“Lay Your Burdens Down: If the Yoke Fits”
Rev. Caroline Lawson Dean
July 9th 2017
A reading from the extra-canonical book of Sirach Chapter 6: about being “yoked” – bound together with wisdom & not letting her go.
“Come to wisdom with all your soul and keep her ways with all your might. Search out and seek, and she will become known to you; and when you get hold of her, do not let her go. For at last you will find the rest she gives, and she will be changed into joy for you.
Then her fetters will become for you a strong defense, her collar a glorious robe. Her yoke a golden ornament, and her bonds a purple cord.”
And a re-cap from Matthew Chapter 11: Jesus says, “Come unto me, all you who are weary and carrying heavy burdens and I will give you rest. Take my yoke, and learn from me; I am gentle and humble in heart, & you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy & my burden is light.”
Let us pray: God of love, draw us near, especially when we are weary. Give us wisdom, inspiration, & connection – that we might go out renewed in hope & joy we pray – Amen.
What is Jesus’ job description? How does the Son of God measure success? After Jesus rose from death and ascended into eternal connection – I had this funny image this week of Jesus, in a suit and tie at a round table, reviewing with the Triune God all of the accomplishments from his earthly mission – think of it as Jesus’ C.V. of sorts – “baptized, tempted, thousands healed, walked a lot, (including on water), multiplied bread & fish, water into wine, gifted in teaching, changed the course of history (including how we account for time), calmed storms, challenged powers, lifted the powerless, crucified, rose from the dead, and perhaps my most favorite, learned to fish from the best local fishermen, & gained mediocre skills in carpentry.”
When we transport Jesus into our land of resumes, to do lists, successes & failures, this is of course laughable. Isn’t Jesus supposed to be so spiritually “zen” that he doesn’t get caught up in games of success – all the ways that we define ourselves by what we do – our output - what level of success we achieve…
This summer we are talking about vocation, our work, our soul’s calling. What was Jesus’ soul work? And on the flip side what does he mean when he says “come to me & I will give you rest for your soul?” Is “soul rest” the same thing as getting enough sleep / down time? As someone who is about to embark on a season of sleep deprivation in a few months - I hope not!
In both the book of Sirach, a Wisdom text from the Catholic tradition, and in the Gospel of Matthew, we find these paradoxical images of bondage & freedom, heavy work & rest, servitude & joy. Both passages use the image of a “yoke.” Jesus says, “Come all you who are weary and I will give you rest, take my yoke, for it is easy, good and light.” Jesus must have read the text from Sirach, which reads “when you find wisdom & come to her with your whole soul” without letting go, you will find the rest that she gives, she will be changed into joy for you. Wisdom’s yoke will become a golden ornament.
And so here’s my question. If I am carrying a heavy burden a long distance, imagine an oxen plowing or pulling a cart, and I come to Jesus, weary and exhausted – mostly what I want is for Jesus, or someone else to carry my yoke for a while. I want to be “yokeless,” to take a break and a probably nap. But this isn’t what Jesus offers. He says, “come unto me if you are weary and I will give you my yoke, which is light, and good and easy. He says lay your burdens down and pick up this kind of work.
So my question is what’s wrong with the yoke that I was carrying? Why is Jesus’ yoke so much “lighter?” And to top it off – how can pulling any load be restful? Jesus says just a few chapters earlier that we should “take up our cross and follow him” – that doesn’t sound like a light or easy task. Jesus says that the path he walks will be narrow and difficult (7:14). So which is it, Jesus? Easy or difficult?
What is soulful rest? What might Jesus’ yoke look like?
Jan Richardson writes on her blog Painted Prayerbook, that she always imagined a “single-yoke” user when she read this passage. But that when she googled images of “a yoke” it was actually more true that most images of portray a tandem yoke – a curved wooden bar that connects two oxen enabling them to pull together. (http://paintedprayerbook.com/2008/07/02/if-the-yoke-fits/).
So Jesus is saying “Hey, are you tired & weary? Come pull with me!” Richardson writes that Jesus’ “yoke (is) not for servitude, or bondage, but a tool of connection, a way of being in relationship with Christ (and with each other) that makes our work easier, not more difficult.” And isn’t it true that no matter the task, it is draining when we believe the lie that we are all alone? That no one has our back. We feel unseen, that this boulder must be pushed uphill and it is on our shoulders alone.
I love this image of the tandem yoke, because it also means that you get to take a break - letting your partner or your community pull for you! The best preachers, prophets & activists I know avoid burn out by pulling together in community. The other power in a tandem yoke is that you have a wider set of gifts and perspectives, to guide you.
And so what is soulful rest? It is doing our “soul work” in community, in tandem – so that we divide up the load. Jesus’ load is light because when we pull with Jesus we are not alone.
Secondly, the Matthew 11 passage opens with Jesus’ frustration. He calls out folks who are judgmental of John the Baptist’s ministry because he ate locusts, lived in the wilderness, was a bit of a hermit. His critics explained his counter cultural lifestyle saying that he had a “demon.” Jesus on the other hand lived among the people. All kinds of people. He ate and drank with the outcasts. And those same critics said of Jesus’ ministry ‘Look a glutton, a drunkard a friend of tax collectors & sinners!” Jesus & John the Baptist are both held to some arbitrary standard of external behavior or output. This is what people often hate about Christianity – being held accountable to a list of codes or behaviors that really don’t actually determine our worth or how we impact the world for the better.
What if we have gotten used to the critics whispering in our ear – demanding that our worth is connected to external behaviors and arbitrary standards of “success?” What if Jesus’ life and ministry actually proposes an alternative way? What if soulful rest is the opposite of the mantra that we internalize: “Our worth is dependent upon what we accomplish, or how much money we make.” We so often believe the lie: “I am what I do”
And what if Jesus, Buddha, and the prophet, all of our modern spiritual leaders are trying to teach us instead that soulful rest is in the art of BEING. This is again why Jesus bragging about his “CV” is so ridiculous, he didn’t heal people as some sort of mandate to prove his ministry, he healed outcasts and sought relationships with misfit disciples because he was so brilliant at staying present in the moment, able to stop and see the unseen.
So what if our yoke is indeed lighter and our rest more soulful when we are able to be in the present, here and now – not working towards an expected end or producing some sort of symbol of our worth. When we are able to be present, the doing and the undone simply doesn’t rule us as much. When we are still with God, we remember that our worth is already set, we do not have to hustle to prove it. God whispers to us – “You are a child of God – called by name.” “You are mine, your worth is already set.”
The third image of soulful work & rest comes from Baltimore last weekend, at our national meeting of our denomination, the United Church of Christ. One of the keynote speakers was Aaron Mair, the former & first black president of the Sierra Club.
Mair led a decade-long battle to shut down a solid waste incinerator in his community in inner-city Albany, New York. In the early days, Mair appeared before the Sierra Club Board to advocate for them to support his community’s activism. After his presentation one person on the board paused & asked if Mair had appealed for help from the NAACP. As if white environmentalists were charged with caring for their land & black communities would have to organize on their own. Or worse, as if communities of color are responsible for the environmental degradation in their neighborhoods (which ignores decades of data proving that poor communities & communities of color have unfair exposure to environmental hazards). In fact racism is more important than class in this case in that “middle income African Americans are more likely to live in more polluted neighborhoods” than white middle income folks (Dr. Robert Bullard, Dean of Texas Southern University).
Needless to say, the board declined Mair’s request for help. But the next day, one of the members of the board, showed up at his house, to apologize, and to offer his time, and skills in environmental activism. Aaron told this ally & new friend that he would receive his support. And in return Mair would one day offer help to the Sierra club transform their culture, and help them gain sensitivity towards communities of color.
After a decade of hard work, Aaron Mair personally won a settlement of 1.6 million dollars. He describes this as a moment of decision, a choice between success & impact. He could have used the funds to further his career – to shore up his family & his future. Or he could use the funds to maximize the impact in his community – who lent him their stories of suffering. Anchored in the transformative justice work of Jesus & Dr. King, Mair decided to donate the entire settlement back to his community.
So what is the difference between success & impact? How is impactful work actually restful? You know those people who seem to be at rest in their souls & the rest of us who waver, we search endlessly it seems for an arbitrary feeling that we have “made it.” When you are transforming the world, your soul has a sense of integrity. Mair is one of the people who has the courage (at least every now and again) to listen when Jesus whispers “Come here! Take up this kind of yoke!” Change the world.
So this is the hard part, Jesus comes to us and says, “put down your yoke and find rest!” And the truth is that Jesus is right! This is simultaneously hard work, – and at the same time it makes our way lighter, more meaningful. And the other truth is that we inevitably flow in and out of “being” and “doing,” dreaming of impact and hustling for success, hyper individualism & healthy interdependence. Still God beckons us, saying “beloved, your worth is already set, don’t do more, don’t pull alone. Pull with me. Pull together. Be present. Make an impact. Try on this new yoke! See how it fits! Come and rest with me.” Amen.
And as our closing prayer, I’d like to offer us some silence and a few moments to meditate on a prayer from the New Zealand Prayerbook:
As we journey
The Spirit of God be our guard,
To lead us to peace,
It is but lost labor that we haste to rise up early, and so late take rest, and eat the bread of anxiety.
For those beloved of God are given gifts even while they sleep.
Living God, in whom we live and breath and have our being,
all that we are, have been, and shall be is known to you,
to the very secret of our hearts and all that rises to trouble us.
Into your hands, O God, we commend our spirit,
(or fill in the blank - with the thing that you need to commend to God).
For your have redeemed us,
Keep us, O God, as the apple of your eye;
Hide us under the shadow of your wings.
Preserve us, O God, while waking, and give us rest
That awake we may keep watch with Christ, and asleep we may rest in your peace.
Let us be still in the presence of God.
Even after the long day.
What has been done has been done;
And what has not been done had not been done;
Let it be.
Let the quietness of your peace enfold us,
All dear to us, and all who have no peace.
Let us look expectantly to a new day,
God of love and mercy, grant us, with all your people, rest and peace, we pray