4th Sunday after Pentecost, July 6, 2014; Year A
Zechariah 9.9-12; Psalm 145.8-14; Romans 7.15-25a; Matthew 11.16-19, 25-30
Pastor Renee Splichal Larson
Grace to you and peace from the One who invites us to come to him, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
I heard the voice of Jesus say,
“Come unto me and rest;
lay down, O weary one, lay down
your head upon my breast.”
I came to Jesus as I was,
so weary, worn, and sad;
I found in him a resting-place,
and he has made me glad.
This first verse of the hymn, “I heard the voice of Jesus say,” names the invitation Jesus extends to all in our Gospel reading. The unique piece of the hymn is that there is a response to Jesus’ invitation to come to him and rest.
“I came to Jesus as I was…” says the hymn writer. Not as I think I should be, as I wish I was, not perfect and doing well, but as I was, the whole of me…mistakes, regrets, burdens…weary, worn, and sad. This person responds to Jesus’ invitation and finds a resting place in him and is given joy.
All over Scripture there are invitations from God to people…to you and me…to pray, worship, love, forgive, be merciful, respond, follow, come to the banquet, come to Jesus and find rest. We learn that not everyone responds positively to these gracious invitations from God.
We have a good example of this in our Gospel reading. Jesus likens himself to a flute player who plays a song of joy, one like at a wedding feast, and there are those around him who refuse to dance.
He is called a drunkard and a glutton as he demonstrates and lives out the wide embrace of who is included in the kingdom of God by eating and hanging out with those who are on the fringes of society. People like tax collectors, prostitutes, people with skin diseases, those who were homeless, foreigners, even women and children…people who are described as “sinners,” and not worth anyone’s time. Some people refused to accept that lowly people were included in the promises of God.
These seemingly unimportant people are the ones Jesus is referring to in his prayer as “infants,” people who are not so caught up in their own ability to save themselves and do life on their own that they reach their arms up to Christ and let him scoop them up into the loving embrace of God, sins and all.
There is something so comforting about Jesus words, “Come to me all you who are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest…” Whenever I have read this verse in a hospital room or next to a deathbed, I can see people’s bodies relax as if they give themselves permission to finally rest in the arms of Jesus.
These words of Jesus should do this to us. These are words meant for people who are tired and worn out from the burdens of life: from illness, loss, addiction, chronic pain, loneliness, depression, work, heartache, and death. Even children can feel weary; all of us can as we carry the yoke of life.
What Jesus offers first and foremost is himself. He then offers his own yoke and instruction. A yoke is an interesting word for Jesus to use. A yoke is essentially a wooden crosspiece that is fastened over the necks of two animals that are side by side and attached to a plow or cart that they are to pull. The wooden crossbar in the middle of a canoe is also called a yoke. A yoke is used for work, generally really hard work.
So what does Jesus mean when he invites us to take up his yoke that is easy and his burden that is light?
I went on a canoe trip to the boundary waters in Minnesota a few years ago with my sister and some cousins. My most vivid memory of the trip was the grueling one-mile portage within the first hour of starting. Our packs were at their heaviest and our canoes were aluminum, unbalanced, and over 80 pounds each.
The one-mile portage was one of the most physically demanding things I had ever done. All of us were fairly spread out as we carried our own weight by ourselves. I wanted to quit a few times, but didn’t and was the first to reach the end of the mile portage. I thought, Surely, I am carrying the most weight. I dropped what I was carrying and went back to see if I could help any of the others. When I saw them their faces were contorted with effort and beads of sweat ran down their faces. I realized that I was not carrying the heaviest load; everyone was struggling.
We learned from our one-mile death dealing portage and started to work in pairs to carry the weight of canoes and packs for our remaining land hikes. The work was still hard, but it was made so much easier with two people.
When Jesus describes his yoke as “easy” he means, “I will do the work of life with you.” It does not mean, “free pass through life without hardship.” It also does not mean kicking up my feet and chillin’. Easy as Jesus uses it, has the meaning of being useful and generous, being compassionate, and having a particular purpose. Yes, a yoke is meant for hard work, but because one is connected and fastened to another through the yoke, work is shared and made easier.
Jesus also says, “Learn from me.” The past few days I had the opportunity to build a deck. I was given the task to put up the railings of the deck, which was actually quite complicated because there was also a ramp leading up to it. I had no idea what to do. Just when I started to become quite frustrated a friend who lived next door came around the corner and said, “I love building railings! Would you like some help?”
“Lord, would I ever!” He just so happened to be a carpenter so the work went quickly and he taught me all the important angles that needed to be cut and every step that I surely would have missed. Learning from this friend made the work easier and fun. Jesus promises to teach us even when we don’t know what we are doing.
To better understand the yoke Jesus offers, it might be helpful for us to think about the yoke we already carry. What things in life are bearing down on your shoulders these days? What keeps you up at night? Perhaps its worry about something or someone. Maybe it’s wondering if you’ll ever get out of here. Perhaps it’s money or making a decision about your future. It could be the hard work of sobriety, or simply the 9-5 that pays the bills. We all carry a yoke of burdens and it can feel mighty heavy at times. So Jesus offers us his instead of the ones we insist on carrying or the ones that are unjustly placed upon us by others.
This yoke, this work Jesus offers us, is to forgive and be merciful, to not respond to violence with more violence, to speak out when one sees injustice, to give generously, and to work towards the day when no one will go to bed hungry. The yoke/work of Christ is to speak about the grace of God in one’s life, sharing with others that Jesus invites them to come to him when they are weary and carrying heavy burdens, that Jesus is in fact gentle and humble of heart.
These things are hard to do, and yet we are yoked to Christ who is right beside us making the work easier and teaching us as we go. Not only are we yoked to Jesus, but one another in this work, having a whole community of people in which to share the work, to carry the burdens of our lives, understanding that we are never to go through this life alone. One simple example of this are mentors or others in one’s life to walk with you and encourage you.
In life we can be overwhelmed with work we cannot do without God or the help of others. To come to Jesus when you are weary is to pray, “Jesus help me carry this yoke of grief because I cannot carry it myself.” Or, “Jesus, take this yoke of addiction I carry and give me your yoke of life, purpose, discipleship, and love.” Under the yoke of Christ, even living with burdens, you can still dance and find rest for your weary body and soul.
“Come to me all you who are weary and are carrying heavy burdens,” Jesus says, “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.” Matt. 11.28-30.