As I mentioned at the top of the service, I'm just back from a wonderful week in Indianapolis, Indiana, where I served as an elected delegate at the UCC general Synod. The Synod is a biannual gathering of all 5, 000 of our United Church of Christ churches. And it was such a jam-packed week of wonderful activities and events.
The keynote speaker at the Synod was the very popular Reverend Nadia Bolz-Weber. I've spoken with you about her before. She gave such an inspiring message on the theme of the Synod, “Making all things new.” We heard that theme throughout the week in our daily worship services. The platform where the services were held was beautifully decorated as the Garden of Eden. And that's why I am wearing this beautiful stole that our Creation Justice Team gave me, that depicts that beautiful garden and that theme of making all things new.
At the Synod, we also made history! We elected the very first woman, and the very first black woman to serve as the General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ. Her name is Reverend Karen Giorgia Thompson. During her inaugural speech, if you will, she shared that her hope for the United Church of Christ is that we may be more welcoming of people who have different understandings of the Divine, and that we may become more interfaith in our welcome to the United Church of Christ. And of course, for me, as an ordained interfaith Minister, that made me very excited. And I'm very excited about her leadership for the next four years and, I hope, beyond that.
Also during the Synod last week, we apologized to the afro-Christian Church for failing to recognize the important role it played in the formation of the United Church of Christ back in 1957. And so,moving forward, we will acknowledge and teach that there weren't just four streams that came together to form the United Church of Christ, but five streams, including the Afro-Christian church. So it was a wonderful week, and I'm so grateful and proud to have been a part of it.
There were more than 2,000 people who attended the Synod. And I was one of a little more than 650 elected delegates. The delegates researched and studied, prepared and presented resolutions to the entire plenary, the entire Senate body for them to vote on.
And I've got to tell you, it was so much work! They warned us when we became delegates, that it would be a lot of work. And it was! On most days, our first caucus of the morning was at 6:30 am. And oftentimes our last session of the day went untill 9:30pm. So it was a lot of work.
As most of you know, our United Church of Christ churches are all so different. You may remember when our conference minister, Reverend Lillian Daniel was here. She said, if you've seen one UCC church, you've seen one UCC church. We have churches that are in very small, rural, conservative communities. And then we have UCC churches that are in big progressive cities. So coming to a consensus on things isn't always so easy. But I was so proud.
In fact, I was very moved to see the way we came together as one body on these resolutions, how everyone could voice their opinion. Everyone's voice was heard. And we passed many very important resolutions that last week of the Synod.
Among those, we declared that our United Church of Christ churches are white supremacy-free zones. We denounced the Dobbs decision and proclaimed that abortion is health care, and we affirmed the human dignity and rights of transgender and non-binary persons.
And during the Synod, hundreds of us left the convention center, and we marched. We marched over to the Indiana State Capitol. And there we made our voices heard against that state's legislature and other state legislatures across the country for the very harmful legislation they have in their states, which target women and the rights of transgender people.
Now, some of you might say, ‘You know, Pastor Sal, that all sounds really political, and we're a church. In church, you should stay out of politics. Well, those issues may have become politicized, but those issues are issues of justice. And we, as a Christian denomination, are called to follow in the footsteps of Jesus. And Jesus instructed us to work for justice. You know, when Jesus told us to go and build the kingdom of heaven here on earth, that's what he meant. He wanted us to build a world where all people are equal, all people are free. And all people are one. He wanted us to build a just world for all.
That’s what it says here, next to the UCC comma, a just world for all. But one of the pastors at Synod reminded us. He said we passed a lot of really wonderful resolutions this week. But we are not a church of resolutions, we're called to be revolutionaries. And we are to take those resolutions now back to our churches, and work to change our communities and to change our world.
You know, being people of justice, working to bring about this kingdom of heaven on earth, it's not easy work. It can make us weary. That's why we hear in today's Gospel reading for the sixth Sunday after Pentecost, Jesus talks about being yoked. We are not doing this work alone. We have a denomination in which we are in covenant, we're doing the work together. And that's what the yoke means. Now Jesus was called rabbi, and Rabbi means teacher. That's the core of who Jesus was, he was a teacher. And like any good teacher, he used similes and metaphors and symbols that his students would understand.
He was trying to teach these very complex spiritual concepts. He was trying to explain them in ways his students could grasp. He knew that many of his students were farmers. And so he used the term yoke, because they would understand what a yoke is. As we heard, in our Words of Integration and Guidance, the yoke is a wooden rod that attaches the shoulders, the necks of oxen, as they work in the field together. And the purpose for it is that together, they can do the work more easily and more efficiently. Together the burden of plowing the fields would be easier.
And what Jesus was trying to get across to his students and to us is that this work that we're doing of building the kingdom, we're not doing it alone, we are in covenant, we're in relationship with one another, we're doing the work together, making it easier. And Jesus also says, “Take my yoke upon your shoulder, and learn from me.” Jesus wanted us to know that we can call upon the power of the Christ. We can be yoked with that as we do this work.
You know, as I was researching for this homily – obviously I'm not a farmer – I didn't know a lot about yokes. But I learned two things. One was that the word yoke comes from the same root word as the word yoga. We know yoga existed thousands of years before Jesus of Nazareth. Now, Yoga has become popular in the western world in recent years. And most people see it as a form of physical exercise. But that is not what yoga is. Those poses are done to yoke together the human and the divine. We as Christians, when we talk about taking the yoke of Jesus on us, we are aligning ourselves with the power and the presence of the Christ that is always with us and within us.
And the second thing I learned about yokes, is that they’re custom fit. There isn’t a one size fits all yoke. Back in Jesus's day, the oxen were brought in and they were measured. There were exact measurements that were taken, and the yokes were then made, and then they were brought back in place and adjusted to make sure they fit properly. And I've got to tell you, that when I reflected on that passage, this week, in my meditation time, I was actually brought to tears, because I thought to myself, God's yoke with me, is just mine. It's unique to me. And your yoke with God is unique to you. God knows you so much, knew you from before you were born. And so that fit is custom made just for you. That's how much God loves you.
Now, that doesn't mean that your life is not going to be filled with burdens. But Jesus is reminding us here, that when we align ourselves, when we yoke ourselves with that power and presence of the Christ, that will make our way easier. He says, Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke on your shoulders and learn from me. For I am gentle and humble of heart, and you'll find rest for your soul. For my yoke is easy. And my burden is light.
My friends, I promise you if you yoke yourself to anything other than God, your life is not going to be easy or light. If you yoke yourself to cable news, and social media, and material things and the stock market, your soul is not going to find rest. It's only going to find rest when you align yourself when you yoke yourself with the presence and power of the Divine. And so that's what I'd like to invite you to do this week. I'd like you to find time to consciously connect with that power of God that is with you and within you.
Yoke yourself to that.
May your soul find rest, and may we the people of the United Church of Christ, continue to be yoked together as we carry on the important work of building the kingdom of heaven together, a just world for all people.
Words of Integration and Guidance
Rev. Dana Allen Walsh
In today’s gospel reading, Jesus says, “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” A yoke is a wooden bar or frame by which two animals (such as oxen) are joined at the heads or necks for working together. According to scholar, William Barclay, ox-yokes in Jesus’ day were made of wood; the ox was brought and the measurements were taken. The yoke was roughed out, and the ox was brought back to have the yoke tried on. The yoke was carefully adjusted so that it would fit well and not injure the ox.
In today’s reading, Jesus is letting us know that he provides a yoke that fits well. Life’s burdens are bearable because we can share that heavy load with the One who loves us and the One who seeks the best for us. Our burden becomes light only by the love of God, because we have a partner in this work. Jesus isn’t offering to remove the yoke. He doesn’t offer a life carefree of responsibilities and obligations. In fact, the life of faith often draws us further into our care for others and our desire for a more equitable and fair world. So, the yoke’s on you, but it’s not breaking your back. It’s bearable. It’s not a life of constant rules and regulations; instead, it’s a life lived in relationship and consultation with God. Jesus never wanted his disciples to follow a list of rules; instead he wanted them to be in relationship. So, Jesus says to us today, “Come, all you who are weary and heavy burdened.” He’s saying, Come, let’s work side by side. Let’s plow the fields and reap the good in life together. Take this well-fitting yoke upon you and learn from me. Together, we’ll work for justice and peace. Let’s carry the load of others in friendship and in love. Amen.
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