Mark 11: 28-30; Psalm 51: 1-14
June 10, 2012
This morning, I want to share a little story about yokes. I’m not talking about the egg kind, either. You know what a yoke is, right? It’s a wooden beam, used between a pair of animals so they can pull a load together. That’s the literal yoke. There’s also the metaphorical one – a burden that must be carried; ramifications of a mistake you or someone else made. The “yoke” that you bear….
So here’s my story about a yoke. Some years ago, I went on a date. A first date, in fact. I’d met this wonderful woman through a mutual friend – she an attorney and me the new minister. And in case you didn’t know, introducing yourself to a prospective date as a minister does not typically work in your favor. In seminary my buddies and I would try to come up with the most creative way to tell a girl you were a minister without actually telling them you were a minister. “I study ancient languages” was one way. “I’m in sales” was another. I think the winner was, “I sell Life insurance.”
But with this particular lady, I didn’t have to make anything up. I told her I was a minister from the get-go, and when I asked her out, she said yes. Thank the good Lord.
So we went out to dinner. Had a wonderful time – in fact, we closed the place down. After our meal, which was fabulous, I ordered dessert – a huge slice of double chocolate cake. Now I didn’t usually get chocolate, if I got any dessert at all; but the night was going so well, we were talking up a storm, so why not some chocolate cake? My date didn’t order any for herself, and when I offered some of mine, she politely declined. Oh well. I sure thought it was good.
The next day, I called her up, and we talked about how much fun we had the night before. And in that conversation, one of the things I learned about her was that she was a chocolate fan – a full-blown choco-holic, in fact. So when I asked her why she didn’t get any cake the night before, or take the bite that I offered, you know what she said? She said that Lent had started that week, and the one thing she had decided to give up for Lent was her beloved chocolate!
Ah, the yoke I had to bear! Because for whatever good I might do in my life, I will always be remembered as the guy who ate chocolate cake in front of a girl who had given chocolate up for Lent – and on a first date, even! Sitting across the table, watching me spoon those scrumptious bits of chocolate goodness into my mouth. It was a miracle she even picked up the phone when I called, much less agreed to a second date. But we had that second date, and many other dates. And then one year later to the day, at that very same restaurant, at that very same table, I asked her to marry me, and she said yes. And we celebrated our engagement dinner with – you guessed it – chocolate cake!
I’m telling you, it’s nice when guilt gets transformed into grace. It’s nice when the yoke, the burden we sometimes have to bear, winds up being more of a temporary pit-stop on the road of life, rather than a final destination.
But you know something? As I look at the world around and see all the things that bind people and hold them captive and keep them from living into God’s amazing grace, more and more what I see are not people who are held captive by greed or a thirst for power or selfishness or fear. What I see more and more are people held captive by guilt. Guilt – guilt over things they have done that they shouldn’t have; guilt over things left undone. Guilt over people they have hurt, opportunities they have missed; guilt over things that they shouldn’t even feel guilty about.
Now there are some who claim that guilt serves a purpose – it can be, after all, a tremendous motivator. The popular humorist Garrison Keillor once quipped: I kind of like guilt myself. A strong sense of personal guilt is what makes people willing to serve on committees. Makes you think, doesn’t it?
The thing is, I’m not sure guilt is as much a motivator as it is a stalled condition, you know? Not natural. In the psalm Bill read earlier, the great King David is at the lowest of his low. For as great a man as David was, he, like all of us, made mistakes. And that appears to be the backdrop of this particular psalm. Maybe he was wallowing in regret over his Bathsheba debacle. Maybe he was lamenting the fact that he had failed God. Whatever the case, David hits himself right between the eyes:
For I know my transgressions and my sin is ever before me;
Against you, God, you alone I have sinned
And done what is evil in your sight.
No mincing words, huh? No excuses. It’s painful, isn’t it – that point when it all comes to a head and you have to say to yourself, and to God, and maybe even to someone else, I messed up – I blew it! It’s painful.
The thing is, that doesn’t have to be the end of the story, thanks be to God! Because after we’ve faced up to it, after we’ve acknowledged our brokenness, there is a door that appears before us. It is a door that leads to repentance, to transformation, to forgiveness. And it is not a door of escape; it is a door of completion – of not just God forgiving us, but us forgiving ourselves. David seems to recognize that door in the psalm itself, when he says:
Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love;
Wash me thoroughly and cleanse me from my sin
Create in me a clean heart, and renew a right spirit within me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation.
That’s how it’s supposed to work, right? That’s how God intended for it to be. But you know, too many of us – way too many of us – fail to open that door. And that’s how we get stuck – literally – in our guilt. That’s when the yoke we bear becomes our burden. And my friends, that is not the way it’s supposed to be – not one bit. Guilt is not God-given; in fact, guilt works against what God is trying to do with us. Guilt paralyzes and imprisons us. Guilt tells us we are not children of God. Guilt convinces us, in no uncertain terms, that we are unforgivable.
Do you know people who are held captive by the guilt in their lives, unable or unwilling to open the door to God’s transformation? Do you know folks who truly feel they are not worthy to be called children of God; who can’t even bring themselves to set foot in the doors of a church and into the embrace of a family of faith?
Do you know anyone like that? I do; and I bet you do too. Heck, maybe it’s you. Maybe you’re here today not because you feel worthy of being here, but because you feel you have to be, like an obligation. Like a yoke. Maybe you get through your day okay, running errands and pushing papers and making dinner and driving the kids to practice. Maybe your facade is strong from dawn to dusk. But in the quiet and still of the night, when it’s just you, maybe that’s when the cracks start to show, and the pain and hurt of the yoke you bear weighs the heaviest on your heart.
If that is you, or if it’s someone you know, then I want you to hear a letter I received years ago from a member of my former church. I asked their permission to share it some day, and that day is today.
Dear Steve - since we talked about guilt in our Bible study this past week, I thought you’d appreciate this true story about my Dad.
My dad's mother was 16 when he was born, and his father abandoned them when she was still pregnant. No one in the family ever talked about it. Dad didn’t know who his father was, or even his name. He assumed he was illegitimate and was subjected to the taunts of school chums and the whispers of old ladies. When he was young, his mother remarried a man who didn't like children and they moved out of town. So Dad was raised by his grandmother, a God-fearing woman who believed in beating any sign of the devil out of her grandson. He was given his grandmother's surname and didn't know his birth name or the details of his early life until he was a young man and Aunt Bertha decided he should know. There was always a black hole in Dad's life where his father should’ve been.
Dad had an uncle, Uncle Bub, who lived an hour away in rural South Carolina and was the only real male figure in Dad's upbringing. He had a wooden leg from a World War I injury. He was a successful farmer and owned the local bank in Johnston, South Carolina. Bub died Dad's first year in seminary. He left the bulk of his estate to his son and daughter; but to Dad he left a single leather pouch. There were three things in this leather pouch. The first was a pile of bank mortgage notes on local farms which Bub held. Bub had acquired these mortgages during the Depression, when many farmers were unable to make their payments. The pouch also contained a handwritten list with the name of the farmer on each mortgage note. Lastly, there was a letter from Bub to Dad directing him, upon Bub’s death, to personally go to each farmer on the list, identify himself, verify that the person he was talking to was the farmer on the mortgage, and then in their presence, tear up the mortgage note. Dad was to perform these acts immediately following Bub's funeral.
So Dad arose early the next morning and took Bub's car and drove the dusty country roads and began his visits. By the time he got to the farms, the farmer and his family were already in the field. Dad had to either call them in or meander through rows of corn and cotton and tobacco to get to the farmer. He introduced himself and asked the farmer if he was John Smith. He marked their name off the list; and then he pulled the farmer's mortgage from the leather pouch and tore it up. My Dad watched as grown, brusque men would fall to their knees, weeping openly. Hunched-over farmers would then stand tall as the huge burden was literally lifted off their shoulders. I don't know how many names were on the list or how many mortgages were forgiven, but I know my Dad made these visits from early morning until dusk and did not return home for over a week.
Dad didn’t tell any of this to us kids until we were grown. I remember my brother asking him why Bub did what he did. Bub wasn’t rich, money had to be tight with Dad in seminary and three little kids. Dad said that Bub wanted him to learn the power of releasing burdens, because that is what Jesus does for us every single day. Indeed, this was Dad’s inheritance. Through the process of forgiving these mortgage notes and seeing the power of burdens lifted, Dad slowly began the process of learning to relieve his own guilt, a holdover from his childhood, that somehow his pain was his fault; that he was tainted. He needed to forgive himself, even for that which was not his fault. The process did not sink in with the first torn note, nor did it end with the last.
Until the day he died, Dad kept that list with the scratched-off names in the pages of his Bible. He told us that letting go of guilt is never easy. It's hard work. It takes repeated effort. Discipline. And the power it releases for both the forgiver and the forgiven is one of God's greatest miracles.
I just thought you would like to hear this story.
Love, Mary Lou
Come to me, Jesus tells us. Come to me, all of you who are weary, all who are carrying burdens. Come to me whether the burdens are yours or whether they belong to someone else. Come to me if guilt has set up permanent residence in your soul because you are unable to forgive and love yourself as I have forgiven and love you. Come to me, and I will give you rest.
Take my yoke upon you, Jesus tells us. Take my yoke, please! My yoke is easy; my burden is light. Yours is so heavy – so very heavy! It never ceases to amaze me, how heavy . Why do you do this to yourselves? Why do you beat yourself up, feel there is no one you can turn to? Turn to me, and let’s trade yokes – my easy yoke for your heavy one. I can take it, you know. I can bear your burdens. I want to, because that’s what people do when they love someone as much as I love you.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, thanks be to God. AMEN.