Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Pulling Together

Scripture for the 3rd Sunday after Pentecost includes Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67; Romans 7:15-25a; Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

It’s good to see young Isaac in a much better place in life than he was last week. Amazing, really, what the passing of a week will do. Or, in the Book of Genesis, the passing of a few patriarchal chapters. Last Sunday, he was bound and strapped to a crude altar on a mountaintop in the land of Moriah, and his father, Abraham, was poised with a dagger ready to offer his son’s life in sacrifice to God. From young Isaac’s victimized viewpoint, this was not going to be one of those mountaintop experiences you get to narrate in your spiritual autobiography. However one tells last Sunday’s Isaac story, it’s Abraham who gains the insight (namely, that the chosen people he will lead must not let their values be shaped by the old prevailing cultures around them, but will listen to and obey the mind and will of God)—but as important as that sounds, Isaac must nonetheless have been traumatized on that mountain.

So it’s good today to hear about Isaac welcoming Rebekah into his life, thanks to social networking of an ancient type. A trusted servant had been sent back to the ancestral homeland to find a wife for Isaac. This servant returned with Rebekah, a relative of Isaac, and it was clear that she was everyone’s idea of a perfect choice. The portion we heard today, part of a longer spinning of the story, is meant to witness to the fact that when the key players listen to and obey the mind and will of God, great choices get made: the choosing God does is implemented by the choosing that the key players do.

These Genesis stories are telling the story of the founding of a nation, Israel, and of its being chosen out of the many nations to be a light to all nations, its covenant relationship with God having formed and shaped the nation’s heart and mind and will to listen to and obey God. That was the vision.

The reality, as Matthew reminds us, is that wisdom is vindicated by her deeds. The Hebrew Bible presents an archive or scrapbook of the many times Israel’s actions modeled her high calling, and the many times when she failed.

A son of Israel, the apostle Paul, commenting on his own failures to demonstrate faithful covenant love, said that he could delight in the law of God in his inmost self, but simultaneously see in his makeup, in his own little constellation of human contradictions, another law at war with the law of his mind, making him captive to the law of sin, and therefore a wretched man.

I can’t read his words on this Independence Day weekend without hearing them offer a wrenching description of what may happen to a nation, as well as to an individual. St. Paul’s fearless self-exposure was meant, I expect, to suggest that this law of internal contradiction can land a nation in the same pickle that he found himself in: stuck, caught in the quicksand of willing what is right but not doing it.

That’s an apt description of what’s befalling our own nation. Our two-party system is paralyzed. We can will what is right but we cannot do it. We can elect leaders whose will we agree with, but we then watch them sink in the quicksand of that partisan war in our members that runs concertina wire down the center aisle of Congress.

Our Gospel portion today ends with words meant to be heard by the fed-up and the burned-out.

“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.”

For me, that’s the Christian Gospel in a paragraph. It conveys wisdom hidden from the wise and intelligent and revealed to infants, and I take that to mean that we should consider sending our elected leaders to kindergarten for revelation of what they most need to know. Like why that center aisle in Congress is the most important spot in the house, the frontier of the promised land, the negotiating space where we need there to be a rush from both sides to tear down that wall… and stay there, in the aisle, not returning to those seats of power until the real work is done.

“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.” The yoke is an invention that harnessed one easily-defeatable ox to another ox, creating the collaborative strength needed for carrying heavy burdens. That yoke is what is symbolized by the stole wrapped around the neck and shoulders of clergy, a constant reminder that it takes teamwork to pull-together for the good of the Church and for the good of the world.

And where the good news dwells in that metaphor of the yoke is in the identity of the one to whom you are yoked: Jesus Christ himself is the burden-bearer right next to you, alongside you, closer to you than breath itself. Even if it’s ox-breath.

Weary leaders, weary voters, all who are weary need to learn the lesson that our yokemate is gentle and humble in heart. To truly work in tandem with Christ, in tandem with Lady Wisdom if you prefer to see it, our pace and manner and style will require new discipline, new ways of acting, and new ways of resting.

As much as I love this Gospel text, I stumble on its final promises, “For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” I sometimes recite this Gospel when I administer communion in a crisis, like in a hospital CCU or some other tough setting where I’m traveling light. How can I dare to speak of an easy yoke or a light burden when life itself may be in the balance? The person in that bed may be facing a long rehab period and many demanding changes…

Just the right moment to hear that the burden-bearer in the other half of the yoke is going to do the heavy lifting that will lighten the burden, and to hear the Christ claim the whole of the relationship by calling it “my yoke.”

May the grace that we can hear in a pastoral application of this great Gospel text become clear to all who could benefit from its political potential: the good news that cooperation across the most surprising lines and divides may bring exponential easing of burdens, even what St. Paul yearns for: rescue from this body of death, freeing the body for new life.