“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

“Things Hoped For”; Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16; August 11, 2013; FPC Jesup

“Things Hoped For”
Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16
August 11, 2013, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

Slide01“Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul
And sings the tune without the words
And never stops at all.”[1]

These words by Emily Dickinson speak of hope as a birdlike creature in our soul, singing a song of improvisation, a song that begins without knowing where it will go, that sings wordlessly, unceasingly.

SLIDE 2 - Hebrews 11 1Our scripture today says, “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”

To many faith can seem like a strange or elusive thing, it is, by definition, a trust in a promise without concrete evidence.

Favorite artist of mine, and Decorah native Brian Andreas is known for his “StoryPeople,” art that carries anecdotal stories with playful drawings. One such story speaks to the intangibility of faith, it says,Slide03 “Can you prove any of the stuff you believe in? my son asked me & when I said that’s not how belief works, he nodded & said that’s what he thought but he was just checking to make sure he hadn’t missed a key point.”

Slide04The Bible has quite a bit to say about hope. Hope appears in the Bible 167 times, 15 of which occur in Job. Job is a man who has lost everything he had and all of his immediate family. He wrestles with hope, whether or not hope his hope is warranted. His friends try and talk him out of hoping. Slide05Hope is in the Psalms 26 times, as the Psalms provide poetic accounts of interaction with God over time, in good and in bad. Proverbs 10:28 says: “The hope of the righteous ends in gladness, but the expectation of the wicked comes to nothing.” Proverbs 13:12 says, “Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a desire fulfilled is a tree of life.” Jeremiah 29:11 says, “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the LORD, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.” In Paul’s letters he often refers to the Gospel promise of redemption as “hope.”

SLIDE 6 - AbrahamThe story of Abraham and Sarah is held up several times throughout scripture as a model of faithfulness, a lived out hope. In our scripture today we read, “By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he stayed for a time in the land he had been promised, as in a foreign land, living in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. For he looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God. By faith he received power of procreation, even though he was too old-and Sarah herself was barren-because he considered him faithful who had promised. Therefore from one person, and this one as good as dead, descendants were born, “as many as the stars of heaven and as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore.””

SLIDE 7 - AbrahamIn Romans chapter 4 Paul shares this reflection on the faith of Abraham, beginning with verses 3-5: “‘Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.’ Now to one who works, wages are not reckoned as a gift but as something due. But to one who without works trusts him who justifies the ungodly, such faith is reckoned as righteousness.”

SLIDE 8 - AbrahamContinuing in verses 13-25 Paul writes, “For the promise that [Abraham] would inherit the world…depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his descendants, not only to the adherents of the law but also to those who share the faith of Abraham (for he is the father of all of us, as it is written, “I have made you the father of many nations”)—in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.  SLIDE 9 - Father AbrahamHoping against hope, he believed that he would become “the father of many nations,” according to what was said, “So numerous shall your descendants be.” He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was already as good as dead (for he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb.  No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, being fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised.”

Slide10It says that Abraham “hoped against hope.” Abraham had hope in that which was deemed impossible, that which seemed ungraspable. The “thing with feathers” inside of him sang a tune that he couldn’t know the words to. He hoped for the impossible.

I’ve always been a big fan of musical theatre, which is known for it’s infectious tunes. Sometimes when I’m reading scripture or working on a sermon certain songs will get stuck in my head on repeat. Slide11This week it was the song “Impossible,” from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella. The song begins by listing all the impossibilities of Cinderella’s predicament, as she’s standing distraught with no way to get to the ball. Her Godmother sings to her, “the world is full of zanies and fools, Who don’t believe in sensible rules And won’t believe what sensible people say. And because these daft and dewey-eyed dopes keep building up impossible hopes, impossible things are happening every day.”

Slide12What are the impossible things that you hope for? The things that might seem foolish. The things that might even hurt to hope for? The places in our life where to ask God for a yes risks possibly receiving an unfathomable “no.” How might we trust God in these circumstances?

How might we begin to see these things as possible? How might we hope unceasingly? How might we hope beyond hope?

Slide13Our passage today says in Hebrews 11:13, “All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them.” Can we really take comfort in hopes that our not answered in our own lifetimes?

Slide14

How can we be anything but disappointed by unanswered prayers? How can we continue to trust God when things don’t work out the way we want them to? The only way is by having a kingdom mindset, by having faith that God’s willing is being worked out in the way it needs to. That God’s plan for us is much larger than us, and with a much longer timeline than any we will experience firsthand. This is not an easy thing, but it is part of what faith calls us to. God is not in the business of wish fulfillment

Slide15Hebrews 11:3 says, “By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible.”

The unceasing song of hope, does not end when we are no longer the ones singing it. To have faith is to trust in the promise that just as the blessings of our lives came from that which was only promised to those before us.

Maya AngelouMaya Angelou speaks of this slow to come hope in her poem, “I Rise.” This comes from the conclusion of the poem:

“Out of the huts of history’s shame
I rise
Up from a past that’s rooted in pain
I rise
I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.

Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
I rise
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
I rise
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
I rise
I rise
I rise.”[2]

That line, “I am the dream and the hope of the slave” haunts me. Though I do not have ancestral roots in 19th century American slavery, we as children of God, come from a people enslaved. Our faith’s origins are found among those slaves in Egypt, those aching for freedom, aching for the Promised Land they would never live to see. We are their dream and their hope. We are the harvest of that deep grief, of that desert wandering.

Slide17After the familiar narrative of Jesus and the woman at the well, Jesus speaks to his disciples about the continuation of kingdom through the harvest of believers that they themselves did not cultivate:

In John 4:34-38 we read, “Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work. Do you not say, ‘Four months more, then comes the harvest’? But I tell you, look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting. The reaper is already receiving wages and is gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. For here the saying holds true, ‘One sows and another reaps.’ I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor. Others have labored, and you have entered into their labor.””

Slide19The hopes of our hearts may not always come into fruition before us, but as heirs of salvation, workers in God’s kingdom harvest, our acts done in faith bring life to the hopes of those who come before us. We reap a harvest for which we did not labor, and we hope for a promise that we may not witness.

Romans 8:24-25 says, “For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.” 2 Corinthians 3:12 after speaking of confidence in the promises of Christ says, “Since, then, we have such a hope, we act with great boldness.”

How may your hope spur you to action? When something seems impossible, our fear can paralyze us. May we be bold in our hope, allowing ourselves to hope for what seems impossible, to invest in the promises of God’s goodness. May we be bold to invest in the future we may not see.

Slide22One of the hardest prayers to pray is one we echo week after week in the Lord’s prayer: “thy will be done.” This short and simple phrase can seem an easy one to pray when we are thinking of the circumstances of another, but in our own circumstances it can seem callous or like an act of retreat. Though “thy will be done” is a prayer of surrender, it is not one of retreat. It is faith in allowing our hopes to rest in God’s hands.

May we have faith in the promises of God’s kingdom. May we sing the tune of hope even while God is still revealing the words. Amen.


[1] ““Hope” is the thing with feathers,” by Emily Dickinson: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/171619