Monday, August 13, 2007

For Education

St. Andrew's Episcopal School - Opening Faculty Eucharist

Deuteronomy 6:4-9, 20-25; Psalm 78:1-7; 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5; Matthew 11:25-30

I recently heard the story of a 5th grade Sunday School teacher who was talking to her class about Jesus and his yoke. Does anyone know what a yoke is, the teacher asked. The first hand that went up thought she was talking about the yellow part of an egg (which makes for an interesting interpretation of “my yoke is easy and my burden is light”). The second hand, though, answered that a yoke was something goes around a horse’s neck. That’s right, the teacher replied. So what do you think the yoke of Christ is all about? The student thought for a moment and said, I guess that’s when God has you by the throat…

When God has you by the throat. That about sums up how many of those who came to hear Jesus’ stories were feeling, too – caught in the clutches of God’s law, of Torah, they were barely able to breathe beneath the weight it had become in the hands of religious leaders. The letter of the law wrapped its tendrils around their throats, and the burden of living as God’s people had become unbearable. Torah, intended by God as guidance for how to live in relationship as people loved and saved and called by God…Torah began to be likened to an oppressive and painful yoke that weighed heavily, that wore people down.

And so, Jesus is perhaps as much teaching them a lesson on the real definition and use of yokes as he is telling the real story of what it means to be God’s people. A yoke is intended to distribute weight, to lighten the load, to allow an animal to make full use of its strength. Yokes are uniquely-shaped to fit each animal so as not to rub or chaff or weight the animal down as it goes about its work. The proper use of yokes is to ease burdens, not create them; to harnass and enhance strengths, not wear at them.

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 my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.

Jesus’ words teach what it means to be yoked to him and they tell a story, for they echo the words of our first reading this morning, words that are at the heart of what it means to be God’s people, words still spoken daily in Jewish prayers. Shema yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai ehad. Hear, Israel, the Lord is your God, the Lord alone. In the ancient and timeless story of faith, we have always been yoked with God, loved with all God’s heart, chosen with all God’s soul, and saved over and over again with all God’s might, like our ancestors brought out of Egypt, the story goes, with mighty hand…he brought us out from there in order to bring us in.

This is the real story, the ancient and timeless story toward which the rest of Torah had always pointed – the story of love. And so in the very same breath that we are commanded to love God with all our heart and with all our soul and with all our might, we are also commanded to teach others about love, to tell the story. Recite it to your children and talk about it when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind it as a sign on your hand, fix it as an emblem on your forehead, and write it on the doorposts of your house and on your gates. Tell the story…that the generations to come might know…that they might in turn tell it to their children…

It may sound like more responsibility than we care to add to our already over-burdened lives, our carefully crafted syllabi, our calendars rapidly filling with classes and meetings and schedules and students and deadlines and details. It may sound like God is trying to get us by the throat. But Jesus invites us to remember what it means to be yoked to Love. The yoke is easy, because it is made to fit us well – it fits each of our uniquely-shaped lives and our uniquely-shaped disciplines and the uniquely-shaped ways we are each gifted and skilled and called to love. The burden is light because it is shared – the weight of loving is not ours alone, because God loves us first. The work is…well, the work is hard. It is hard to be God’s people in the world when the world chooses hatred over love, fear over hope, violence over mercy, retaliation over forgiveness, self-preservation over generosity.

But you know us, and what’s written on our doorposts and on our gates – we will find a way or we will make one. We do have a uniquely-shaped way in Jesus, whose life, like ours, was devoted to teaching and telling stories, to celebrating and shaping unique and wonderful lives, to helping others understand how they in turn might be called to use their gifts and skills, how they might one day be, among many other things, storytellers…

Yoked with Christ, whether by faith or by a shared vocation of teaching and telling stories and shaping lives, yoked with Christ we are yoked with one another. We share the burden and the joy of imparting knowledge of the world with those who will one day know more about it than we have ever dreamed of. The work is hard, but we work together – yoked, it is somehow easier, the burden somehow lighter. The students will learn from us about quadratic equations and stage directions and team formations and word definitions and much more. May they also learn from us a story about not having to bear our burdens alone, a story about being at once uniquely-shaped and part of something ancient and timeless, a story about being loved and about loving in return. And so, all of us together this year, in the words of poet W.H. Auden, “Let us run to learn how to love and run, let us run to love.” Amen.

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