Sermon for 5th Pentecost, Proper 9, July 5, 2020: Jesus’s yoke, not violence, The Rev. Walter Ramsey
Updated: Aug 2
A few weeks ago, I started watching an old TV western serial on Amazon Prime called “The Rebel,” that I had watched as an adolescent boy. The series portrays the adventures of young Confederate army veteran Johnny Yuma, an aspiring writer. Haunted by his memories of the American Civil War, Yuma, in search of inner peace, roams the American West. He keeps a journal of his experiences and fights injustice where he finds it with a revolver and his dead father’s sawed-off double-barreled shotgun.(1)
An episode was about 30 minutes long, minus 10 minutes or so for commercials, so a great deal of action was packed into each one. A typical episode would begin with Johnny having a run-in with some bad guys, would involve Johnny being in some way physically assaulted, and eventually end up with Johnny either wounding or killing the bad guy. Watching the series again made me see just how steeped in redemptive violence our society is.
Walter Wink, an American biblical scholar, theologian, and activist, describes redemptive violence this way: “The Myth of Redemptive Violence enshrines the belief that violence saves, that war brings peace, that might makes right. It is one of the oldest continuously repeated stories in the world.” Here(2) Wink describes just how pervasive this myth still is in the norms of Western culture.
“The belief that violence ‘saves’ is so successful because it doesn’t seem to be mythic in the least. Violence appears to be the nature of things. It’s what works. It seems inevitable, the last and, often, the first resort in conflicts. If a god is what you turn to when all else fails, violence certainly functions as a god.
What people overlook, then, is the religious character of violence. It demands from its devotees absolute obedience- unto-death.”(3)
On this American Independence Day weekend, we are celebrating our nation declaring independence from England, stating, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”(4)
Sadly, these truths have not been so self-evident to many people throughout our history. We’re only halfway through 2020, and yet it has already been a year of reckoning in the United States. The COVID–19 global pandemic has made evident the disparity in healthcare along racial lines. Our nation has exploded into mass protests against racism and police brutality. A confluence of activism, despair, panic, transition, and righteous rage is touching everybody. What’s worse is the drumbeat for redemptive violence among many world leaders.
Jesus faced the same kind of activism, despair, panic, transition, and righteous rage as he taught that the kingdom of heaven was near in the towns of Galilee. Their vision of the kingdom was all about revolution. Swords, spears, surprise attacks; some hurt, some killed, winning in the end. Violence used to defeat violence. A holy war against the unholy warriors. Love your neighbor, hate your enemy; if he slaps you on the cheek, or makes you walk a mile with him, stab him with his dagger. That’s the sort of kingdom vision they had. And Jesus could see, with the clarity both of the prophet and sheer common sense, where it would lead. Better be in Sodom and Gomorrah, with fire and brimstone raining from heaven than fighting God’s battles with the devil’s weapons of redemptive violence.(5)
Our Gospel reading today, Jesus begins with the children of the land whose song is never entirely understood. When they played a glad song, no one danced; when the song became a dirge, no one was moved to tears. They were no better understood than John the Baptist, no better understood than Jesus.
Jesus is not addressing the failure of individuals to respond, but of society as a whole, indeed of the entire generation, of a people who somehow fail to react as they might to an utterly clear song.
Jesus is frustrated, and indicates that those around him criticized John the Baptist as being possessed by a demon. Now here was Jesus himself, celebrating the kingdom of heaven with throwing parties which spoke of God’s lavish, generous love and forgiveness. People accused him of being a rebel, a son who wouldn’t behave, a false prophet. The answer then, of course, as now, is that people don’t like a challenge, either of someone who points them to a different sort of life entirely, or of someone who shows that God’s love is breaking into the world in a new way.(6)
Jesus then turns and offers a prayer to the Father. In it, Matthew shows Jesus coming to the same recognition about the one he called his father. There were things about his Father that, for some reason, only he seemed to know, and only he could tell. Most of his contemporaries didn’t want to hear what he was telling them. Most of them, alarmed at the direct challenge he presented, was either resisting him outright or, as we’ve seen, making excuses for not believing him or following him.
Jesus knew that the wise and learned were getting nowhere on their journey to God. The poor, the sinners, the tax-collectors, and the ordinary folk, on the other hand, were discovering more of God, only by following Jesus, than the learned specialists. They declared that what he was doing didn’t fit with their complicated theories. As a result, Jesus had come to see that he himself was acting as a window onto the living God. Where he was, and through his words, people were coming to see who ‘the father’ really was.
Jesus then says something that has become so famous that you could be forgiven for not genuinely listening to what he says: “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.”(7)
Jesus is present more in times of need than in times of plenty, more in times of desperation than in times of certainty. Rest is not offered to the strongest and the most powerful. Those who believe that they are responsible for their salvation, through military might or political power, through intellectual prowess or personal magnetism, have no need for the comforting arms of Jesus.
The Reign of God is the Reign of Love, if found through Jesus from the Father. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength.(8) Love all humanity and creation as yourself. Rest is offered to those who have been made weary by a world that fails to comprehend the burden of injustice and the horror of redemptive violence. The yoke is made easy by the heavenly powers coming to the aid of those whose ways this world fails to understand. Amen.
The Rebel (TV series) – Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Rebel_(TV_series)
THE MYTH OF REDEMPTIVE VIOLENCE BY WALTER WINK. http://www2.goshen.edu/~joannab/women/wink99.pdf