder comes in is to say, our human reason is not the only thing we should be trusting here. Here, of all places we should be leaning into God and asking to have our minds be opened to God’s plans for us. If we have to loosen our grip on ways of doing things that have worked in days past but do not appear to be sustainable now, then we should tighten our grip on our conviction that God is already blazing the path for us to follow into the future.
Yesterday morning 6 of us from St. Paul’s spent 3 hours with 25 other people from our sisters churches in the Lower Merrimack Valley Collaborative, talking about the joys and challenges of the various facets of ministry we undertake in our 6 sister parishes – wardens spoke with fellow wardens, musicians with fellow musicians, Christian educators and youth leaders with fellow Christian educators and youth leaders, outreach leaders with fellow outreach leaders, worship leaders with fellow worship leaders. What we all found I think is that we all face many of the same challenges – gone are the days when our sanctuaries were full and our budgets neatly balanced. To be vital and vibrant, God seems to be indicating that we must think outside the lines – beyond our walls- to greater engagement in the world. As we continue to reach out across old barriers and let the lines of parish boundaries fade, we begin to glimpse God connecting us in ways that may be the very means by which we will all be able to go forward into the changes of the future faithfully together.
At the close of the morning yesterday, the music group – in which our own Mark Meyer participated – led us in a simple and beautiful song, I can’t explain what a moving experience it was to be gathered with these other faithful people from these 6 parishes and to join in song and to feel us all drawing strength and power to take out with us again. But here is the lyric to that simple and powerful song –
If you believe and I believe and we together pray
The Holy Spirit must come down and set God’s people free
And set God’s people free
And set God’s people free
The Holy Spirit must come down and set God’s people free
May it be so- may we be set free to love God and love neighbor more fully and to wonder at the magnificent ways our God is calling the beloved community of the church into our place in the God’s future. Amen+