Sermon, July 9

Children’s sermon

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.

Who knows what a yoke is? … [show pictures] Something an animal wears when it’s working, pulling or carrying a heavy load. It’s not fun. It’s hard and uncomfortable.

So why is Jesus talking about yokes? Well, he’s not talking about yokes LITERALLY, he’s talking about yokes FIGURATIVELY.

Jesus was one of the Jewish people, God’s first people, the people Israel. The Jewish people and their faith had existed for a couple of thousand years already by the time Jesus was born. Their holy book was the first part of our holy book: the Torah, the five books of the Law, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. And in those books there were 613 commandments: Laws or rules God gave God’s people about how they should live. You know some of those laws as the Ten Best Ways. But there were lots of others too!  They covered things like special holy festivals, foods they shouldn’t eat, how they should treat the land, business deals, and keeping the day of rest to honor God.

613 is a lot of laws. And by Jesus’ time, there were many religious teachers who had studied the Torah deeply, and decided which part of the Law was the most important. Those teachers, called rabbis, would tell their followers, THIS is the way to follow our faith, THESE are the most important practices. And it would be different – different rabbis would put importance on different practices, because of how they understood God and the Torah.  And people called that the rabbi’s “yoke.” The rabbi’s teaching about how people should live in God’s ways, which of those 613 laws they should focus on – that was the rabbi’s “yoke,” the burden of faithfulness they put on their followers.

Now, Jesus was God’s Son, but he was also a rabbi – a person who knows the Scriptures deeply and teaches people how to follow them. Once someone came to Jesus to ask him which commandments he thinks are most important. He’s treating Jesus like a rabbi; he’s basically asking him, Rabbi, what is your yoke? And Jesus says, Love God with your whole self, and love your neighbor as much as you love yourself.

That’s Jesus’s yoke. That’s the heart of the law, for Jesus and those who want to follow him. The Sabbath and particular foods and so on aren’t a big deal. This is the heart of it all: Love God, love your neighbor. So this is Jesus’ yoke, his teaching as a rabbi.  When he says, Come to me, for my yoke is easy and my burden is light, THIS is what he means. He means, If you take me as your rabbi and follow me, this is what I ask you to: Love God, and love your neighbor as you love yourself.

Now, is it EASY to love God and love your neighbor, all the time? With your whole heart? (No!….) So why would Jesus say, My yoke is easy and my burden is light? Well, I think one thing he means is, it’s SIMPLE. Jesus’ yoke is not complicated. Other rabbis might have given their followers much more complicated, difficult sets of rules to follow. With Jesus’ yoke, you have to think about it and live it out every day; but it’s not hard to remember that we’re supposed to love God and love other people. So it is simple. 

For another thing, “easy” might not be the right word. Remember Jesus didn’t speak English. He spoke Aramaic, and this part of the Bible was first written down in Greek, and then it was translated into English. So “easy” might really not be the right word. I looked up the Greek word a little bit to see what it means. And it doesn’t mean “easy” like, oh, it’s a snap. Like “Easy as falling of a log.” The Greek word – chrestos – means something more like, appropriate, manageable. Something it’s reasonable to ask you to do. It also means helpful and kind. I like the idea that Jesus is asking us to live in a way that is helpful and kind.

So we could hear Jesus saying, My yoke, my way following God, is manageable, and helpful, and kind. It’s not supposed to be impossible. It’s supposed to be something you can remember easily and carry in your heart, and try to follow, day by day.

Grownups’ Sermon

Now, I’d like to say a few words about our Genesis story.

Our lectionary readings this summer take us through the great stories of Genesis, the beginning of God’s covenant with humanity. Last Sunday, with our 4th of July readings, we skipped an important chapter: the binding of Isaac.

When I said I didn’t want to write a sermon on vacation, I DEFINITELY didn’t want to write a sermon on one of the harder stories in the Old Testament. – at least one of the hardest ones the lectionary gives us! …  But instead of taking opportunity to ignore it, I’m going back to it, a little bit, today.

I know the story of the Binding of Isaac is a least favorite for some of you, and I don’t blame you; it’s an awful story. Why would God promise Abraham and Sarah a son, fulfill their deep and lifelong hopes with a baby, and then order Abraham to kill the child to prove his devotion to God? The fact that God, at the last possible moment, stops Abraham and tells him to sacrifice a ram instead, doesn’t fix the story at all. It just makes God seem manipulative and capricious.

I’ve spent some time digging into how people of faith, both Christians and Jews, have made sense of this difficult story over the ages. And while I don’t think there’s any way to tie a pretty bow on it, I do have a few thoughts.

I think one of the big challenges in our engagement with this text is that there is a huge gulf between our cultural and religious world, and the world of the text’s original audience. I believe that one of the core issues being worked out here is that the religion of Israel, the religion of Yahweh, did NOT demand child-sacrifice.

Some of the religions practiced by neighboring peoples DID sacrifice children, so this was a really important line to draw, early in the story of Yahweh’s covenant relationship with Abraham and his descendants. And as you can imagine, that was a BIG deal for the Israelites. To them, this story said, This God DOES NOT want you to kill your children. To US, this story says, God might play weird head games with you about killing your children! So we are just a long way from the people who needed this story. I don’t know what to do about that, besides remind us about it.

Another thing I think is important to say about this text – and about other stories from Scripture in which awful things happen – is that the text does not think this is OK. That’s why I don’t want to try to talk you out of your revulsion: the AUTHOR of the text wants you to be revolted. I am certain of that. Because the story emphasizes how much Abraham loves his son; and because of the moment in the story when little Isaac looks up at his father and asks, “Father, where is the ram for the sacrifice?” If a modern author wrote that scene, we would understand that they were trying to elicit our gut response to the complete terrible wrongness of what is happening here. So is the author of this text.  I am sure of it. 

And I’d say that the same applies to a lot of the more cruel and horrific stories in the Hebrew Bible. The voice of the author doesn’t think those things are OK. Again, if we read a modern novel about the horrors of World War II, we know that the fact that the author describes those events doesn’t mean they approve of them. But when we read about dismemberments and mass executions in the Bible, we think, Oh, because it’s in the Bible, that must mean it’s OK with God and with the people who wrote about it.

I don’t know how much of that is because the lectionary gives us the Biblical text in little choppy pieces that make it hard to understand what’s really going on, and how much of it is because of our modernist bias that makes it hard for us to recognize that the people who compiled and edited the Hebrew Scriptures were actually pretty damn astute. But next time you read the Binding of Isaac or another awful story from Scripture, try reading it from the assumption that the person who wrote it down also thought it was horrible, and see where that leads you.

Which brings me to the final thing I want to say: The Binding of Isaac is part of a longer arc of story, and much of its meaning is tied up in those longer narrative arcs. There’s a narrative context that sets up this story: Abraham and Sarah are elderly and childless; they long for a son; God promises a son, if they will trust God and enter a new covenant; there’s the whole Hagar and Ishmael story; and so on. And the narrative continues beyond the binding of Isaac. The lesson we have today, about Rebecca, is in many ways the resolution of Isaac’s story.

Isaac walks away from Mount Moriah, from the Binding story, with his relationship with his father broken. The text of Genesis 22 has Abraham leave the mountain alone. It doesn’t say what Isaac did, but he’s not there. And just a couple of verses after the end of the Binding story, Sarah, Isaac’s mother, dies. Jewish interpreters of scripture have long assumed that Sarah died because she heard what her husband, Abraham, had done.

Whether her death was immediate or not, the text DOES imply that Abraham was not living with Sarah when she died. Abraham comes from somewhere else to mourn her, and to negotiate buying a piece of land to bury her. (Read the bargaining scene in chapter 23 sometime, it’s amazing.)

So the Binding of Isaac shattered this family. Abraham’s relationships with both wife and son were broken, because God asked him to do something unthinkable, and he said yes. At the beginning of chapter 24, anticipating death,  Abraham makes one last bid to provide for – or control? – his estranged son. He makes his servant promise to go find Isaac a wife from his homeland, from among his kin. Even in that scene, Isaac isn’t there. Abraham is doing this for him – or to him? – in his absence.  Imagine a father who did something so awful that his son left home! Moved out, cut off communications! And now on his deathbed that father wants to make sure his son marries the right kind of girl? How welcome do you think that would be?

And yet, and yet – God uses it for good. Abraham’s servant takes his task very seriously. Arriving outside the town of Nahor, he makes his camels kneel down near the well.  He knows that women and young girls will come out to get water in the evening, and he prays: Lord God, let the girl who offers to give me water, and to water my camels – let that girl be the girl you have chosen for Isaac.  And it happens – just so.

Rebecca is young, and lovely, and is distant kin to Abraham. She’s the kind of girl who would get water for a stranger’s camels. And she’s kind of girl who would say Yes to a husband, sight unseen, because it seems to be God’s will … or maybe because she’s desperately bored of her hometown and ready for a change. The text implies, I think, that she was not displeased with her husband when she met him – “Who is that man over there?…” And Isaac loves her, and finds comfort in his wife and his marriage. If a friend told you, ‘My new wife really fills the hole in my life that my mother left,’ you might worry about that a little bit – but you’d also understand. Isaac was alone, and grieving. With no one to care for him, or for him to care for. Rebecca does fill that hole. His marriage, his family, comfort him, and give him a fresh start, after the brokenness of his family of origin.

These chapters of Genesis show us broken relationships in a family; grief at the loss of a parent;  solace and hope in a new relationship. Father Tom gave us a image last week: God’s story; my story; one story. It puts me in mind of my favorite saying about reading: We read to know that we are not alone. Books can tell us that other people have shared our experiences. And when we find our experiences echoed in Scripture, we know that our experiences aren’t just part of other human stories; they’re part of God’s story. That’s why even in the darkest or saddest stories of Scripture, we may find a glimmer of grace.