Archive for July, 2014

Nothing is Impossible: A Place for Miracles

Wednesday, July 23rd, 2014

Al Carroll – July 27, 2014

Some number of months ago, what I thought was a catchy title for a sermon crept into my brain, and I foolishly said at a PCC community meeting that I could probably provide a sermon during this summer of uncertainty for the Hammonds. Unfortunately, despite what Peggy keeps saying about her poor memory, she remembered what I had foolishly said, and called me up a few weeks ago to say that it would a good thing if I would actually give the sermon for which I only had a title.

The thoughts that had been vaguely rambling around in my skull, resembled a physics lecture – but that really didn’t seem like a suitable form for a sleepy, summertime Sunday. However, this is probably no more than my 6th or 7th sermon that I have given in my lifetime, and preparing a sermon is good time to try to gather the various strands of my life. – and at age 78 this sermon might possibly be my last. So bear with me, a rather confused older person.

I have always liked the story about a preacher who had put together what he thought was a pretty good sermon, but there was a bit in the middle that didn’t quite hang together. However, it was late Saturday night, and his wife was saying, “It is time to come to bed, dear.” So he hastily scribbled in the margin of his notes, “Not sure about this, SHOUT!” But I’m not that kind of person. At Peace Camp, just over a week ago, Bishop Mark MacDonald, bishop of the indigenous people of Canada who are Anglicans/Episcopalians said for indigenous people it is particularly important to know who are ancestors are – particularly those on our maternal side. Well, my Mother was a graduate of Wellesley in physics, as well as one of my older sisters. I couldn’t go to Wellesley, but I was a physics major here at Oberlin College. All this is to say I have physics in my DNA, and I should be calm and collected, and not shouting to cover up my uncertainties — of which there are many this morning – particularly since this sermon is about uncertainties.

What has evolved for this morning is a ménage a trois, a mixture of science, religion, and my obsession that peace through nonviolence is what we really need. Since this is church, I thought I should begin with the religion part. A couple of weeks ago, Polly & I received an email from Rachel Naomi Remen, who has written books relating her Jewish heritage to her professional career as a physician who counsels people with serious diseases, in particular cancer. Via the Internet she read a story from her book My Grandfather’s Blessings to us, her linked in audience. As a child Dr. Remen said she was often tired and fidgety, during the long Passover Seders in which the story of how Moses had freed the Jewish slaves from bondage in Egypt was told, much of the story in barely understood Hebrew. Her Grandfather, an orthodox rabbi, realized that that this story was too much for a young child, and told her a shorter and simpler version in English:

He told Rachel, “Thousands of years ago the Jewish people were slaves in Egypt. Like slaves everywhere, they suffered greatly and they had a dream of freedom. So as you remember, Moses pleaded with God to let his people go. God answered Moses, and backed up Moses by sending one plague after another when Pharaoh refused to let the Hebrew people go. After smiting the first-born of all the Egyptians, and passing-over all of the Jewish people, Pharaoh finally lets them go and they have their freedom. At this point the little girl Rachel asked her Grandfather, “Were they very happy?” We know the answer from the verses from Exodus [16: 1-3] we read this morning. Her Grandfather answered, ‘ No, Naomi, they were not. “They knew how to suffer. “They had done it for a long time and they were used to it. They did not know how to be free.”

Rachel Remen’s conclusion was the opposite of slavery is not freedom but the opposite of slavery is the unknown — uncertainty. A difficult idea to accept — BUT, President Eisenhower once said that the most secure man, was one with a life sentence. Every day was predictable, and he didn’t have worry about where he would sleep or what he would eat.

But at this point, you might say that we, a modern, well-educated congregation, have science to tell us what are the facts about the world. This brings in is the science part of this sermon that has been rattling around in my brain. Despite what we hear on TV and read in the news, in my understanding, there actually are no scientific FACTS, only scientific THEORIES. A couple of days ago I was reading responses to a blog by Professor Stephen Zunes (he was here at Oberlin this spring) on the current Israeli-Palestinian crisis. One responder after another stated what they thought the “FACTS” of the situation were. But in actually, all they had was opinions or at best evidence. This would be evidence in the best of circumstances, which in this long-standing heated emotional debate, this clearly isn’t. Evidence in the legal sense would be “Beyond a reasonable doubt.” When this legal standard is applied in the most serious criminal cases involving the death penalty, it has been found that in a substantial number (300 in the State of Illinois) that legal decisions were wrong and innocent people had been executed. The then governor decided that the only reasonable policy was to abolish the death penalty instead of making irreversible decisions that might be wrong.

To the anti-science crowd, this uncertainty says you evolutionists, climate-changers, and peaceniks are just guessing, you don’t aren’t absolutely sure about you are talking about. This is true, scientists are never absolutely sure of what they believe is true. Let me illustrate from a very rapid history of the THEORY of gravitation.

Unfortunately, this portion is liable to be a little lite on scripture, and probably too heavy on science, because Jesus gave us few parables on the nature of science– so these are mainly my opinions without much scriptural authority to back them up. It is not too surprising that Jesus didn’t dwell at length on science because modern science didn’t come into being until late in the 16th century. Prior to that time, respected philosophers, like Aristotle, thought and pondered the question of falling objects and then wrote down in elegant Greek that it was obvious that a heavier body would fall faster than lighter one. Since Aristotle said it, everyone believed it until Galileo had the simple, but brilliant idea to go up to the top of the leaning Tower of Pisa and drop two balls of unequal weight – and have his friends at the bottom of the tower observe that the two balls reached the ground at the same time as accurately as they could tell. So people gradually came to the conclusion, that thinking and pondering are great, but one’s great thoughts needed to be tested by experiment against the real world. Albert Einstein was a great thinker and ponderer, but he proposed experimental tests to check out his radical new ideas of relativity. So does this mean that modern day science establishes by experiment “facts” that are indisputable? No it doesn’t. The “Laws of Science” are fact only theories with high, often extremely high, probabilities of predicting outcomes of particular situations. All scientific “facts” are provisional, subject to further test. As an experimental physicist you can get to be famous, by showing that a seemingly well established theory is wrong in some way.

If all scientific “facts’ are actually uncertain to a certain degree, does that mean we can just ignore them if we wish? Of course not. Even if there are uncertainties as in the study of climate change the evidence is strong enough that we would ignore it out our peril. The “Laws of Physics” are guides that if not followed in building, for instance, a bridge, or travelling to the moon, will most likely result in disaster. But are these “laws” derived from the work Sir Isaac Newton, absolutely true? Another diversion – for a long time it has been on my scientific bucket list to try to understand Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity. As an experimental nuclear physicist, I was very familiar with Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity which deals with objects like sub atomic particles observed travelling at speeds near the velocity of light in a fixed direction. General Relativity deals with objects, like planets, that are subject to changes in velocity and direction as they travel in their orbits around the sun under the influence of gravity.

I was in the College’s science library looking for another book when I happened to notice a new book titled, Einstein: Relatively Simple. Aha, I thought to myself, it is summer, a perhaps even at the age 78. Mr Egdall, will be able to finally explain to me the complex reasoning and difficult mathematics that is necessary for gaining insight into Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity – which by the way is actually more accurate than Newton’s Law of Gravity. One could design a bridge or plan a trip to the moon every so slightly more correctly using but Einstein’s General Relativity, but you would be crazy to do it because it is almost certain that you would make a mistake in using the complex mathematics of relativity.

However, there is a practical, every day use for General Relativity. Because the satellites that provide information to the GPS systems in our cars travel high above the earth at high velocities, small, but significant, corrections based on General Relativity are needed. The atomic clocks in the high-flying satellites run faster than the same clocks on the ground. Without these corrections from General Relativity our GPS position would be inaccurate by about 15 feet in 2 minutes and then accumulate to an error of 6 miles in a day. Last week, The GPS system in our car did not have the map information for Canada, and we found ourselves wandering around confused without this miraculous device on which we had grown dependent.

So far, General Theory of Relativity has passed every serious test proposed, but that does not insure that this will be true in the future. Perhaps research that Dan Stinebring is now undertaking, will uncover in some way that General Relativity to be less valid than originally thought.

Is physics really a better science than chemistry, biology or psychology? Sometimes we physicists think so, but the actual situation is that physicists choose to work on simple, well-defined problems like a single planet revolving around the sun or a single electron revolving around the nucleus of an atom. Because these systems are simply described they are subject to precise mathematical analysis using proposed theories.

Molecular biology, which is the most precise part of biology, deals with great big molecules with thousands of atoms for which only approximate mathematical solutions are known. The psychologists and other social scientists are dealing with humans who are made up of a 100 trillion cells and each of them contains thousands of great, big molecules under the control of our not very well understood brains. If we find that in the simplest of sciences, physics, there is no absolute certainty, how can we ever say that there are established scientific facts about “Laws of Human Behavior?” Modesty is required at all levels of science.

What is the upside of all of this uncertainty? The answer is that while a given course of action is very improbable, it can never be scientifically proved that it is actually impossible. Since the scientific theories of human behavior are known to contain a lot of uncertainty, if the occasion warrants it, it worth having a try at “violating” them. So “miracles” which are violations of the known laws of science are nearly always possible, even if unlikely.

While research in physics and astronomy related to the fate of the universe is definitely interesting, at least to some of us, there is general agreement among scientists, that we have a few billion years before anything other than man made disaster, causes something catastrophic to happen to our planet. So for these questions scientists can afford to be slow, careful and reasonably dispassionate. Human related catastrophes as we were reminded again and again at Peace Camp may be just on the next page of history.

We would like definite scientific answers now! One example is medical research. There are number of serious diseases killing people daily, like cancer. It is painful to watch researchers carefully conduct one clinical trial after another before releasing a pharmaceutical for general use, particularly when early results showed such promise. The alternative, however, is the possible introduction of drugs, which at best are only useless and expensive, but at worst have terrible unanticipated side effects. Hearing Mary Hammond’s struggles with treatments for her cancer is a reminder of the great complexity in medical research. I think reasonable religious people and scientists are in near agreement here. Studying the evidence in a slow, careful way is the most probable way to achieve the best result.

This brings me to my personal obsession – achieving world peace by “stopping the next war before it starts.” In the complicated and emotionally charged questions of war and peace, there are no scientifically proven FACTS. History books are filled with stories of battles and famous warriors. Powerful political leaders and moneyed interests generally support the war side of history. The histories of peacemakers are considerably fewer and slimmer, but the peacemakers do have the founders of the world religions on their side. If you go to the Multifaith Center in the College’s Lewis House, you will find at least 20 versions of the Golden Rule. As Jesus quoted from the Hebrew Scriptures when confronted by the religious scholar, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” These Golden Rules are not FACTS, but FAITH in moral rules which people have felt in their hearts, and have witnessed in their lives.

At Peace Camp, I was checking my email, when up popped an announcement from Google that today, July 18th, was Nelson Mandela International Day. Good for Google! For Nelson Mandela is a remarkable example of miracle-like leadership. What could a man confined in prison for 27 years possibly do to free his African brothers and sisters from the horrors of apartheid? Any reasonable political scientist would say that he didn’t have a chance. But with his remarkable sense of justice and compassion for all races, and with help of the visionary religious leaders of South Africa, Bishop Desmond Tutu, and Rev Alan Boesak, they achieved what nearly everyone considered impossible – freedom and reconciliation. As Mandela and his co-workers found, achieving peace takes time and patience. Trying to settle disputes after the killing starts is not the best way.

Right now the world is focused on the conflict between Israel and Palestine and between Russia and the United States. These are critical problems, which require as much diplomatic effort as possible. From my physicist prospective, we should not neglect another, simpler international problem, which nearly has a solution in hand.

As many of you know, my obsession has generally been focused on avoiding war with Iran by first reaching an agreement on nuclear and economic issues, and then re-establishing diplomatic relations. It would be a good, positive of news in a region mired in violence. I managed to convince the members of Community Peace Builders that this should be one of two priority projects for the next few years. I view it as a miracle-like occurrence that a war with Iran has not already happened. War has been looming on the horizon ever since the hostage crisis in 1979. Peace-minded people like the Quakers’ Friends Committee on National Legislation, and military leaders who realistically assessed the consequences of war, have held off the forces of aggression.

President Obama came into office with a promise to talk with the leaders of Iran. Of course, the President of Iran at that time was Mr. Ahmadinejad, a difficult person to say the least. Last August the Iranian people decided that they had enough of Mr. Ahmadinejad and his chosen successor, and elected a much more reasonable person, President Rouhani. So we now have two heads of state who desire peaceful relations. But others consumed by their own bloody conflicts, particularly Mr Netanyahu of Israel and his supporters in the United States insist that the Laws of International Relations state that the only way to deal with Iran is with maximum economic pressure and overwhelming military force. Of course this Law has been subject to experimental test. The United States applied overwhelming military force in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq – and there was a notable lack of success.

We have seen miracles of reconciliation through the use of nonviolence; so I think we can go with our Christian gut reaction – our Jesus-given moral and ethical sense, and say let us seize this opportunity for peace. The consequences may be uncertain, but we cannot afford to do otherwise.

So in conclusion, don’t be excessively overawed by scientific “FACTS.” Even, if in the best of cases, like the so-called “laws” of physics, there still is an element of uncertainty. For the scientific “FACTS” related to our experiments with human behavior there is considerable uncertainty. While it is important that we listen to the evidence from multiple sources concerning which path of action to take, it is always required of us, as people of faith to keep in mind the wisdom that Jesus and the prophets of other faiths have said. For if we act out of love for our neighbor, no matter who he or she may be, we will be right on the border of God’s kingdom.

Can’t We All Get Along?

Sunday, July 13th, 2014

Genesis 25:19-24
July 13, 2014
Steve Hammond

There are lots of just plain weird stories in the Book of Genesis. Remember a couple of weeks ago when we talked about Abraham’s aborted attempt to sacrifice his son Isaac? Now today the story is about two of Abraham’s grandchildren. The narrative that starts the Esau and Jacob saga sounds like the kind of story that gets told around campfires and on barstools when folk are congratulating themselves about how much better they are than some other people.

The Israelites didn’t get along with the Edomites, or the Reds, whom they claimed were all descended from Esau. So folk loved hearing the story about how Jacob stole Esau’s birthright. As the blogger Rick Morely says it, “The punch-line is that the great-great-grand-daddy of the Edomites was a hairy, brutish, blue-collar dunce who sold his most valuable possession for a bowl full of bean stew. Or, ‘red stuff.’”

At first glance it’s easy to read this story as just another testimony of how dysfunctional families can be. Not only was there that Abraham/Isaac attempted sacrifice thing, but Abraham also sent his other son Ishmael off into the wilderness to die. Then, of course, there’s the story of those other brothers Cain and Able. Joseph’s brothers sell him as a slave to the Egyptians. But I don’t think family dysfunction is supposed to be the main takeaway here. I think a lot of the stories in Genesis and much of the Hebrew Scriptures are trying to get at the questions like, “Why are we the way we are? Why is there so much violence, so much suspicion, so much fear and jealousy not only between nations and clans but even in our own families? Why can’t we all get along?

I think it’s pretty hard to find a hero in this story of Esau and Jacob, or the many stories like it. I don’t know that I would want to lay claim to either Jacob or Esau as my progenitor. And as hard as many Jewish and Christian commentators who have, over the centuries, tried to ignore or present the shortcomings of Biblical characters like Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, and Jacob as virtues, they are, I think, doing the storytellers a disservice. I think we are meant to hear the stories of these flawed heroes. If for nothing else, we are all flawed heroes who God, nevertheless, imagines we can change the way we live with each other.

Just look at what’s going on in Israel and Palestine right now. Or Syria. Or South Sudan. Or Iraq. Or Guatemala City. Or the Capitol Building in Washington DC. On Native American reservations and settlements in the U.S. and Canada. In border areas. Maybe in our neighbor’s home. Or maybe our own homes. The violence, the oppression, the abuse, the lack of respect and compassion, this us against them mentality goes all the way back to Jacob and Esau and farther. And we all know we don’t have to live this way, but we do. It’s not some other world that we read about in stories that needs redeemed, but the one we live in. The one Jesus came to. That’s why we have the stories the way they were written.
So what do we do? How do we stop living this way? How could the story of Jacob and Esau be rewritten? How could some of our stories be rewritten?

Esau, it appears, couldn’t see beyond the next few minutes. I would get into a lot of interesting conversations when I was working with kids at the Juvenile Detention Home. I remember asking one of the girls what she wanted to do with her life. Her response was she hoped she got out of the DH before the party on Friday night. That’s an Esau response.

Jacob, on the other hand, knew exactly what he wanted and knew how to get it. He was planning on stealing his brother’s birthright, it appears, from the womb. He even schemed with his mother Rebekah from his young days about how to accomplish that task. He was willing to do whatever it took.

Imagine a different story for these twins. Mary and I are anxiously awaiting the birth of our twin granddaughters which could take place any day now. I hope they have a better relationship than Esau and Jacob did. But if they come out of the womb with Mae grabbing hold of Rose’s ankle, I guess we will have to keep an eye on things.

What if Jacob and Esau had decided they were going to fight the dysfunction in their family rather than surrender to it. What if they had decided to work together for something good, than be rivals from the womb?

I think most relationships–siblings, families, workplaces, schools, churches, to neighborhoods, nations, the created order–would be so much better if we didn’t buy into this idea that everything is a zero sum notion that somebody else’s gain means my loss. And the things people end up fighting are often not all significant. There’s that old saying about the reason University departments fight so much between themselves is because the stakes or so small.

I realize that this story of Jacob and Esau goes way back when things were really different than they are now. But, it does seem a bit unfair that because Esau was born, according to the story, seconds before Jacob, that Esau got all the inheritance when Isaac died, and Jacob got nothing. But that idea isn’t all that old. This country was populated by second and third and fourth sons, who like Mary’s Finnish ancestors, came from places where the first born son got everything and the younger sons nothing.

What if Esau could have realized that maybe he and Jacob could work together to create something better? Sure, Esau would have had to give up some of his inherited money, but there was much else he could have gained by working with his brother for something good, rather than working against each other for something unjust. And there still are so many family disputes over money.

When people are working together, trying to draw good things out of each other, whether we are talking about families, neighborhoods, churches, or nations, wonderfully good and surprising things happen. In the climate crisis work that is being done there is a lot of talk about negative feedback loops, or things snowballing. For example, when the tundra begins to melt because of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, the melting tundra releases more carbon dioxide which only speeds up the melting of the tundra. But there is also positive feedback that comes when people are drawing good things out of each other. It all snowballs in a good way. We see each other differently. We can forgive more easily. We can understand more about each other.

Most people know I love and treasure Oberlin. You may have seen that thing on our mantle that Mary got me a long time ago that says “I wasn’t born in Oberlin but I got here as fast as I could.” Yet, there are some things I find pretty irritating about this community, the chief one being is how quickly we mistrust each other’s motives. I think Oberlin has more mind readers per capita than any community in America. So often I hear people telling me what some other person is really thinking, or what they are really trying to do, or what they really meant. Usually it seems to me that person or group seems to be actually trying to suggest or accomplish something that can be of help to the whole community. But the mind readers assure me they are just looking out for themselves.

It’s bad enough to have that attitude toward acquaintances and strangers, assuming that their motives are bad and that they are trying to take advantage of you or don’t really care about you. But it’s even worse when that happens with people we are closest to. I am amazed sometimes how quickly people can attribute bad motives to people who they love and respect.

I heard a story about the time a person got a very angry response to an email he sent out. The person he heard from was a person who was a good friend, someone he had worked on projects with, been in church with. But she was livid and she told others about how angry and disappointed she was with him. Finally, it occurred to this guy to ask the woman to sit down with him and go over the original email, because she was accusing him of things and assuming things of him that were so contrary to everything about him. And when they read the email together, she realized that she had simply misread it. He didn’t say anything in that email she accused him of.

It was nice to get the matter resolved, but he was left with these lingering thoughts of why she so quickly jumped to all those wrong assumptions. They were friends. She knew what she thought the email said wasn’t anything like him, and in fact contradicted much of what she knew about him. So why wasn’t her first thought I must have read this wrong? Or even if she hadn’t read it wrong, why didn’t she think, boy he’s really having a bad day, or had a rough spell of things?

Instead of ripping into him because she thought he said something so contradictory to his beliefs and nature, she could have thought he could use some support right now, because this is not the way he is. But too much of the time we don’t do that. And we shouldn’t really get caught by surprise by stories like Esau and Jacob. We know these stories.
Now there are, of course, some people whose motives you ought to question. They aren’t looking to bring out the best in you or find ways to work together. It’s all zero sum for them. They want what they want and are going to do anything to get it. There were plenty of folk that Jesus didn’t trust. He did say, after all, we need to be as wise as serpents, because there are a lot of snakes out there. But he also said that even when we are dealing with the serpents, we need to be as gentle as doves.

Somehow the Jacob/Esau, Cain/Able cycles need to be, if not broken, at least dented a bit. I think Jesus was showing us the only way we are going to stop living this way is to stop living this way. Sure there are folk who are never going to be your best buddies or regain your trust. But we can still try to regard them as more than brutish dunces. Who knows why they have been off their game for so long? Maybe there are ways to, at least, bring out a bit of the better in them if we can’t find anything you would call the best. But some of these folk are going to continue to be a part of our lives and we can’t let them determine how we are going to live.

Towards the end of Acts 10 we read one of the great sermons of the early church when Peter is in the house of Cornelius in Caesarea. “…Jesus went through the country helping people and healing everyone who was beaten down by the Devil. He was able to do all this because God was with him. ‘And we saw it, saw it all, everything he did in Israel and in Jerusalem where they killed him, hung him from a cross.’”

Nobody lived a better life than Jesus. But even his motives were questioned. See how crazy it can get. But he was determined to live a better way, the way of God’s realm. And he trusted he was on the right path, the path of life. Nobody knew better than Jesus about the dysfunctions that run so deeply in ourselves, our families, our workplaces, schools, and churches, in our politics, and our nations. But he also knew we don’t have to keep reliving the story of Jacob and Esau, or Joseph and his brothers, or the children of Israel and the Edomites. He bet his whole life trusting that if we opened ourselves to the ways of God that we actually could help each other live different lives.

Esau and Jacob didn’t choose to live that other way. That’s why this is a cautionary tale. We can end up where they did, or follow Jesus along a different path and write a better story.

The Yoke and the Rest

Sunday, July 6th, 2014

Matthew 11:27-30
July 6, 2014
Mary Hammond

Jesus speaks to his those in his hearing, “Come unto me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” There is no big requirement here, no ‘to do’ list, just an invitation to “come.” Over the centuries this passage has spoken to countless people bearing both loads we cannot imagine and loads we know all too well. To that audience so long ago, to you and to me, to each one of us, Jesus says, “Come.”

He offers something we all yearn for—“rest.” But we will talk about that later, as this promise of “rest” frames the passage. Jesus continues, “Take my yoke upon you…”

I don’t have any direct experience with yokes. None. But Jesus was a carpenter by trade. One of the items he likely constructed was a yoke. How many of you have actually seen yokes before, and not in a museum? You first must picture two enormous oxen. A yoke is a long, single piece of wood, attached on the necks of a pair of oxen. It is connected to leather straps used to direct the animals, whether from a cart or just walking behind them. The oxen can move in concert, which facilitates their work of plowing, treading corn, and pulling heavy loads. An ill-fitting yoke slows the animals down, placing an unnecessary burden on them. A well-fitting yoke, however, allows the oxen and farmer to accomplish more than either could accomplish alone.

What an interesting analogy Jesus uses here! It comes straight from the experience of a carpenter who knows what it takes to fashion an effective yoke. The yoke is not meant to restrict, but to empower and facilitate partnership. Jesus’ evocative image of the farmer’s yoke fashioned by the carpenter connects the animal realm–the oxen; the human realm–the farmer; and the earth itself–the ground in which both labor. In tandem, the Community of Creation joins with Jesus in a co-conspiracy of grace and growth. Together we plow, plant, sow, reap, and bear the heavy load. Together we fulfill the callings and roles that are ours in the Realm of God.

When Jesus asks us to take his yoke upon us, he does not ask us to do something he has not done. The verses directly preceding the “Come to me” passage sound like they could be straight out of the Gospel of John. They are intimate reflections of Jesus on knowing the One he calls Father and that One knowing him. Hear them again, acknowledging the way Jesus speaks about himself and God, this deep Father/Son relationship, even union: “All things have been handed over to my by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.” To move beyond strictly patriarchal images, we can see these reflections as bearing witness to a deep Parent/Child relationship between God and Jesus.

For years, this passage and others like it were associated in my mind with either the exclusivity of fundamentalism, the breadth of patriarchal language used to express truths in scripture, or the divine election articulated in Calvinism wherein certain people only are chosen “to be saved,” a theology as a Baptist I bristled against. But reading this part of the text in the context of the “Come to me” passage evokes poetic imagery of Jesus profoundly yoked with God, calling his hearers—and us–into an equally intimate relationship with the Divine.

“Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me…” Jesus continues. It is noteworthy that he speaks of “learning” rather than “following.” Jesus so often says, “Follow me,” but this time he invites his audience simply to “learn from him.” What does it mean to just “learn from Jesus?”

As I pondered this, it occurred to me that I spend a lot of time learning from Job. It is not that I feel “like Job.” Instead, I admire how he navigated his journey in times of suffering and personal loss. I find inspiration from Job. There are qualities he has that I want to nurture and possess. There are ways I wilt under sustained pressure that he does not. So I read and study Job, I reflect on Job, I learn from Job. And this strengthens me. He has become a journey-friend.

This, too, is what Jesus invites his followers to experience. Look at how I live. See how I work. Watch me navigate conflict. Study my character. Learn from me. Just learn.

What an open and inclusive opportunity this is! Jesus welcomes both the burdened and those who place heavy burdens on them. He welcomes the curious and the critical, the eager and the skeptical, the friend and those who seek his demise.

“For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” Jesus asserts. What a welcome contrast to the yoke of oppression, poverty, and everyday challenges Jesus’ first century audience faces. Yet, when Jesus describes his yoke as easy, he doesn’t say that life is easy. Life isn’t easy for Jesus, and it isn’t easy for the disciples who follow him. He does not offer his followers an easy life; he offers them an easy yoke. Walking together, the journey is lighter than bearing it alone.

“For I am gentle and humble in heart” proclaims a radically different leadership style than that of the rulers of the Roman Empire and their collaborators within cooperating institutions. These words directly challenge these systems of domination. Who can imagine, in the public square, that gentleness and humility have the power to change the world?

Now we get to “Rest.” It is promised twice in this passage, both at the beginning and ending. What does this “rest” look like if it does not correlate with relief from life’s tragedies and traumas? It is a “rest” of profound relationship and union, much as Jesus describes his own union with the one he calls “Father.” It is a “rest” that is built on intimacy and partnership with the Holy One and all creation, yoked together in common purpose and commitment.

This “rest” cannot be simply a “feeling,” because feelings come and go all the time and are so often contingent on circumstances. A “rest” that is based on a “knowing” is a different kind of rest, a rest that can be accessed in the midst of the quiet or the storm.

John Bergen placed a quote from contemplative Thomas Merton on Facebook. Merton writes in “Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander” (p. 142). “At the center of our being is a point of nothingness which is untouched by sin and illusion, a point of pure truth, a point or spark which belongs entirely to God…This little point of nothingness and absolute poverty is the pure glory of God in us…It is like a pure diamond, blazing with the invisible light of heaven.”

It is this unveiled person that finds a place of rest in relationship deep within the heart of the Holy One, walking together in community with all creation amid whatever comes our way.

As we prepare to celebrate the Lord’s Supper today, we recall the love, courage, and perseverance with which Jesus faced his own journey. He stayed the course as he remained yoked with God, finding his own rest amid conflict, struggle, joy, and blessing. As we come before this Table, let us hear the invitation of Jesus one more time. I will speak it very slowly and contemplatively, so we can truly let these words sink deep into our souls. May the Spirit speak to us and within us through this hearing:

“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.”

Amen.