I can’t read or hear this passage without the beautiful music of Handel’s Messiah ringing in my ears. “His yoke is easy. Is easy. His burden is light.” It is set to light, tripping melodies, kind of at odds with the words—yoke and burden. And especially since Jesus says in our lesson today those familiar words “Come to me, all you who are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.”
And we say, yes, Yes Jesus—please. We are weary, weary in body, weary in mind, weary in spirit. We want to be able to go back to what was normal, what does require so much energy to innovate and accommodate. We are sick and tired of being sick and tired. Rest sounds good. Thank you, for giving us rest.”
But then the next sentences are about yokes and burdens. I thought Jesus was going to remove that heavy, clumsy thing called a yoke from our necks, so we could run free! I thought Jesus was going to take away our burdens, eliminate all fetters. What is he talking about with putting on his yoke? How could that possibly become light? How could that possibly bring rest? And what are “easy” yokes, or “light” burdens anyway?
Most Sundays, I wear a stole. A colorful cloth that drapes over my neck, and symbolizes, for me, the weight of being used by God to try to speak God’s word in this time, and as a reminder of my tie to all around me as I sing, as I lift up prayers, as I break bread and drink from the cup. A stole is a symbolic yoke, for we as leaders have been tasked with carrying people’s joys and sorrows, people’s deep secrets and lofty dreams, maybe most especially, people’s burdens. And I have to admit that sometimes it seems a bit much. Sometimes, I wonder what Jesus was talking about with this easy and light language.
As we have read through this part of the gospel of Matthew in the last few weeks, I don’t see much that is easy or light. Jesus is giving a pep talk to the disciples as he sends them out. Remember, Jesus even says that he is sending them out like sheep among wolves. What is easy and light about that? This is deadly serious business. And although these disciples come back to the fold, in the years after Jesus’ death, disciples sent out into the world were not always so lucky. Just read the gruesome accounts of the lives of the martyrs and you will quickly come to the realization that being sent out into the world in the name of Jesus often comes at a price.
Now for those of us who live in this country that has enshrined a right to worship freely in our founding documents, we might not think of our faith as a burden, as having a price. But I think the rising consciousness of the way our country can disadvantage some people is a burden that faithful people disregard to their peril. I think the health imperative to protect others, especially the most vulnerable of us, during a pandemic is a burden that we should gladly pick up. I think the new ways that church has to be, and the energy, intelligence, imagination, and love that that requires is a burden that we are only now beginning to feel the weight of.
In other words, I think Jesus knows that following him adds burdens to our lives. Because following him: trying to be prophets against any culture that is unjust; trying to be ever more “right” with God and with others; trying to do what we can, giving drink, giving food, giving hope, giving love—all this is more work, and asks more of us. Jesus, better than any of us, understands—following God and working to bring in God’s kingdom here and now is a burden. But I think Jesus would have stood up and applauded John Kennedy’s words about going to the moon, “We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard …”
In other words, “shoot for the moon,” dream big, work on projects that have meaning, don’t sell yourself or God short. We are called to do impossible things, to carry heavy burdens, not because Jesus wants to weigh us down, but because that is how God operates in our world.
As I was struggling with this imagery this week, I realized that I had been thinking about yokes backwards. You see, when I think about yokes, I think about oxen—those heavy, plodding creatures that look so sad. Yokes are used to harness their power. And maybe that is where I get my bristling about being yoked, it can feel like being treated like an animal. Why would Jesus want to “yoke” us? Why pin us down with a heavy object? Wouldn’t we get farther if we didn’t have to carry so much baggage?
And here is where I needed to change my image. Imagine when you say yoke, not a pair of oxen, but a milkmaid. For some yokes were created to help make things easier. Consider if you want to carry two heavy buckets (of water, of milk, of vegetables, or anything else). If you try to lift the buckets just with your arms, they are strain. But with a yoke, a pole transfers the weight along your back, a wider area. This yoke, this carrying pole, eases the load. In addition, as I read about how this “yoke” is still used in East Asian countries, it is more convenient than a cart. People from a single village, can pack up their wares in their baskets and take a single transport from the village to the market—where they then disperse to their selling places. It is easier to maneuver in crowded spaces. These carrying poles are even allowed to board city buses!
It became clear to me that this yoke, this carrying pole, was a way to make lifting heavy burdens easier. “My yoke is easy and my burden is light.” I was focusing on the heavy burden, rather than the equipment that might make carrying the heavy burden easier.
In addition, carrying poles don’t have to be just for an individual. Two people can carry a heavy load between them. And you notice that the image of oxen is most often of a pair—two is better than one. So it makes so much sense for Jesus to call us to Come to him. And for us to band together. If we share our burdens, with Jesus, with each other, they become lighter—physically, and emotionally.
That’s what I see in the gathering crowds of people who are willing to march in the streets and post things online and speak out in conversations about what equality means, how privilege needs to be dismantled, who we really are as Americans. On this 4th of July weekend, let us remember those brave, flawed people so long ago who dreamed of a land where you could have the right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Now we know it is a journey towards that goal, and it has taken far too long, and cost us far too many lives. But each generation that has been willing to stand up for what is right, to call us to a “more perfect union,” to insist on a more just society, hasn’t seen that struggle as a burden, but as a calling. And as there are more people to take up the charge, as there is more listening and understanding, maybe it does become a little easier, a little lighter. As the Hollies sang, “The road is long, With many a winding turn, That leads us to who knows where, But I’m strong, Strong enough to carry him, He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother.”
As we face these trying times; as we reimagine our lives, our church, our nation; as we join our faithful brothers and sisters throughout the generations who have picked up the heavy burdens of the world; may we remember Jesus’ words. Come to me. Stick together. Make a way to share the load. I know I am asking a lot of you. But I believe that you can do it, you can participate in building the kingdom of God, brick by brick. But remember—I’m not asking you to be the Lone Ranger; I am asking you to yoke yourself to God and to others around you. Together makes it easier. Shared burdens can even be a joy.
“Grant us wisdom, grant us courage, for the facing of this hour—for the facing of this hour.” Alleluia, Amen.