Thursday, August 6, 2020

Too much heaven on their minds?

(Luke 9.28-36)

The story of the Transfiguration is told in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke.  Peter also refers to it in his second epistle.  So what’s it all about?  All these shining faces, and visits from long-dead prophets?  The main purposes of the story are two-fold:

First – the story is intended to re-assure us that Jesus is the continuation and culmination of the past.  He builds on the great Teacher of the Law, Moses, and he fulfils the predictions of the great prophets, represented by Elijah.  Remember that the first readers of the Gospels would have been mainly Jewish, or at least people mightily interested in Jewish ideas.  They would have been grappling with the question of who Jesus was. Through this dramatic, mountain-top story, they were being encouraged not to doubt for a moment that Jesus is the Messiah, the one who coming was foretold.
Secondly – at the climax of the story, we hear the voice from heaven saying ‘This is my Son, the Chosen; listen to him.  The first readers of these Gospels, and indeed we ourselves, are being encouraged to take Jesus seriously – and especially to take his teachings to heart.

This is a moment of high meaning, and of high significance.  Peter doesn’t want it to end, does he?  He wants to build dwellings for Jesus, Moses and Elijah.  He wants to capture the moment, and tie it down.  Which is a very human thing to want to do.

Our beautiful churches are a bit like that.  God sometimes feels a bit distant, doesn’t he?  We get glimpses of him, in the world, in our imaginations, in those sparks of sudden insight which we all experience from time to time.  You know – those moments when the things we’ve learned about God drop into place.  “Ah!  I get it,” we say.  But those moments are fleeting.  They are incredibly precious.  But fleeting. Because our little brains can’t hold on to the enormous reality of God for very long.

So like Peter, we feel a deep, human need to construct something in which to preserve our sense of those precious moments.  We build it with great care.  We fill it with the work of craftsmen; stained glass and beautiful ornaments.  We place it in the heart of our community, as an ongoing sign of those precious moments of connection with our Maker.  And we visit it – as so many have done since our doors re-opened – to search, once again, for that feeling of connection.

But, just as Peter, James, John and Jesus himself had to do, we have to move on from those moments.  Life should, and often does, contain moments of spiritual ecstasy.  But, real life, the daily task of becoming more like God, that goes on once the moment of ecstasy is passed.  In simple terms, ‘you have to come down from the mountain’.  For Jesus, that meant a dark and dangerous journey to Jerusalem, and to his death.  

But what does it mean for you and for me?  It certainly means realising that we can’t remain on the mountaintop all the time.  If you keep your head in the clouds, you’ll quickly become ‘so heavenly minded that you’re of no earthly use’.  

Will has been teasing me this week.  He’s been grabbing – and then publishing! – pictures of me caught in practical action…fixing noticeboards and pressure-washing pigeon muck off the bell-tower staircase.  It’s all been jolly good fun.  But it’s also been a reminder that the work of serving God doesn’t just happen in the Sanctuary, or here at the Altar.  We have to come down from the mountain, with our sleeves rolled up, and our hands ready work, and our mouths ready to speak the words of Jesus.

So let me ask you this.  

What can YOU get your hands into this week?  

To whom could YOU speak Jesus’ words?  

You, who believe that Jesus is indeed the Messiah, continuation of the faith of ages past.  How can you come down from the mountain, and be his hands, feet and mouth to a dying world in need?  

Whom can you bless with your charity?  

Whom can you help along the road?  

Whom can you help to heal, or house or feed?

In response to your faith in the Chosen One, whose words you are commanded to heed…what are YOU going to do?


Sunday, August 2, 2020

Getting and keeping. Or giving and sharing?

Reading: Matthew 14:13-21

The Feeding of the Five Thousand

Last week our gospel reading was all about to help us envision the Kingdom of Heaven is like. A mustard seed, yeast, treasure, a pearl of great price - and so on. In other words, we were being asked to think about just what a life-changing idea the Kingdom is. 

This week - the focus changes, to a real-life example of the Kingdom being worked out.  It’s story of the Feeding of Five Thousand. I’m afraid I can’t think of this story without remembering a Sunday School song that has stayed in my head for about 45 years!  Do you remember it?

Two little fishes, five loaves of bread.
Five thousand people by Jesus were fed.
This is what happened when one little lad
Gladly gave Jesus all that he had.
All that I have, all that I have
I will give Jesus all that I have.

It’s basically a simple story. Jesus has been pursued by a great crowd. When evening falls, the disciples ask Jesus "Shouldn’t we send these folks away to buy some food?". But Jesus takes a few loaves and fishes, he blesses them, and commands them to be distributed among the crowd. The food somehow multiplies - so much so that there are 12 baskets left over.
Was this a miracle of multiplication?  Was Jesus showing off his divine power?  Or did something else take place – something much more radical, and much more important than a divine conjuring trick?  

Could it be that people had, in fact, brought food with them? After all, not many people would go out to a deserted place - miles from home - without packing a few sandwiches for journey. So perhaps, when Jesus started to distribute all that he had, people started to open their picnics up - and began to share with each other. You can be sure that most people had packed far more in their picnic than they would need!  But until Jesus showed them how to share, they were keeping their sandwiches hidden away…

Here’s another important point to note.  In response to the disciples’ question about sending people away, Jesus replies, "They need not go away...YOU give them something to eat". Then, a few lines later, after he has blessed the food, in verse 19, Jesus gives the food to the disciples, for THEM to pass it on to the crowd.

God gives the task of sharing the wealth of the world to US, his friends and followers. The disciples could have taken the blessed food, and disappeared behind a bush to eat it all themselves.  But Jesus commands them to share what they have. There’s a really important Kingdom principle at work here: the Kingdom of Heaven is not about getting and keeping, it’s about giving and sharing.
We live in a time when getting and keeping have become such a normal pattern of life. We live in the time of 'consumerism' - when getting and then keeping as much stuff as we can has become the norm – perfectly acceptable to most people. 

This pandemic is showing us, starkly, just how much of our Western economy is based on the consumption of stuff…and on so called ‘entertainment’.  I feel very sorry for the for the staff of shops who sell plastic rubbish, meaningless birthday presents and fashionable clothing.  Their sales have taken a huge hit, and their livelihoods are desperately threatened.  
And I feel sorry for staff of pubs, cinemas, and theme parks.  
And the airline crews.  
And the cruise-ship crews. 
And the car factory workers.  
And the eyebrow-waxing salons.  

But, honestly, is this really the way we want to live?  Is this all we are?  Consumers of stuff, wholesale burners of fossil fuels, obsessed with foreign holidays and the appearance of our eyebrows and nails?   

It is an uncomfortable fact that consumerism as the new religion. Temples, mosques and churches have been replaced by shopping arcades. 
  • The priests of this new religion are the marketing managers, who tell us what will make us happy. "Buy more stuff!" they cry, and find fulfilment. 
  • The collection plate, once used to maintain the church and bless the poor of the community, has been replaced by the cash register.
  • Icons and spiritual imagery has been replaced by advertising posters. 
  • Hymns and spiritual songs have been replaced by jingles and advertisements.

But Jesus still calls to us across the centuries. "You fool!" he says, to the man who has stored up great wealth for himself. "Do not store up for yourself treasure on earth, where it will only rot and decay. Instead, store up treasure in heaven, where it will last for eternity". "Stop hoarding and learn the power of giving!"  Live simply, start sharing, and actually you’ll find there’s plenty to go round.

The feeding of the five thousand is the only story that is common to all four Gospels.  It demands that we radically re-appraise the way we live.  Much more than the story of a God who can magically multiply fish and bread, it’s a call to all humanity to dig deep, bring out the wealth from our pockets, and share the wealth of all creation.


Thursday, July 30, 2020

Black Lives Matter

Readings: Galatians 3.26–end; 4.6, 7  and Luke 4.16–21

Today, (30 July) the Church of England remembers William Wilberforce.  He was born in 1759 in Hull. Having been converted to an Evangelical piety within the Church of England, Wilberforce decided to serve the faith in Parliament instead of being ordained.  He became a Member of Parliament at the age of twenty-one. He was a supporter of various missionary initiatives and he helped to found The Bible Society. 

He eventually settled in Clapham in London – which we used to call ‘Cla’am’ when I lived there!  Wilberforce became a leader of the reforming group of Evangelicals known as the ‘Clapham Sect’. Of all the causes for which he fought, he is remembered best for his crusade against slavery. After years of effort, the trade in slaves was made illegal in the British Empire in 1807 and Wilberforce lived to see the complete abolition of slavery by Britain, just before his death on this day in 1833.  

Some of you may not know that one of the Canonries I hold is for the Cathedral of Cape Coast, in Ghana.  The Cathedral is an old garrison church for the English soldiers who once protected slave merchants at the next-door castle.   On the day I was made a Canon there, I had the strange experience of preaching to a congregation of entirely African faces, in the building which would once have had only English faces looking back at me.  I was struck, really forcibly, by the irony of that moment.  One of the most disturbing things I learned in Cape Coast was that the first Anglican church in Ghana was actually built over the entrance to the pits in which slaves were kept before being shipped off. 

But largely thanks to Anglican William Wilberforce, Britain was the first major economy to abolish slavery, at a time when the rest of the world still considered it a normal practice.  Led by an Anglican Christian.  For me, there is hope in that statement.  

There is no doubt that the Anglican Church, like many British institutions of the time, benefitted from the slave trade.  Around these walls there are memorials to men who undoubtedly had stocks and shares in the slave trade – at the very least.  I very much expect that some of the stones from which this ancient church was built were purchased with slave trader’s profits.

But it was also an Anglican, William Wilberforce, who caused the church, and the Nation, to wake up from its collective evil and folly.  It was an Anglican, inspired by Christ, who proclaimed release to the captives, and who knew in his bones that in Christ there is no longer slave or free.  That we are all, black and white, one in Jesus Christ.

Now, I doubt very much that such an intelligent audience (as I know you all to be) would need me to outline the horrors of slavery. But I do want you to ponder, just for a moment, some of lasting effects of that abhorrent practice.

Some of those effects include the fact that slavery is still very much alive and well in our world today.  It is no longer state sponsored, in any significant sense.  But it carries on, all around the world, largely underground.  Wealthy people in wealthy nations are able to acquire other people to carry out the menial tasks they don’t want to do, giving them nothing in return save basic food and shelter.  Such people are supplied by people traffickers, and modern-day slave owners.  Children are taken from their families, and sold to wealthy families, or car washing gangs, or prostitution networks, all over the world.  And unless someone steps in, there is no escape for such people. And more people are said to be in slavery today than at the height of the Atlantic slave trade by the great economic powers.

Another lasting effect of slavery has been the way that we still, as a society, instinctively treat non-white citizens as somehow different, or less important.  Why is it, for example, that the awful case of Madeleine McCann still grabs newspaper headlines, while tens of thousands of abducted non-white children around the world rarely get a mention?   

It is said that people from non-white backgrounds are statistically more likely to be infected with COVID-19.  Could that be because statistically, non-white people are more likely to be working on the frontline of our communities, in our hospitals, driving our trains and buses, and living in over-crowded housing?

All lives matter.  But the events of recent weeks have reminded us that Black Lives Matter at least as much as white lives.  Until we have created a society in which all slavery is vanquished, and where non-white people have all the same economic, educational and healthcare opportunities as white people, we need to keep on reminding ourselves that Black Lives matter too.

Perhaps we Anglicans, drawing from the heritage of William Wilberforce, still have a role to play.  Perhaps we need to raise our voices, as he raised his, to challenge our society, and speak the truth, that Jesus commanded us to ‘let the oppressed go free’, and to proclaim that this is the year of the Lord’s favour.


Sunday, July 26, 2020

The Search for Wisdom

1 Kings 3. 5-12
Matthew 13. 31-33 & 44-52

Today’s readings invite us to consider the quest for Wisdom.  First, we encountered King Solomon, who rather than ask for wealth or power first asked God for wisdom.  God was pleased with this request, and in what is, frankly, rather a Trumpian response, told Solomon that he would be given a ‘wise and discerning mind; no one like you has been before you and no one like you shall arise after you’.  Very Donald Trump!
Then, in our Gospel reading, after a series of short parables about the diligent search for the Kingdom, Jesus teaches his disciples with a rather enigmatic phrase.  He says, ‘every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old’.  Jesus is telling his disciples that the wise teacher of faith will use the best of the old knowledge, and combine it with the new, in the task of bringing the Kingdom to pass. Wisdom requires the acquisition and then the wise use of knowledge.
A key theme of Matthew’s Gospel is that Jesus is the living, breathing personification of Divine Wisdom.    The Hebrew Bible often sings hymns of praise to Divine Wisdom, and, often, wisdom is given a personality.  Take for example, these lines from the first chapter of the book of Proverbs:
Wisdom cries out in the street;
in the squares she raises her voice - {…}
‘How long, O simple ones, will you love being simple?
How long will scoffers delight in their scoffing
and fools hate knowledge?
I find these lines encouraging.  They remind me that teachers and writers throughout the ages have always despaired of how the mind of the common man seems to work.  Just like I do. Human beings have always been subject to spin, fake news, and they have always acted on instinct, rather than fact.  Fools have always hated knowledge.  And they have always scoffed at those who do put in the hard work to find out what is true and good and right.  ‘What do these scientists know?’.  ‘Theologians?  Pah!’
Four and a half centuries before Jesus, there was a famous man in Greece, called Plato.  He was a philosopher – a word made up of two Greek words, ‘philia’, meaning love; and ‘sofia’ meaning wisdom.  A philosopher, then, is simply someone who loves wisdom.    Plato had a tremendous impact on his time, and in the centuries afterwards.  His thinking was widely known, and often quoted.  I would be extremely surprised if Jesus had never heard of him.
Plato offered the World a simple metaphor for the accumulation of wisdom…the metaphor of a cave.  Imagine, he said, that you were born in a cave, facing the wall.  And that this is the only life you had ever known.  On the wall of the cave in front of you were shadows of things which you believed were real.  Trees, houses, people. This was your whole life.  A tree was just a shadow of a tree.  A house was just a shadow of a house.
Imagine, then, said Plato, that one day something made you turn around.  To your surprise, you found that there are people standing behind you, who are holding up wooden silhouettes of the trees, the houses, and the people.  Suddenly, your eyes have been opened.  You realise that there is a cause of the shadows.  Your whole world-view has shifted.
Then, said Plato, imagine that you notice the daylight, shining behind the people with the silhouettes.   Your enquiring mind has been awakened…and so you make your way to the entrance of the cave.  And then, stepping into the sunlight, you find our exactly what a real tree looks like, and a real house, and real people.
You might be interested to know that Plato’s cave is the reason why many Nativity scenes are shown in a cave.  Jesus is shown as the Divine Light, the Divine Wisdom, emerging from the Cave of human ignorance and lazy thinking.
The Cave, suggested Plato, is a metaphor for the quest for Wisdom on which we are all invited.  It is a way of life, which anyone can follow, just like the Way of Jesus.  And it is a prize worth selling everything you own to possess – just like the pearl of great price, or the treasure hidden in the field of Jesus’ parables.
But isn’t Jesus talking about the Kingdom of Heaven, not wisdom per se?  Well, yes.  But, the Kingdom of Heaven is first and foremost a place in which Divine Wisdom reigns supreme.  
It is Divine Wisdom, for example, which teaches us that in giving things away, we accumulate great wealth.  Or as I said a few weeks ago in the Corona Chronicle, ‘true wealth is what you find you have left when all your possessions have been taken away’.  (You might want to think about that one, for a moment).
It is Divine Wisdom which teaches us that forgiveness is the only way to deal with hatred.
It is Divine Wisdom which teaches us that God’s voice is best heard in silence.
It is Divine Wisdom which teaches us that servants make the best leaders.
It is Divine Wisdom which gives us a King who has a Cross as his throne.
The Kingdom of Heaven is an upside down place.  There is almost nothing in the Kingdom which feels normal to a society which values hatred, greed, fake news, celebrity, and worldly power.  That’s why it is such a hard message to communicate to the world.
Wisdom cries out in the street;
in the squares she raises her voice - {…}
‘How long, O simple ones, will you love being simple?
How long will scoffers delight in their scoffing
and fools hate knowledge?

Thursday, July 23, 2020

The Power of Stories

Matthew 13. 10-17

I wonder how many of us remember the late, lamented crooner, Max Bygraves.  He had one of those catch-phrases, which impressionists would copy, so that everyone knew, straight away, who they were impersonating.  For Max Byrgraves, it was ‘I wanna tell you a story’.
Then, old Max would start to sing - all sorts of wonderful, imaginary stories.  There was the question ‘ What noise annoys an oyster?’.  There was that song about the imaginary tiny house, by a tiny sea, in Gillegilleosenfefacatsanellenbogan-by the sea.  And then there was my favourite - ‘You’re a pink toothbrush’ - the story of a romance between a pink dental hygiene instrument, and a blue one!
The genius of Max Byrgraves, like so many before him, was that he realised human beings are hard-wired for stories.  We love them.  From Homer’s Iliad, and the story of Noah’s Ark, to the latest movies on our screen, or the novels on our shelves, there’s nothing we enjoy more than losing ourselves in a good story.  
Stories have power you see.  We see ourselves, and our lives, reflected back at us in stories.  We identify ourselves, or at least our aspirations of who we would like to be, in the lines of stories.  Romantic stories wake up our emotions, and help us to find the romance in our own lives.  Heroic tales of ‘daring do’ enable us to imagine ourselves as the hero of the story.  They lift our eyes and our hearts to bigger, greater horizons.
Stories in the Bible are no exception.  The stories of the Hebrew Bible are often centred around a ‘great hero’ who, by obeying God’s command carries out a great a mighty deed.  Noah, Abraham, Moses, Joshua, David, Daniel - they are all heroes, made of heroic stuff, which inspire us to also seek God’s will and to become heroes ourselves.
Jesus understood the power of story.  Which is why he told so many parables. But when his disciples asked him why he used so many parables, he reply - as we just heard - was enigmatic, to say the least.
We don’t have the time for a line-by-line examination of the Gospel text.  But what I think Jesus was pointing to was this:  he noticed that the people had become deaf to the wisdom of God, especially as it was taught to them by the religious leaders of the day.  They taught the people rules and regulations, dogmas to be believed and followed.  But the result, as Jesus says, was that “seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand.”
Jesus attempted to break through the log-jam, by re-imagining  the faith in terms of stories.  These were stories about fishermen and bakers, farmers and home-makers - ordinary people, in fact.  He invited his listeners to see themselves in these stories, just as story-tellers have always done.  He sought to awaken their imaginations, and by doing so to re-awaken their hearts to receive the message of God’s love.
We too are invited to do the same.  When we read the Scriptures, we are invited not to get too bogged down in the questions of the theologians - the detailed questions  about whether this event or that really happened exactly as it was recorded.  Or whether this or that story is provable by modern archaeology.  We are invited, instead, to ask what this story says to our heart.  How does it lift our imaginations beyond the humdrum, every day nature of our existence?  How does it inspire us to go further, go deeper, be braver, more loving, more steadfast?
So when you read the Creation story, don’t worry about how many days it was completed in.  Ask yourself, instead, how you can be involved in God’s ongoing act of creation.
When you read the story of Moses crossing the Red Sea, don’t get caught up in questions of how likely or unlikely the story is.  Rather, focus on what barriers are in your life, and how you might begin to cross them.
When you read of tiny David defeating gigantic Goliath, don’t get caught up in the questions about who the Philistines were and still are today.  Instead, take courage that even you, with your small skills, can make a difference in the world.
Let the power of these stories, and the parables of Jesus seep into your heart.  Let them challenge and encourage you, to ever greater works for the Kingdom of Heaven.  Amen.

Sunday, July 19, 2020

Weeds and Flowers

(Matthew 13.24-30, then 36-43)

Unlike our Churchwarden, Colin Hedley, I’m not much of a farmer.  Unlike many of the rest of you, I’m not much of a gardener, either…which is ironic since the Diocese has decreed that I should live in a house which has 200 yards of borders to maintain!  I kid you not!

Fortunately, Clare knows a little bit more about gardening than me.  Unfortunately, that means I can very quickly get in trouble for pulling up what I thought was a weed, but which she tells me was an expensive plant…lovingly nurtured from seed, and planted with infinite care by her green fingers.

The trouble is that weeds are not really weeds at all.  They are actually just wild flowers which are growing in an inconvenient place.  At least, that’s how the Royal Horticultural Society labels them, I’m told.  So, it turns out, the untrained eye finds it very difficult indeed to decide what is weed, and what is not.  After all, they are both made of the same stuff.  They are both green.  Most weeds have some kind of flower.

This is something we’ve discovered to our great joy in St Faith’s Churchyard in recent years.  For many years, Ralph Hollins catalogued the many different plants which appear there.  Then, an in depth biodiversity survey was undertaken a few years ago, kindly paid for by some members of our congregation.  We discovered that our churchyard actually contained over 80 native British plants, some of which are quite rare.  So much so that our churchyard is now a designated ‘Site of Interest for Nature Conservation’.  As you may know, we now routinely leave areas of the churchyard un-mowed, so that these plants have a chance to thrive and spread their seeds.  Many of these plants would have been considered weeds, by our ancestors.  But no longer, by us.

So, it seems, it’s hard to tell weeds from plants in the real world.  What about in the spiritual world, as described by Jesus in today’s Gospel?  Well, I have to tell you, after a lifetime of pastoring, it’s not always easy to tell the difference among people, either.

Some people present themselves as magnificent flowers to the general population.  They dress well, they say all the right words in all the right places.  They donate generously to the church.  They might sit on the right committees, or sing in the choir.  But then, some event will take place, and all their fine words and actions get blown away in some awful action or horrible words.  We find that underneath their beautiful plumage, beneath the gorgeous flower they displayed to the world, their roots were rotten.

And the opposite is also true.  One of the great joys of St Faith’s, for me, is that we attract people from all walks of life.  And, let’s be honest, some of the people who walk through our doors are not normally our kind of people.  In any other part of life, we would probably not even speak to them.  They don’t play our kind of game.  Or they don’t dress in our kind of costume.  Or they don’t eat in our kinds of restaurant.  But, when you get to know these apparent weeds, these odd plants which don’t appear to be in the right place, we so often find that they are, in fact, beautiful flowers. 

So, if weeds can turn out to be flowers, and flowers can turn out to be weeds, how are we to tell the difference?  How shall we react to them?  Well, to this question, Scripture offers us an answer.  The Bible’s unambiguous message is that Love must be our watch-word. 

To the apparent flower whose roots turn out to be rotten, we offer Love.  Perhaps with the balm of love, their roots can be strengthened, in the good soil of the church; so that their flower can bloom again.

To the apparent weed, whose manners and untidy appearance initially perplexes us, we offer Love; in the hope that in the good soil of the church, they will find their own flower, and learn to bloom, gloriously.

That’s all that God requires of us.  Love, love, love.  We feed, we water, we prune where necessary.  We love.

But, wait a minute.  What’s that you say?  What about the weeds who will always be weeds?  What about the weeds who cannot stop strangling the life out of the flowers around them?  Well, yes, they are a problem.  There will always be those stubborn weeds which choke the life out of the flowers.  They are the Japanese Knot-weeds, which just refuse to go away, and which wreak destruction on all around them.

Well, Jesus, tells us in today’s Gospel, ‘leave them to the Angels’.  It is not for us to judge, for judgement is the preserve of God alone.  There are indeed some unfortunate souls who will always be weeds.  We cannot know what life has thrown at them.  We cannot know what poor soil they grew up in, or the harsh environment which made them what they are.  Like any gardener, we are wise if we protect the rest of the flowers from their influence.  But what their ultimate destination might be – that’s in the hands of the angels.  Whether they will one day end up at the flower show, or on the compost heap, is something we leave in the hands of God.

In the end, for us, the command is to Love.  We keep on watering.  We keep on feeding.  We keep on loving, trusting that God has the future safely and securely in his hands.  Amen.

Thursday, July 16, 2020

The Yoke of Jesus

Matthew 11.28-end
Today, the lectionary invites us to contemplate the first of the phrases known as the ‘comfortable words’,  which we will use later in our service.  Come unto me, all ye that travail and are heavy laden...which I have to confess I prefer to the more prosaic version we’ve just heard from the New Revised Standard Version.  
I like the old word ’travail’ because it has its root in a Latin word for ’torture’.  The word ’weary’ just doesn’t have the same energy about it.  Does it?
Now I have to say that there is a tendency for us to over-sentimentalise these words of Jesus.  We imagine that this is Jesus effectively mopping our brow, holding us to his bosom, and saying ‘there, there ...just come to Daddy, and everything will be alright’.  But as I’ve often taught, context is everything.  We need to understand the context in which Jesus speaks these words. 
Jesus has been arguing - again - with the religious leaders of his day.  They taught a form of religion which  was packed full of rules.  There were dire consequences at play for the failure to keep any one of such rules.  After these words, Jesus has yet another debate, about the laws of the Sabbath.
The rabbis of the time had a phrase, which they often used, to describe the process of following the law, or the Torah.  If you were a strict and observant Jew, then you had taken upon you ‘the yoke of the Torah’.  Like a horse fixed to a plough, you had put the heavy yoke of the law on your shoulders.  The law was a burden to be borne.
In direct contrast, Jesus invites everyone to take up his yoke.  His yoke is easy, and his burden is light.  It’s important to realise that Jesus himself was a recognised rabbi.  When he used talked about yokes, his listeners would have known precisely what he was saying.
Jesus was inviting his followers not to worry about the strict letter of the laws of Moses.  Whether you eat the right food, or wear the right clothes, whether you are ritually clean or unclean, how far you may walk or work on the Sabbath day - all these are distractions from the central, core, message of loving God and loving our neighbour.  
Now I would fully understand if, by now, you’re getting a bit fed up of me harping on about Jesus’ message of loving God and loving neighbour.  I freely acknowledge that it is often the point at which my sermons tend to arrive.  
I’m reminded of the story of the Vicar who preached the same sermon two weeks running.  Then on the third Sunday he preached it again.  Then on the fourth Sunday, he preached it again!  His churchwarden took him to one side and said, ‘Father, do you realise you’ve preached the same sermon four times now?’  
‘Yes’, replied the priest.  ‘And when I see evidence among the congregation that my message has been heard, I’ll move on to another one!’
This is not to say that I don’t see signs among my congregation of love being expressed.  Nothing could be further from my mind.  I’ve been SO impressed by the love that our pastoral volunteers have been showing to lonely parishioners.  I’m so grateful to those who have helped Sandra, Will and me to get the church open for visitors.  I’m amazed by the loving generosity of so many donors to the parish, and to the Discretionary Fund, so that we can help some of the most needy of our neighbours.  There has been a lot of love - for God and our neighbours - which this parish has shown in recent months. 
But I do want to carry on encouraging each of us to take the two greatest commandments ever more seriously.  I believe that we need to go deeper and deeper into what it truly means to love God with all our heart, mind, soul and strength.  And what it really means to love our neighbours as ourselves.  
It is not for me to work out what that challenge means for each one of you.  I could offer a hundred examples of ways in which we could all love God and love our neighbour with greater depth.  But actually, the task of working that out is yours.  It’s part of the yoke of Jesus to work out the implications of Jesus’ radical message in your own life.  How you spend your time, how you spend your money, where you direct your energies - all these choices are yours to make in the light of the two greatest commandments.
Jesus’ yolk of love is indeed a light burden - compared to the yoke of the Torah it replaced.  But it is still a yoke.  It is still a call to a way of life which demands my soul, my life, and my all.  
For only then, when I have expended myself completely for the love of God and neighbour, only then will I truly find the rest for my soul that Jesus’ yoke offers to all.  Amen.