As we give primary focus to social justice issues, do we sometimes underemphasize how to give attention to our inner lives?
Last spring, we were back at the drawing table trying to make plans for what the High School youth might study/focus on for the 9:00 Sunday School hour. As long as I’ve been here, this has not been an easy thing to figure out. For one thing youth have a hard time getting here at 9:00 on Sundays for obvious reasons—sleep, jobs, sports, studying, etc. easily fill that time slot. Yet, youth have been invested in coming to “something” at 9:00 a.m. So I gathered with about four or five youth to ask them for ideas. Their answers surprised me. They shared that they wanted to move away from discussing/hearing about social issues during 9:00 Sunday School. They were tired of that. I asked them to tell me more. This is what I heard them say: “These are the social issues we hear about or experience every day—gun violence in schools, climate change, racial justice, widening gap between rich and poor, student debt, affordable healthcare, polarization in politics, etc. And on top of that, we hear the very loud message that it’s our job to fix all these problems.”
What did they want to do instead? To be with each other and cook. You see when they were in elementary school we had gatherings with the kids and they spent time in the church kitchen cooking. They asked me, “why don’t we do that anymore?” Okay, so that’s what we’ve been trying to do.
I want to clarify though that just because the youth want a break from discussing social issues in Sunday School, it doesn’t mean they are putting their heads in the sand. On the contrary, many of them are deeply invested in social justice causes and have been involved in rallies and campaigns and do a lot to educate themselves about these causes. Their desire is not to avoid these issues but to do something different here at church. My interpretation is they need something to restore their souls.
I love being part of a progressive church with a progressive theology and practice. And if you ask any of these youth they would say the same thing. But might the progressive religion that we embrace come with a downside? Or at least—as we give primary focus to social justice issues, do we sometimes underemphasize how to give attention to our inner lives? Certainly, the comments made by the youth made me wonder about this.
In this passage from Matthew, when Jesus is talking about a yoke, he is most likely referring to the yoke of religion. The religion of his day was a religion of rules and regulations—and there were many of them. These religious rules were taught as the way to God, to true spirituality, and the way to receive God’s blessing in life. For many, religion became a weight and a burden to be loaded on one’s shoulders.
For us today, might the yoke of progressive religion become a burden at times if we constantly think it’s our job to fix every social ill in society? Might our religion make us weary if we always think we are not doing enough? Might the progressive religion that our youth are inheriting become too heavy if it is not connected to the Grace of all Grace?
We all know we live in highly anxious times. We are made aware of social ills and struggles 24/7 which have increased our anxiety and stress and our children and youth are inheriting this collective anxiety. In The Book of Joy, the Dalai Lama offers an interesting take on how we contribute to this anxiety. He says that “stress and anxiety often come from too much expectation and too much ambition…Often we are not being realistic about our own ability or about objective reality. When we have a clear picture about our own capacity, we can be realistic about our effort. Then there is a much greater chance of achieving our goals. But unrealistic effort only brings disaster. So in many cases our stress is caused by our expectations and our ambition.”
Well that makes me wonder? What is too much ambition? Growing up in the United States, I learned that ambition is a virtue. How can one ever have too much ambition? The Dalai Lama gives us something to consider. Might ambition combined with the unrealistic notion that we need to fix everything and rescue everyone be too much to bear? Might this kind of ambition lead to weariness and giving up?
I love the Dalai Lama’s recommendation: “When we have a clear picture about our own capacity, we can be realistic about our effort.” And I will add that getting a sense of our capacity is made even clearer when we are yoked with Christ. Let’s just think about that for a moment. What is the yoke of Christ like? Well, Jesus tells us. He says that his yoke is the opposite of heavy—it is light. He says his yoke is the opposite of hard—it is easy. And why is this so? Because it is Grace-filled. It is not one of rules, regulations, and unrealistic expectations. But it is one of grace and mercy. This grace gives us the ability to define ourselves as children of God, it helps us assess what we can and can’t do, what our gifts are, what gifts we don’t have, and helps us to recognize our strengths as well as our limitations. This Grace upon Grace is always at the center of our religion, our faith. It is not burdensome or heavy; it does not create guilt. It calls us to let go of our unrealistic expectations of ourselves—this notion that we can save and rescue everyone. This Grace is energizing, not draining. It brings joy, not despair. It gives us the ability to love ourselves, to forgive ourselves, to love others and forgive others.
This invitation from Jesus to be yoked with him speaks of an intimacy we can have with Christ. When I was in the evangelical world, the phrase often used to describe this intimacy was “a personal relationship with Christ.” I always struggled with this language. So this idea of a yoke is compelling to me. The yoke sits on my shoulders—it is a good fit and it links me to Christ. It is an image of partnership. Another image of an intimacy with Christ comes from John’s gospel. There Jesus describes himself as the vine and we the branches. Both provide an image of being intimately linked with the Grace of all grace—from whom we get our strength, our hope, our joy, our identity. And it’s this that fuels our religious understanding and our social activism.
As a progressive church, we spend lots of time learning about the issues of our day and are involved in social movements that reflect Gospel values. And this is all good. I believe it’s very helpful to balance these teachings with conversations about our inner lives of faith. How do we connect our inner lives of faith to our outward action in the world? How do we understand our relationship to the Grace of all Grace? When we talk with our families and kids about the problems in our world and in our community, in those conversations might we share about how our faith helps us approach these problems? How does our faith help us define what we can and can’t do? How does our faith help us from being discouraged? Now I realize that sometimes it is difficult to find words to describe our inner life of faith. That’s when images can help us. Do you have an image of God that feeds your soul? Might this image of being yoked with Christ be one we can lean on? For me, I enlarge this image and see myself not only yoked with Christ but with all of you. We are never alone in bearing the burdens of the day. All of us, linked to the Grace of all Grace, is an image that brings me deep and lasting hope.
I love the words that are printed at the top of our Order of Worship. They come from a children’s curriculum called Godly Play. Our second and third graders heard these words in Sunday School this morning. “Lent is longer than the season of Advent. The Mystery of Easter is even a greater mystery than the Mystery of Christmas so it must take longer to get ready. The time of Lent is six weeks. Easter is a huge mystery. Lent helps us to get ready. It is a time to know more about the One who is Easter. It is also a time to learn more about who we really are.”
“Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.” Amen.