Sermon for Year A Proper 9

One of the delights of the last year for me has been watching my 2 year old grand-daughter develop and grow. She loves Duplo and spends hours engrossed in strange hybrid creations such as a bridge-house or an aeroplane-bathroom. Funnily enough, I remember her mum doing the same thing when she was that age, although I’ve never come across another child who does this. She also loves drawing and colouring, and has recently discovered the joy of stickers – it’s costing me a small fortune.  She’s quite fierce – if you make a suggestion she doesn’t like, she lets you know in no uncertain terms. 

We know from the gospels that Jesus loved children – he often held them up as examples of how things should really be. ‘Let the little ones come to me, for of such if the Kingdom of heaven’. Unless you become like children you shall not enter the kingdom of heaven’. Remember too that Jesus often healed children – they were important in his ministry.

I think that this has all to do with simplicity. Children often have a way of seeing things as they really are, unencumbered by what they ought to think or say, unworried by what is proper or polite. And really there is nothing more touching than watching children when they are engrossed in play. Not that it is all sweetness and light – there is nothing much worse than looking after children who are quarrelsome and fractious – they can be very tiring. I suppose the same applies; children can abandon themselves to being dreadful just as easily as they can to being adorable – they do both wholeheartedly and with all their energy.

On the day about which our gospel reading is written he had probably watched a group of children at play. Looking at the text it looks as if they were playing funerals and weddings: ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.’ Imagine, if you can, this group of children playing in the market place – it would probably be a hot and dusty open space in the centre of the town or village. The children would have thrown themselves with abandon into their make-believe world. Imagine Jesus, sitting a little way off, maybe under the shade of a tree, watching them and smiling. But perhaps there was someone there who just wouldn’t play – ‘I don’t want to play funerals, AND I don’t want to play weddings – weddings are for GIRLS. I want to play at SHOPPING! If you don;t play I’m going home to tell my mum. So there!’

For Jesus this rang bells: I suspect that he experienced some of the religious leaders of the time as similar to a child on an off day – nothing you do will make any difference. If someone is determined to be grumpy, nothing will stop them. If they won’t play, they won’t play, and even if you do just what they ask, they will still be miserable. John came and fasted and was abstemious and they thought him mad. Jesus came and loved life and they thought him frivolous. They wanted the game played their way, by their chosen friends, in their place and under their instruction – otherwise they would take their bat home and refuse to play!

For me, it is Jesus’ perception of the spirit of the law which  has so much appeal. It was this which gave him joy in life – the joy of a child at play. The religious leaders of his day were a fairly miserable lot – always waiting for people to make mistakes so they could score points and look good. They must have been fairly insufferable. There is a great freedom in not being bound by the trivia – in being able to see what is really important and what is simply social conditioning and nonsense.

I think this is what Jesus was getting at when he said his yoke was easy and his burden light. It wasn’t the thrust of the law he was rejecting, but the nitpicking detail that had grown up around it. People were bound in minute detail by what they could and couldn’t do – every detail of their lives was bound by rules and regulations. It was this that Jesus railed against – for often in keeping the letter of the law, the Spirit of the law was lost. So he healed people on the Sabbath, he plucked ears of grain as he enjoyed a walk in the sunshine, he touched people who were untouchable, talked to people who should have been beneath him, had very questionable friends, threw traders out of the Temple because they were exploiting people – the list is a long one.

This is Jesus’ easy yoke, his light burden. But yoke it still is and burden it still is. We, Jesus’ followers are not free to do as we like – we are bound by the Spirit of the law, and if you think about it, this can be as demanding as the letter of the law. It is easy to have solid morals: x is always bad, y is always good, because it means we never have to think about things. At its worst, it means we don’t have to see people’s humanity. Living by the Spirit of the law means we have to engage with life fully and dynamically in the same way that Jesus did – we have to be really engaged with the people we meet and the situations we encounter. Jesus found joy in this – maybe that is what he meant when he said his burden was light. 

By engaging with life in the spirit of the law, as we encounter it, moment by moment, day by day, we are constantly practicing living how Jesus lived. And that means that when we come to unexpected situations we become able to pitch in without thinking too much about it – an instinctive understanding of the right thing to do has developed. Have you ever had an experience where your feet are propelling you in the direction of giving assistance to someone before you’ve really thought it through? That’s what happens when you’re engaged with life in Jesus’ way. 

Talking of yokes and burdens brings Simon of Cyrene to mind. I wonder if he had that experience of his feet propelling him towards this beaten up man, carrying the heavy cross through the streets. The gospels tell us that the Roman soldiers made him do it, but there must have been something that made them pick him out – certainly this moment changed his life for it seems that his sons, Alexander and Rufus were missionaries in the early church. For Simon to have been named in three of the Gospels, suggests that he was known amongst the first Christians. Here was someone who shared Jesus’ burden when it was heavy. And on the cross, Jesus bore the heavy burden of human sin.

Sometimes the burden of life and circumstance IS heavy. Let’s not add to that by loading ourselves down with rules and regulations, ‘thou shalt nots’: Jesus was a joyous person in ordinary life: in trouble, he was faithful. Let us be joyous and faithful as we live as he showed us. Amen

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