“Yoke”

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Rev. Jocelyn B. Gardner Spencer

July 9, 2017

Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

 

I don’t know about you, but these days, I am weary.

Actually, I do know about you, or about some of you, anyway, because you have shared with me your stories.  And because of that, I know that I am not alone—that some of you are weary, too.

There are so many reasons to be weary.

Weary because you’re in the midst of a busy season at work or in your personal life.

Weary because you try and try and try to get a job, but you keep getting told that you’re overqualified or not the right fit.

Weary because you live with someone—a child, or an elder, or any family member or friend—who depends on you for 24/7 care.

Weary because you are far away from someone you love.

Weary because it feels like no matter how hard you try, no matter how fast you run, you can never keep up, you can never do enough or be enough, you just fall further and further behind.

Weary because of the hateful rhetoric that seems to come at us at every turn, because of the vitriol and the lack of basic civility in a nation that seems to have forgotten about kindness.

Weary because bad news is as inescapable as the devices that most of us carry in our purses or pockets.

Weary because you live in a world that is not safe for you because of your gender, or your race, or your sexual orientation, or some other inherent part of who you are.

Weary because there are so many things to worry about that it’s hard to figure out where to start, and by the time you respond to one problem, others have sprouted like Medusa’s heads, and it feels like you’re worse off than where you began.

Weary because there is so much violence, so much suffering in this world, that you find yourself closing the doors of your heart because if you let it all in, it just might break you.

Weary because the distance between the world as it is and the promise of God’s realm of justice and joy for all people feels just about insurmountable.

 

There are so many reasons to be weary.

So when I hear the famous words of Jesus that conclude today’s scripture reading, they fall on my ears like a cool drink of water for a parched tongue.

“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.”

It’s worth hearing again.  “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.”

Thank you, Jesus.  What a gift to be seen and known in such a way.  What a blessing to be reminded that we are not alone in our weariness, but are yoked to Jesus himself, bound by unbreakable ties to Love Incarnate, who offers us a resting-place for our souls.

As that good news sinks in, can’t you just feel your hunched-up shoulders moving back down, away from your ears?  Can’t you just feel your clenched-up stomach releasing the knots in which it has been tied?  Can’t you just feel your tensed-up spirit relaxing into the tender embrace of our Brother, Teacher, Savior, and Friend?  Thank you, Jesus.

It would be so nice to just lie back in those everlasting arms…  To put our feet up and lay down the tools of our trades…  To set aside all our burdens…  To let somebody else worry about the world’s troubles for a while…

It would be so, so nice.

But the thing is, that is not what Jesus offers.

 

Jesus offers us rest, yes.  But the rest Jesus offers does not look like what we might expect rest to be.  It does not look like what we might think we want rest to be.

This is where the first part of today’s reading comes in.  When John the Baptist came, the people rejected him because he did not meet their expectations—he was much too strict, much too ascetic, for their sensibilities.  When Jesus came, the people rejected him because he did not meet their expectations, either—he was much too extravagant, much too profligate, for their sensibilities.  It was the infants, not the wise and educated ones, to whom the truths of faith were revealed, because often, we who fancy ourselves wise and educated get tripped up by our own expectations.  When something or someone does not seem to fit, we tend to think there is something wrong with that thing or that person, rather than wondering whether our expectations might need to be reconsidered.

In spite of what we might expect, the rest Jesus offers does not look like a vacation at an all-inclusive resort, where the only decision you have to make is which beach chair to sit in and which umbrella-decorated drink to have next.

In spite of what we might expect, the rest Jesus offers does not look like total disconnection from the world, like pulling the curtains and locking the doors and binge-watching Netflix, or escaping to a cabin in the woods where no one knows where to find you and no one needs anything from you ever again.

No, the rest Jesus offers is not idleness or luxury.  It is not freedom from all responsibility.  Rather, it is freedom for new life in Christ.

That gift of rest, that gift of new life, comes in an unexpected form.  It does not come as a lounge chair or a comfy sofa.  Jesus did not say, “Come to me, all you who are weary, and let’s go to the spa for a massage and a pedicure.”  He said, “Take my yoke upon you.”  I know you know what a yoke is:  a tool used with beasts of burden.  But we are not beasts of burden, and Jesus is not a taskmaster.  It is a paradoxical thing, but I believe it to be true:  when we take on the yoke of Christ, it is a new kind of labor, and it becomes our source of freedom.

When we take on the yoke of Christ, Jesus frees us from meaningless toil, from fruitless labor, and in so doing, he gives us rest for our souls—just as the commandment to keep sabbath brought freedom to a people who had very recently been enslaved.  In place of all that leaves us feeling exhausted and empty, Jesus calls us to a purpose holy and high.  New life in Christ is easy not because it requires nothing of us, but because it calls forth the very best of us.  It puts us in touch with our deepest passions, our most profound hopes.  It connects us to worthy work that fills our souls and inspires our hearts.  It transforms us, in other words, into collaborators, co-laborers, with God.  The yoke of Christ binds us inextricably to God’s own self—and it also binds us to one another.

 

Dear ones, look around this room.  Take a good look at the people sitting beside you.  Because here’s what it means to wear Christ’s yoke:  it means that you and I, all of us, are bound together in the holy labor to which God calls us.  Just as a farmer’s yoke helps a pair of oxen pull a plow, just as the work the two animals accomplish together is far greater than the sum of their individual efforts, so Christ’s yoke binds us to one another and helps us to live out our discipleship more fully, more freely, more transformationally, than we could ever do alone.  Do not forget this—we do not, indeed we cannot, do this work alone.  We are yoked together, bound one to another, pulling together toward God’s future.

And there’s more.  The yoke that binds us inextricably to God and to one another in this family of faith—it is bigger than us, bigger than this congregation, bigger than this town, this state, this nation.  The yoke of Christ binds us to every one of God’s children, and especially to those who are suffering, those who are pushed to the margins, those who are beaten down by violence, or ground down by poverty, or shoved aside by oppression—those who are most in need of the rest Jesus offers.

And because we are bound tightly to every one of God’s children, and especially to the least of these, we cannot move forward alone.  If our siblings in Christ are struggling and stumbling, held back by the chains and shackles of racism or sexism or homophobia or exploitation or systemic inequality, we also are held back.  We do not travel the Christian journey alone.  We move forward together or not at all.

 

So, weary ones, come, and put on the yoke of Christ.  I cannot promise, for Jesus does not promise, that we won’t be tired, for the soil of this earth needs much tilling if the realm of God is to take root here.  But I can promise, for Jesus promises, that we will pull the load together, and when we do, we will find the burden infinitely eased.  And I can promise, for Jesus promises, that in joining our labor together and pulling in the direction of God’s realm, we will find freedom and we will find rest—the good, deep rest that comes when you have expended yourself in the service of that which matters most, and though your body is tired, your soul is soaring high, filled with the fullness of life that God promises to all God’s children.

May it be so.

 


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