So How Easy is Jesus’ Yoke Really?

A sermon given by Rev. Dr. Peter A. Luckey on Sunday, July 9, 2017

Has there ever been a time in your life when you felt you were carrying a heavy burden? You felt the weight of the world on your shoulders. Worries, expectations of other people, and perhaps some expectations that you had imposed upon yourselves. Perhaps grief and the weight of grief, or it could be the weight of guilt, of something that happened a long time ago and yet you carry it with you like a ball and chain. You can’t let it go. But all this weight presses on you, it’s a pressure on your chest and you find it hard to breathe. You feel this weight that you’re carrying and it feels like you’re carrying it for a long time. Some of you remember the Beatles’ album, Abbey Road, Paul McCartney. Boy, you’re gonna carry this weight, carry it a long time. Boy you gotta carry this weight, carry it a long time. And maybe as you heard that and thought about the weight that you carry, you thought, if I could just breathe and just breathe out and relax, that some of the weight would be lifted. Maybe you thought, if I could just let go, just let it go and let it be taken from me.

Okay, this is kind of a trigger warning: have I told you about my granddaughter lately? Daughters? So you’re not going to hear any granddaughter stories until the middle of August but this actually fits with the sermon. Juniper and Violet were over at the house the other day and one of Juniper’s favorite movies is the movie Frozen, the Disney computer animated film. There’s a woman named Elsa in this movie and Juniper thinks she’s now Elsa. So I woke up the other morning and Juniper is going around the house singing, “Let it go, let it go,” and it was phenomenal, she was giving all her lungs to it. And the other thing is, she was singing off-key, and I thought, this is a girl after my own heart! So I thought it was a message to me. She’s preaching to her grandpa, she’s telling her grandpa to let it go, let it go, let it go! Those words that Elise just read to us a few moments ago, those words have spoken to people carrying burdens for hundreds and hundreds of years and they’ve found comfort in those words, “Take my yoke and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart. And you will find rest for your soul. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” Just hearing those words, rest easy, light, we can feel ourselves relaxing, feel ourselves lightening with those words.

Have you ever thought about the fact that so many people are carrying burdens and we have no idea what those burdens are? It may be people right here in our congregation this morning—the person ahead of you or the one behind you or next to you. He’s carrying a huge load and we don’t know what it is. But sometimes people are like Sherpas trudging up Mt. Everest with stoic faces and those backpacks that are grinding into our shoulders. Some of those burdens are burdens that willy-nilly come to us and we have no choice but to carry them, but would you grant to me that some of the burdens are self-imposed, they’re burdens that we have placed upon our shoulders ourselves, burdens, like feeling that we need to be perfect and that we are trying to attain some unattainable level of perfection and we’ve got to carry all this weight ourselves. We’ve imposed these expectations upon ourselves and we’re carrying all this weight and there’s a voice inside our brains that says you should and you ought and you must and every time we hear those words the burden gets a little heavier, heavier, heavier. We feel weighed down. You know we are our own worst tyrants. We’re tyrants to ourselves. And sometimes the burden gets so heavy that it’s like something’s going to snap. It’s going to break.

A while ago I received a call from the wife of a good friend of mine. She called and said, “Peter, Bill is in the ER. He tried to take his life. Will you come?” And of course as a pastor I said I would. I went over to the emergency room to visit with Bill and he was okay. He was sitting up on the bed. I knew he was going to be alright. I knew he was going to make it. But he looked at me and he said, “Peter, you know, I just got to the point in my life where everything was just so overwhelming. I’m trying to be a dad, I’m trying to provide for my family, I’m trying to be a good husband, and I just couldn’t handle it anymore.” We were there with Bill and Bill’s mom and Bill’s wife and so a little circle of love was surrounding him and telling him, “We love you. It’s okay.” Bill was feeling that somehow he couldn’t live up to his parents’ expectations and his mom looked Bill in the eye and said, “Bill, your dad and I didn’t live a perfect life. We made all kinds of mistakes. We failed a whole bunch of times.”

The good news is that Bill was doing fine. He got through that episode. But it reminds us of the weight that people carry that often we don’t know about and the expectations we place upon ourselves, and sometimes for folks it gets to be just too, too much. And I thought again about those lyrics from Abbey Road and I could hear Paul McCartney singing, “Boy, you’re gonna carry that weight, carry that weight a long time.”

I was in Baltimore this last week, Eleanore was in Baltimore. We were at the United Church of Christ General Synod. And one of the fun things I love about going to a new city is you get to meet all kinds of new folks in a very different environment. And Falabo, I’m looking at you because the cabbie was from Nigeria and he picked me up and he said, “Where are you going?” I said, “I’m going to the conference at the Baltimore Convention Center.” He said, “What’s the conference for?” And I said, “It’s for a church meeting.” And he said, “That’s GREAT! People need to talk more to God.” I really enjoyed this cab driver. We were talking and he said, “Why is it people don’t turn to God? Because God wants us to lessen the burden, to make the yoke easy and the burden light. Why don’t people turn to God?” There was a part of me that heard that and I thought, that’s really a good point. Why is it that people don’t turn to God more in their lives with that promise? But there was another part of me that said to myself, yeah, but how is taking on the yoke of Christ easy, and how is this burden light? Just how does that make sense? I was chewing on that text as maybe you are too, and wondering, it sounds good but is it really true? I mean, after all, Jesus carried a cross up the hill at Golgotha, Calvary, and we know what happened to him. How is it possibly that taking on the yoke of Christ is easy or that the burden is going to be light? I don’t understand because isn’t Christ telling us to pick up his cross and to follow him? Isn’t it the case that Christ is saying to come and enter into the pain of the world, the suffering of the world? And he is, so how is that burden at all easy or light? How is it that way? I thought of many of you in our congregation that are reaching out to people that are in pain and suffering and sometimes reaching out to people it seems that their own self-destructive behavior keeps going again and again and again and repeating itself and you put out so much again and again for other people and it feels like nothing ever gets better. You wonder how is this burden easy and how is this yoke light? And how is it for some of us that have engaged in trying to make a difference in the world and Elise, I think of the work that you’re doing with Planned Parenthood, day in and day out, out there on the front line and you’re standing up for justice and you’re wanting the world to be in a better place. You’re fighting global climate change because the earth is heating up or you’re standing up for and with people that are marginalized and fighting racism in our country, standing up on behalf of the immigrants and the marginalized and the forgotten and the disabled and the ill. How is that not a heavy burden? Do you suppose it was a heavy burden for Dr. Martin Luther King when the phone would ring in his house and he’d pick up the phone and somebody at the other end would issue a death threat to him and his family? Do you suppose that Dr. King that night might have questioned Jesus’ words: my yoke is easy and my burden is light?

So how can this be that the yoke is easy and the burden is light? How do we make sense of this? It sounds good, so gentle, so soothing, but is it really true? Just for a minute let’s talk about the audience that Jesus was speaking to—this is 2000 years ago—those people gathered around listening to Jesus speak and he’s talking to people that have been exploited economically, he’s talking to people that have been religiously oppressed by the rules and regulations of religion. We know this because the very next verse after Matthew 11:30 begins in chapter 12, where the Pharisees and Scribes are challenging the disciples because what are they doing? They’re picking up grain on the Sabbath because they’re hungry. And they’re chastised by the Pharisees and Scribes for violating the principle of the Sabbath. And what had happened, of course, is that people were no longer concerned about the spirit of the law, but were slavish to the letter of the law. People were serving the law and not law serving the people. And it had come to a situation where the law was being used to oppress people, to keep them down, to judge them and exclude them and decide who’s in and who’s out. It became a burden like a yoke, chafing. You feel it on your shoulders. Jesus said, “No, but my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” Jesus came to proclaim not a way based upon the law of judgement, but came to proclaim a way based upon race which is liberation and freedom, grounded in love.

So it meant that to people long ago that the law was a burden to be lifted. What does it mean to us today? The yoke is a metaphor that would have been readily understood in the Old Testament times. They would have seen oxen that were yoked by this wooden yoke frame that yoked them and tethered them to a cart and to their work, to what they were carrying. The people of the day would have understood that the yoke is a metaphor for servitude, for obedience, so they would have understood that yoke metaphor. But what does it mean to us today? The yoke is easy and the burden is light. Well, maybe we’re not under the oppression of religious law the way people were 2000 years ago, but are there ways still today that we live with bondage, that we live in servitude, that we live pushed down in bondage? I’d say the answer is yes. It may be materialism, it may be our own expectations of ourselves and all the messages that we get from one another in this society that continue to press upon our shoulders in a weighty way. And it may be partly ourselves that we are just so darn committed to trying to solve everything and carry everything on our shoulders by ourselves that we never think of turning to Christ and realizing that there could be a partnership and that the load could be shared with another power other than ourselves. There’s something else about the yoke that’s really important. When you think of a yoke and you think of two oxen underneath the yoke, what comes to you is the yoke is not only that you’re carrying a burden but that you’re yoked with something else, that you’re yoked with another power, that you’re yoked with a partner, and so we’re not all by ourselves in this yoke, but we actually are yoked with another. What a difference that makes. And the yoke is the spirit, the yoke is God, the yoke is the yoke of Christ that goes with us. So when you walk into a hospital room and somebody is sick or suffering and dying, you’re not carrying that yoke by yourself but Christ is with you. And when you, Elise, are on the front lines, you’re not just carrying that yoke by yourself, but God is with you, the Spirit is with you. You can draw strength from that and know that you’re not alone and that we’re all part of God’s work. We’re co-participants with God in the healing of this world. We can’t do it without the other. God can’t do it without us and we can’t do it without God.

So here’s the point of this whole thing. Are the burdens that we carry heavy? Yeah. Is the yoke sometimes not all that light? Yes. It’s always been that way and will always be that way. But here’s the thing. Before we were doing it all by ourselves and now we’re not doing it by ourselves anymore. We’re doing it with Christ and we’re doing it with one another. We’ve got each other and no matter what it is, and no matter how difficult it is we know we’re not alone, but there’s a power that we draw upon that gives us strength and courage. I think that cab driver from Nigeria knew a thing or two about God. Of course it’s a good thing to turn to God, because God wants to make it easier for you, God wants to make it lighter for you. And I like to think and believe that my dear friend Bill in the emergency room heard that message, heard the message that he doesn’t have to carry this weight all by himself. He can turn it over to God, to a community of people that love and care about him. What a difference that makes. And that he heard the words of the Gospel, “Take my yoke upon you. Learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly of heart and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden light.” You can trust that, believe that. We will find life in his name. Amen.

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