The Shackles or the Yoke

I want to tell you about a friend of mine. He woke up in the middle of the night, about three o’clock in the morning. He realized that was having a heart attack. He lived only a couple of miles from the local hospital and so he decided to drive to the emergency room. (Let me just pause and say that:

  1. I know driving oneself to the hospital when one is having a heart attack is a bad idea and
  2.  I am glad to report that he survived and thrived after his heart attack.)

Anyway, he was driving through deserted and darkened streets, carefully stopping at each stop sign. He later told me that he suddenly thought to himself “What am I doing stopping at these stop signs? I am having a heart attack and have to get to the hospital as soon as possible!” So he sped up and drove without stopping—telling himself that if a police officer pulled him over, he could ask for a ride to the hospital.

stop-sign-1397496_640Clearly, he up until that moment he had been a rules follower. Then he said that he realized that the following the law was potentially harmful rather than helpful in that moment and his perspective changed.

This is what you would call a classic example of situational ethics. Situational ethics, a model pioneered by Joseph Fletcher, says that decision-making should be based upon the circumstances of a particular situation, rather upon upon fixed law. The only absolute, Fletcher maintained, is love, which should be the motivator behind every decision we make.  Justice is the distribution of love rather than following the letter of the law. On the face of it, it seems reasonable, and yet taken to a logical extreme it breaks down. (Although in my small example above it did work out well.)

Paul in the letter to the Romans highlights one of the biggest problems with situational ethics: human beings are sinful. Paul said: I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. He points to sin that dwells within him. We are shackled by our inability to overcome that weakness without help.

God gives us laws because God knows that we tend to sin. That is part of being human. We often and even almost always don’t have the broad perspective or the wisdom to be able to see the results of the choices we make. To put it succinctly, the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.

In our catechism, we define sin as “seeking our own will rather than the will of God, thus distorting our relationship with God, with other people and with all creation.” (Our catechism, in case you haven’t ever read through it can be found in the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer starting on page 845. It’s a document in that it lays out the basics of our faith in a very clear and concise way…)

In our baptismal covenant, we promise that WHEN we sin, we will repent and return to God. In this promise that we make to persistently pursue a relationship with God, there is acknowledgement that we are fallible and broken human beings, that we will make mistakes and wander away from God…and God will always and without question welcome us back.

In 1948, C. S. Lewis summed it up in a wonderful portion of a book titled God in the Dock:

If God had a refrigerator, your picture would be on it.

If God had a wallet, your photo would be in it.

God sends you a sunrise every morning.

He sends you flowers every spring.

God could live anywhere in the universe, and He chose your heart.

When you want to talk, God will listen.

And that Christmas gift He sent you in Bethlehem?

. . . Face it, friend, God is crazy about you!

We are shackled by sin and loved by God. That means that we can trade our shackles in for a yoke. In the world, a yoke, of course, is a curved piece of wood with leather straps which are placed around the necks of beasts of burden to help them share a load and move it together. It lets the animals do more work, pulling a plough, a cart, or a heavy weight more readily. At times, it has been seen as a symbol of servitude or bondage. Sometimes, we experience the things that yoke us closely with God as shackles.

In today’s Gospel, though, yoke represents the loving promise that Paul offered the Romans: Freedom through Jesus Christ.

Listen again to what our reading said: “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.”
stress-1837384_640.pngThink of those things in our lives that are burdens and are wearying us. For many, it is as the fundamental the cares of survival: food, housing, health issues, and even safety. For some, it’s relational. Misunderstandings and grief between parents and children, spouses, co-workers, or friends. In this place and time, we are also burdened with the need for global change in the ways that we care for the environment, for our neighbors near and far, and for those who are in need and trouble.

When we are yoked to Christ, we are not in bondage. Instead, it means that we are not alone in our trouble. When we are yoked to Christ, we are able to move beyond our weakness and make a difference in our world.  When we are yoked with Christ, we are made part of a community of believers who help each other and who together can do great things.

Too often, we think that’s a huge gesture, this aligning ourselves with the will of God with the hope of finding rest and refuge. We look at the things that we think we will lose. We think about the limitations that are being placed upon us.  We focus on the places that the yoke will not let us go.

More often, though, being yoked to God is about the things we are doing, about small choices, about the way we think. Being yoked to God is a series of small steps and changes.

Preacher Fred Craddock put it this way: 

america-1293768_640We think giving our life to the Lord is like taking a $1,000 bill and laying it on the table—“Here’s my life, Lord. I’m giving it all.” But the reality for most of us is that he sends us to the bank and has us to cash in the $1,000 for quarters. We go through life putting out twenty-five cents here and fifty cents there… Literally, giving our life to Christ isn’t glorious. It’s done in all those little acts of love, 25 cents at a time.”

Being yoked with Christ lets us do more with less. Being yoked with Christ makes the seemingly big and bad things in our lives smaller and it makes the small gestures that we are led to do matter in wonderful ways. Being yoked with Christ helps us break the shackles that make us human so that we can be the heart and hands of Christ in the world.

Preached by the Rev. Hailey McKeefry Delmas at the Episcopal Church of the Transfiguration in San Mateo, CA on Sunday, July 9, 2017.

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