The Fifth Sunday after the Pentecost, Year A
[Texts: Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67; Psalm 45:10-17; Romans 7:15-25; Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30]
“The Yoke’s on Us”
Sunday, 09 July 2017
Please pray with me:
O Lord, take my lips and speak through them;
Take our minds and think through them;
Take our hearts and set them on fire with love for Thee. Amen.
I had a conversation last Sunday morning with a man whom I barely knew at all. He was a member of my parish, and I was good friends with his wife, but had only met him once before this exchange.
I knelt on the floor beside the pew where he was sitting, and we chatted for what was probably no more than ten minutes. I don’t even remember all of what was said—mainly just small talk, you know?
I do remember saying that I was looking forward to getting to know him better now that my fiancée and I had made the decision to join the parish that he and his wife attend. I told him, “I hope you and I will get to be friends. You seem pretty cool.”
“I’d like that,” he replied with a bit of a smile. “I know you mean so much to [my wife], and any friend of hers is a friend of mine.”
“Sounds good. We should definitely hang out sometime. I gotta go sing now, though,” I said, gesturing toward the choir loft, where my choir director was corralling her little flock of cassock-clad ducklings and handing out copies of “There is a Balm in Gilead”, which we were going to be singing that morning.
“Catch you later, Matt,” I said. “Y’all have a happy Fourth.”
“You too, Anna.”
Later that week—on Thursday—I ended up spending several hours at his house.
But I wasn’t there to hang out with Matt.
I had come—bearing a box of chocolate chip cookies, a Hallmark card, and a little pink mason jar full of flowers—to console his widow.
Early Wednesday morning, Matt had gone out for a jog. He collapsed on the sidewalk in front of his neighbor’s house and had a massive heart attack.
His death sent a shock wave of grief through the community—the faculty and students at the school where he taught, our parish, and most of all, his beloved wife, with whom he had celebrated his twenty-first wedding anniversary just a month earlier.
As I sat in the choir loft during his beautiful memorial service, I couldn’t help staring at that pew where he had been sitting just six days earlier, making small talk with me about his Fourth of July plans at his parents’ lake house. It had been less than a week, and here I was, at his funeral, choking back tears as I helped to sing him home.
He was forty-five years old.
Life is short. The time that we have with one another is precious. We never know when we might be seeing someone smile or hearing them say our name for the last time.
Jesus lived His life with a profound awareness that His time on Earth would be brief, and tried to impress on His disciples—many of whom would later be martyred—that they should do the same.
He taught them to preach, teach, heal, and evangelize. He instilled in them a willingness to suffer for their faith. He also taught them a lot—both by word and example—about relationships.
Today, we hear Jesus talking about relationships using an illustration that drew on His carpentry background.
You may recall that His stepfather, St. Joseph, was a carpenter by profession. So, around the time Jesus became a teenager, Joseph would have taken Him on as an apprentice. Since Jesus didn’t start His preaching ministry until roughly age thirty, I think it’s safe to say He definitely knew His way around His dad’s shop by then, having spent more than half His life learning the tricks of the trade.
First-century Nazareth wasn’t exactly a booming metropolis—it was kind of out in the boonies, really. Because of that, a lot of the people Jesus grew up around would have been farmers. Back then, before they invented all the heavy machinery we have now, farmers used draft animals like oxen to help them do necessary tasks on the farm.
In order to attach oxen to a plow or another piece of farm equipment, you need a yoke. A yoke is a large, heavy wooden implement shaped a bit like a sideways uppercase letter “B”. One yoke, or several of them, would be attached to a harness, which would then be anchored onto the plow. A farmer would need one yoke for every two oxen, plus plenty of spares in case one broke.
Living out in the country near so many farms, and being the stepson of the local carpenter, Jesus had probably helped make a ridiculous number of yokes by the time He began preaching—I’m sure it was one of the most common requests they got at the shop.
All that is to say, Jesus is speaking both theologically and as a carpenter when He says, “Come unto Me, all ye that labor and are heavy-laden, and I shall give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for My yoke is easy and My burden is light.”
You may know—particularly if you’re my age or a little bit older, and grew up with the Oregon Trail video games—that a yoke doesn’t just attach an ox to whatever it’s pulling. It attaches two oxen to each other, and to whatever they’re pulling.
This way, the farmer could guide them and keep them under control, but the full burden of the work wasn’t on just one ox—two of them (or sometimes a whole team of them) would share the burden by being yoked together, combining their strength and dividing the weight of the work between them.
A yoke enabled multiple oxen to do what would be impossible for one ox singlehandedly.
Think about that.
We live in a world that vastly over-emphasizes independence while grossly de-valuing compassion and community.
We tell children as young as two or three, “I’m so proud of you—you did it all by yourself!”
We grow up hearing self-sufficiency lauded as a virtue and admitting we need help denounced as a character flaw.
Then, when we encounter heavy, heavy burdens—grief, addiction, mental illness, disability, family turmoil, poverty, divorce, fear, and tough decisions, just to name a few—we hear that voice in the back of our head saying:
“Do it yourself.”
“Don’t bother anyone with this—they don’t want to hear it.”
“This is your problem.”
“You got yourself into this situation; you have to get yourself out of it.”
“You don’t need help.”
“Be an adult.”
“Figure it out.”
But in today’s Gospel lesson, we hear another voice, one with a very different message.
“Take My yoke upon you,” Jesus says to the crowd who had gathered to hear Him teach—and to us as well. “My yoke is easy, and My burden is light.”
The burdens we bear in this life aren’t always easy or light. Sometimes they are absolutely suffocating. Jesus does not promise a life free of burdens or difficulty.
And, no, unfortunately, being a Christian does not change that.
My friend—the one whose husband, Matt, just died of a heart attack last week—is probably the kindest, gentlest, and most sincerely Christlike person I have ever known, and yet she now finds herself suddenly, senselessly widowed at the age of forty-three.
Jesus once said that the rain falls and the sun shines on the righteous and the unrighteous alike, and that’s the truth.
What happens to us is not determined by our faith. The suffering we experience is not doled out based on whether or not we know the words to the Nicene Creed or can name all of the Apostles. Jewish, Muslim, Catholic, Protestant, atheist, Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster… it doesn’t matter.
Regardless of who we are or what we believe or how we live, sooner or later, most of us will find ourselves trembling under the weight of a load we cannot bear alone.
Life is short. Our bodies and our hearts are fragile. Our time on earth is sometimes painful—sometimes unimaginably painful. But none of the pain we absorb during our lives is ours to carry alone.
Just as we do not come to the table alone, we are not sent out into the world alone. Just as we kneel side by side to share in Christ’s death as we share the bread and the cup, we go forth side by side, yoked together, to proclaim with our words and our lives the truth of His resurrection.
And this is where our faith does matter—where Christ, the yoke-building Carpenter, does matter.
As Christians, not only do we have a harness that tethers us to God, allowing Him to guide and direct us like a farmer overseeing a team of oxen, we also have a yoke tethering us to one another, so that we might share the burdens and the labor and the weight of our mortal lives among all of us, making possible what would be impossible for any one of us.
One of my favorite hymns puts it like this:
Mortals, join the mighty chorus which the morning stars began.
God above is reigning o’er us; brother-love binds man to man.
Ever singing, march we onward, victors in the midst of strife;
Joyful music leads us Sunward in the triumph-song of life.
My brothers and sisters, we are bound to one another by the love of God and the fellowship which we are called to share as we bear our burdens here below. We are brought together at the rail to share, not only individually but collectively, in the Passion of Christ—the suffering of the One who died so that we might all one day rise with Him.
When we participate in the Mass, we participate in that unthinkable agony, knowing that one day, we will participate in the unthinkable joy of the resurrection, and of eternal life, never to be separated from God or one another again.
We confess by our presence with one another at the table that as we bear one another’s burdens together here during our time on Earth, we will be raised together—with my friend Matt and with all God’s faithful people—on the last day, and will share in that new Heaven and new Earth where sorrow and tears will be no more.
Until then, we are told, “The Body and Blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ keep you in everlasting life.”
And to that, we say, “Amen.”