Carrying a heavy burden
5 Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 9, Yr A, July 9 2017 Audio
We have heard these words from the gospel of Matthew so many times, “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.” We’ve heard Jesus call the disciples, Andrew and Simon the fisher folk, and Matthew the tax collector. They dropped everything and immediately followed Jesus. But this passage extends that call, it is an expansive invitation from Jesus to all who can hear, including you and me, to follow. When they fall upon my ears, I listen, but I am not sure that following Jesus is easy, and the burden is light. Sometimes, like you, I think this is really hard. It’s hard to step to a different drummer, when conforming to the values and morals of our culture seems like it would be so much easier. It’s really hard to be the voice in the wilderness that says, resist, resist all that would demean and destroy God’s creation, resist all that would raise the rich and the powerful over and above those who are poor and outcast. Resist the easy fix and the easy answers. When you do, Jesus promises, I will give you rest.
You can do hard things.
Let’s step back just a bit and see what has happened to get us to this place in Matthew’s gospel. Matthew’s story begins with reporting the glorious works of God being done in Israel, and at this point shifts to focus on Israel’s failure to respond to those works. At the beginning of this chapter 11, Jesus was speaking to the crowds concerning John, the one we call Baptizer. Jesus was singing John’s praises, at the very moment John was in prison awaiting his fate. At the same time, Jesus is railing against those who hold power, and against the common people, all who he compares to stubborn children who would not play well with others. In a passage that was left out of our lectionary reading, Jesus castigates the people for being inhospitable and lacking repentance.
And then Jesus does something I think we’ve all done, he stops what’s he’s doing and saying, and he prays. Jesus prayer at this point reveals the intimacy Jesus has with God. I think Jesus shows us that prayer, being present with God, is necessary when we are called to do hard things. It is what equips us to do hard things.
And then this invitation, come to me, follow me, take my yoke upon you. Jesus knows this is hard, probably the hardest thing we ever do. Jesus is asking the people he encountered, and loved and cared about, to exchange the “yoke” they lived under, which is the control of the empire of Rome, for the “yoke” that Jesus offered, the yoke of love, the yoke of reconciliation, the yoke of forgiveness.
Again, I need to stop and consider these words. We don’t use the word yoke much anymore. In fact, some of you probably can’t picture a yoke in your heads. It’s a device for joining together a pair of animals to do the farm work of making rows to plant the seeds, in the days farming was done without big machines. The yoke was a piece that went across the shoulders of two large animals, usually oxen, each enclosing the heads of the animals. The yoke was heavy, it kept the animals doing the job the farmer wanted them to do.
When we imagine that yoke, the image becomes clear. Jesus says, leave the heavy burden that is keeping you hostage, and take on a new yoke, the yoke of love, the yoke of reconciliation, the yoke of forgiveness. Jesus was asking the people of his time to do something very hard. Jesus was asking them to risk everything, their lives and their livelihood, to be free of the empire of Rome. Jesus promises that when we exchange the yoke of the powerful for the yoke of the one who will be crucified, we will find rest.
I think we live in very similar times today. The burdens are huge and heavy. Can we even do that hard thing that Jesus asks? We are shown by our leaders that power over people is much more desirable than working with each other to come to the common good. We see and hear those who are in power that the goal is to make as much money as possible for oneself. There is fear that our way of life, both our secular way of life and our church way of life, is under attack by those who want us to be and do something that we are not. We live at a time and place where we are increasingly taught to believe that true joy, deep satisfaction, and the realization of what we were created for comes through watching out only for ourselves. We do not see very clearly the model that shows us that being in relationship with, and bearing the burdens of those around us is a good and right way to live.
Is the hard thing laying the burden down, laying the burden aside? Or believing Jesus, who says, come to me and I will give you rest, my burden is easy, and my burden is light. You see, Jesus doesn’t simply call our pictures and expectations into question, but also gives us another picture. God is the one who bears our burdens. God is the one who shows up in our need. God is the one who comes along side of us. Nothing demonstrates this more than the cross – God’s willingness to embrace all of our life, even to the point of death, in Jesus, to demonstrate God’s profound love and commitment, love and commitment that will not be deterred…by anything.
It’s not necessarily what we want. We often would prefer a God who takes away our problems rather than helps us cope with them, who eliminates challenges rather than equips us for them. It’s not usually what we want, but pretty much exactly what we need. That’s the rest Jesus is talking about. It’s not an easy rest, it’s not usually what we want, but it’s exactly what we need.
And we are reminded that God always shows up where we least expect God to be: in the need of our neighbor, in the person that doesn’t look anything like you, in the person who believes and thinks and acts differently than we do and, just as importantly, than we think they should. And that in all these circumstances, our call is the same: to care for them, to meet them where they are, to accept them as we are able.
In our estimation it’s not easy. But ease is not what Jesus asks of us. Jesus asks us to exchange the burden of the world, for the relationship Jesus offers. It is hard, and we can do hard things. But this is what following Jesus looks like. But as we undertake this new yoke, we discover God in Jesus is already there. Waiting for us, encouraging us, forgiving us, bearing us, loving us. Which is what makes the burden light, the yoke not just easy but joyful. Pick up the yoke that Jesus offers, the yoke of love, the yoke of reconciliation, the yoke of forgiveness.
It is hard, but we can do hard things. It is joyful, and love does win. Amen.