Anyone who has ever caught a glimpse of New York harbor, from nearly any angle, has seen the Statue of Liberty – and for those of us who live in New Jersey seeing the Statue (at least from a distance) may have become fairly commonplace and routine. We just expect it to be there, along with the Verazzano Bridge, the Staten Island Ferry and all of the buildings of lower Manhattan. Except that we learned ten years ago on September 11th that life isn’t always as secure as we want it to be, and change can come violently and in a very short space of time. And in the immediate aftermath of those attacks on the World Trade Center the Statue of Liberty was closed, to be fully reopened to the public only two years ago; even now, you need a reservation to climb up into the Statue’s crown.
So most people only see the Statue from a bridge or a boat or the Turnpike.
Even so, the Statue has become a symbol of America that appears on stamps and mugs and tee-shirts, and all manner of souvenir memorabilia, including those green foam crowns that people sometimes wear on New Year’s Eve as they crowd into Times Square.
But maybe all those mugs and tee-shirts cloud our understanding sometimes; we may forget that the gift of the Statue from the French government in 1886 was not to applaud America as a nation, but to lift up the principle of liberty that is part and parcel of democracy that both France and the US share – an idea in the modern world that was barely one hundred years old when the Statue first arrived in New York harbor. And so it’s worth hearing again the sonnet composed by Emma Lazarus in 1886 to help raise funds to build the Statue’s base; it’s called “The New Colossus”:
“Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
"Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!" [Emma Lazarus, 1883]
That promise of liberty, of freedom to begin again in a new place, of the opportunity for justice and an equal chance, is what has drawn millions and millions of people to our country. They believed in our ideals; they believed the story we told the world about who we are and what we hold good and important and true. And in believing and acting on our ideals and our story, the people who have come to America have challenged us to live up to what we profess, to “walk the walk, as well as talk the talk.” It is a challenge that needs be re-examined and renewed in every generation as our changes and as the world changes around us.
And this morning I am struck by how closely the words of Emma Lazarus’ poem parallel the words of Jesus in the Gospel reading: "Come to me, all you that are weary and are 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."
They are words especially familiar to us here at All Saints’ because they are stitched into the side of our altar rail kneelers: Come unto me all that labor and are heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. These are comforting words – an invitation to bring all our troubles and cares and stresses and burdens to the altar, to give them to God, and then be free of them. We all need to do that at various times, and God certainly asks us to do so. But there is another meaning to Jesus’ words.
In first century Judea and Gallilee the people were burdened on two fronts; they were burdened by their own religious leaders who exercised a very rigid and exacting interpretation of Jewish Law and customs. And the people also suffered under the military and governmental oppression of a foreign power; not only did the Romans make the laws that suited them, but Roman soldiers could compel Jewish civilians to comply with requests that had nothing to do with keeping the law: such as requiring a civilian to give up their coat, or carry goods and equipment, or suffer the indignity of a back-handed slap across the face for resisting a request. That was the every-day reality of life for Jesus, the disciples and all Jews who lived in Palestine.
Jesus’ words were addressed to people who were weary of living under military and political oppression, as well as those burdened, heavy-laden, by over-zealous religious strictures. What a relief, and what a sense of freedom those words must have been to Jesus’ hearers; here, at last, was someone who understood their condition, and (better yet) spoke for God clearly and authoritatively.
And then Jesus takes the image of the yoke, which so often in the Old Testament is a reminder of the Israelite’s slavery in Egypt and of the oppression of foreign powers, and he transforms the image. He says: “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." Jesus breaks the yoke of oppression, but then asks his followers to take on a different kind of yoke or harness or discipline, one in which we will be paired with Jesus, harnessed together with him, so that our work for God will not be burdensome or over-bearing, but work that is good and will bring rest to our souls – something against which we do not need to struggle and resist.
That doesn’t mean that following Jesus isn’t work, or that there won’t be challenges and disappointments and even sometimes heartaches. But fundamentally our work for God is done not on our own strength, but in the power of the Spirit, according to the purposes of God, with Jesus as our example and guide; that is both freeing and restful. Jesus calls us to freedom, to new life, to learning a new way of being. He invites us to lay aside and give to him all that troubles us, that weighs us down, all that becomes a stumbling block or an oppressive burden – so that we can be free to take on his yoke, to be joined in partnership with Jesus, doing God’s work in the world about us.
And for us as Christians living in America, making our home and our lives here, part of our work for and with Jesus is to re-examine and renew our commitment to liberty in our country – not so that we can do whatever we feel like, but we commit ourselves to liberty so that we can do that which is good and true and right and just – for ourselves and for all who come to our shores.
As we heard in the reading from Deuteronomy, which is one of the lessons assigned for Independence Day: “For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them with food and clothing. You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” This is what our liberty is for.
Let us pray.
Lord God Almighty, you have made all the peoples of the
earth for your glory, to serve you in freedom and in peace:
Give to the people of our country a zeal for justice and the
strength of forbearance, that we may use our liberty in
accordance with your gracious will; through Jesus Christ our
Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one
God, for ever and ever. Amen. BCP, page 258
Victoria Geer McGrath
All Saints’ Church, Millington, NJ
Third Sunday after Pentecost
July 3, 2011