Thursday, June 29, 2017

Yoked: To What? To Whom?

Reflections on the Readings for the 4th Sunday After Pentecost, Proper 8

The images conjured by the conflict described in the reading from Jeremiah this week are chilling. We get just a brief glimpse of the physical and verbal exchange between the prophet himself and a court prophet by the name of Hananiah. Jeremiah has been commanded by God, in the wake of the invasion of the land by Nebuchadnezzar, to fashion a wooden yoke for himself, and to wear it as he goes about the people.

yoked oxen hauling a sledge
The yoke is intended to symbolize Judah's hope of retaining the last semblances of itself in the wake of the Babylonian incursions, the first sacking of the city of Jerusalem and the first waves of deportations to exile of the court, the priesthood and the merchant/craftsfolks classes of the kingdom. God's command to the prophet to wear a yoke of wood, with straps and bars, on his shoulders was meant to be an emulation of how one would yoke oxen to a cart or plow. The message is simple, submit to being a vassal state. Submit to the king in whom God has entrusted authority over an apostate Judah and perhaps you will be able to keep what little is left you, even as God's judgment is being exercised for the people's transgressions.

Hananiah braces against that condemnation. He prophesies instead that God's judgment has been fulfilled. The king of Babylon will relent, and the King of Judah and his court will be returned. the sacred vessels pillaged from the Temple will be reinstalled. Everything is going to be all right again. The feud culminates for Hananiah with him taking the wooden yoke from Jeremiah's shoulders, breaking it while declaring that the God is breaking the yoke placed on the people.

Jeremiah, in Sunday's lesson, has been willing to let God and time be the final arbiter of the conflict. He knows what God has told him to do and say. He know what it means to try to deny that message, that terrible burden. If the news is good, offered Jeremiah, then well and good! He is happy to let the chips fall where they may....until Hananiah breaks the wooden yoke.

Then, the expulsive and eruptive temper of an old-school prophet comes surging out of Jeremiah's mouth. The yoke will now be one of iron, fastened about the neck of Judah. Now, the last remnants of the temple's fixtures will be lost. Now the subjugation, and shame, of the people under the thumb of Nebuchadnezzar and his heirs will be made complete. Moreover, Hananiah's own life will be forfeit before the turn of the year. Hananiah's own death will be the proof and signal of what it coming.
a 19th cent. slave's yoke, with bells

I have been wrestling with that image of the iron yoke. I can't shake it. Doing research, I found that while in those days the wooden yoke was a tool for work to be done, the iron yoke was a tool of punishment, even torture. It was a device used to humiliate and degrade. So effective was the iron yoke that its use persisted in human history. Even to the 19th century, slaves we placed in those iron yokes in order to prevent them from escaping, even from being able to sit or lie down and rest. The iron yoke was and is a symbol of the depravity of humankind's ability to use our prowess to hitch people to the depravity of enslavement. It's not a tool, this yoke. It's a sign of just how bad our sins can be, and how they can find physical, tangible form.

Struggling with that image of a yoking that entails enslavement, I started to chew on St. Paul's work in Sunday's reading from the letter to the Romans. He opens with adjuring the reader to resist allowing sin to yoke the body, to enslave the passions. Our submission is to be instead to God in Christ. Our members, our motivations and ultimately our choices and actions are to be given to God's own yoke...a yoke of grace, if you will.  If we are willing and thus able to embrace Christ's yoke, and a servanthood exercised under the discipline and guidance of the Holy Spirit, then we are actually liberated from the base enslavement to sin and to allegiance to things that are not of God.

One would hope for a liberation in this ideal of a holy yoking, but the distinction of that is a subtle one. For people who are accustomed to the privilege of freedom from persecution or degradation, the concept of any yoking is a scandal that strikes the pride of place. For those whose people, whose selves, have been touched by subjugation and persecution, the offering of a yoke is beyond insult. A wooden yoke intended to make the labor possible, even easier is contrasted to an iron bar across the shoulders or around the neck. The work we are called to undertake is to know that we cast off the iron yoke of sin and death for one that tunes us to a labor that takes our unruly passions. That tuning takes us deeply into a more faithful practice as we strive to follow Jesus. It also forces us to face just how many iron yokes we have worn...or worse yet have placed on the necks of others. Conversion to God's yoke means repenting of the evil of the yoke of sin we have tooled and retooled throughout human history.

"Catching the Bull"
att. to Tensho Shubun, ca. 15th cent.
Practitioners of Buddhism, particularly those adhering to Zen traditions, use a series of poems about "Herding the Ox." Sometimes called the "Ten Bulls" or the "Ten Oxen," the series of images and poems are allegorical representations of the human ego seeking to find, harness and finally lead the passions of the self into a place (and practice) of enlightenment. One image in that series caught me as I pondered where the Gospel is, I think, ultimately leading us this week. It is the image of "Catching the Bull" shown here. The poem accompanying it goes like this:

I seize him with a terrific struggle.His great will and powerare inexhaustible.He charges to the high plateaufar above the cloud-mists,Or in an impenetrable ravine he stands.
So much of our lives as people of faith is consumed with the struggle to discern how we can harness the crazy that is us, and ours, and get into some form of order that can-as we see it-actually be useful to God. We forget that we are not the ones whose mission it is to heal the world and to create salvation. That work is God's, and we are called to be part of it. Jesus tells his followers that what matters most as they seek to BE the kingdom of God is to both embrace the art and practice of welcoming and of being welcomed. The yoking he offers is, by his own admission, an easy one...and the burden, by his promise, is light. We are to be a community yoked to peace and grace in the person of Jesus Christ. We are to let go of the heavy, iron yokes of oppression and of sin...and to be agents of reconciliation as the kingdom of God breaks into this world...and breaks the chains of all who are bound to sin, all who are burdened with persecution, all who are subject to oppression and degradation.

That is the Ox that is harnessed to plow the fields in which the seeds of the Gospel will soon germinate and bloom. That is the yoke on our shoulders, that we should be servants of the Most High. It is only when we embrace that liberation that we find the iron bar of sin that is across our backs to be broken and cast into the dust.

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