July 6, 2014

Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30
Romans 7:15-25a

“Take My Yoke Upon You”

All the way through the Gospel stories, Jesus shows up in villages, in cities, in the countryside, beside the sea, and in the middle of people’s lives, and he invites them to respond to his message, to his presence, and to his call.

Jesus showed up beside the Sea of Galilee, and invited some fisherman to radically change the course of their lives. He said: “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” And they did.

Jesus showed up in front of Matthew’s booth, and said to the tax collector: “Follow me.” And Matthew got up and followed him.

Jesus showed up in the middle of a crowd where he had been casting out bad spirits and healing those who were sick. One person said he wanted to follow Jesus, but he just needed to take care of his father’s funeral arrangements first. But Jesus said to him, “Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead.”

Jesus showed up where a rich young man was wondering about what he had to do in order to be saved. He claimed to follow the commandments, so that wasn’t the problem. Jesus said to him, “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” And the young man went away grieving, for he had many possessions.

Wherever Jesus went, he preached the good news about God’s coming kingdom, and called people to change the purpose of their lives and to follow him. Sometimes they dropped what they were doing and followed. Sometimes they decided that it was too hard, or not really what they wanted to do, and they declined to become his followers.

In today’s passage from the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus is lamenting the poor response of the people to his call. Certainly, there have been some who have responded appropriately… but by and large, the response has been underwhelming. Jesus compares the people of his generation to children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another: “We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.” It’s as if the children are trying to get organized for a make-believe game, but their friends won’t participate appropriately. They try playing “wedding” and the other kids won’t dance. They try playing “funeral” and the others refuse to play the part of the mourners.

The fact is that the people of Jesus’ generation have not responded properly either to his message or to John the Baptist who came before him. When John lived in the wilderness and preached about repentance, most of the people thought that he was crazy. And now that Jesus is preaching about God’s love and eating and drinking with the people in their homes and communities, his message is rejected too – people call him a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!

In the verses that follow, Jesus reproaches the cities in which most of his deeds of power had been done, because they did not repent… Chorazin, Bethsaida, Capernaum… The people in these communities had watched Jesus doing amazing things, but they did not respond, and they did not change their lives.

But rather than getting stuck feeling angry and disappointed, Jesus turns his attention to those who have responded: to the fishermen, and the tax collectors, and the other sinners and unimportant people who left everything, and who are trying to follow him. Jesus prays, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants…”

And then Jesus makes his invitation again. He invites the people gathered around him to commit to following his way. He tells them what it really means for them to respond to his message and his invitation. And through the Gospel recorded and passed down through the ages, Jesus invites us to consider a response as well.

“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.”

A yoke makes us think of a burden or a hardship. Like an animal that must spend it’s life and energy in hard labour for it’s master, if we have a yoke on our shoulders, we are weighed down with a heavy burden that we must carry. Certainly, the way of Jesus is not an easy way. There were would-be disciples who decided not to follow him because it meant leaving too much behind, and giving up other priorities.

Two weeks ago we read the part of Matthew chapter ten where Jesus says that “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me… and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me.” Carrying a cross is not only hard work, but it’s a symbol of our willingness to give up everything – even our own lives – for the sake of Jesus’ mission.

Jesus’ invitation in today’s passage is not quite so heavy. He tells his disciples that following him involves being willing to take on a burden – a yoke across our shoulders. But Jesus’ metaphor does not include you as the yoked ox with Jesus as the farmer who is directing the work or goading you to keep at your work.

I think that is sometimes how religion can be interpreted, particularly by those outside the faith who wonder at Christians who keep going back to church to be reminded again and again how we are to live. They imagine that we come to this place to be scolded for our lack of effort, and to be prodded back into greater faithfulness. They wonder why we keep at it… why we don’t just sit back and enjoy our lives and do what we want.

But when Jesus invites us to accept his yoke on our shoulders, he’s talking about the kind of yoke that is designed for two animals working together. When I looked up a basic definition of a yoke, I found that a yoke is a wooden beam normally used between a pair of oxen or other animals to enable them to pull together on a load when working in pairs, as oxen usually do.

The word “yoke” comes from the Proto-Indo-European noun “yugom” and the verb “yeug,” meaning “to join” or “to unite.” It doesn’t have to do with a burden that must be carried, but it’s main meaning has to do with two being united together for a common purpose. So in Jesus’ metaphor, Jesus isn’t the farmer who directs the heavy labour. Jesus is the other animal, the one who shares the burden, and the one who works together with us towards a common goal.

I don’t know much about farming, but I understand that there is more than one reason for yoking two oxen together to plough a field or carry a load. The obvious reason is that two working together can pull more weight. But the other reason is that younger oxen could be trained by yoking them to an ox that already “knew the ropes” so to speak.

If we respond to Jesus’ invitation, and allow ourselves to be yoked to him, we can learn from him too. We don’t need to think of ourselves as individual animals, struggling under heavy burdens, desperately trying, and failing, and trying again to live the way of love, and self-giving, and generosity that God requires of us.

When we try to do it on our own, we usually end up sounding like the Apostle Paul in today’s reading from Romans. Attempting to be good and follow God’s laws by his own strength, he lamented his inability to do what he knew was right: “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.” But as Paul turned his life over to Jesus Christ, allowing Christ to live within him and direct his ways, Jesus invites us to be yoked to Christ as well.

Many of you here today know exactly what that means. You accepted the yoke of Christ many years ago when you became a Christian, or when you made your own personal profession of the faith in which you were raised. At that time, you probably didn’t know what God had in store for you in your life – where you would live, what your vocation would be, whether you would marry, or have children, or travel, or change the world with your work. But you decided that whatever your future entailed, you would experience it as a follower of Jesus – as one who was yoked to Christ.

I am reminded of a Filipino wedding ritual that I encountered recently. It involves the bride and groom being bound together with a symbolic cord. As they make their vows to each other, they don’t know what lies ahead for them either. But they know that no matter what comes their way, they will encounter it as a couple – bound together in love and faithfulness. They commit themselves to stay together, to work together, to carry burdens together, and to enjoy the rest, and pleasure, and joys of life together as well.

Although they may have hearts in their eyes on the wedding day, most young women and men that I have had the pleasure of joining together in marriage have a pretty good idea of the kind of commitment that they are making. They are leaving behind other possibilities and other relationships to bind themselves to each other – to be yoked to each other. And they know that it will not always be easy, that it’s going to take a lot of work. But they also believe that by joining their lives together, by committing themselves to stay together, and by shouldering the burdens together, that everything will be better, easier, maybe even lighter.

But this isn’t a wedding sermon. And it doesn’t matter if you are married, or single, or widowed, or divorced. The message of the Gospel today is for every single one of us. It is Jesus’ invitation to us… It is Jesus’ proposal to us… that we bind our lives to his, that we commit ourselves to his purposes, that we stay so close to him that we learn from him what it means to be human beings living in the world God made, that we face every difficulty with his help, and take on every challenge with him right beside us sharing the load.

Today, whether it is for the first time, or for the thousandth time, we are invited to hear and to respond to Jesus’ invitation. Jesus 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.”