Sermon for Sunday, July 9, 2017 || Proper 9A || Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30
There’s an old bumper sticker that reads, “God is my co-pilot.” Have you ever seen that one? The intent of this sticker is in the right place, but the problem with this particular sentiment is that it makes me the pilot. I’m still in control. I’m in charge of takeoffs and landings, even though my co-pilot God is surely better at both than I am. And so another bumper sticker came along that reads, “If God is your co-pilot, switch seats.” I’m pretty sure one of the reasons God called me to be a priest is to help me because I’m really bad at this seat-switching business.
God wasn’t even on my plane for a long time. Maybe God was in the air traffic control tower making sure I didn’t crash, but that’s as close as I would allow God to come. After all, the church had burned my family when I was a kid, and I associated God with church, so why would I let God aboard?
Even once God got aboard my plane, I did not allow God in the cockpit. My plane was a post-9/11 plane, and the cockpit was sealed up tight. I did know God was aboard somewhere back in business class, and God desired for me to fly in a particular direction. So I set the autopilot and sat back, content to travel at 30,000 feet. Ironically, the entire time I was discerning my call to priesthood happened during this stage. Looking back, I am flabbergasted that the people in charge of my process kept passing me through, despite my lack of deep engagement. I suppose they noticed that I was generally “good at stuff,” and that was enough for them.
It was enough for me, too. In fact, I skated through the better portion of my life because I was good at stuff. I didn’t need God’s help. I was fine on my own. And then I started doing pastoral work. And everything changed. My first overnight on call at Children’s Medical Center sent me to the ICU, where a three-month old baby had just died. It was my duty as the chaplain to remain with the distraught parents until they were ready to leave the hospital – leave as a pair, rather than as the expected trio. I would walk them to their car and stand sentry as they drove away. Then I would return to the ICU and remain with the nurse as she ministered to the child and together we would bring his tiny body to the morgue.
When the call came through on the pager, I made it to the elevator fine. I punched the button for the twelfth floor. Still doing okay. The elevator ascended and opened. I stepped out. I even managed to walk to within about twenty feet of the door to the room by myself. And then I stopped. I could not make myself move any closer. That was the moment the scales fell from my eyes. My identity was entirely built around being “good at stuff,” and here was something I knew in my heart of hearts I simply could not do.
I don’t remember praying. Maybe I did pray, but I don’t think so. What I do remember is God suddenly appearing in the cockpit with me. God didn’t force the door from the passenger cabin; there was no battle of wills. God was just there, inviting me to move over, inviting me to acknowledge that being good at stuff can only take you so far. Together, God and I walked into the hospital room. Together, God and I walked the parents to their car. Together, God and I walked the infant to the morgue. Together, God and I.
Jesus didn’t know what an airplane was, so he used a different image to talk about this togetherness, this partnership between God and us. At the end of today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus 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.”
This is Jesus’ version of the God is my pilot/co-pilot bumper sticker. “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me.” Imagine a pair of oxen pulling a plow to create a long, straight furrow for planting. The yoke hangs over the necks of both oxen, and only by pulling together do they make that furrow in the field. When Jesus says, “Take my yoke upon you,” he doesn’t mean, “Take it from me and wear it yourself.” He means, “Take the other spot and we will pull together, you and I.”
Twenty feet from that hospital room, Jesus put his yoke on me, and together we walked that furrow of grief and confusion and utter sorrow with those devastated parents. Together we walked, Jesus and I. I could not have pulled that heavy plow by myself. And I did not need to.
I said earlier that God called me to be a priest because I was so bad at giving up control. And you know what? I still am. I still operate most of the time in the being “good at stuff” mode, where I delude myself into thinking I need not bother God with mundane items I can take care of myself. Occasionally, something truly challenging – most often a tragedy of some sort – will jolt me back into the yoke with Jesus or into the co-pilot’s seat across from God.
I’d be willing to bet many of you fall into this same pattern as I do. We get along and get along just fine until we really need God. We fail to remember that God is the God of every moment of our lives, not just the terrible and tumultuous ones. How much more meaningful would our lives be if we invited God to be present in our mundane times: to be part of the washing up and the lawn mowing and the daily commute? To be part of studying for a test and eating dinner and jogging? How much more often would we notice God already at work in the world around us if we invited God to be at work in the world within us?
This noticing happens when we pay attention. And when we pay attention we discover God is already at work in our lives whether or not we sent the invitation. Next week, I’m going to continue this sermon by offering you a spiritual practice I use in order to remain attentive. In the meantime, listen for Jesus’ own invitation to you. He is holding out one half of a yoke, and Jesus himself is tethered to the other half. There is a empty field ahead of you, and you can plow it together.