“Yoked;” Psalm 46 and Matthew 11:25-30; July 6, 2014, FPC Holt

On Sunday, July 6th I was voted in as the new Associate Pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Holt, MI. I am excited for this new adventure and grateful for those who I have ministered alongside at First Presbyterian Church of Jesup.

With the Pastor Nominating Committee of Holt

With the Pastor Nominating Committee of Holt

David and Me After I was Voted in as Pastor

David and Me After I was Voted in as Pastor

Here is the sermon I preached that day:

“Yoked”
Psalm 46 & Matthew 11:25-30
July 6, 2014, First Presbyterian Church of Holt

Audio available here: http://www.fpc-holt.org/images/stories/downloads/7-6-14.mp3

SLIDE 1 - Three legged raceDo you remember the last time you were in three-legged race? Maybe it was at a large family picnic, maybe it was when you were in the third grade, it might’ve even been this weekend, or for some of our children in the room it was five minutes ago. When you found your partner were you looking for the most athletic of the group? Or someone that you knew will listen to you? Or maybe, were you looking for that person who knew you best, and was willing to work with you as you ran the race together? If you are anything like me you were afraid of how that race would turn out for you, not trusting in your own athletic ability, and worrying about letting someone down.

In our New Testament lesson today, Jesus says, “take my yoke upon you, and learn from me.” The children helped to illustrate this earlier in their three-legged race.

SLIDE 2 - FeetIf you’ve ever been on the sidelines in a three-legged race you’ll see the different techniques. Some will be so focused on the finish line that they seem to just pull the other person along, these pairs often end up tripping each other, which usually results in some sort of yelling or complaining from the faster of the two. Some pairs are very focused on their own feet, they may be trying to match the other, but struggle to find rhythm, not sure how to get going. The ones that usually win are focused more on their partner than on the finish line. You may hear a methodic “Out! In! Out! In!” These winning pairs, like in our children’s sermon, are focused on the same goal and are intentional about communicating with each other.

SLIDE 3 - Finish LIneIt’s not a far leap to see how these different pairs line up with ways that we try to be in community with another. It’s one thing to see these dynamics play out in the microcosm of a game, and quite another to apply these lessons in the larger picture of life together. Sometimes, we really do think that we know what is right, and we might not be willing to take the time to explain it, and end up dragging others along with us. Other times, we try hard to listen to each other and we want to find community and connection, but we’re not willing to lead, to share our vision and to take the work to get others on board. Our healthiest relationships come from willingness to articulate a vision, intention in speaking in ways that others can understand, and communicating clearly as we go about making things happen.

SLIDE 4 - YokeThe unity achieved in these healthy relationships is akin to what the word “yoke” means in our passage. Over time the word “yoke” has taken different connotations, but in order to understand the passage it’s helpful to dig a bit deeper into how this word would be understood in it’s original context. The word “yoke” appears in the Bible about 70 times. In Hebrew it is “oul,” with the simple definition of: “a yoke (as imposed on the neck), literally or figuratively.” In Greek it is the much more fun to day, “zugos,” with meanings of “(to join, especially by a “yoke”); a coupling, i.e. (figuratively) servitude (a law or obligation); also (literally) the beam of the balance (as connecting the scales): — pair of balances, yoke.”

A metallic chain with an explosed link.Many occurrences of “yoke” in the Bible reference it in terms of a yoke of slavery, and speak of a breaking away from it. Reading through passage after passage with this word, you can hear a heaviness to the language, the way that the yoke weighs upon the shoulders that bear it. But in several of the contexts it is more of a yoke of unity than of oppression, some suggesting that Jesus purposefully uses this word to invite the parallel understanding of oppression versus unity to point out how his particular yoke is one that frees them from the oppression of the law and invites them into the freedom of God’s grace.

Yokes are most often thought of in terms of tying two animals together, making them come together towards one goal, channeling their individual energy in one direction. Like in our three-legged race earlier, if two animals are yoked together and are not properly trained in what they are to do once in the yoke, they will not be successful. They may try to pull in opposite directions, buck in disobedience, or simply refuse to move forward. We are often compelled by sin to go in different directions than where God calls us, thinking we know better, or are not in need of that sort of guidance. Jesus frees us from our sins by providing meaning, purpose, and joy in our lives. By choosing to take on Jesus’ yoke, we are partnering with Christ in the goal of expanding the realm of God on earth.

SLIDE 7 – Yoke is EasyLearning to cooperate and communicate with Jesus requires a different pace than what we see in our example of the three-legged race. A yoke is most often seen in the context of work: oxen or horses yoked together to evenly work the fields. Tied together in a three-legged race the goal is to win the race. But yoking together means keeping pace, no matter what the pace may be. If we are yoked to one with a slower pace than our own, we are compelled to slow down. Being yoked to Jesus means we follow Jesus’ example, which was never focused on busyness for the sake of busyness or for the accumulation of wealth for personal gain. Rather, Jesus is focused on value systems that are not of this world: charity for the sake of charity and accumulation of disciples for God’s glory.

SLIDE 8 – Come to Me The yoke Jesus speaks about is not concerned so much with momentum, but rather with rest and stillness. Jesus says, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest…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.”

Jesus presents a countercultural perspective in our results-oriented world. It draws to light a different application of the yoke. When we are connected to one another, whether it is through an actual physical yoke, through the cooperative action it takes to win a three-legged race, or through Christian community, we are learning from one another even as we work together. When we are each yoked to Christ and focused on the mission of Christ we are also yoked to one another. This yoke enables us to be the people of God while we seek to lead others in becoming the people of God.

free thinkerAs the Apostle Paul was seeking to guide the people of Philippi he urged them to “be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind,” and to “do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves…[looking] not to your own interests, but to the interests of others,” and “[letting] the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.”[1]

This call to same-mindedness does not call us to lose our individual identity, but grows from a desire for unity above self, and God’s mission over personal ambition. Essentially Paul is calling the people of Philippi to be yoked together by being of one mind with one another, and to be yoked to Christ by being of one mind with Jesus.

SLIDE 10 - Gods CallWhen you hand over control of your life through being yoked with Christ, you submit to God’s call on your life, which can perhaps lead to a call to seminary, one to serve a rural church, another to marry the person you love, and another to serve God in a different capacity, perhaps as an associate pastor in Holt, MI.

If our motivation is self-preservation or self-promotion, we carry the full weight of our fears of inadequacy and powerlessness. But when we are yoked with Christ and share in Christ’s mission we are accompanied by a power greater than all of our fears.

IFIn our Psalm today, Psalm 46, we hear of this larger perspective: “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea; though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult.”

SLIDE 12 – UnsureWhat is it that causes your life to seem unsteady? What things take the place of Christ in the yoke that guides your direction? What is it that seems beyond your capacity? What if you stopped trying to carry this burden on your own? Could you learn to trust God with even your deepest fears and inadequacies?

SLIDE 13 - Jesus HandThe good news is our God is not some detached higher power in a galaxy far far away, but our God is a God who comes close through Jesus Christ, who abides with us through the Holy Spirit.

When we are walking yoked with God’s own self, we are trusting God to be God. We are not trying to be God or to pretend like know more than God or to limit another’s understanding of God. We are simply seeking to keep pace, to learn from what God seeks to reveal in our lives. The Psalmist says what we sang together earlier, “Be still, and know that I am God!” May we learn this stillness and trust in God’s sovereignty. Amen.

 

[1] Philippians 2:2-5

“Even the Wind and the Sea Obey,” Genesis 1:1-10, Mark 4:35-41; June 24, 2012, First Congregational Church of Williamstown

“Even the Wind and the Sea Obey”
Genesis 1:1-10, Mark 4:35-41
June 24, 2012, First Congregational Church of Williamstown

The other day I went for a hike on Mount Greylock, on the Bradley Farm trail. This trail is a “self guided trail,” with markers every once and a while. The numbers on the markers correspond with numbers on a brochure and each has information about that specific site.

One of the sites drew my attention to a big rock in the pathway. I looked at my brochure and it said, “The Mount Greylock range is made up of mostly grey-colored metamorphic rock (changed through heat and pressure), as in this boulder. According to geologists this rock here was created from what was once part of a muddy sea bottom hundreds of millions of years ago. Bands of translucent, white colored quartzite, formerly sand, are found here too.”

Reading this, I couldn’t help but laugh, you see, as I was driving up the mountain I was thinking about our scripture passages today, how to bring light and life to two very different passages. One, which we heard read from Genesis, discussing the formation of the world, and another, which we read together, speaking of a short narrative moment in Jesus’ ministry, both having to do with God’s ability to control the ocean.  And then my car stereo started playing a favorite song of mine, Paul Simon’s “Once Upon a Time There was an Ocean.”

The chorus to this song goes, “Once upon a time there was an ocean but now it’s a mountain range. Something unstoppable set into motion, nothing is different, but everything’s changed.”[1]

And now, here I was, about 3,400 feet above sea level, being told that I was much closer to being in an ocean than those 3,400 feet would have me believe.

Thinking of these large shifts in the ocean over a long period time I tried to picture the land around me in a new way. That the nearby butterflies were not butterflies at all, but rather they were seahorses, flitting about in a familiar way. And the fern along the path, bent in the wind as seaweed moved by a slight current in the ocean.

How different things seem when we look at them through the long lens of history. Amazingly, this is the very vantage point that God brings to creation and to our lives.

In our New Testament passage today, we read that Jesus and a group, widely assumed to be his disciples, are traveling across the Sea of Galilee on a boat, when a great windstorm arises and the water laps over the sides. While the disciples were frantic, Jesus was asleep on a cushion. They awake Jesus and say, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” He wakes up, rebukes the wind and tells the sea, “Peace! Be still!” The wind stops and it is entirely calm. Jesus asks them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” They were filled with great awe and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”

Nowadays the body of water they were traveling across is called Lake Kinneret. It’s a large, shallow body of water, prone to very sudden violent storms. West of the lake are mountains that form a funnel around winds blowing in from the Mediterranean, creating volatile weather over the lake.[2] By their nature, these storms don’t last for long.

Let’s be clear, this storm was frightening, and no one could fault the disciples for feeling threatened by this seemingly all-encompassing storm, but by Jesus’ reaction we see that this fear was greater than that. Pastor and author David Lose offers this perspective, he writes: “maybe the issue isn’t that the disciples are understandably afraid because of the storm, it’s that they allowed their fear to overtake them so that they don’t come to Jesus and say, ‘Teacher, we need your help,’ but rather come already assuming the worst, ‘Teacher, don’t you care that we’re dying.’ This isn’t a trusting or faithful request; it’s a fear-induced accusation.”[3]

God has the bigger perspective, has seen the other side and knows that this storm will end.

I am reminded of a slogan that arose out of a tragic string of suicides particularly among LGBT youth in the late summer of 2010. In response to a number of students taking their own lives after being bullied in school, author Dan Savage created a YouTube video with his partner Terry Miller to inspire hope for young people facing harassment. They wanted to create a personal way for supporters everywhere to tell LGBT youth that, “It gets better.”[4]

“It gets better.” What I appreciate about this slogan is that it does not seek to diminish the current pain that anyone is feeling, but rather strives to instill hope for the future. Living with bullying and harassment is indeed a very violent storm, all encompassing when it is around you. And when it is around you, you’re not sure that it will end. But Dan Savage and a great many people following his lead speak out from the other shore, beyond the crashing sea, saying, “It gets better.”

In Hebrew there is a phrase that I feel encompasses this all surrounding stormy-ness: toehoo vahvohwho. In a literal translation it means chaotic void. It is found in the second verse of Genesis, which was read for us today. Beginning at verse 1, we read:

“In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was toehoo vahvohwho and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.” This place of chaos, of desperation is our starting point. It is the raw ingredients from which our entire world came into existence.

Through God’s creation, this toehoo vahvohwho mess is separated out, dark from light, sky from water, land from sea. Creation, is inevitably an act of separating what is to become one from what is to become another. Even at a microscopic level we see this act, cells separating, particles pushing away from one another.

There is a story told that the great artist Michelangelo was once asked how he created his famous statue of David. He responded that he simply started with a block of stone and then chipped away everything that wasn’t David. And perhaps this is how we can view our own creation; our experiences sometimes chipping away at us, other times smoothing the rough edges, so that we can become fully who God created us to be.

Now, I am not going to stand here and say that our God is a God who would intentionally inflict pain to makes us better people, or to test us, or because we can handle it. But, I do believe that when we are in the midst of the storm we are to trust that it will indeed get better and to have faith that God’s will will be enacted by how we react to the storms of our lives.

There is an interesting moment in our Mark narrative today, where the disciples’ perspective is changed. In the midst of the storm they cry out to Jesus, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” Once he has calmed the storm they are filled with great awe and say to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”

In Jesus’ transformative act they are moved from one type of fear, that of panic and fright to another type of fear, that brought about by the awe and reverence of encountering something greater than ourselves.

“Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” It’s a good question. Why would the wind and the sea stop at the command of a man? Well, we know that Jesus was more than a man, he was part of the Trinity, He was God incarnate. The wind and the sea obey God because God was the one who created them.

In our passage in Genesis, starting in verse 9 we read, “And God said, “Let the waters under the sky be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear.” And it was so. God called the dry land Earth, and the waters that were gathered together he called Seas. And God saw that it was good.”

The ocean became ocean by being separated from the dry land.

The hymn we will sing at the end of this service, “God Marked a Line and Told the Sea,” expounds on the meaning of these verses in Genesis. While I won’t read you all the lyrics, the first verse paints a good picture of the text, “God marked a line and told the sea its surging tides and waves were free to travel up the sloping strand, but not to overtake the land.”

As we know all to well, the seas have borders, until they don’t. Tsunamis have killed thousands, wiped out villages, crippled countries. Levee walls have burst, taking homes and lives in the wake. And we don’t even need to look beyond the borders of this town to know the devastation caused by flooding.

Why couldn’t Jesus ask the wind and seas to stop then? Were our prayers not strong enough? Why do such disasters seem to affect the people and places that can least afford such destruction?

We’re not given those answers.

We are, however, given these words in Psalm 46: “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea; though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult…The LORD of hosts is with us.”

“The Lord of hosts is with us.” These are not empty words, but a promise lived out through the redeeming life of Jesus Christ and the sustaining power of the Holy Spirit. God is present in the midst of our suffering. God’s promise of salvation is an ever echoing, “it gets better,” “it gets better.”

Perhaps instead of being chipped away like Michelangelo’s David we could see ourselves like the ocean depth turned purple mountain range that surrounds us here in Williamstown. Maybe what we are undergoing is not a refinement, but a revelation. When we are able to trust in God’s greater perspective, God’s desire for good in our lives, we are able to see the possibility that though we may feel buried by oceanic depths, we are simultaneously a mountain range yet to be unveiled.

In both the joys and toehoo vahvohwho of our lives, all the raw ingredients of faithfulness are there. We must look to God’s creative hand, guided by eternal perspective to help us separate out what is to be from what is not to be. The words of Paul Simon might be right to call God’s great and beautiful act of creation, “Something unstoppable set into motion, nothing is different, but everything’s changed.” Glory be to God. Amen.


[1] “Once Upon a Time There Was an Ocean,” by Paul Simon

[2] “Mark 4:35-41, Commentary on Gospel” by Sharon H. Ringe, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?lect_date=6/21/2009&tab=4