Preached at MCC Columbia (S.C.) July 3, 2005
Readings: Matthew 11:27-30, Romans 7:13-25
We’ve worked very as a congregation hard to make sure that this is a safe and sacred place – a place where each of us can feel safe to explore our beliefs, to grow our relationship with God and to feel good about ourselves. I claim that safe and sacred space this morning as I tell you a deep, dark, sordid secret about my childhood.
Many of you may know that I come from a broken home. When I was nine, my mom and dad divorced. My dad, a Southern Baptist preacher, who preached many times about the evils of divorce, met a new woman, told my mom he didn’t love her and split, taking the riding lawn mower with him.
While that incident deeply affected me – mainly because from then on I had to mow the grass with a horrible push mower – I don’t believe that is the root of this deep, dark, sordid secret that I feel compelled to share with you all this morning. No, the roots of this deep, dark, sordid secret go much deeper. The psychological trauma that led me to this affinity that I had as a child must have been so horrible, so terrible, so earth shattering, that I have repressed it so effectively, that I cannot even begin to name it. Years of therapy would probably not even begin to scratch the surface of this terrible secret too horrible to name. Perhaps, by bringing it out into the open, admitting it before a loving crowd in a safe and sacred place, will help me begin to heal. I hope so.
My deep, dark, sordid secret that I have hidden since childhood is this:
I am a fan of the Osmond Brothers.
I know it’s shameful. It’s not something I’m proud of and something I don’t want the general public to know, so any journalists in the audience are forbidden from sharing this information. It would do irreparable damage to my reputation in this city.
The Osmond Brothers were my idols – but much to my Southern Baptist mamma’s dismay, they were Mormons. For those of you not familiar with the Mormons, they require their young men to embark on evangelism tours. They dress in white button-down shirts and black pants and ride their bicycles around, knocking on people’s doors to tell them about their faith. One day, the Mormons came to my house, and again, much to my mother’s dismay, I invited them in. I figured that since they were Mormons and the Osmonds were Mormons, they’d know each other! I don’t know much about the Mormon religion because those poor boys didn’t get much of a word in edgewise as I regaled them with tales of my adoration for the Osmond Brothers, even though they assured me they did not know them.
Here’s another fact about the Osmonds. Each brother was represented by a color: Wayne in orange, Jay in green, Merrill in black, Alan in blue and of course, Donny in purple. I was so obsessed that I had my mother make a purple outfit for me so I could be just like my hero, Donny. But, perhaps I’ve shared too much.
Today’s scripture reading from Matthew reminded me of the Osmonds and prompted me to revisit my childhood obsession. One of my favorite songs by the Osmond Brothers was their remake of the Hollies’ classic “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother.”
When I read about light yokes and easy burdens, this song came to mind. The lyrics of this song spoke deeply to me even as an Osmond obsessed kid.
The road is long
With many a winding turn
That leads us to who knows where
Who knows when
But I’m strong
Strong enough to carry him
He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother
So on we go
His welfare is of my concern
No burden is he to bear
We’ll get there
For I know
He would not encumber me
He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother
If I’m laden at all
I’m laden with sadness
That everyone’s heart
Isn’t filled with the gladness
Of love for one another
It’s a long, long road
From which there is no return
While we’re on the way to there
Why not share
And the load
Doesn’t weigh me down at all
He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother
I also remembered that I used this song to torture my older brother, Doug. He was on the chubby side as a kid so I used to alter the lyrics and sing, “He’s so heavy, he’s my brother,” whenever he’d happen to walk by. Those incidents usually ended up with me screaming, “Mommy, Doug’s hurting me!” Doug ended up in his room, grounded, but believe me, it was worth it.
As the scriptures reveal, when Jesus wasn’t speaking in parables, he was speaking in paradoxes. This is one such instance. It’s hard to think about a yoke being easy and burden being light. Yokes are very heavy. They were placed on oxen so that they could pull heavy loads, and the very meaning of the word burden is something that is difficult to carry, something that weighs us down. How can a yoke be easy and a burden be light?
The disciples must have thought Jesus had lost his mind. “All the persecution has taken its toll, brothers. The J-man has finally flipped!” Just back one chapter in Matthew 10, he was outlining their life for them, telling them that if they are persecuted in one town to flee to the next, not to be worried about what to say when they’re handed over to councils for preaching the gospel, not to fear those who can kill their bodies and that if they lose their life for Christ’s sake they will find life. So after all this dire life and death talk – telling the disciples precisely how difficult a life with Christ will be – he has the audacity to tell them that his yoke is light and his burden is easy.
But, what Jesus presented to the disciples then, and to us now, is the paradox of grace. You see, Jesus understands the nature of sin – Jesus knows that the root of our sinful nature is not some original sin committed by one man in some far away garden. No, the nature of our sin is our tendency to get totally caught up in our own self-interest. Paul understood this thoroughly when he bemoaned the fact that even though he knew what was the right thing to do, he couldn’t get himself to do it. Instead, he would do the very thing he hated. The “body of death” is our own self-absorption.
Think about this now – self-absorption is at the root of all sin. We go to war because we’re afraid some other person or group of people will take away what we have. We steal when we think we don’t have enough. We lie to cover up our own shortcomings and fears. We cheat to get ahead of someone else. We gain something for ourselves at someone else’s expense. I knew it was wrong to sing mean lyrics about my brother, but I couldn’t help myself. I wanted the attention of making up a funny song, and of course the personal satisfaction I gained from seeing him get angry. All sin springs from this preoccupation with ourselves and making things better just for us, forget everyone else.
Jesus understood this. That’s why he gave us the greatest commandments to love God with all our heart, mind and strength and our neighbor as ourselves. In short, Jesus is saying, “stop being so self-absorbed! Step outside yourself and understand that wanting the good for everyone, and working for the good of everyone, produces the good for everyone.”
I remember my own period of self-absorption. Several years ago when I was single and living in Atlanta, I found this incredible online service that enabled my hermit life. It was called “Webvan,” and it was a miracle of modern technology. You would go online, shop for your groceries, schedule a time for delivery and they would show up, unload your groceries, zip your card through their handheld card reader, wish you a good day and get out of your house. I didn’t darken the doorway of a grocery store for months.
I was working at CNN at the time, but thought how nice it would be to get a telecommuting job – and then if Webvan could have brought me beer, I would never have left the house. It was all about me during that time. I didn’t go to church, I barely had any friends, and I didn’t care. But, I was miserable. The yoke was heavy and the burden was not easy.
I’d like to give you a little illustration of what life is like when we hide away from the world. [Ask someone to pick up the box of weights.] Is that heavy? [Ask someone else to come and help him hold it.] How heavy is it now? [Ask another and another to come hold the box.] Is it getting lighter?
I could never go back to that hermit life, because now I understand Jesus’ paradox of grace. Grace – that light yoke and easy burden – cannot be understood apart from community. It can only be understood when we give up our own self-absorption and step into the world outside of ourselves – when we come to the aid of another, when we give of ourselves so others so they don’t have to bear such a heavy burden.
The Sanskrit word for “yoke” in this passage is the same word that “yoga” is derived from. It means “to unite” or “to join together.” To make the yoke light and the burden easy requires joining ourselves not only to God but to each other. We must join together. We must unite because alone that load will always be heavy.
If all sin springs from self-absorption, then Jesus takes away the sins of the world not in some ritual of blood sacrifice, but in showing us the radical love and grace of God and just how far it will go for us. Love and grace will sacrifice its very life for us to make us understand that it can be crucified, dead and buried, but will always rise again, no matter what. We can refuse grace. We can refuse love. We can wallow in self-absorption and kill all the grace and love offered to us, but it never gives up. It never stays dead. It is always persistent, asking us to come into community and have our yoke made easy and our burdens made light.
Philip Gulley and James Mulholland write in their book If Grace is True that “[s]alvation is turning away from self-absorbed lives. It is trusting in our acceptance by God. It is allowing the knowledge of God’s love to transform our opinion of ourselves and others. It is beginning the journey home. It is accepting that we are saved by grace.” [p.156]
Salvation is not about believing certain things about Jesus or God. Salvation is when we understand that grace appears when we give up our obsessions with ourselves, when we give up stepping over other people to get what we want. As long as we hold on to our own self-interest, we can never accept grace, because grace only comes when we loosen our grip on ourselves and let go. We can only accept grace with open hands, not fists tightly clenched to our own egos. We can only make the yoke light and the burden easy when we open our lives to the lives of those around us – when we come together as a community seeking God’s will for our lives.
I don’t want to wax too romantic about community however, because just being in community doesn’t guarantee we still won’t fall into sin. Just as we can be self-absorbed on an individual basis, we can also be self-absorbed on a corporate basis. That’s when we get so enamored with our own community that all other communities pale by comparison. Suddenly, our community is the best. We’re much better than that community over there. God loves our community more. God blesses our community more. Our community is saved and that community is damned. When that happens, it turns into a community of hate and exclusion, like the KKK or Focus on the Family. Corporate self-absorption leads to tribalism, which leads to further separation and division among God’s children.
What Jesus is offering us when he says his yoke is easy and his burden is light, is true community – true union with God and with each other. That kind of union doesn’t become tribal, it becomes universal. It does not exclude – in includes. It does not damn – it seeks to redeem. It does not divide – it unites.
That kind of community is not easy and not always cozy. John Eldredge in his book Waking the Dead says true community exposes us in ways that are uncomfortable, but can also be transforming if we’ll let it:
“Living in community is like camping together. For a month. In the desert. Without tents. All your stuff is scattered out there for everyone to see. C’mon – anybody can look captured for Christ an hour a week, from a distance in his Sunday best. But your life is open to those you live in community with. Some philosopher described it like a pack of porcupines on a winter night. You come together because of the cold, and you are force apart because of the spines.” [Pg. 197 & 98]
Eldredge’s words remind me of another philosopher, Philo of Alexandria who said “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”
Those are the building blocks of real community. It requires you to be open, to be vulnerable to other people. Real community is where you can be yourself without apology, even if you’re a closet Osmonds fan. Real community is where can make mistakes and be forgiven over and over again. Real community is where you can find that understanding ear without judgment. Real community requires you to ask for help when your load gets heavy. Real community requires you to go out of your way to help others, whether they ask for it or not. Real community requires you to keep drawing your circle bigger and bigger until no one is excluded from your care and concern. Real community knows that our brothers and sisters do not encumber us, they are not a burden. They’re not heavy. They’re our brothers and our sisters. Their welfare is our concern. The road is long, but along the way we share with one another and the load doesn’t weigh us down at all.
Brothers and sisters, when we live our life in and for Christ, the yoke is easy and the burden is light.
Whosoever founder and Editor Emeritus Rev. Candace Chellew (she/her) is the author of Bulletproof Faith: A Spiritual Survival Guide for Gay and Lesbian Christians. She earned her masters of theological studies at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, was ordained by Gentle Spirit Christian Church in December 2003, and trained as a spiritual director through the Omega Point program of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta. She serves as the spiritual director of Jubilee! Circle in Columbia, S.C., and blogs at Motley Mystic.