Syzygus*

sermon on Matthew 11:16-19,25-30; Romans 7:15-25a20170709_113619_resized
I want to start with Show-and-Tell.

The strips of fabric I wear are called stoles. During my ordination service at my home church, Trinity Lutheran in Eau Claire, one was first placed on me by George Carlson, my bishop at the time, and by Annie Engebretsen, who was chair of my first call committee. So the stole began to serve as the main visual representation that I am a pastor.

But in that,20170709_114104_resized like a lot of things about being a pastor, it has a built-in paradox: a stole is the sign of being a pastor, but at the same time is symbolic of what applies to all of us. That’s also true of my alb, this white robe. (“Alb” comes from the Latin word for “white”) (like Albus Dumbledore’s white beard in Harry Potter). My alb looks like special clothes, since I’m the only one here wearing it, but it’s also supposed to symbolize that all of us are washed clean in baptism and put on newness in Christ and match the saints described in the book of Revelation.

Again, I get to splash around in the font and declare that your sins are forgiven. That isn’t because I have special magic powers as a pastor, much less that I’m especially faithful or brilliant or eloquent. It’s just because you hired me to say those words to you, so that you could guarantee you’d get to hear what really any of us can and should say to each other, stuff like “God loves you. Jesus is with you. It’s not the end. You’re forgiven.” I don’t have claim to those words by virtue of being an ordained pastor (again, it’s certainly not grounded in my virtues at all), yet paradoxically I have special opportunity to announce grace, to put on a white robe, and to wear this stole.

The reason I describe this is that when the stole was placed on me, it was with the words from today’s reading: “Come to me20170709_114059_resized.jpg, all who are weary and carrying heavy burdens. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” This stole represents a yoke placed on my shoulders. Again, while realizing that Jesus wasn’t talking exclusively to future pastors, still this vestment had me contemplating what Jesus meant. What is light about this? And why is it still a burden?

As a snapshot of this yoke’s role, I’ll tell you that I was up north at the start of the week at a high school friend’s cabin. It happened to be her daughter’s 5th birthday party, and amid the balloons and piñata and ice cream cake, I was also taking advantage of the wifi to check messages from church. It could be argued that it’s standard for our 24-7 world these days to mean always being plugged in. I’ll say (for those of you who might be concerned) that I don’t think I’m overly distracted, not excessively tech-bound. That burden felt light; I was still able to enjoy friends in the northwoods. But it would be the wrong burden, anyway; being captivated by technology and our communication cycles is not likely the yoke Jesus wants.

So maybe another difference is in confessing why I was on my phone. The burden isn’t merely having lots to do, since long hours don’t inherently make it Jesus’ kind of work. For me, that moment on Monday had me worried about sick family members and struggles for housing resources and I was deliberating worship details and how to enliven Bible stories and overall pondering what benefits I could offer physically or by speaking God’s good news into those circumstances of life that range from desperate to mundane.

In short, I was focused on you. Since you are my work, I’d say that means (in the language of this Gospel reading) that you’re my burden and I’m carrying you with me most everywhere I go. Or to say it more fully, we are each other’s burdens. And not just us here, but others too, as we were reminded with the Dane Sanctuary Coalition press conference this week: we’ve discerned that we need to bear others of our neighbors who are facing special threats in these days. We find ourselves indentured into service for them.

Having that sense of service and Jesus’ work, though, I should stop to admit something else. It’s a bit self-promoting when I try telling you that I was working and focused on you up north at that birthday party. It’s harder to tell you stuff that doesn’t fit with your image of a pastor, which might be that I was drinking beers from 11:00 that morning, or that besides asking about you the friends also asked about one of my tattoos, or that that self-indulgent little getaway used a heckuva lot of gasoline, or that I probably wasn’t doing well in balancing my responsibility to Acacia. And those still leave out unspoken not-so-pure details that I should be able to trust and confide, but am uncertain of the words and am chicken. They leave me doubting myself whether I’m fit to be your pastor, the insidious traps that minds chase after.

You may rightly say that if there’s no virtue that enables me to be a pastor, there should be no vice that would exclude me. But fears of what disqualifies from God’s love and blessing hound and haunt. Honest moments face and recognize I do not do what you want, what I want, what I should. In gloomier times I wonder whether I can do anything right.

The solution for that is not to look on the bright side. Such self-confidence can be dangerous. Indeed, the term means placing faith with the self, with a paired risk of ignoring or mistrusting God. As those who are reading The Screwtape Letters are reminded, it is tricky and demonic when blinders prompt us self-assuredly to imagine our thoughts and concerns are so positive and benevolent and yet leave us failing to notice the malice and lack of charity really present in our daily life (eg, p28).

This is exactly the wretched assessment in Paul’s words from Romans. They are a loooong ten verses zeroed in on the perception of my individual circumstances, of being worse than I wanted. Finally when Jesus shows up to set things straight at the end, I’m surprised to find I’ve been desperately gasping for breath in longing for him. Really this passage is small potatoes, since the last we heard from Romans was that you were already dead to sin, and living only to God in Christ Jesus. Whatever struggle there is has already been declared won for God.

Having Jesus back in the picture returns us to an earlier question of service and his work: he tells us to take up his yoke. So where in this image is Jesus? I’d suspect the obvious thought would be that he’s the plowman driving the team, the farmer who has hitched up the oxen to do his work and plow the field. That probably squares with a view that the whole world is God’s estate and property, God’s creation that needs tending, the expanse of God’s garden. We may picture ourselves as beasts of burden to serve God, directed by this plowman Jesus as our boss.

But the yoke metaphor isn’t portraying Jesus behind you holding the reins. Rather, he uses the image to emphasize two necks paired together, side-by-side through the bows or loops of the yoke, and (if I understand what was probably already clear to the original listeners), a new ox was paired with an experienced one. So the ox working with you and teaching you is…Jesus. Jesus is your yokefellow. In this image, then, he’s not saying that he’s a nicer master who will spare the whip and make sure you’re well-fed. He’s saying he’s working with you, keeping you straight, leading you into his way that is gentle and humble and offers rest.

And if it culminates in sabbath rest, this is also a word about the work that you do as God’s creatures. Rather than “my burden is light,” it should be translated “my burden is better or is fitting.” The workload Jesus offers is more natural and fitting than the burdens you otherwise choose for yourself or get roped into. It’s natural and good that we should be dependent on service to each other, that we honor the relationships of creation. Caring for each other is the fitting way for us to live. Selfishness and reckless gain and ignorance about others around us instead create cycles that continue to make life more difficult and restless. We see it in exploitation of immigrant workers. We see it in environmental abuse. We see it when we neglect time with our families and end up requiring more effort to sort it out later. Even though we recognized with Romans that we end up at those dead ends, that is not God’s intention for us.

Jesus continues to speak of burdens since it’s right that we’re bound together. While we may react at first to this passage against the yoke, wishing instead to be set free, that’s a wrong model of freedom and of life itself. As our society celebrated the American form of independence this week, I’m disheartened how that’s framed that as freedom from others, as in “you can’t tell me what to do.” That is essentially a nonexistent impossibility. We must exist in relationship. We fit most naturally when we attend well to shared needs and demands.

For that, I’m so grateful for the yokemate Jesus. You aren’t left to navigate God’s work on your own, not of your own devices trying to plow good and straight lines. In your roles, it’s not whether you worry about feeling good enough, since the natural fit comes from Christ. And when the unnatural threatens and your doubts and distractions arise and you so constantly seem to stray toward the evil that you don’t intend, nevertheless Jesus your yokefellow remains to work beside you, to guide your steps into the way of life. We might say he’s pulling for you.

So even the invitation to take this yoke upon you is a bit of a misnomer, since Jesus has already yoked himself to you, as Immanuel, as God with you, born into your life, to take your suffering upon himself, who remains with you always. Jesus your yokemate will guide you, by your side in love, and that presence ensures the burden is light, good, and natural, and culminates in rest. That’s who you’re supposed to be amid God’s creation, and—in the concluding words from Romans—it happens, “thanks be to God, through Jesus Christ our Lord!”

* the “yokefellow” from Philippians 4:3

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a funeral sermon

For Daniel John Banda  22Apr1957 + 16Oct2014

Is25:6-9; Ps23; from Rom7-8; Mt5:4

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen

Life doesn’t go how we want it to. That’s an obvious statement right now, certainly true in this tragic shock of Dan’s death, which we can only call untimely and unfortunate. It should not have happened. We can’t give any good reasons or explanations for why it did happen. And there’s really nothing we can do to change it.

This week, we’ve also been reminded that the end of life is not how we’d want it to be. This moment should not have come now, when Dan was happy and settling in to new rhythms of life in Platteville. It shouldn’t have come when Maren was so far away. It shouldn’t have come as a knock on Josh’s door, just as he was actually looking forward to a visit on parents’ weekend, activities planned, details worked out, even a shirt picked out for him. It is untimely and tragic.

It highlights the fracture of loss, taking one so vibrant away from us, and also it magnifies what was unresolved, the other moments in Dan’s life, for your shared lives with him, and for each of us. There’s plenty that doesn’t go how we want, how we wish it would, and we seem largely powerless to change it.

A month ago Dan wrote to me with that type of thought, reflecting that he’d worn out several mirrors looking for the cracks, as he said, in his thoughts and actions, feeling he couldn’t really understand a bunch of the “whys” in life, that it just remained a mystery.

One of our verses from Paul’s letter to the Romans captures this sort of sentiment, seeming so true to our realities: “I do not do the good I want, but what I do not want is what I do.” In some of the most central roles in his life, that has to summarize Dan’s reaction. He tried to be a good spouse and partner. He really, really wanted to be a good dad. In his mind he always wanted to be a father first and foremost. But those relationships nevertheless had difficulty. They didn’t always go the way he wanted, or the way you wanted.

That’s not to say there isn’t a lot Dan did very well, that did go how he wanted. His passions and creativity and his inquisitiveness could be inspiring to be around. His teaching was an especially energizing and enlivening spot for him, the recent time in Platteville being one of the strong examples of it. In that letter last month, after excitement for Josh, Dan told of how very happy he was, being busy with the diverse course load. He was back in his element.

And, of course, in his filmmaking he was extraordinary and so talented. Yet notably there, too, he tended to find themes and topics that were not easy, talking to veterans or entering war zones, places of disputes and conflicts, prejudices, oppressions, and inequalities. That again shows how life so often is not what it should be.

There are some who view all this with a negative summary. For that they may be called pessimists, or realists. They see struggle and disappointments and tragedies, and summarize it with something like, “Life’s a bitch, and then you die.” It could even square with our verse from Romans; if I try to do the right thing, but somehow just can never get it right, that’s a pretty dismal outlook overall.

Yet that is not the theme of our faith, finally, and that is not the refrain Dan voiced. Much truer and more faithful is Dan’s motto, “Never place a period where God has placed a comma.” It’s one he used a lot. It’s a phrase I heard from him at low moments. He used it to describe places like Mexico and the Congo and our fear of the other that would break apart human relationships on large scales.

And, indeed, it could be used in Romans to describe our place. As much as we fail and fall short, as much as things won’t go right and with sudden finality of death, still that’s not it, it’s not over, not the end, no period. That is not all. It’s among the most amazing transitions possible, from Romans 7 looking at our bleak brokenness, going on to say that it’s not just us, that all creation groans in travail, and yet turning in Romans 8 to a breathtaking word hope. It says, “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us.” It points toward the promise of life through the love of Jesus. And nothing can ever separate us from that. This is the core of our faith, then, that even at the lowest point, we cling to hope of something better. Even in the face of death, we hold the expectation of more, of resurrection, of new life in Jesus.

That’s what can give us confidence to keep working on relationships that seem to be at dead ends. It’s what allows us to confront places of deep despair, whether in the news of our world or in our own existence. Even now, the bad is merely a comma.

The Isaiah reading that Maren selected for us was written during a time of terrible oppression by a foreign army. Yet it allowed God’s people not to yearn for or gloat in their own triumphalism, but to hope for reconciliation with those enemies, when all would be brought to celebrate together at a rich banquet, when shrouds and graves and weeping and death would be no more. It’s in Jesus’ words of blessing from the Sermon on the Mount, that even in the midst of our sorrow you are blessed, for you will be comforted.

It’s always in the assurance that no matter how far we’ve gone astray, how badly we’ve blown it, how brutal a rupture death is, how much we live in the frustrating struggles of Romans 7, still there is Romans 8 to come. Nothing can separate you, there is no way you can be taken from, you will always be kept in the arms of God’s mercy, in the heart of this Father, in the love of Jesus our Lord, for this life and more to come.

That’s a promise Dan cherished through the commas of his life, and it persists for him now. It remains a promise for you, too. And for Christ’s sake it will be forever. Period.

Romans 7 & 8

7:15 I do not understand my own actions. 17b I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. 19 For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. 20 Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.

22 For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, 8:2 [and] the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. 11 If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you. 15 For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” 16 it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, 17 and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.

18 I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. 19 For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; 24 For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? 25 But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

31 What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? 32 He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? 35 Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? 37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

PRAYERS OF INTERCESSION

Let us pray.

God of all creation, we praise you for the vastness of your blessings, for friends and colleagues that stretch across the globe and through different languages, for arts and all knowledge, for the tenacity of love and the gift of memories. God of mercy, hear our prayer.

As we gather this evening in shared grief and loss, give us grace to know that you hold onto us still through tragedy and sorrow. We pray for the healing of brokenness in our relationships and across the globe. Continue your work of reconciliation and peace in our lives. God of mercy, hear our prayer.

Give courage and faith to all who mourn, and a sure and certain hope in your loving care, that, casting all their sorrow on you, they may have strength for the days ahead, remembering especially Josh and Maren. God of mercy, hear our prayer.

Grant to us who walk as yet by faith, that, where this world groans in grief and pain, your Holy Spirit may lead us to bear witness to your light and life. God of mercy, hear our prayer.

Amid things that end too soon, sustain us in the promise of a grand banquet to come, with cups overflowing at the table of your eternal feast. God of mercy, hear our prayer.

Help us in the midst of things we cannot understand, to believe and trust in the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, and the resurrection to life everlasting. God of mercy, hear our prayer.

God of all grace, we give you thanks because by his death our Savior Jesus Christ destroyed the power of death and by his resurrection he opened the kingdom of heaven to all. Make us certain that because he lives we shall live also, and that neither death nor life, nor things present nor things to come, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from your love in Christ Jesus our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen

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