St John’s, Decatur
Matthew 11:16–19, 25—30, Romans 7:15–25
Before the end of March, the name “Coronatide” became a bit of widely-used slang among liturgical Christians to refer to this “season of the virus.” When Illinois entered Phase III of the governor’s re-opening schema (we’re now in Phase IV), I started talking about us being in “Stage 2” of the season of Coronatide. We still have to keep our distance from each other, we still have to wear masks most of the time that we’re indoors, and—most sadly, in my opinion—we still can’t assume that it’s safe to sing together when we’re in church, but … at least we’re here! And what a blessing that is! This is now the fifth Sunday in the last six that I have made a parish visitation, and even under these straitened circumstances, it has been a source of deep joy to once again be with the people of God on the Lord’s Day.
Over the last nearly four months, we have been watching everything that happens get politicized at warp speed, and COVID19 has been no exception. There’s what we might call the dominant narrative: wash your hands obsessively, stay home as much as you can, and when you can’t, wear a mask. And if you’re over 65, by all means, just double down on all of the above. But there’s what we might call a “minority report”: This virus is pretty much like the regular flu, only on steroids, there’s no need to panic, no need to shut down the economy, and certainly no need to shut down churches. Let’s all just be like Sweden and take a chill pill. Before long, though, both of these narratives hardened into a rigid “orthodoxy” of either the left or the right, an orthodoxy that has zero tolerance for any form of questioning or dissent.
So, as I got ready to preach today, and looked at the readings, I found it instructive to compare either side of the kind of polarization we’re seeing to what Jesus suggests is the oppressive regime of the “scribes and Pharisees.” Here’s the context: the basic religious text of Judaism in the time of Jesus was the Torah, what we would call the first five books of the Old Testament, also known as the Law of Moses. But, over the centuries, a great deal of secondary interpretive literature had grown up that elaborated on the Law of Moses. The scribes and Pharisees considered themselves experts and keepers, not only on the Law of Moses, but on all the secondary interpretive literature. Think of the Torah as the U.S. constitution, and think of all the laws that have been passed by Congress, and all the decisions issued by the Supreme Court, as the domain of the scribes and Pharisees. It was very complicated, and there were innumerable ways that an ordinary Jew could get it wrong, even while trying very hard to get it right. In Jesus’ opinion, the tradition of the scribes and Pharisees was impossibly oppressive, like the competing narratives about the coronavirus crisis. One false move, one wrong “like” on Facebook, and the entire weight of whichever side you offend comes crashing down on you. Jesus referred disparagingly to those who subjected themselves to the regime of the scribes and Pharisees as “this generation.” It’s like a revolution that constantly refines itself into something purer and purer until it eventually consumes its own. We can see this in the French revolution of 1789, the Russian revolution in 1917, the Iranian revolution of 1979, the Arab spring of a few years ago, and now, in a mostly bloodless way, in the polarized orthodoxies of our society, around COVID-19, around racism, or whatever.
How can people of Christian faith respond? We respond by however we behave toward that which is really real, that which is of ultimate importance—spiritual reality, or—we may as well just say it—God. Inasmuch as we act toward ultimate reality out of our learned sophistication, out of our position in “this generation,” as Jesus used the expression, we will end up subjecting ourselves to the oppressive regime of the scribes and Pharisees. We will find ourselves in a state as bizarre and convoluted as St Paul describes in the seventh chapter of his epistle to the Romans:
I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?
What’s the alternative, then? The alternative is to flip the script. We can turn our backs on “this generation.” We can refuse the yoke of the scribes and Pharisees. Instead, we have an opportunity to identify with the “little children” that Jesus refers to in his spontaneous prayer:
I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will.
When we act out of our inner “little child,” rather than our faux-sophisticated egos, we become disciples. We become disciples who learn from their Master, the Master who says “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me.” And in doing so we put ourselves in the way of experiencing his “easy” yoke—“For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” Now that’s a slightly deceptive statement that Jesus makes there—I mean, not that Jesus is being deceptive, but it’s easy to misunderstand. The obligations of discipleship are actually, just in themselves, more difficult than the “yoke of the scribes and Pharisees.” Following Christ is not a walk in the park. What makes Jesus’ yoke “easy” and his burden “light” is not that their demands are easier than those of the scribes and Pharisees, but that they are more bearable. They are more bearable because of who Jesus is. Jesus is the one who meets our deepest needs and satisfies our deepest longings. Jesus is our light and our life, our hope and our wholeness. The yoke that Jesus lays on us, in the greatest of ironies, brings us rest.
To bear the yoke of Christ is to know rest in the center of one’s being.
Praised be Jesus Christ. Amen.