Taking on Jesus’ Yoke, Fifth Sunday after Pentecost (A) – July 9, 2017

Proper 9

[RCL:] Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67; Psalm 45:11-18; Romans 7:15-25a; Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

There is some debate about whether or not people can change. The spiritual and psychological sages throughout the millennia basically agree that people can learn better ways to cope with who and how they are, but people don’t change all that much. Transformation can occur, though that’s for later in this sermon. But changing is hard, maybe even impossible, and changing another person, well, that’s just folly—pure folly. It has been said that having expectations for others and wanting them to be more like we would have them is just a down payment on future disappointment. This might sound down and dour, but good news is on the way.

All notions of progress have to do with growth and change, and personal progress is usually cloaked in the power of our own wills to change ourselves. If we all just had the right information, the right policy, the right data, then we would just be who we are meant to be. But as Derek Sivers says, “If all that we needed was more information, then we would all be millionaires with perfects abs.”

Perhaps you have some experience with trying to stop some behavior only to return again and again to what you don’t want to do, much like St. Paul in the epistle reading today. Maybe you have been trying to lose weight for years only to gain it all back. Maybe you have been trying to grow closer to God through feats of discipline in prayer and study, only to feel cold and distant from God. No. Instead, our happiness, our fulfillment, our satisfaction, and ultimately our growth in Christ has less to do with taking on more data, and more to do with unlearning a great deal.

In our gospel lesson today, Jesus is clearly frustrated. He indicates that those around him criticized John the Baptist as being possessed by a demon. Then they criticized Jesus for eating and drinking with the wrong people too often. Jesus then prays aloud to God, in thanks for having hidden the purposes of what God is up to in Jesus from the wise and wonderful of his age. He then says something that has become so famous that you could be forgiven for not truly listening to what he says: “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.”

Aren’t you weary? Aren’t you carrying a heavy burden? Don’t you need a rest? We are all weary and heavy-laden. Each of us is dealing with something, or a whole litany of somethings, that if we all had to wear them outwardly, I daresay we’d have a much more compassionate world.

But Jesus is inviting us into something completely different. Jesus first names our spiritual state. This is an amazingly compassionate thing to do, to notice and name, to tell the truth of a situation. Sometimes it is enough simply to have someone notice our weariness and burdens. This noticing, without judgment or fixing, is a lesson in empathy for all of us. That might be the distinction between empathy and pity, by the way.

Then Jesus invites us to take his yoke upon ourselves. This is an interesting image that most of us modern types might not understand. A yoke is for a donkey or other beast of burden. It is a collar that harnesses the animal for whatever work that the master wants the animal to do, like pulling a cart or plowing a field. The yoke is a symbol of servitude and onerous labor. But the yoke that Jesus is offering is easy and light.

What does this mean, “my yoke is easy and my burden is light”? In our world and society, clever and never-ending marketing would have us believe that each and all of us are deficient in some way. Jesus and, by no extension at all, God, accepts us precisely where and what we are with no exceptions. The world has become exceedingly sophisticated in laying heavy burdens upon us. The largest companies in the world deploy deeply effective psychological understandings on us to encourage us to feel that we must scratch this or that itch immediately, or buy into some lifestyle in order to be the happiest or most authentic self we can. This has been captured most recently by the acronym “FOMO,” or “fear of missing out.”

Now the world is not some separate creation or arena of evil. The world, as the church has usually described it, is that which does not proclaim Christ as Lord, so it does not live by the light burdens of Jesus and instead heaps up heavier and heavier burdens. Of course, the history of the Church is littered with teachers and rules that have given heavy burdens to certain people to designate them as less than loved by God, but they were wrong and actively working against the intentions of Jesus.

Jesus does not expect or desire for us to take on more and more in discipleship to him. His learning is an unlearning, his burdens are an unburdening. His work is a rest. What this looks like in a daily practice is a constant reminder that we are enough, we are sufficient. This is not some mere positive thinking, feel-good humanism. Our sufficiency with God is not about our own inherent goodness, though there may well be some inherent goodness in us, it is about God’s goodness and love and acceptance of us. So we remind ourselves every day of God’s goodness and love.

And then, if we are brave and want to be taught by Jesus, we can extend God’s radical love to those whom God presents us with each day. Since God’s love is unconditioned, since this loving yoke is easy, and the burden of acceptance is light, since it is unlearning to judge others, what would it be to live like this? What would it be like to love that person who annoys you? What would it be like to love that estranged relative or friend? What would it be like to love that politician who you not only disagree with but who actively enacts policies that hurt those you already love? Jesus is not asking you to be foolish and merely accept injustice, but he is inviting us to love. And while Jesus meets us all where we are and accepts us for who we are, he does not let us stay that way. To encounter Jesus is to be transformed. I cannot think of a single encounter Jesus has in Scripture where the other person did not leave changed or challenged. Jesus is not in the trans-fixing business, he is in the transforming business. This love can transform you and this world, but it is hard. To follow Jesus is work, it is still a yoke, no matter how easy.

I think this is where the marketers and the fear-of-missing-out folks get life wrong. To change, to be transformed, is not to start with deficiency or want, but with love and acceptance. Now, love and acceptance are simply bad for the economy, but in God’s economy, love and acceptance are the starting point. This is why Jesus describes discipleship to him as easy and light burdens: following him makes a beginning in not requiring a series of good behaviors in an attempt to earn love. Once we understand our status as beloved, we can make the radical turn to do the same: loving others without condition or remainder.

May the Holy Spirit empower each of us to go into the world and love as deeply as we are loved by God. Amen.

The Rev. Joshua Bowron is the rector of St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Charlotte, N.C., a parish that is very curious about what God is doing in the beautiful world. Josh shares life with his wife Brittany and their three children. Josh holds a Masters of Divinity from the School of Theology at the University of the South and is a current student in the Masters of Sacred Theology track of the Advanced Degrees Program there.

Download the sermon for the 5th Sunday after Pentecost (A).

The yoke that fits, 4 Pentecost, Proper 9 (A) – 2014

July 6, 2014

Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67 and Psalm 45: 11-18 or Song of Solomon 2:8-13 (or Zechariah 9:9-12 and Psalm 145: 8-15); Romans 7:15-25a; Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

Today’s reading from Matthew’s gospel is quite a contrast to what we’ve been hearing Jesus say lately. For most of the last few weeks, Jesus has been talking about the cost of discipleship – the certainty of persecution, conflict, suffering and painful division for those who choose to follow him. “Leave it all behind, pick up your cross, give up your life for my sake.” Strong stuff like that.

Today his tone changes, and Jesus is all sweetness and light – promising rest and comfort, light burdens and easy yokes. This is more like it. Gentle masters are much more to our liking – if we must have masters at all. But Jesus’ words are a little more complex than they seem.

First of all, the primary thrust of what Jesus is saying here is not directed toward people who have just any kind of difficulty. By “all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens,” or an older translation, “who labor and are heavy laden,” Jesus doesn’t primarily mean folks with ordinary problems – such as too many bills, or being unemployed, or sick, or having ungrateful kids, a hard life, or whatever. Jesus has all sorts of things to say about stuff like that, but that’s not what he’s talking about here. Here, Jesus is talking quite specifically to and about those who are on a religious quest – those who are seeking God, and relationship with God. He is calling to himself the religiously exhausted – those who, like Paul was just saying, have tried all of the usual ways of finding some peace with the divine and have achieved only frustration.

The real clue to this is the fact that a yoke was the common symbol for the Law of Moses, especially for the details of the law and the minute, ever-expanding demands of the legalism of the Pharisees. In fact, this is the main way the rabbis used the word “yoke” allegorically.

Also, we need to remember here that here Matthew is presenting an exaggerated picture of the Pharisees – most of them were not nearly this bad; many were not bad at all; but there were enough jerks to justify this caricature.

This is why Jesus says that the wise and intelligent  – that is, the religious leaders – have missed the point. He then adds that only the Son – not those leaders, and not you, and not anyone else, only the Son – knows the Father.

The yoke of the Pharisees, their demands that you have to do this and this and this exactly right in order to matter to God, in order to be a decent person, in order to be loved or counted significant – that yoke Jesus rejects, even though it was the yoke of the wise and intelligent.

That yoke, the yoke of seeking God by keeping the rules, by doing what somebody or anybody or everybody else says is the thing to do, by trying to get it right all the time and so living constantly in fear of getting it wrong, that yoke leads those who wear it to “labor and be heavy laden.” It leads to living in what Paul just called “this body of death.” It leads to a religion and a life of fearful obedience to a multitude of petty dictates where the spirit is deadened, and where some measure of success is more likely to lead you into self-righteousness than into the heart of God.

To say to your child, or a friend, or your spouse, or anyone, really, “I will only love you if you do right,” is to ensure a sick and twisted relationship. It hurts everybody involved.

To teach that God says this is not only terrible theology, it can also be devastating. Yet the yoke of the Law, at its worst, did just that. Those who, like Paul, struggled under such a yoke discovered that it didn’t fit; that it didn’t bring them to God; that it didn’t enrich their lives. Yokes like that never do.

To go scurrying about with the notion that if we could only figure out the right thing to do – the right way to act, the right words to say, the right way to do the rituals – then we would be all right, is to skate on the edge of magic, as if we could conjure up God’s acceptance. It will only ensure frustration and exhaustion. God’s presence with us and God’s love for us are never the results of our actions. He is in charge; we are not.

In response to all of this, Jesus says, “Come to me.”

Not to a new law, not to a new teaching, not to a secret interpretation or a hidden loophole, not to a book, not to a list; but “to me.” Come to Jesus himself.

In essence, Jesus is saying, “If you seek God; if you seek his love; if you seek a life that makes some sense; if you want a way of understanding the world that allows you to deal honestly with what happens and not be destroyed; if you want to be who you are created to be – if you want this, then come to me.”

It’s a call to relationship – to relationship with Jesus and to relationship with the community that continues Jesus’ life and ministry.

The alternatives, then and now, will fail. He will not. Remember today’s collect, in which we are reminded that God has taught us that all the commandments are kept by loving God and our neighbor. Such is the yoke of Christ. And since this yoke has to do with these commandments to love, the folks who seriously take that yoke upon themselves usually find that it is shaped very much like a cross.

One more thing: In many translations, Jesus calls his yoke “easy.” Now, that’s an unfortunate English word; it makes it sound like everything’s a snap, that very little effort or energy is required to do it. And as anyone who has tried to live the life of Jesus knows, that’s just not true. The New English Bible’s translation is better: It reads, “My yoke is good to bear.”

The point is not that this yoke, the Lord’s call to relationship, makes no difference or asks nothing of us – quite the contrary. The point is that it fits, it’s the right size, so it works – it leads to God, and it brings with it wholeness and a peace that can be found nowhere else.

To come to him is to discover that what can seem a frantic and desperate task – life with God – is, in fact, not an earned reward, but a free gift. To come to him is to discover, as Paul discovered, that “there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” To come to him is to discover that the task of getting it all correct is replaced by the absolute gift of God’s grace, and our grateful response to that gift.

All the strong stuff we’ve been hearing the past few weeks about the cost of discipleship is still very much there. But the yoke is good to bear. It leads to life. To put it on is to be embraced by God’s mercy – to carry it is to fulfill both God’s will and our own deepest humanity.

We are called to this new yoke, not to a law, or to a set of rules, but to a person and a community built around that person. And in this the religious quest – the greatest journey of human existence – can find its richest fulfillment, and its deepest satisfaction.

Jesus said, “Come to me if you seek God, if you seek life, I will give you rest.”

 

— The Rev. James Liggett has recently retired as rector of St. Nicholas’ Episcopal Church in Midland, Texas. He is a native of Kansas and a graduate of the University of Houston and the Episcopal Divinity School. He has served parishes in Kansas, Texas and Oklahoma. 

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Come to me, Proper 9 (A) – 2011

July 3, 2011

Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67 and Psalm 45: 11-18 or Song of Solomon 2:8-13 (or Zechariah 9:9-12 and Psalm 145: 8-15); Romans 7:15-25aMatthew 11:16-19, 25-30

“Come to me, all you that are weary and heavy-laden, 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 didn’t help that she was already late for the meeting. Rushing past the sexton who was putting the recycling out, she had her own arms full as she tried to get the back door of the church open. Juggling her lunch bag, laptop bag, and pocketbook, she tried to pull the door open. She knew that in the humidity the door would often stick, but this time, it just wouldn’t budge. Not wanting to set anything down, she just pulled as hard as she could, hoping the door would budge and she could still make it in time. No such luck. She gave up and noticed the sexton was watching.

“Did you pull as hard as you could?” he asked.

“Yes, I gave it everything I’ve got.”

The sexton smiled and said, “No, you didn’t. You didn’t ask me to help you.” He walked over, took her bags off her shoulder and said, “Now try it.” The door came open on the first try.

In today’s gospel lesson, Jesus promises us rest for our souls by coming to him. He promises us that we can set down our burden and yokes and take up his easy and light ones instead. By talking about yokes, Jesus is using an illustration common in his time, but not so common in ours, at least in our part of the world. A yoke is usually made out of wood. It fits across the shoulders of the animal or person who is using it. With oxen, a yoke connects animals to each other and also to a plow or something else the animal is pulling. The purpose of the yoke is to harness the power of the animal to do the work required of it. Yokes are also used by people to carry water or other things.

Justin Martyr, writing in the second century, said that when Jesus was working as a carpenter, one of the things he made was yokes. Perhaps we can imagine Jesus making these wooden yokes meant to join pairs of animals together. Of course, the carpenter would want to make the yoke so that it would fit just right – not rub or be rough on the animals, but something that would truly help the animals bear their burdens, pull together, be more efficient as a team than either would be alone. We imagine Jesus the carpenter, sanding down rough spots, fitting the yoke, checking it, making it just right for the job – a perfect fit.

Jesus invites us to take a yoke just like this – made exactly for us by someone who understands what it means to bear burdens, someone who knows us each by name, knows our gifts and our needs, who does not want us to be wearied or weighed down. Jesus offers us a yoke, made by his own labor and love, made perfectly for us. And that’s not all; he offers himself as our partner in the yoke, the one who will help us bear, pull, carry – whatever we are called to do.

“Come to me all you that are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you … for my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

What a beautiful invitation. Jesus longs to give us rest from all the troubles and hardships and burdens we carry. All we need to do is give up our burdens, turn everything we carry over to Christ, and he will help us: a beautiful, utterly simple invitation.

So why is it so hard to do? Perhaps you are able to turn things over to God pretty easily. Perhaps you are good at remembering that you are not alone and that Jesus is standing beside you saying, “Come to me,” and you go to him. Perhaps you have learned that you are strongest when you ask for God’s help. Perhaps your first impulse when struggling with a tough problem or heavy burden is to “let go and let God.” If this describes you, well done.

If you are like many people, however, it is really hard actually to turn things over, even if we know in our heads that we’re turning them over to Jesus who stretched out his arms upon the cross that he might embrace the whole world and take all of our burdens on himself. It’s hard to go to Jesus, and give up our burdens to him.

Sometimes we forget he is there for us. Or we trust he is there, but we don’t really think he’s talking to us. “Oh, our problems are so small compared to other people’s problems, I really shouldn’t bother God with this,” as if God can’t handle our burdens, or is too busy dealing with others to notice us. No, Jesus was speaking in the plural when he gave his invitation, and he was speaking to everyone, everywhere, for all time and forever. You come. You take. Are you weary? Then this includes you. Do you have burdens, big or small? Then you qualify.

Perhaps another thing that keeps us from taking Jesus up on his invitation is that we don’t want to need help. We want to be strong and capable, and we think keeping our problems to ourselves, trying to do things alone, trying to muscle our way through anxiety by ourselves is proof of our strength and ability. We’re celebrating Independence Day this weekend, when our country became a country, independent from England. But we tend to want to be independent in every way. Can you imagine us celebrating Dependence Day? As Christians, we make a startling claim that we are always dependent, and that’s a good thing. Our gospel begins with Jesus giving thanks that those who get his message, those who really understand it, are like children, who are dependent and open.

Too often, we want to handle things ourselves, rather than use our real strength, which comes from handing our burdens over to Christ. Too often we are like the mountain climber in the old joke who slipped and fell on a difficult cliff. He grabbed a branch and hung on as tightly as he could. He shouted out, “Is there anyone up there? Help me!” A voice came from the skies and said, “I am all good, the God who loves you. I will save you if you let go.” The climber thought for a few moments and then said, “Is there anyone else up there?” Too often we are reluctant to let go. But Jesus has promised, we can.

If we are able to give things up to God, to take on Jesus’ easy yoke and light burden, we need to be open to the ways the relief will come. If you need healing from some despair, if you need help with some struggle, turn it over to God, and then be open to the ways that burden will be lifted. Say yes to the help that comes your way. God will help. But very often that help will come through people who will offer you comfort or direction. That help may come in little pieces that fit together into a whole, a life-giving, burden-lifting whole, but you need to say yes to the pieces.

Sometimes we don’t ask for God’s help, because we don’t think we’re actually deserving of it. Our need for help somehow tells us, not that we’re human, like everyone else, but that somehow we are fatally flawed, and undeserving, not worthy of help. We see ourselves as too broken to be of any use or value.

God never ever sees us this way. God knows where we are broken. God knows where we are hurting and aching, and chafing under our burden, and wants only to take that burden from us. God loves us and can use us, as weary and broken as we may be.

The author of this story is unknown. It has shown up in many places on the Internet in several versions, set in various countries, but the point of the story is the same in each case. A water bearer in India had two large pots, each hung on each end of a yoke he carried across his shoulders. One of the pots had a crack in it, and while the other pot was perfect and always delivered a full portion of water at the end of the long walk from the stream to the master’s house, the cracked pot arrived only half full.

For a long time, this went on daily, with the water bearer delivering only one and a half pots of water to his master’s house. The cracked pot was ashamed of its imperfection, and miserable that it was able to carry only half a load of water. One day it spoke to the water bearer by the stream. “I am ashamed and I want to apologize to you.”

“Why?” asked the water bearer. “What are you ashamed of?”

“I have been able to deliver only half my load because this crack in my side causes water to leak out all the way back to your master’s house.”

The water bearer replied, “As we return to the master’s house, I want you to notice the beautiful flowers along the path.” And as they went up the hill, the cracked pot noticed the sun warming the beautiful flowers on the side of the path. This cheered the pot some, but he still felt bad about being broken.

The water bearer said to the pot, “Did you notice that there were flowers only on your side of the path, but not on the other pot’s side? That’s because I have always known about your flaw, and I used it. I planted flower seeds on your side of the path, and every day while we walk back from the stream, you’ve watered them. For years now I have been able to pick these beautiful flowers to decorate my master’s table. Without you being just the way you are, he would not have this beauty to grace his house.”

We are all broken, all flawed, and all perfectly worthy, because of Jesus Christ, to receive God’s love and care. One of the burdens we can give up is the burden of thinking we need to do things on our own, that we need to match some picture of perfection, and that otherwise Jesus will not want to be yoked to us.

No, weariness is the only requirement to receive Christ’s rest. Having a burden we want to set down is the only requirement for picking up Christ’s light burden. Being yoked to something we need to let go of is the only requirement for allowing Christ to give us a new yoke, tailor-made for us.

“Come to me all you that are weary and are heavy-laden, and I will give you rest.”
— The Rev. Dr. Amy Richter serves as rector of St. Anne’s Episcopal Church in Annapolis, Md.

Let us come to God through Jesus, Proper 9 (A) – 2008

July 6, 2008

Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67; Psalm 45: 11-18Romans 7:15-25aMatthew 11:16-19, 25-30

“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.”

Come to me, take my yoke, learn from me; I am gentle, humble in heart; you will find rest for your souls.

Hearing these readings on a day when many are still engaged in celebrating American Independence Day certainly brings to mind the symbolic freedoms associated with the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Along with these celebrations there is a time for rest. It is a long weekend – three days of rest rather than the usual two-day weekend. This weekend brings to mind picnics, fireworks, and parades with patriotic overtones. Even though our country is made up of a diverse mix of people, nations, cultures, and languages, these readings and this holiday challenge us to engage in a full understanding of power and a complete surrender to God. They challenge us to question where our loyalties lie, but more importantly, we are challenged to understand that sin sometimes comes from inaction as surely as it comes from action. On this day we might even say that we are being challenged to free ourselves from the sinfulness of the world and to declare our lives in dependence to our God.

How often have we felt like Paul did in his letter to the Romans? No matter how hard we try to live according to the great commandments, to love God and love our neighbor, it doesn’t always turn out that way.

This is not because we are horrid, retched creatures, but because there is sin in the world. And sin is powerful. It is so powerful that sometimes we just withdraw from action and words, and we allow whatever is happening to happen. Our inaction becomes the sin, especially when we know that an injustice is causing suffering and causing separation between people and God.

Paul sounds like he is exhausted and in his desperation is unable to do any more to free himself from sin. His words suggest that maybe sin is lurking like a monster under the bed, just waiting to take us over.

Even in the gospel reading, Jesus reminds the crowd that some thought John was possessed with a demon, yet he lived a life of denial and simplicity. Jesus lived overturning injustices and unveiling the many ways that society’s attitudes and laws actually reflected sinfulness rather than loving God and loving neighbors. He pointed out that sin could come from twisting the law to cause loss of humanity and life. Paul’s cry of desperation is quickly calmed with his own acknowledgement that sin is defeated by God through our life in and with Jesus as our companion.

Jesus does not tell us that it is an easy task to be free of sin and follow him. In fact, there is a cost. The cost may even come from the place we have trusted and have pledged our loyalty. That is why it is so hard to understand what sin is, and often just as hard to know what love is as well.

So, even when our motives are on target, sin seems strong enough to destroy. And yet, sin cannot exist when we abide in Christ and Christ in us. When we transfer our loyalty from the material powers of the world to the infinite love of God we find ourselves experiencing the passionate expressions of love that we read about in today’s Old Testament reading and psalm. We are filled with a sense of blessing and abundance.

The answers to everything are found in the unexpected, and with that come both peace and joy. Paul’s cry of desperation is quickly calmed with his acknowledgement that sin is defeated by God through our life in and with Jesus as our companion. And no words, no matter how profound, can really describe love so that we or another can understand.

These readings both challenge and assure us. They hint at the profound simplicity of a life in Christ, and they serve as a mirror for us to examine our understanding of who we are along with how we are living. Our desire is to love God and to love our neighbor. When we do not love God and our neighbor, we are in sin.

Jesus gave us these most reassuring words: “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.”

Come to me, take my yoke, learn from me; I am gentle, humble in heart; you will find rest for your souls.

Let us come to God through Jesus. Let us take on the yoke of discipleship. Let us learn from Jesus. Be gentle, humble in heart and you will be at peace with all that God made.

 

— The Rev. Debbie Royals is a regional missioner for Native Ministry Development, based in the Diocese of Los Angeles. She is the Province VIII Indigenous People’s Network chair and a CREDO health faculty member.