By The Very Rev. Sherry Crompton
July 6, 2008
Read: Matthew 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. — Matthew 11:30
Comfortable words–these have been called comfortable words in the prayer book for centuries: words to encourage us. Too many compromises in your past? Too many bruises? Too many sorrows? Too much of what we now call “baggage”? Come anyway.
And Jesus said these words–what we call comfortable words– after a particularly difficult experience. In today’s gospel story from Matthew, Jesus had just finished a preaching mission to several Galilean cities, where his welcome had been less than warm. The people in those cities were smart and capable. In spite of Roman occupation, both their local economies and their religious institutions were still working. They were not looking for help from Jesus or anyone else, and whatever gifts he had hoped to give to them, they declined to take.
This Galilean mission was a failure, in other words, and in the passage today we hear Jesus’ response to that failure. After heaping some powerful reproaches on those who did not welcome him, he thanks God for showing things to simple people that wise and understanding people cannot see. At least one reason why this is God’s will, apparently, is so that no one gets human wisdom and understanding confused with divine revelation. Those who know God do not arrive at such knowledge by their own natural intelligence or capable efforts. They know God because God has chosen to be known.
Next, Jesus offers to lighten the load of all who are carrying heavy burdens, some of which have presumably been laid on the shoulders of the simple people by the wise and understanding ones.
“Yoke” is a word used metaphorically to describe those things that control the lives of people. What controls your life? On this weekend of our Independence Day Holiday it is good to remember that the words at the base of the Statue of Liberty are from a poem by Emma Lazarus entitled “The New Colossus” . It echos Jesus’ comfortable words.
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 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.
Jesus says his yoke is easy and his burden is light. Human beings have a perverse way of turning Jesus’ easy yoke back into a hard one again, by driving ourselves to do more and whipping ourselves to be more when all God has ever asked is that we belong to Him. That comes first; everything else follows that, but we so often get the order reversed. We think there are all kinds of requirements that must be met first, all kinds of rules to follow, all kinds of burdens to bear, so that we are not yet free to belong to God. We are still loaded down, not only by our jobs and our families and all our other responsibilities but by something deeper down in us, something that keeps telling us we must do more, be better, try harder, prove ourselves worthy or we will never earn God’s love. It is the most tiring work in the world, and it is never done.
There are two basic kinds of yokes that can be used to bear burdens: single ones and shared ones. The single ones are very efficient. By placing a yoke across the shoulders and fitting buckets hung from poles on each side, human beings can carry almost as much as a donkey. They will tire easily and have to sit down to rest, and their shoulders will ache all the time—their backs may even give out—but still it is possible to move great loads from one place to another using a single creature under a single yoke.
A shared yoke works quite differently. It requires twice as many creatures for one thing, but if they are a well-matched pair they can work all day, because under a shared yoke one can rest a little while the other pulls. They can take turns bearing the brunt of the load; they can cover for each other without ever laying their burden down because their yoke is a shared one. They have company all day long, and when the day is done both may be tired but neither is exhausted, because they are a team.
Plenty of us labor under the illusion that our yokes are single ones, that we have to go it alone, that the only way to please God is to load ourselves down with heavy requirements—good deeds, pure thoughts, blameless lives, perfect obedience—all those rules we make and break and make and break, while all the time Jesus is standing right there in front of us, half of a shared yoke across his shoulders, the other half wide open and waiting for us, a yoke that requires no more than that we step into it and become part of the team.
“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” No wonder these words have weathered the centuries so well, no wonder they are still music to our ears.
Little Alex was out helping his Dad with the yard work. Dad asked Alex to pick up rocks in a certain area of the yard. Dad looked up from his own labors once, and saw Alex struggling to pull up a huge rock buried in the dirt. The boy kept struggling, and Dad kept watching. Finally, Alex gave up. “I can’t do it!” he whined. Dad asked, “Did you use all of your strength?” Alex looked hurt, and replied, “Yes, Dad, I used every ounce of my strength.” Dad smiled, and said, “No you didn’t. You didn’t ask me to help.” And, together, Dad and Alex easily pulled that big rock out of the dirt.
When Jesus offers us a yoke, he’s offering us his strength. Unlike all those other things to which we might be yoked, Jesus doesn’t expect us to get through with our strength alone! Remember: a yoke, at least in Jesus’ day, was made for two—for you and the Lord. With Jesus walking beside us, our strength will be just phenomenal! That’s when the burden will be “easy” and “light”. Jesus, after all, is strong enough to conquer sin and death—so, certainly, he is strong enough to ease our burdens—those burdens that seem impossible to bear.
Jesus offers us a yoke that fits. Amen.
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