Sunday, July 9, 2023

Sixth Sunday after Pentecost
Rev. Brent Gundlah

When I was in seventh grade, my parents adopted two brown and white baby goats named Annabelle and Phoebe. It seemed like a good idea at the time; we had a barn in the back of our property that already had a place for them to sleep, and my father built a large pen for them out of split rail fencing and chicken wire adjacent to the barn’s side door so they could come and go as they pleased, spending their days outside playing and doing whatever else it is that goats do.

But the barn was built back in the 1820s, and a lot had changed in our New Jersey neighborhood since then. What was rural farmland in the nineteenth century had become a bedroom community for New York City, so the decision to raise goats in suburbia was admittedly a strange one on my parents’ part. Sure, we had a barn and some land, but that didn’t mean we lived on a farm. Let’s just say that my parents have always marched to the beat of a different drummer.

Things went okay with the goats — well, at least at first anyway. For a few months Annabelle and Phoebe were content to run around in their pen jumping and frolicking all day long. But it soon became apparent that they had larger ambitions. We learned this when we came home to find one of them standing there eating plants from my Mom’s garden out in the yard.

My parents assumed that someone must have left either the barn door or the pen gate open, as there seemed to be no other way for them to escape — the fence around the pen was too tall for them to jump over, and we knew this because we’d seen them try. We decided to be more diligent about securing the facility, figuring that this would solve the problem.

When we came home a few days later to discover one of them running around the backyard, we knew the problem had not, in fact, been solved. But we still had no idea how they were getting out. We had a real mystery on our hands, and so we decided to set up a stake out in order to get to the bottom of it.

We pretended to go about our business, doing whatever it is that people typically do. When my Mom left in her car to run an errand, my Dad and I used the distraction as an opportunity to take up our positions behind a nearby group of trees where the goats couldn’t see us, but where we could see them. And it wasn’t long before they made their move.

One of them walked up to the corner where the fence of the pen met the stone wall of the barn and just stood there. Meanwhile, the other one walked to the opposite end of the pen, spun around and started sprinting full steam toward her partner in crime.

Right when it looked like there was about to be a collision, the running goat suddenly leapt onto the back of the standing goat, using her as a kind of springboard to propel herself toward the barn wall. Once airborne, she quickly turned and used her hind legs to push off the wall (kind of like a bank shot off the backboard in basketball), which gave her sufficient forward speed and altitude to fly right over the fence to freedom.

My father and I just sat there staring in complete disbelief at what we’d just witnessed — we had, after all, just been outsmarted by a pair of goats and this was a humbling experience; but it was also an educational one — I learned that day how teamwork makes the dream work.

For some reason, this story from my childhood was what came to mind for me as I was reading the final verses of today’s passage from Matthew’s Gospel.

“Come to me, all you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light,” is what Jesus says to his disciples here.

Jesus seems to have appreciated a good agricultural metaphor as much as anyone ever has, and he uses them on a bunch of occasions throughout the Gospels — mustard seeds, vineyards, sheep and chickens to name just a few. Today, of course, it’s yokes and beasts of burden.

For a guy who is commonly thought to have been a carpenter, Jesus seems to have accumulated an awfully deep well of farming imagery to draw upon when he needs it to make a point. Maybe it’s simply because he lived in a first century agrarian society where he saw these things all around him, every day of his life. 

But I, as a child growing up twentieth-century suburban New Jersey, had a decidedly different set of experiences. And do when Jesus starts talking about burdens and yokes, it makes sense that my thoughts would immediately turn to one of the few agricultural encounters that I’ve ever had — that being the Great Goat Escape of 1983.

But, as it turns out, there’s a bit more to it than that. You see, while Jesus’s metaphor definitely made me think about Annabelle and Phoebe, those two crazy kids also made me rethink Jesus’s metaphor (sorry, I couldn’t help myself).

The last three verses of today’s passage are some of the best known in the entire Bible. They are often read at funerals to comfort the grieving; they have brought solace to countless people over the past two thousand years amidst life’s difficulties and tragedies, both large and small.

And this makes complete sense — the idea that Jesus is always there to relieve our burdens when they are heaviest, and to give us rest when we need it most is incredibly reassuring.

But Jesus is not actually saying that he will take away our burdens altogether. Jesus expects a lot from his disciples, and he’s always been really honest about the fact that a life defined by love of God and neighbor will be full of burdens — Jesus himself understood that better than anyone.

Jesus is telling us that he will help us to carry the immense weight of those burdens, because we couldn’t possibly do so on our own;

he is inviting us to shed our single yoke and instead to take up a double yoke that will enable us to share those burdens with him;

he’s calling upon us to be his partners as we work together  to make God’s kingdom a reality here on earth.

That’s right: We need God and, for whatever reason, God seems to need us too.

God asks us to dedicate our very lives to making the kin-dom a reality here on earth, but we matter so much to God that God is willing to become one of us — and to live and die as one of us — so that we might share eternal life with God.

I’ll be darned if I know why, but God seems convinced that everything — absolutely everything — depends upon God’s relationship with us.

It is a relationship in which we clearly take far more from God than we give to God, but we and God must both participate in this relationship in order to make it work.

And one essential way in which we participate in this relationship with God is by acting towards others as God acts towards us.

Which brings me back to Annabelle and Phoebe. Now I don’t really know whether goats are capable of feeling and expressing love for one another, but that’s not really the point.

As they sat there in their pen, hoping to experience the world beyond it, they eventually came to realize that neither of them could do it their own; they would need each other in order to have any hope of making this happen.

They would have to work together in order for one of them to be free — even though the reward would not be evenly distributed between them. One provided her strength and the other her speed in order to lift their collective burden. But the one who provided her strength would give more than she gained, as she sacrificed her own interest for the benefit of another.

But as she saw my Dad and me chasing her sister all over the backyard – and eventually, throughout the entire neighborhood — I can’t help but wonder whether she was laughing (if goats can actually laugh);

I can’t but wonder whether she took some measure of joy from the fact that her willingness to shoulder the bulk of the burden had enabled her sister to know what it was like to be free, if only for a while;

I can’t help but wonder whether this lightened her burden and gave some rest to her soul;

and I can’t help but wonder whether all of this made God smile a little too.

Because if a tiny little goat could actually be counted on to act this way,

then imagine what people might be capable of doing for one another if they only were to try.