Emmanuel Baptist Church

275 State St.  Albany, NY 12210
(518) 465-5161

Click here for directions
 

A Welcoming and Affirming Congregation

Minister:  Rev. Kathy J. Donley

Unforgettable

Rev. Kathy Donley

04/02/17

 

Scripture Lesson:  Isaiah 49:8-16; Matthew 11:25-30

 

 

·        When the Aids Quilt was displayed on the mall in Washington, the names of the people it memorialized were read aloud.  The reading took hours.

 

·        #sayhername  is a campaign initiated to remember women and girls of color who died in police custody.

 

·        Every year, 3 million people visit the Vietnam Memorial in Washington DC to see the names on the wall, to look for a particular name or just to honor those who were killed in that war.

 

·        Tomorrow night PBS is showing a documentary about the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary school in Newtown, CT in December 2012.

 

We remember those we love.  We make a special point to remember those who were taken from us by violence or disease or tragedy.  Sometimes our remembering comes late.  Some might argue that it came late for Vietnam veterans.  Sometimes people are afraid they will be forgotten, afraid that they don’t matter enough to be remembered.

 

That is how the people of Isaiah’s time felt.  They were in Babylon.  They had been in Babylon a couple of generations.  Babylon was not home, but it was all they had ever known.  They did not worship the Babylonian gods, but the God they did worship –  the God of their ancestors back in Israel, they believed that God had forgotten them, abandoned them, left them to die out in exile.

 

But we know that they were not forgotten.  We know because of the words of the prophet Isaiah, which still speak to us from across the millennia. 

 

The names of God’s people are written on God’s hands, Isaiah says.  Actually it says they are inscribed, engraved, permanently tattooed. 

 

When the end came, Jerusalem had been besieged by the armies of Babylon.  They had held out for as long as they could inside the city.  But Babylon had breached the walls and plundered the temple and taken them off into captivity.  Some had died during the siege, of illness or injury or old age.  Some had been killed in the battle.  Some had fallen on the forced march across the wilderness to Babylon.  Some had been separated from family, left behind. 

 

Isaiah writes, “See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands; your walls are continually before me.”  On divine hands, God carries an ancient version of the Vietnam memorial.  Those names are not forgotten.  The people living in exile are not abandoned. 

 

God remembers destroyed Jerusalem, even though the descendants of that siege have never seen it.  And we dare to extrapolate that God remembers all the places of abandonment, suffering and war, the places where people are in danger of being forgotten.”[1]   God remembers the ghettos and the gas chambers and those incinerated by mushroom cloud.  God remembers the living and the dead of Aleppo and Mosul and the World Trade Center.  God remembers adults living on the street and children in foster care and refugees who have no sense of home any more. 

 

Isaiah 40-66 uses female images for God more frequently than any other section of the Old Testament.  Isaiah 42 presents God as pregnant and giving birth.  Isaiah 66 portrays God as nursing and comforting a newborn.[2] 

 

The image of God as mother is basic to understanding this text.  “Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb?”  Isaiah asks.  The implication is “No, of course not.”  But we know that sometimes it does happen.  Even if a woman might, God will not. 

 

Sometimes parents cannot feed and care for their children.  Sometimes, in a very courageous act of love, they give them up for adoption to someone who can provide good care.  This is not new.  Centuries ago, churches began to care for orphans.  One such place was the Foundling Hospital built in Florence in 1420.  The hospital building is used for other purposes now, but you can still see the rota.  It was a lazy-Susan for babies. On the outside of the building a mother would place her baby into this space and ring a bell.  From inside, a nurse rotated the wheel and in a moment the baby was safely inside. 

 

Can a mother forget her nursing child?  Even if she has to give him up?  Parents were given the opportunity to leave a token with the staff to enable the identification, should they ever be in a position to reclaim their child. Many parents could not leave anything, so a snippet of fabric from the children’s clothing was kept.  Museum cases today are full of these tokens which testify to the enduring love of a human parent.  Even if they were to forget, God will not forget.

 

That is the enduring image from Isaiah for us today.   “Can a woman forget her nursing child?  . . . Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you.  See I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands.”

 

There is a different, but equally enduring image in Jesus’ words from Matthew’s gospel.  “Come to me all you who are weary and carrying heavy burdens.”  Like Isaiah, Jesus speaks to a beleaguered people.  People who are over-worked, whose life is a grind.  These are the poor, the oppressed, those who are exhausted by life under Roman imperial control and its unjust political, economic and social structures. 

 

Our reading starts with an unusual prayer.  Jesus thanks God for hiding things from the wise and intelligent, but revealing them to infants.  This might sound like anti-intellectualism.  It might suggest that Jesus doesn’t value brains or thinking people.  We need to understand that the wise and intelligent is a reference to the political and religious elite, those who think they know it all, that they have nothing left to learn.  Infants, on the other hand, is a metaphor for the lowly, the humble, those who are willing to be taught.  It is through these people that God’s kingdom will be revealed.

 

Jesus is talking to weary people, people worn out with work and trouble.  We might expect him to offer them a hammock . . . or a vacation . . . or at least a weekend away.  He does mention rest, but then he quickly moves on to “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me.” 

 

Hmm.  The people are tired.  Jesus knows they’re weary.  He offers them a yoke.  We are not farm people, but we probably know what a yoke is.  A yoke is something used for work.  In places where people used or still use animals to farm, the yoke connects the animals so that they can pull the load together.

 

Jesus, says, “I know how tired you are, . . . here, put on this yoke.

 

It does not immediately make a lot of sense.  I think it is something like this:  You go to the doctor because something is wrong and you want it to be fixed.  You want a round of antibiotics that will knock out the germs.  You want stitches that will help the skin repair itself.  Sometimes, you get that.  But other times, the doctor says, “there is no quick fix for what you have.  There is no cure.  But we can still help.  We can teach you how to manage your disease.  We can teach you how to live with it to the best of your ability.”  That is not what we want to hear from our health care providers, but sometimes, that is the hard truth and once we wrap our minds around it, it can be a good truth.

 

Now honestly, I am not sure this is exactly what Jesus had in mind, but it makes sense to me. Jesus cannot cure the troubles caused by Rome.  He cannot prescribe something that will immediately lift the burdens imposed on these weary folks, but he can offer a way of life that will make their living better. 

 

“Take my yoke upon you and learn”.  Learn what Jesus has to teach, about loving God and loving neighbor, about the God who remembers and forgives, about the kingdom of God that starts out small and hidden, but exceeds all expectations. 

Learn – be teachable, make mistakes, try again, and apply what you learn.  Tell the good news of this new life to others. 

Wear this yoke and you will find rest for your souls.  That word rest recalls the beginning, the creation when God rested on the seventh day.  It’s the kind of rhythm that balances work and play and rest.  The kind of living that God intends. 

 

Sabbath rest is more than sleep.  It is rejuvenation, restoration, re-connection to God, to being fully alive.  It is an old concept, but one we are so slow to embrace.   Jesus tells weary people, take on the yoke of Sabbath.  Take time just to be, not to produce, not to get one more thing done, just to be. 

 

I am preaching to myself here, folks.  I am trying to plan a sabbatical, an intentional time of renewal and rejuvenation.  It is a gift of time and I want to be responsible with it, but I have to keep checking myself because I would fill every minute with stuff to do, instead of being present to God in the moment. 

 

The poet Mary Oliver writes, “I don’t know exactly what a prayer is/ I do know how to pay attention.”  Sabbath rest is attending to the present moment, where God shows up, God’s energy, God’s peace.

 

If I can learn to do that, if we can learn to do that, perhaps together we can inhabit that kingdom which is more powerful, more real, and more just than the structures of empire which pile on heavy burdens. 

 

One scholar say it this way, “What Jesus offers is not freedom from work, but freedom from onerous labor.  Soul-sick weariness is not the inevitable consequence of all work, but rather of work to which we are ill suited, of work extracted under compulsion and motivated by fear, or of work performed in the face of futility.  There is also the weariness from having nothing at all to do that truly matters.  The easy yoke means having something to do:  a purpose that demands you all and summons forth your best. . . . To accept the yoke of the gentle and humble Lord is to embrace the worthy task that puts the soul at ease.”[3]

Sisters and brothers, the God who never forgets us, has come near in Jesus.  Jesus says “Take my yoke.  Find your rest in me, but also take on my work with with purpose.  You and I will be yoked together, and I will be with you in the work that you do and the life that you live.”  May it be so for you and for me.

 

Amen.

 

 



[1] Walter Bruggemann, “Orphans Come Home” in The Collected Sermons of Walter Brueggemann, Vol 2 (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox, 2015), p. 61.

 

[2] Terence Fretheim at https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=79

[3] Lance Pape, in Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol 3, Pentecost and Season After Pentecost 1,   David Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds.   (Atlanta:  Westminster/John Knox Press, 2011),  p. 217.

 

 

 

 

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