“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” These words from Jesus are familiar, comforting words. In Rite I, we often hear this passage quoted immediately after the confession. They seem to offer a word of peace to us, who so often feel weary from life’s stresses, anxieties, and pains. And, when we are suffering, these words can certainly be a tender word of encouragement and promise for us.
But these words today from Jesus offer so much more to us. Jesus offers these words in the context of commissioning disciples. Jesus has described the way of discipleship in the gospel of Matthew; discipleship means serving the poor, working for justice, and striving for peace. This work will be long and hard; this work will be work that will make the disciples weary. But to those willing to take on the work of discipleship, Jesus offers these words of comfort. And then Jesus explains how this work of discipleship can be accomplished, “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.”
Now I do not know how much you know about yokes, but I have been learning a lot about them this week. There are two kinds of yokes. There are the kinds meant for one person: imagine if you will the person hauling water from a well in the village, the yoke over her shoulders, while two buckets full of water hang below. Although the yoke distributes the weight, the yoke is not necessarily easy. The other type of yoke is a yoke for two animals. Two oxen work together, making the workload easier. If one ox is tired, the other pushes a little harder; later the roles reverse. When constructed properly, a yoke for two is built to balance the work between two animals – the yoke does not chafe or rub. A good yoke does make the work easier and light.
This is the metaphor that Jesus uses for the work of discipleship.[i] When Jesus invites the disciples into the work of discipleship, he admits that the work will be difficult – but when yoked to Jesus, the work feels light. When they fashion their steps in the steps of Jesus, they find that the suffering they face seems light. Fighting for the poor, struggling for justice, striving for peace feels easier when yoked to Christ. So often, when we are doing this work of discipleship, we forget this promise. We think that we need to solve the world’s problems on our own, and we feel overwhelmed.[ii] The “Study, Sup, and Serve” group has been talking about the issue of hunger the last couple of weeks. As we learn more and more about how complicated hunger is – how hunger is not simply solved by giving someone food – we have all felt a bit overwhelmed. Where do we begin? How do we keep from being paralyzed by the weight of the work? The problem of hunger seems impossible to solve. But with Jesus yoked to us, we are promised that the yoke of alleviating hunger will be easy – the burden will be light.
On Friday, at our first edition of “Movies with Margaret,” we watched The Blind Side. The movie is about an affluent white family in the south who encounter a poor, homeless, inner-city African-American boy named Michael. They take him into their home, and all of their lives are transformed. In the movie, the mother of the family, Leigh Ann, is challenged by some of her affluent friends who worry about the safety of her children with this boy around. One friend concludes, “Well, you are changing that boy’s life.” Leigh Ann insists, “No, you’re wrong. He’s changing mine.” Leigh Ann could have ignored Michael when she noticed that he was cold and homeless. We have all made hundreds of excuses about why we cannot help this person or that person. She could have only allowed him to stay in her home one night, having certainly fulfilled her Christian duty to shelter the homeless. But she does not. She keeps letting him stay. She buys him clothes. She helps him get academic help. She builds his self-esteem. And even though she takes on this very risky proposition – because Michael could have been violent, he could have stolen from her, he could have ruined her reputation in the community – even though she takes on this work, the work does not feel burdensome. In fact, her helping Michael makes her happy. The yoke is easy – the burden is light.
St. Francis, who we honor today, came to know Jesus’ burden as light as well. Francis came from a very wealthy family. He had a joyous youth, marked by revelry and social honor. But once he encountered beggars and lepers, he suddenly gave up this way of life. He renounced his privilege, and assumed a life of poverty, honoring the poor, the sick, and the disenfranchised. By stripping himself of earthly wealth, which had become its own burden of sorts, Francis took on a new burden: the burden of discipleship in Christ. Francis began to see Christ in everyone – honoring the poor by living in poverty, caring for those less fortunate through the alms he collected, and by loving God’s creation by engaging that creation – whether by preaching to birds or negotiating peace between animals and humans. Francis saw the bigger picture of God’s creation, and he was a faithful steward of that created order. Through his work, he found great joy in the companions on the journey. The yoke was easy – the burden was light.
The invitation of our gospel lesson is not simply a word of comfort – an invitation to curl up next to Jesus and hide from the world of pain and suffering. The invitation from our gospel lesson today is to find comfort in the work of discipleship, of following Jesus. Whatever the work might be – whether the work is alleviating hunger in our communities, caring for the poor and disenfranchised, or even sharing the Good News of Christ with a total stranger – the work will not be burdensome.
The first time I went on a mission trip was in college. My mother was visiting during parents’ weekend, and the campus ministers had a meeting for parents to ease their concerns about us staying in a rural village in Honduras. I remember my mom embarrassing me with questions about where we would go to the bathroom and whether we would be able to shower. To her credit, I am not really a camper, and am pretty wigged out by bugs and filth. But to both of our surprises, I found the trip was liberating. When I travel on a mission trip, a different version of myself emerges. I do not worry about my hair or makeup. I seem to manage all manner of toilets – even if the toilet is a hole in the ground. I seem to roll with whatever bugs I catch – and yes, I have caught everything from stomach bugs, sinus infections, and worms. I morph into a person who does not need the comforts of this life. The burden of being in a foreign and uncomfortable place rarely feels like a burden. The joys that come from doing that work far outweigh the weight of the work. That yoke of mission is fashioned so comfortably, and Jesus walks with me so steadily by my side in the yoke, that the yoke is easy – the burden is light.
This is the promise that Jesus offers today. When we are wearied by trying to affect change for the poor and hungry, or even when we cannot get over the hump of inaction, Jesus promises us a yoke that is perfectly fashioned for us, and in which he will be our yoked partner. Jesus yokes himself to us because we need him – for comfort, for encouragement, for strength. But Jesus also needs us – to be his hands and feet in the world. We do the work together. In fact, the work will feel unlike work at all. Because the yoke is easy – the burden is light. Amen.
[i] Douglas R. A. Hare, Matthew, Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1993), 129.
[ii] Barbara Brown Taylor, The Seeds of Heaven: Sermons on the Gospel of Matthew (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), 21.