Sermon by Jered Weber-Johnson - Jul 05, 2020

True Freedom

A sermon preached by the Reverend Jered Weber-Johnson
Saint John the Evangelist Episcopal Church
Saint Paul, MN
July 5, 2020
Fifth Sunday After Pentecost
Proper 9, Year A

Like so many of us newly homebound and cloistered by the pandemic, my family and I have been ranging farther and farther afield in our free time in search of spaces where we are truly free to move while still keeping the appropriate physical distance. We’ve taken to the woods and the parks and trails where we feel free of the restrictive limits that safety and neighborliness naturally require of us in a pandemic. Recently our wanderings found us on the trail that meanders through Banning State Park, following the course of the oft-troubled waters of the Kettle River. On this particular day, like so many recently, it was hot and the air was thick under the trees and we were sweaty and tired before long. Then we found it, between two rapids, a stretch of quiet waters, almost too long to be called a pool, bordered on the east bank by tall pines and on the west, near the trail, by a red sandbar. We stumbled down the bank for a picnic and a break, and the boys and the dog took to the water, lolling in the depths, wading and splashing. Evangelized by their expressions of delight, the adults too stripped off shoes and socks, and sat on the sandbar, feet soaking in the cool water of the river. The feeling was almost intoxicating, the sun on our necks, the buzz of insects above us in the grasses that lined the river, and the delicious feeling of the heat and soreness leaving our feet.

Come to me, says Jesus, all you who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest.

Who among us has not felt the sagging, aching weariness from life’s many burdens of late? We are weary of this pandemic, weary of the disregard by our leaders for the vulnerable, weary of those who ignore science, weary of the divisiveness in our land, weary of racism’s long reign of terror over black and brown bodies, weary of the daily indignities visited upon women, LGBTQ people, and immigrants, weary of an economy that benefits the few while ravaging the lives of the many. Some of us are weary of trying to do things right and feeling like we are always messing up. Some among us are weary of trying to explain still yet in 2020 why their lives matter. Into this weariness, Jesus again bids us come unto him for rest.

Jesus’ invitation is not just a call to relief and rest though, it is also a call to discipleship. Take my yoke upon you, he says. Come and exchange the burdens you’ve been carrying for the burden I have to offer. Come alongside me and share with me in the struggle, yoke yourself to me and follow in my way. But know that in doing so, you will find, by grace, my yoke is easy and my burden is light.

In order to understand why Jesus’ burden is light, we must first understand the burden he is inviting us to lay aside. For this, we turn to the Apostle Paul who in this morning’s readings describes his struggle with desire and action. He says, “For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” It is a truth that we are conditioned by our desires – we mimic what we see others doing or possessing, and shape our lives according to the desires of others. We want what they want. We believe how they believe. We act as they act. And, when our desiring, believing, and acting run into the opposing wills, desires, needs, and actions of others, we are prone toward first envy, then rivalry, all-out conflict, and sadly violence. In mimicking the desires of others, we are bound to them. We are yoked to all kinds of desire. Jesus is inviting us to be yoked to him, to mimic what he desires, to do as he does, to join him in his mission, to walk alongside him in his Way. Such a yoking is true freedom. Paul exclaims that there is no escape from this body of death, except “through Jesus Christ our Lord!” It is important to note that throughout this discourse about his struggles with desire and action, Paul continually refers to himself. He writes, “I see”, “I do”, “I want”, “sin is in MY members”, and “wretched man that I am”. But, having proclaimed that freedom comes through Jesus, the next chapter pivots away from the language of self to the language of “us”. There is this sense that in yoking our lives to the desires and examples of others, by wanting what we are conditioned and taught to want, we become selfish, bound by the cycles of competition and violence that define human existence. But, in being yoked to Christ, we find grace to finally be at peace with the world. The burdens of the world are a perpetual cycle of wanting what we do not have, and destroying the lives of those who stand between us and it. This is the burden of the world – it is sin and death. It touches everything from the laws of our land to the economies of the world. It is bound up in our law enforcement. It is in the policies that drew lines around our neighborhoods. It is in the algorithms that feed us a constant stream of tailor-made information and ads designed to keep us forever wanting and dissatisfied.

Like millions of people around the world this weekend, I indulged in the small-screen debut of the broadway musical Hamilton, reveling in the familiar music and story. In keeping with the preacher’s challenge here at St. John’s I had hoped to play a clip from the play, but as fate and copyright would have it, I was not able to do so. Perhaps you know the story, a dramatic, if somewhat ahistorical presentation of the story of Alexander Hamilton, the “Ten Dollar Founding Father” who, unlike many of his peers and early leaders of our nation never became President, and died at an early age in a gun duel at the hands of a former friend. Hamilton’s young life was marked by ambition and a meteoric rise to power and then followed, almost as rapidly, by a devastating and complete fall from grace. The show explores ambition and pride – it wrestles with desire and the objects of desire. For Hamilton the show tells us, ambition to make a name for himself, a voracious hunger to shape the world and leave his mark on it means, as one song says, that he’ll never be satisfied – Hamilton’s rise and fall are the product of his reckless desire, shaped by visions of greatness and a world that he rightly believes will never see him as anything but a second class citizen, an immigrant, an orphan, and a bastard, that is, unless, he makes a name for himself. And, just as equally conditioned by desire, the antagonist of the story, his sometime colleague and friend, a brother in arms, and ultimately his killer, Aaron Burr, is driven by a need to be like Hamilton, to have his glory, to be in the room where it happens. Where Hamilton seems propelled by desire, Burr is almost frozen by it. He conditions his life according to desire and disciplines himself to wait for the very things Hamilton grabs. Burr famously sings:

“Hamilton doesn’t hesitate.
He exhibits no restraint.
He takes and he takes and he takes
And he keeps winning anyway.
He changes the game.
He plays and he raises the stakes.

Life doesn’t discriminate
Between the sinners and the saints
It takes and it takes and it takes.
And we keep living anyway
We rise and we fall and we break
We fall and we make our mistakes.
And if there’s a reason I’m still alive
When so many have died
Then I’m willin’ to…
Wait for it.”

We are either in bondage to the burdens of desire, desire for what the world promises us, and driven by this desire we either destroy the world around us or ourselves or both, or we are free to share in the yoke of Jesus, the burdens of his mission as his disciples. Again, Jesus bids us be free. “Come to me”, he says “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.” Such a yoking is the end of the competitive cycles that define and destroy so much of our life. It is with Christ that “us and them” rivalries cease. It is the freedom of Jesus’ yoke that heals the divisions of the world. He invites us to take up this yoke. For, we know that the divisions that keep our world enthrall to desires that are not of God depend upon things staying as they are. Martin Luther King Jr. famously said, “None of us is free until all of us are free.” He could have said, all lives will matter when Black Lives Matter, when Indigenous Lives Matter, when LGBTQ lives matter. Our freedom is bound up together. And, as Christians, we discover this freedom in the yoke of Christ, who calls us to work, to live, to serve, to desire as he did, to love as he loved. When we do this, then and only then will be truly free. The burdens of desire weigh heavy on us all. The whole creation seems to stifle and the freedom of some comes at the expense of the many. Jesus beckons us to something right, something good, to share in his yoke. We may be weary, but let’s not wait for it.