February 12, 2017
Union University Church
Reverend Laurie DeMott
In Youth Too group a few weeks ago, we were talking about forgiveness and I said something like, “Many of the commands that Jesus gives us are tough. Being a Christian can be hard work.” One of the kids rolled her eyes and said, “Yeah, yeah, you say that a lot in Children’s Time.”
I wanted to protest, “No, I don’t!” while equally asserting, “Well, that’s because it is!” with the result that I was momentarily silenced as I weighed within my own mind the challenges of a life of faith versus the joys of a life of faith. Am I misrepresenting Christianity to our kids by portraying it as a hard path to follow? I wondered. On the whole, would I say that my life is easier because I follow Christ or is it harder?
How would you answer that question?
After giving the matter some more thought, I concluded that I have not been misleading our children because I think following Christ is the more difficult path to choose. I mean, just think about the things that Jesus asks of us — Practice mercy. Be patience with others. Show humility. Forgive seventy times seventy times. Turn the other cheek. Love your enemies. Pray for those who hurt you. Be peacemakers. None of that is easy stuff because if it were easy, if it came naturally to us, Jesus wouldn’t have had to spend so much time talking about it. Jesus never said things like, “Put off until tomorrow what you should do today. Spend more money than you have, especially on things you don’t really need. And do not neglect to eat your dessert, for remember, the one who eats a diet of cake, chocolate, and chips will inherit the Kingdom of Heaven.” That is all of the stuff we do anyway because we human beings naturally seek the path of least resistance, and so if doing what is easy would get us into the Kingdom of Heaven, we wouldn’t have needed any help. Moses could have remained a shepherd and never climbed Mt. Sinai to get the Ten Commandments. The prophets could have bought condos on the Mediterranean and retired early; and Jesus could have taken over his father’s carpentry shop, and lived to a ripe old age building cabinets in Nazareth.
I think that there is no question that God knew that what God is asking of us is hard, so hard that in the end, God chose to send God’s own son to show us the way and what Christ showed us is that an easy life isn’t the same as a good life. An easy life isn’t the same as a meaningful life; an easy life isn’t the same as a life of joy and well-being. An easy life isn’t the same as a life that leaves you certain that you have made a difference by being on this earth, that who you are is more than this physical moment, in this physical body, limited by these self-inclinations. An easy life may get you from birth to death without too much trouble but at the end, you will be left wondering whether what you did during that span of time could really have been considered living at all. Jesus knew that the road to a meaningful life of peace, joy, and love — the things that we most deeply desire — will require us to wrestle and tame some of our unhealthiest inclinations. So while I would argue that my life is often harder because I follow Christ, I would also add that my life is better because I follow Christ; because easy is not the same as good.
A pastor in Denver, Colorado said that she once overheard a conversation in the jewelry section of a department store that made her laugh. A customer approached the counter and told the clerk she was looking for a necklace with a cross on it.
“What kind of cross would you like?” the clerk asked as she pulled out one of the trays. “A plain one, or one that has the little man on it?”
For many people, the cross is just a sentimental symbol that makes them feel vaguely religious, but for those of us who take our faith seriously, the cross is a reminder of the difficult road we have chosen. That little man on that cross was a man who was willing to sacrifice his life to save others and who returned ridicule with forgiveness even as he died on that cross. Jesus held out his hand in friendship to the scorned and outcast and he persisted even when the powerful tried to quiet him. He refused to turn away from those who needed him most no matter the cost to himself, and he told those who followed him that we should do the same. Those who think that the Christian life is an easy life haven’t read the gospel. Those who think that following Jesus will make you successful in your career, financially prosperous, politically popular, and a power player among the social elite haven’t read the gospel. Even those who think that Christianity is all about the potluck dinners and cute children dressed up as Christmas shepherds and great music and catching up at coffee hour haven’t read the gospel. I am not discounting the importance of those elements at all — they are all the wonderful benefits of a church community — but the reason we engage in those activities as a church and the reason we come together weekly to have our hearts lifted by the music and our spirits strengthened by worship is because following Jesus is hard. It takes a lot of strength to live out the gospel and we need all of the help we can get. Jesus didn’t ever promise us an easy life if we followed him; what he did promise is that if we exchange our self-centered ease for devotion to God and neighbor, the life we will receive will be a good life and a full life and we will know rest for our souls. Easy is not the same as good.
In Matthew 11, Jesus says: “Come to me you who are heavy laden and I will give you rest… for my yoke is χρηστὸς and my burden light.”
The Greek word that our English bibles have traditionally translated as easy really means kind and good. The English translation is dangerously misleading because Jesus never promised us an easy life; what he promised was a life of χρηστὸς — goodness and kindness. If we submit ourselves to his rule, he said, if we take his yoke upon us, our lives though tough and demanding will be good and kind. They will be well-springs of peace where our souls can find rest.
Think about the things that are making you weary and tired, and I don’t mean physically tired. Our physical fatigue can usually be cured by a good night’s sleep but there is another kind of fatigue that no matter how many hours of sleep we may get persists in returning with the dawn. This spiritual fatigue has many causes. For some it is on-going battles with family members, power struggles with teenagers, arguments with your spouse, or the little digs of family members that fester in your heart. Many times our spiritual fatigue is caused by our confusion over the best way forward in a difficult situation — maybe we are responsible for the care of a sick family member or elderly parent and we struggle to make the right choices. Or maybe we are having problems with a colleague at work and aren’t sure how best to handle them. Many Americans carry a burden of debt or financial strain that weighs them down until they are afraid they cannot take another step. And many in our country are weary of the battle for justice, wondering if they have the strength to persist to protect the vulnerable from policies grounded in fear and misunderstanding.
The Book of Common Prayer summarizes our fatigue in its compline prayer which pleads, “Be present, O merciful God, and protect us through the hours of this night, so that we who are wearied by the changes and chances of this life may rest in your eternal changelessness; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”
Our inclination when we are so tired with the struggle is to chuck it all for the easy path out, and there are many in our society who do choose the easy path. You know, if raising children is wearing you out, you could just scream at your kids, punish them with a heavy hand, and make them so scared of you that they won’t dare cross you. That’s the easy way and it will certainly bring a sort of peace back to your home, but easy is not the same as good. And if working for justice is wearing you out, you could just bury your head in the sand and stop caring about the needs of refugees, and spend your time watching Youtube videos of cats, but easy is not the same as good. In fact, if easy is what you really want, the easiest path you could choose right now is to stop caring about anyone at all — stop worrying about your elderly relatives, stop worrying about transgendered kids, stop worrying about starving families in Haiti, stop worrying about your friend with cancer, stop worrying about the fate of the earth, stop worrying about everything, put your feet up and watch re-runs of “Friends” from now until you die. But easy is not the same as good because when you come to the end of your life, everything that made you so tired will still be there sapping the soul out of you and out of all of those around you. Nothing will have changed and you will still not know peace.
What we really want is not the easy way out; what we want is rest for our souls. We want to remove the yokes that drain our spirit: the yokes of injustice, anger, hatred, selfishness, greed, apathy, and meaninglessness. We want to know that the lives we are living mean something and that this fatigue will some day give way to the certainty that we persisted in creating places of peace for those around us, that we insisted on ordering our lives with love and not hate, and that every day of our life brought light and beauty to the world because we refused to take the easy way and chose instead to place upon our hearts Christ’s good and kind yoke; we chose to follow the path that would lead to rest for our weary hearts and the hearts of so many others. This is what we choose; not the easy way — not at all the easy way — but the good way, the way of Christ.
In the 1790s in England, William Wilberforce was dedicated to the abolitionist cause but after ten years of battling the legislature, he felt he was getting nowhere. The slave trade continued to flourish throughout the empire. Tired and frustrated, Wilberforce opened his Bible looking for inspiration and a piece of paper fell out and fluttered to the floor. It was a letter written to him by John Wesley right before the evangelist died that Wilberforce had placed in his Bible to mark a page, and as Wilberforce picked the letter up from the floor, he read it again. Wesley had written,
“Unless the divine power has raised you up… I see not how you can go through your glorious enterprise in opposing that (abominable practice of slavery)… Unless God has raised you up for this very thing, you will be worn out by the opposition of men and devils. But if God be for you, who can be against you? Are all of them together stronger than God? Oh, be not weary of well-doing. Go on in the name of God, and in the power of His might.”
Reinvigorated by Wesley’s words, Wilberforce continued his fight for several more decades. Even toward the end of life, when his health began to fail, he continued to campaign for abolition, and three days before he died, the Parliament finally passed the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 which abolished slavery throughout most of the British Empire. Wilberforce’s life was not an easy one, but he knew that it was a good life. He had lived a life marked by faith and perseverance for justice that in the end helped liberate countless oppressed men and women from the degradation of slavery. When he came to his rest, the beauty of his life and the certainty of the goodness he had accomplished must have filled him with a peace that passes all human understanding.
“Come to me you who are heavy laden and I will give you rest…” Jesus promises, “for my yoke is good and kind, and my burden light.”
Easy is not the same as good, but when we persist in living a good life, a kind life, a life lived out for others, when we continue to insist on justice, when we work to lift the yoke of oppression from the necks of the most vulnerable, when we are patient with our families, humble in our community, dedicated to love and mercy, Christ promises that our weary souls will know peace, and our hearts will be at rest.