Unity Lutheran Church + Christ the King Campus
5 July 2020 + Lectionary 14A
Matthew 11.16-19, 25-30
Rev. Josh Evans, preaching
There are no parades, no fireworks, no marching bands this year. It doesn’t feel quite like the Fourth of July, does it? It doesn’t feel quite like a day to celebrate independence in the midst of a global pandemic, in the midst of nationwide protests over racism, in the midst of an election year where our country seems to be more divided than ever … when even something as simple as wearing a mask to protect our neighbors has become politicized.
It makes me wonder: What do we actually mean by independence? This weekend, of course, we commemorate the Day of Independence, a holiday on our national calendar observing the declaration of our political independence from Great Britain in 1776. More often, in everyday terms, we might think of independence as personal, often accompanied by life transitions. There’s the independence that comes with getting your first driver’s license, or moving off on your own for the first time.
Meanwhile, we associate the loss of independence with seemingly negative experiences. There’s the loss of being able to drive, or the loss of living on our own, particularly as we age. At times like these, it can be comforting to hear Jesus’s familiar words from Matthew’s gospel:
“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 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.”
Rest from life’s weariness and burdens sounds like a welcome promise in times like these, doesn’t it? But wait a minute … What’s that Jesus says about “yoke”? That’s not exactly an image of independence.
To be independent, according to the dictionary definition, is to be self-governing, self-dependent, self-reliant, self-sufficient, self-supporting, or self-sustaining. I can’t help but notice the way the word self is repeated, as though independence is freedom … but freedom alone, separated from others.
Taking up a yoke is quite another thing. I’m no farmer, but I do know that a yoke requires two animals, working together. In fact, younger work animals being trained would often be yoked with a more experienced work animal in order to get the job done.
I don’t think it’s any mistake that Jesus’s words of comfort and promise call us to be yoked together with one another. From the very beginning, God knew it was not good for us to be alone, and so God created a helper and a partner for the first human. God knew the truth we have also come to experience: We are better together – in community, in partnership, in accompaniment.
Accompaniment, by one definition, is “walking together in a solidarity that practices interdependence and mutuality” (ELCA Global Mission). Interdependence – a kind of dependence, not on ourselves alone, but on each other. That’s why we have ministry partners at Unity. We know we can’t do it all, nor should we have to. There are things, though, that we can do together that we could only dream of doing alone.
Of course, no sermon on the Fourth of July weekend would be complete without a reference to Hamilton – especially now that it’s widely available on Disney+. More than just a hit Broadway musical, Hamilton is actually history, too, and the storyline reminds us of the reality that even while the colonies were fighting for their independence from Great Britain, still they were keeping slaves – not exactly a reinforcing image of freedom.
In one of the opening numbers, as the title character Alexander Hamilton is getting to know his fellow ragtag, scrappy group of revolutionaries, we meet soldier and abolitionist John Laurens, who, poetically, reminds us: “We’ll never be truly free until those in bondage have the same rights as you and me.”
Recognizing that our own welfare and liberation and well-being is always caught up in that of others has long been a rallying cry of those who protest injustice – including the early abolitionists who fought against slavery, and the modern-day activists who continue to denounce systemic racism.
“Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me…” Jesus says… Because we are always interdependent on each other.
It’s also a truth that is deeply Lutheran. Our namesake reformer Martin Luther knew this. We don’t live for ourselves alone but for our neighbors. Luther understood two things well: First, God in Christ has made us free – free from the power of sin and the ways we harm one another. That is the gospel, the good news, that we cling to. Second, our freedom makes us free to serve and love our neighbors in the same way that Christ has shown us. In fact, Luther wrote an essay about this called “The Freedom of a Christian.”
In other words, we are freed from and freed for. Freed from the ways we rely only on ourselves and separate ourselves from one other, and freed for community, partnership, and working together toward reshaping the world-as-it-is into the world as God longs for it to be – where all people and all creation are valued as sacred and God-breathed.
There’s responsibility in being yoked to one another like that. But there’s also great promise. We are always part of the larger community of faith, carrying us, supporting us, lifting our burdens and worries and fears when they’re too big to bear on our own.
Today we celebrate freedom – not independence or “freedom” alone. We celebrate true freedom that calls us to live as a part of the whole for the well-being of the whole. We are called to live in community, to be yoked to one another, and to experience the gift and the freedom that brings.