4th Sunday after Pentecost, year A, 2014 (preached July 6, 2014)
first reading: Zechariah 9:9-12
second reading: Romans 7:15-25a
gospel reading: Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30
Every time our gospel reading comes up in the lectionary I think of ordination and two very dear friends.
The last part of our gospel is especially familiar to many people. But some people might scratch their heads. What is a “yoke” anyway?
The word “yoke” is unfamiliar to many outside of farming circles, and really isn’t used in everyday English. A “yoke” is a wooden frame usually consisting of a bar with a collar-like piece at either end for attaching to the necks of a pair of draft animals, especially oxen, so that they can be worked as a team, or a frame fitting over a person’s shoulders for carrying buckets suspended at either end.
The thing about yokes is that while they might make work easier, the work they help with is neither easy or light. If an animal, animals, or a person is using a yoke, there is usually very heavy lifting involved.
The last few verses of this gospel are often read during the ordination of a pastor, as they are presented with a stole around their necks. This is an appropriate image for when a new pastor receives their stole – because a pastor’s work for the Church certainly involves a kind of “heavy lifting.”
But this verse isn’t meant just for pastors, it’s meant for every single one of us. And that brings me back to the two dear friends I mentioned at the beginning.
My husband and I went to seminary with Craig. My husband knew him better than I – but we both were (and still ARE) very fond of Craig and his wife Nancy.
Weeks before John and I attended Craig’s ordination, we attended the funeral of Craig and Nancy’s son, who died during delivery. So, weeks after their son, Elijah’s, funeral, when we all viewed that baby-sized casket, we watched a bishop place the stole over Craig’s shoulders and say, “For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” And we all cried – even the bishop.
I remember thinking, “How do we cope with this? How can we explain this in the context of faith? How can we not be furious with God about this? How can we think this burden is LIGHT? How are these verses good news?”
I can’t think of anything worse than the death of a child. Nothing that would lead us more to doubt. Nothing that could sap away faith, or the desire to go one.
We may never be confronted with something quite so heartbreaking, but we all have “stuff” we carry with us – our pain (whether it be physical or emotional), the baggage of our past mistakes, or baggage thrust upon us by the mistakes of others – the things that weigh us down in life.
Sometimes we think of the burdens we carry and we say to God, “You think this is LIGHT?” With a sarcastic, “Thanks for nothing.” I know, I’ve said it myself.
But when we do this we miss the point. We can’t look at the burden without also looking at the invitation Jesus gives us in verse 28: “Come to me, all you that are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.”
God doesn’t give us burdens and laugh and point and say, “Ha! I got them good!” God calls to us, “Come to me…” “I know the burdens you have are heavy, let my love help you bear them.”
Again, the yoke isn’t meant to give or add to the weight we carry, the yoke is meant to make the load EASIER.
When we take Jesus’ yoke, the cares and weariness and burdens don’t magically disappear – they are made LIGHTER.
That’s what faith is – it’s not a magic baptismal pill that will keep us immune from suffering. It’s God’s arms enfolding us, carrying us, getting us through the night, giving us strength to make it through another day. We come to God with our burdens, and while they cannot be taken away, the yoke of Jesus makes them lighter.
Picture a person trying to carry two buckets filled with water in their hands – very awkward, very hard – most of us don’t have the arm strength to do that for long because not only do you have to bear the weight, you have to hold the buckets “out” from you so they aren’t constantly banging against your knees. A yoke makes the work easier, the buckets lighter, because the beam stabilizes the weight and holds the buckets out for you.
The yoke makes the weight easier to bear. Jesus makes our struggles easier to bear, because HE is the yoke. His yoke is his very self – his very life – his very sacrifice. His yoke is the crossbeam of his cross, bearing our sins. His yoke is the crossbeam of his cross, sealing forever our fate in heaven. His yoke is his promise that we will never be abandoned, left alone wandering in our pain. Then he gives you and me his yoke, not with all its sinful baggage, but as a means to be lifted up, so that our burdens don’t weigh us down or crush us.
So the lessons we need to learn, and constantly re-learn, or remember, are that faith gives us a yoke, and that yoke is meant to help us carry our burdens. That’s why the yoke is easy – not because it’s effortless. Easy and effortless are two VERY different things.
The yoke won’t take the burdens away – we still have to carry them, but with the yoke the burdens are made light – because without the yoke, the burdens would be unbearable, impossible, crushing.
Even in the midst of our darkest moments, Jesus is with us, lightening our burdens with his love, his comfort, his presence, his strength, his grace – and his rest.
And that IS good news.