Thursday, July 3, 2014

The Water Buffalo Sermon


“For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light…”  

Sweet – what’s a yoke?  And why does Jesus have one?  

Well, at its most basic level, a yoke is a, a thing that you lay over the neck and shoulders, and maybe even the head, of animals that are suited to ploughing.  Sometimes just one animal, but frequently two animals.  And the yoke helps direct the animal to do what it’s supposed to do – it keeps it focused in the proper direction, helps it turn if it needs to turn – especially if you’re working with two animals, you need to make sure that they’re moving in the same direction at the same time.  And the yoke – yoke – not yolk like an egg yolk – the yoke, is a harness, basically, that is shaped to fit the particular animal, so that the farmer can direct it properly.   

Now, we live in a culture today that is not too far removed from the rural setting – a few of you still farm, and a good number of you grew up farming, even if that’s no longer your profession.  We’re not unfamiliar with farming…but for most of us, farming that involves a yoke is really not something we’ve had much to do with.  Many farmers today are chilling out in air-conditioned tractors watching satellite tv with one foot on the gas, while the GPS system takes care of the rest.  Who needs a yoke when outer space tells you when and where to turn, right?  

But even if we here in the civilized, modernized, western world have moved beyond yokes and animals for our farming, many, perhaps most, people throughout the world have not.  Yokes – and the animals that are guided by them – are common in many parts of the world, especially those places that are much more impoverished than we are.  And now, personally, I always thought that a yoke was about oxen, and not really much else.  Oxen use a yoke, but horses or donkeys, or whatever, well, I don’t know…  Maybe I’m the only one who thought this, but…anyway...it turns out that yokes aren’t limited to oxen – apparently, you can also yoke horses, mules, donkeys, and water buffalo.  Water buffalo!  

Anybody out there familiar with Veggie Tales?  I mean, really, it’s not really fair of me to mention water buffalo if I’m not going to show this, yeah? 


For any of you not familiar with Veggie Tales, this is Larry the Cucumber, well, as it said, the part of the show where Larry comes out and sings a silly song.  And in this particular one, Larry is rebuked by Archibald the Asparagus for singing that “everybody’s got a water buffalo”, because everyone certainly does NOT have a water buffalo, and well, you saw it.  

So, whatever.  It’s a silly song. But the more I think about it, the more I think that maybe Larry is right.  Maybe everybody does have a water buffalo…at least, in some sense.  So, here’s a picture of a water buffalo.
 

That doesn’t really look like something you want to tangle with, does it?  It’s…large…and it has…horns…and it has just plopped its muddy self right down in the middle of an otherwise perfectly useful river…This is a metaphor here, but, do you see what I’m saying?  Is there anything in your life that feels like a water buffalo?  Something that is large and awkward and difficult to control – something with pointy horns that has taken up residence in what was once a perfectly nice area of your life?

For some of us, our water buffalo is our job, our employment.  You don’t really like it all that much, or maybe you actually hate it, or maybe you wish you just had one, period.  Maybe your water buffalo is money – maybe no matter how hard you try, you just can’t get finances under control, and you’re always one step behind on bills…you feel like you’ll never get your head above water…Some people’s water buffalo is their schedule – you’re jam-packed up to here.  You’re running basically a professional taxicab service for your kids or grandkids, you’re working more jobs than you can count, your own “extracurricular activities” are too numerous to mention, and you can’t remember the last day you just did…nothing.  Or what about a “health” water buffalo?  Some of you have some pretty intense health issues going on right now, that have just sort of taken over your lives…or even if you’re not in the middle of a crisis, underlying chronic conditions just take their toll, and take over all your daily decisions.  Some of you have a water buffalo that is related to aging…suddenly, it seems like old age – and the changes it brings – has just deposited itself in your living room and there’s really nothing you can do about it.  You don’t like it, you don’t know how to deal with it, but it’s clearly not going away.  And for some of us, relationships are the core of our water buffalo.  

Relationships with your kids, spouse, siblings, parents, or even friends.  The constant fighting…or the cold shoulder…or the walking on eggshells…the fact that whatever you wanted that relationship to be, it’s changed, and that change feels like a giant water buffalo is sitting on you all the time.  Maybe your water buffalo is all about pressure to succeed.  You need to be perfect at school and the MVP on all your sports teams and never miss a beat at home and always get that next promotion at work…the constant worry that you’re not good enough is a huge water buffalo…

Whatever your thing is, point being, Larry the Cucumber is right: we all have a water buffalo.  And some of them start off oh so cute.  Look at this little baby water buffalo! 


 Isn’t it adorable?  I bet when you took that job, or went into debt to buy the car or the furniture or whatever, when you said “I do” or signed on to the team, this was the picture in your mind.  But now this sweet little thing has turned into this:


Yeah…And sometimes, it’s actually our whole lives – not just our lives, but our actual selves, us as individuals, that seem to have turned into a giant water buffalo.  Listen again to the reading from St. Paul’s letter to the church in Rome:  “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.  And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good.  As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me.  For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature.  For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out.  For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing.  Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.”

Do you ever have this feeling?  Like, “GAH!  What is going on?  With me?  And my whole life?  And why is everything screwed up, and why do I screw everything up???  Everybody’s got a water buffalo?  I AM the danged water buffalo!”

Yeah.    

See, the thing about water buffalo is that, if they’re not…controlled, managed, yoked, and so on, they end up trampling all over the natural vegetation, disturbing bird nests and other small animal habitats, and even spreading poisonous weeds all over… but when someone who knows what they’re doing controls the water buffalo, and yokes them, and put them to a decent use…they look like this:
 

So today, in the gospel reading, Jesus is addressing those of us who are weary, and heavy-laden.  I’m pretty sure that’s all of us. There’s a lot of water buffalo in our lives, and we keep trying to yoke them ourselves, and that gets pretty tiring after a while.  We’re like this guy:


What we need – every one of us – is somebody who knows how to yoke a water buffalo.  Somebody who can take all the large, awkward, pointy horned, vegetation trampling, weed spreading, mud sitting water buffalo that is, well, each one of us, and turn us into this:


Somebody who puts a yoke on our water buffalo, on us, and takes us to exactly where we’re supposed to be – guided, directed, cared for, and most especially, loved.  Look, this guy loves his water buffalo.  It means so, so much to him.  And he has carefully crafted a wooden yoke, as part of his care for his dear, water buffalo.  You can see it in his eyes, in the way his hand rests on the animal.  And doesn't it kind of look like the water buffalo gets that?  He understands that his master loves him, and is caring for him.  This is what Jesus is talking about when He says, “take My yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle, and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your soul…”

Trying to yoke ourselves, trying to get ourselves and our problems yoked, organized, moving in the right direction, fixed, solved, always on top of everything, doing what we’re supposed to, have it all under control, all of that is exhausting.  It’s utterly, completely exhausting.  And we find, with Paul, that the stuff we want to do we don’t do, and the stuff we don’t want to do, we do, and it’s all so frustrating and aggravating and hard, just plain hard, and eventually, I think, we all reach a point where we just want to give up.  We might not admit that to anyone, but who hasn’t, in the deepest part of your soul, wished for it all just to go away for a minute, an hour, a day.  If you could only have some space, to think, and be still, and just hit the reset button and start over… Do you ever just want to sit down, right in the middle of the river there and just cry, until someone comes to rescue you?


As Paul says, “WHO WILL DELIVER ME FROM THIS BODY OF DEATH?!?!?!”

Over here, in Matthew’s gospel, we’ve got Jesus raising His hand – “Ooh, call on me!  I will!  I will!  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.  My yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” 

The irony here, is that when you yoke an animal, it’s because you’re putting it to work.  But Jesus is talking about rest – rest for your soul.  When you wear His yoke, it’s not so He can put you to work, it’s so you can find rest – deliverance from all the weary, heavy-laden-ness of your life.


Yes, His yoke is easy…but sometimes the process of “taking it on”, is not so much.  Because to take on Christ’s yoke, we have to let go of our own…and more than that, we have to let go of our illusion that we can do it ourselves (!!) if only we just try harder.  See, I think that on a fairly regular basis, when we confront the water buffalo in our life, or when we realize that we are the water buffalo, we go to Jesus and we ask Him to show us how to do a better job of yoking ourselves, or maybe we say, “Hey, a little help here, Jesus?” And we expect him to help us nudge the water buffalo into submission.  Altogether too frequently, we don’t so much look to Christ for His yoke, but for an instruction manual on our own yokes. 

But that’s not what’s on offer here.  In fact, Jesus says that the Father hides things from those of us who think we’re wise and learned, who just want the correct answers.  Jesus doesn’t want you to fix your own yoke, or do a better job of controlling it.  He doesn’t want to give you advice for how to live your best life now.   

He wants you to take His yoke, He wants you to see that He is your best life now!    

He’s not simply here to teach you how to operate your own yoke, how to manage yourself or your water buffalo.  He’s here to actually give you His yoke, so that He can handle the water buffalo.  The reason that the “right answers” are hidden from you, are precisely so that you will turn to Christ.  Christ is the ultimate “right answer”, and He is so much more than the right answer…if all that He did was give us 7 Steps to Godly Weight Loss or 3 Keys For Successful Leadership, we’d still be relying on ourselves, and missing out on His resurrection and redemption!  So that’s no good.  Not at all.  No, no. 

Go all the way.  Everybody’s got a water buffalo, but it’s time to let go of yours.  Throw the whole messy muddy thing at God - it doesn't have to be organized when you give it to Him.  Let him deliver you from this body of death, and take His yoke upon you.  Let Him place it on you, in fact.  His yoke is easy, and the burden is light.  He is gentle, and humble in heart, and there – in Him – you will find rest for your souls.  What more could we ask for, than for someone to deliver us?

In the Name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit – Amen.    

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Confirmation Quiet Time, Part Two



So, a long overdue update on how “quiet time” in confirmation went: Overall, it went really well.  It was definitely something different for the kids, that took a lot of getting used to.  In the beginning, they really didn’t like the “rules” part of it – the “no, you really have to be quiet, and not talking, and not moving around.”  The first time, I made the mistake of letting them sit/lay near friends, so long as they were quiet. Well, proximity breeds noise and activity, so…yeah, that didn’t work so much. 

The first time we did this, I gave them 20 minutes, and it was 15-18 before they really got all of the giggles out - longer than I expected.  Then I brought them back to the chancel, and we talked – one by one, I had each kid share his or her experience – what they liked, didn’t like, etc.  The kids who are “busiest” – who have the most jam-packed schedules with sports, etc had been going crazy.  They were “bored” without something to “do.”  The ones who are least busy – but still busy – had almost immediately fallen asleep, and they talked about how great it was just to have a few minutes of down-time.  Those three sleepers then turned to the group of giggliest girls and announced that it was really hard because “people” were talking and whispering and laughing…ahem.  Then we had a conversation about the Sabbath and its purpose, and about how each of us needs rest – rest for the sake of rest.  Not a painful, tortuous rest that involves sitting on your hands and biting your tongue, but an actual relaxing “rest”.  We talked about  “hearing God,” and they allowed that constant busyness, constant talking and moving and doing could probably prevent us from hearing God.  In the end, the 2-3 who were most opposed to this from the get-go offered – entirely on their own – that we could do this every week as long as we did the actual class stuff first.  

I’ll take that as a win.

We only had two weeks of class left at that point, but we repeated the exercise each time.  The kids agreed that they liked it, and that they felt it was important.  But what surprised me – what I absolutely didn’t expect – was that parents communicated to me how much their kids liked it, and some even asked, somewhat jokingly, if they could join us. 

So, I’m thinking…next year confirmation class will be over the Small Catechism.  I’ve decreed that parents must attend with their kids, and I’m working on getting other adults to join us as well – doing kind of a cross-generational confirmation.  I can’t decide if I should go with actual silent time before class, or having us all pray Vespers together before we dig in.  I really like the idea of Vespers, but the quiet time thing was such a success…thoughts, anyone? 

Saturday, May 10, 2014

On Church and Mother's Day



Good morning!  We may as well start out by naming the elephant in the room: it’s Mother’s Day.  Sure, it’s the Fourth Sunday of Easter, but really, we all know, it’s Mother’s Day.  You know?  I mean, what’s the resurrection of Christ compared to the awesomeness of moms, right?  

Mother’s Day is incredibly complicated.  On the surface, it seems simple.  Yay, moms.  Let’s have a day to celebrate them, and all the hard work they do, and how much they love their kids!  And there is nothing inherently wrong about this.  But let’s dig a little deeper and underneath that, “yay, moms,” there’s often a lot of other stuff.  We all come here today with our own baggage about moms and motherhood and Mother’s Day - We're so incredibly grateful for our mothers, we're sad that they're no longer with us, we have a terrible relationship with them for whatever reason, our own children -- intentionally or unintentionally -- make it extremely difficult to be a mother, we desperately want to be mothers and are stuck feeling angry or jealous towards those who already are, we feel like we are bad mothers or "not real women" because we have suffered miscarriages or couldn't conceive at all or we delivered by c-section instead of naturally.  Maybe you never knew your biological mom, or she did a terrible job of caring for you as a child, or maybe her brain is wracked by Alzheimer’s and you just don’t know how to relate to her anymore.  Maybe your child has wandered off the beaten path and you wonder what you did wrong in raising him, or whatever.  Even for those of us who have a generally good relationship with our still-living mothers, it isn’t perfect, is it?  No family is, after all.  Mother’s Day is about so much, much more than just flowers and breakfast in bed.  Yes?

So it’s good that Mother’s Day is not a liturgical holiday.  It is not marked in red on the Church Calendar.  It’s not a feast day like Christmas or Easter or Pentecost – All Saints or Ascension or Holy Trinity Sunday or even Reformation Day.  We needn't - and shouldn't - let this holiday, and however we feel about it, define our Christian life.  Because the Church is not about mothers.  It is about Jesus.  Even when the Church has traditionally lifted up specific women like the Virgin Mary or her cousin, Elizabeth, who were both prominent maternal figures, the point is not that they were mothers, but that they pointed to Christ.  Mary’s Magnificat, in Luke 1, is not about “Yay, God made me a mother,” but “yay, God has saved his people!”  Elizabeth’s greeting to Mary is not, “congrats on being pregnant – by the way, how’d that happen?”  It’s, “Come on in, dear mother of my Lord!  And look, the child in my own womb is leaping for joy in the presence of the prenatal Christ!”  Mothers are a good and wonderful thing – and they are meant by God to love and serve and raise their children, and most of them do a darn fine job of it.  But motherhood, and families in general, are not, and cannot be, the focal point of church – ever.  The focus of church is always and only Christ.  

Even our Bible texts for today call us to that.  Let’s look at the story from Acts – the book of Acts, more fully, the Acts of the Apostles, is basically Volume II of the Gospel of Luke.  It’s written by Luke, and it picks up shortly after the first Easter, in the time of the very early Church, as Jesus’ disciples and other believers in Christ began to get their bearings and get organized in a world – and a religion – that had been forever changed by the Resurrection.  And in today’s reading, we get a brief glimpse of what life was like for them.  

“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.  Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles.  All the believers were together and had everything in common.  They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need.  Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people.  And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.” (Acts 2:42-47)

 Now, it’s important to recognize that these were normal people we are talking about.  They are not living in some ancient hippie commune, or leading some sort of desert monastic life where the cares of the world wouldn’t distract them from religious practice.  Those sorts of lifestyles didn’t develop for at least another couple hundred years.  These are people who had jobs to complete and fields to till and laundry to do and meals to get on the table.  Kids to get to bed even when it was light outside way past bedtime and ill relatives to care for and the thousand other things that come along with daily life.  And surely they lived their lives in all the ways that it was necessary to do so.

But they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.  What do we devote ourselves to?  Work? Sports? Money? Politics? Family?  On this Mother’s Day, it is critical that we remember that families – nuclear families, extended families, friends who are basically family – are important things.  They are gifts from God to us, so that we can be cared for and loved, nourished and nurtured, and experience companionship and a good – abundant, Jesus might say – life.  But they are not God.  They are not God.  

Unfortunately, however, in our culture “family” can become just as much of an idol as an Old Testament golden calf.  It is very easy for us to let “family” slide into first place when it comes to our priorities.  We say it, don’t we, without even blinking an eye: “my life revolves around my family,” or “my life revolves around my kids,”.  And often this happens without our even noticing.  But we wake up one morning and find that the faults of our mother are the entire reason why we can’t seem to get our own life together, and we must ponder this, and wallow in it endlessly.  Or that literally every waking moment of our day is devoted to our children and grandchildren and their needs/wants/desires/or 1000 extracurricular, extra-expensive, extra-time-consuming activities.  This is how our culture is, is it not?  But this is a problem.

Because as Christians, we are not given license to “devote ourselves” to anything other than Christ.  Parents, and grandparents: yes, this means that your children or grandchildren are not the most important people in your life.  Jesus is.  Kids: your friends and family are not the most important people in your life.  Jesus is.  Husbands and wives: your spouse is not the most important person in your life.  Jesus is.  Those of you who have a family structure that doesn’t look like you wish it did: because you lack …. Spouse, children, godly parents, whatever, that cannot be what defines your life.  Jesus is what defines your life. 

Jesus is the Good Shepherd.  Jesus is the Gate.  Jesus is the One by whom we go in and out and are led to food and water and a safe pasture to graze.  Jesus is the One who provides us a fence to protect us from danger, who shields us from thieves and robbers who come to kill and destroy.  Jesus is the only one who can lead us through the valley of the shadow of death, because He has been there first, Himself.  Jesus is the one whom our life revolves around, because it is He who literally gives you life, life abundant, and it is He in whom you have goodness and mercy because you dwell in His house forever.  

What a blessing that is!  What love!  In a culture – and even, too often, a Church – that idolizes “family” above all else, how wonderful it is to know that Jesus the Good Shepherd who leads you beside still waters and restores your soul, the Gate who protects you from evil and opens the doors of Heaven, that same Jesus promises us life and goodness and mercy simply because He loves you – regardless of what your earthly family does or does not look like.  

He leads you to waters that are more still and refreshing than the most tightly tucked-in covers of a bedtime routine.  His goodness and mercy are more than even the most Pinterest-obsessed SuperMom could ever provide.  He protects you from enemies far greater than even abusive or neglectful parents.  His rod and staff comfort you more than a longed-for baby in a barren womb. 

It is to Him and him alone that we look, for the fulfillment of every need, not out of blind obligation “or else”, but because He is our Shepherd.  He calls you by name, and you know His voice.  He knows exactly where the green pastures and still waters are – because He is the green pastures and still waters.  It is safe to follow him, even through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, because He alone knows the way out. 

Mama sheep – and Daddy sheep – you could do nothing better for your children and grandchildren, than to teach them this.  And in fact, all of us here in this congregation are sheep who are led by the Good Shepherd.  We care about, and find a good deal of things in this world important, worthy, helpful, useful, lovely things to support and take part in.  But like the early Church, we devote ourselves only to the teaching of the apostles, to prayer and fellowship and breaking of the bread.  As St. Peter writes, yes, we had all gone astray like distracted, dumb little sheep.  But through the death and resurrection of Jesus, regardless of any other fact about your life, you have been returned to the Shepherd of your soul, and you will dwell in the house of the Lord – forever.  

My goodness, but your cup overflows!

Amen.