Preached at All Saints, Collingwood, Anglican Diocese of Toronto, 9 July 2023
Readings for the Sixth Sunday After Pentecost, Genesis 24:34-38,42-49,58-67; Psalm 45:10-17; Romans 7:15-25a; Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30
28 “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. 29 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. 30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
Let’s say you were given the opportunity to create a new sign for this church. The sign has room for a catchy phrase, something that will get people’s intention? What would you put on the sign?
Would you want something sharp and attention getting, like the sign along Hwy 26 near Elmvale that says “TIME TO COME TO THE LORD?” Or maybe a scripture verse, something well known like John 3.16, “For God so loved the world, etc”?
Well, I once had to make this very decision. I was responsible for the chapel of a small military base out West, and I got a call from the Base Maintenance office to say that they wanted to replace the old sign on the front lawn with a new one. “What do you want on your sign, Padre?’, they asked me.
I thought long and hard about what sort of sign might attract the many young soldiers passing through the base, many far from home, tired and stressed after long wargames out on the prairie. The verse that kept coming to mind was from today’s gospel, Matthew 11:28: “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” That verse beautifully captured the sense of welcome and peacefulness that I wanted the chapel to offer to its visitors.
It may not surprise you to learn that the following verses, 11:29-30, did NOT make it onto my sign. For one thing, there wasn’t enough room, but even if there had been room, I wanted to avoid the two mentions of “yoke” and the word “burden”. Neither word seemed to offer the right sort of invitation to someone who’s been sweating for weeks at a time under a heavy pack and helmet.
I confess that I was playing a bit of a marketing game. At some point, if people come into a church and hang around long enough, they’re going to hear Jesus make demands on them. Ask people what they want, and they’ll likely tell you, they want to be free to make their own decisions. When the idea of the good life, to quote the old Eagles song, is to be “running down the road, trying to loosen my load”, who really wants to be yoked or burdened?
The late American preacher Timothy Keller said of passages that we can get a sugar high if just read the bits we like and ignore the larger picture. So it is with Mt 11.28. Rest! Who doesn’t want rest? Rest is good. The problem, though, Keller says, is that we don’t want to ask, “rest from what”? Do we even know the burden that Jesus is asking us to lay down? Do we even know why we’re weary?
Weariness can have many causes; one might be physically weary, either from infirmity, age, or stress. We might be spiritually weary from pursuing life goals and ambitions that have turned out to be costly, empty and dissatisfying. We may be weary from the demands of our egos to meet some impossible standard, or from the crushing feeling that we haven’t met others’ (or our own) expectations.
One of the insights that Keller has, I think, is that Jesus says “my yoke is easy, and my burden is light. Jesus is talking about the relief that relationship with him offers as opposed to the burden of what we’ve already attached ourselves to. It’s not that we were like wild horses, happy and untamed before religion came along to tame us. That’s a spiritual myth. No, the truth of it is that ever since we started to become adults we were already broken in, loaded down, and pulling something. That’s what yokes are, large beams or collars that attach one of more creatures to something that they must drag forward.
If you listen to Keller’s sermon on this passage, his attempt to explain a yoke his urbane, New York City congregation is pretty funny. He could have used other images to make the same point. Think of Jacob Marley’s ghost in Dickens’ Christmas Carol, chained to the coffers and cashboxes that were his master in life.
Or think of Robert de Niro’s conquistador character in the film The Mission, tying himself to his rusting armour and dragging it through the jungle as penance for killing a man.
Even people without an active religious worldview can recognize these images as reminders that there are moral laws in the universe, and spiritual consequences for breaking them. I don’t think most people see themselves in these images, but I would agree with Keller that most people, even non-believers, know that there is something called divine law.
They know that they shouldn’t lie or cheat, they know that they should love their neighbour, they know that they should be better people, and they either burden themselves with guilt for falling short, or they act out defiantly. Either course makes people weary. So if there is a way to speak to the secular folks around us about what Jesus offers, then I suppose it depends on getting them to think about what they might be yoked to and burdened with, and what they think freedom really is.
While Jesus’ invitation to become his disciples may use the uncomfortable language of the yoke/burden, the larger context of Matthew 11 makes it clear that this is a pretty good deal he is offering. Earlier in Matthew chapter 11, we learn that John the Baptist, who is in Herod’s prison, has sent a message asking Jesus if he is the savior that the people have been waiting for:
2 When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples 3and said to him, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’ 4Jesus answered them, ‘Go and tell John what you hear and see: 5the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. 6And blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me.’
If we hear all of Matthew 11, then, Jesus is offering good things: healing, wholeness, restoration, resurrection. It is all we would expect of the Messiah and Saviour and then some. So why the language about yokes and burdens?
I think that today’s second reading from Romans helps us to understand the gospel better, because when Paul writes about sin, he is talking about something which looks like freedom but which is actually a yoke and a heavy burden. Paul’s theology, because it depends on terms like “the flesh” and “the body”, is often taken to mean that he hates the physical human body, which in contemporary society is celebrated as the source of beauty, sex and power. In fact, as I understand it, Paul what Paul means when he says “the body” is in fact the whole human condition, which consistently brings us up short of our ideals.
For Paul, even when we know what God wants of us (“the law”), we fall short because of our imperfect human nature. For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.” (Romans 7:23)
Sin for Paul includes all the things – our impulses, temptations, thoughtless and weak moments – that cause us to fall short of the good life that God calls us to. Often we mistake sin for something that seems like freedom, and learn the difference too late. A fun trip to the casino might lead to poverty, sexual fantasy might lead to adultery and broken relationships, while a seemingly harmless racial stereotype or joke can lead to hatred and bigotry. Sin can be anything that seems to promise escape, fun, and freedom, but which can lead to captivity and constraint. Our popular culture and advertising offers endless examples, from wealth to sex to beauty.
When Jesus calls us to follow him, he offers us true freedom but it is the freedom of discipline and the ability to say no to false freedoms and bad choices. The theologian David Lose notes that “We don’t like (the word no) because it is, well, just plain negative. Even more, it stands in our way, negating our immediate desires and wishes, with holding something from us that we want.” Saying no to ourselves or to those we love and care for may be difficult because it negates an impulse or desire that might seem like a good idea at the time.
Lose also notes that the church needs to work hard to recover an idea of discipleship that actually connects our faith lives to our real lives. Putting on the yoke of Jesus means that there we give God a say in what we do with our bodies, about the kinds of words that come out of our mouths ad keyboards, how we spend our money, and all the myriad choices that we make in a typical day. This a huge idea that needs far more time and attention that I can devote to it at the end of a summer sermon, but it is a something that always needs to be foremost in our minds as we think about what it means to be followers of Jesus.
I think of the things I can’t let go of, and wonder what other invisible burdens the people around me are carrying. I think of Jesus, waiting to set us all free of these burdens, and calling us instead into a life of true freedom. To be yoked to Christ is to be in constant relationship with him, constant friendship and guidance, so that Christ will never ever let anything else burden us, who he has saved from sin and death.
Those of you who are Anglicans of a certain vintage, you will recall that in the Service of Holy Communion according to the Book of Common Prayer, there were four quotations from scripture that were collectively referred to as the Comfortable Words. One of them is taken from today’s gospel reading from Matthew 11:
Come unto me all that travail and are heavy laden, and I will refresh you. St. Matthew 11.28
Taken together, the four quotations of the Comfortable Words functioned as an assurance of salvation. They assured the would-be communicant that he or she would be welcome at the table of a loving and gracious God who had forgiven our sins. In a very real sense, these words reminded us that there are no barriers between us and God. They were comfortable in the sense that they eased the troubled and guilty soul and allowed us to relax into God’s love. That’s the freedom that we find at Christ’s table, and in Christ’s yoke as his friends and companions.