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Homilies by Rev. Andrew Collis unless indicated otherwise.

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Ordinary Sunday 14, Year A
South Sydney Uniting Church
July 6, 2014

Genesis 24:34-38,42-49-58-67; Romans 7:15-8:2; Matthew 11:16-19,25-30

‘My burden is light’

Our Gospel closes with very familiar and comforting words: “Come to me, all you who labour and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest … For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” I've always liked the image of Rebecca as a Christ figure. Her water jar is light because it symbolises a kindness that is the very life of God. God be with you ...

Lutheran theologian Paul Tillich’s interpretation of our Gospel (from a sermon of 1955) suggests that it’s the general human condition to be heavy laden and to labour under a yoke too terrible to be endured. What kind of burden is this? We may think first of the burdens and labours that daily life imposes. But Jesus does not tell us that he will ease the labours and burdens of life and work. Jesus does not promise more pleasure and less pain. On the contrary, sometimes he promises his followers more pain, more persecution, more threat of death the “cross” as he calls it.

So what is the burden to which Tillich thinks Jesus is pointing?

The yoke that Jesus has come to save us from, says Tillich, is religion! Jesus came to establish, once and for all, a “New Being”, a restored relationship with God and others, not a religion (understood as a mere set of laws, however idealistic). Another commentator, the serpent from the Garden of Eden in mind, says: “Religion can be like the most beguiling of all creatures in offering us a knowledge which is not ours to have [R]eligion has convinced millions they can now take the place of God, knowing good and evil, and laying judgements upon themselves and others” (Paul J. Nuechterlein).

We might summarise the burdens of religion in terms of self-righteousness (which is always vain and always a hard-headedness and hard-heartedness), moralism (of the finger-pointing and hand-wringing kinds) and sectarianism (which limits the reign of love to one or other small kingdom). We might reflect on which groups in our society tend to be most burdened by religious vanity and moralism those who are least able to bear the burdens of guilt, shame, hopelessness. Who are the victims of sectarianism made afraid of difference, afraid to disagree?

We might also extend our thinking on religion to include the dominant religion of capitalism which divides human communities, isolates human beings and reduces them to anxious consumers, to addicts enslaved not only to sticky drinks (I used to work at a fast-food restaurant so I know how heavy those bags of syrup are!) but to the false promises of sticky drinks the false promise of “fun”, “health”, “life”, “eternity”, and so on.

And then, of course, there's nationalism, the kind of religion that might induce a prime minister to say something like this: “Our country is unimaginable without foreign investment. I guess our country owes its existence to a form of foreign investment by the British government in the then unsettled or, um, scarcely settled, Great South Land.”

In order to free us from a “Pharisaism” (exemplified in the zeal of Saul of Tarsus, aka the Apostle Paul) that would have us confusing religion for the real thing, Tillich says: “We, the ministers and teachers of Christianity, do not call you to Christianity but rather to the New Being to which Christianity should be a witness and nothing else, not confusing itself with that New Being. Forget all Christian doctrines; forget your own certainties and your own doubts, when you hear the call of Jesus. Forget all Christian morals, your achievements and your failures, when you come to Him. Nothing is demanded of you, no idea of God, and no goodness in yourselves, not your being religious, not your being Christian, not your being wise, and not your being moral. But what is demanded is only your being open and willing to accept what is given to you, the New Being, the being of love and justice and truth, as it is manifest in Him Whose yoke is easy and Whose burden is light.

“… We spread His call because it is the call to every [person] in every period to receive the New Being, that hidden saving power in our existence, which takes from us labor and burden, and gives rest to our souls.”

Tillich’s sermon concludes: “Do not ask in this moment what we shall do or how action shall follow from the New Being, from the rest in our souls. Do not ask; for you do not ask how the good fruits follow from the goodness of a tree. They follow; action follows being, and new action, better action, stronger action, follows new being, better being, stronger being. Our actions would be more creative, more conquering, conquering the tragedy of our time, if they grew out of a more profound level of our life. For our creative depth is the depth in which we are quiet.”

I’ll conclude on a less philosophical note, and note that Jesus doesn’t promise to take our burdens away. We are not given a picture of ultimate freedom, but of freedom for relationships.

I imagine the dancers of the Bangarra Dance Theatre narrating the story of contact and cultural exchange between Patyegarang and William Dawes: moving in unison, expressing difference, expressing wariness, difficulty, respect, friendship ...

We are not given a picture of ultimate freedom, but of freedom for relationships.

How does Jesus lighten our burdens? First of all, he came to take them on. He took on the ways we become polarised, our willingness even to kill in the name of justice. He took on those burdens. But he had also taken on our burdens in his living. He had healed the sick and preached Good News to the poor. He reached out to those whom we ordinarily leave out.

And he asks us to do the same: to take on each other’s burdens. When we are caught in the traps of religion, of self-righteousness, of anxious consumerism, of greedy competition, our burdens become the difficult burdens of every person for him or herself. When we follow Jesus in the loving desire of God, a desire that everyone, that every creature might live and thrive, we share one another’s burdens and make easier the yokes of co-operation, collaboration, understanding, caring.

It’s the way our Saviour wants us to remember him, to imitate him and his loving desire. On the night he was betrayed, Jesus met with his disciples whom he called friends. And during the meal which celebrates the freedom of God’s creatures, he took a loaf of bread. “This is my life,” he said. “Here’s what I do with it. I give thanks for it because it’s not mine alone. Let it be broken and given, let it be shared …”

Let’s complete the homily together. What, for you, is true faith (as opposed to mere religion) the true promises of fun, health, life and eternity, the invitations to New Being, to the being of love and justice and truth? …

Sovereign of heaven and earth,
whose beloved came eating and drinking,
exposing the rivalry
that tears the world apart:
may we share his feast and friendship
and lay our burdens
in his liberating arms;
through Jesus Christ, Wisdom's child.