SCRIPTURE FOR TODAY: Matthew 11:28-30
“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, 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.”
As with many of you, I’m sure, Matthew 11:28-30 is one of my favorite passages of scripture. It has comforted and strengthened me, and hopefully I have comforted and strengthened others by reading it to them. I remember the only time a church I’ve served invested in billboard advertising, we used verse 28: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” Similarly, I am currently using those words at the top of Christ in the City’s Facebook Page. Obviously, I like Matthew 11:28-30!
But this week I read and heard this beautiful scripture in a new light. It is still beautiful and comforting, but in a new way. All these years I have been receiving and offering to weary, burdened souls the promise of comfort found within this scripture. It has been one of those scripture passages that make you feel good, not guilty or challenged.
Are you burdened this morning with something that not even the person closest to you understands? Our Lord understands; I still believe that.
On most Sundays during prayer time, Bernie does something very meaningful and helpful to some of us: she invites us to breathe in, and then slowly breathe out, and just for a moment forget the noises and pressures around us, and absorb Christ’s presence and peace. Maybe it’s the deacon side of Bernie which prompts this; maybe it’s her feminine side. But I appreciate that moment and look forward to it, and I invite you to once again this morning pause, breathe deeply in and then out, giving your burdens to God. He will take them, and give you rest.
For some reason this week I was particularly drawn to and reminded of verse 30 even more than verses 28-29: “For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” As he often did in his preaching and parables, Jesus was referring to a real-life tool that listeners of his day would relate to. In this instance it was the yoke –harness—collar – that was used on farm animals to keep them on the straight and narrow path. We didn’t use the words “yoke” and “burden” on our church billboard; I won’t use them on my Christ in the City Facebook page. In my first year with you I haven’t dished out the words “yoke” and “burden” in private or public discourse, have I? I dare say you won’t hear about Jesus being a “yoke” and “burden” in too many Methodist pulpits this morning, except while reading this scripture, since Matthew 11:28-30 is the lectionary gospel reading for today. Every once-in-a-while you should be told about the words “yoke” and “burden” being associated with Jesus, as well as “grace,” “peace,” and “forgiveness.” All five words – “yoke,” “burden,” “grace,” “peace,” and “forgiveness” … are part of the same package.
In our time together this morning I’d like to share some of the yokes and burdens placed on us by our Lord, and point out why His doing so is a good thing. We will then gather once again at the Lord’s Table, which some people consider a chore and a yoke and a burden, while others consider it a blessing and a privilege.
What are examples of yokes and burdens we face as disciples? We need go no further than our vows of United Methodist church membership. When we join the United Methodist Church, we pledge to uphold it by “our prayers, our presence, our gifts, our service and our witness.” We often say, “Remember your baptism.” We should also say, “Remember your membership vows.”
PRAYERS: Some in the room have not prayed since last Sunday … not even grace at meals. Even if you find prayer a burden and a calling better left to preachers and those with that special gift, slog your way through daily prayer. Even if you find yourself questioning the efficacy of prayer, knowing that if someone saw or heard you in any other context talking to yourself, they might have you locked up, pray anyway. It is a yoke and a burden we accept as disciples of Jesus. Sometimes yokes and burdens are things we don’t understand. I’m sure the farm animals didn’t understand the need and purpose of that heavy contraption on them. They would rather be free as a bird. I’m sure our pets don’t understand the need for a modern-day equivalent of a yoke … a leash … on their lifestyle. They say, “You can trust us; we won’t run off or get into things we’re not supposed to.” And as parents we keep a metaphorical leash on our children to keep them from harm. Many times they don’t understand the good and helpful in such leashes until they have children themselves.
PRESENCE, OR ATTENDANCE: I prefer to use the word attendance because “presence” sounds too much like “presents,” which we will get to later! But first, attendance. Most Methodists go to church when they feel like it … when it’s convenient … when it’s easy. We wouldn’t have enough space in our church buildings or in our parking lots if all members came most Sundays. We wouldn’t have the proverbial “summer slump” if all members attended Sunday services with the same regularity we approach work and school. We wouldn’t joke about our fellow members who only attend on “High” Sundays such as Christmas and Easter. They come in briefly on those days and say “Hi” and then “Bye.”
Deep down inside we have come to learn and acknowledge that there is a direct relationship between our regular attendance and outcomes. Deep down inside most of us have to admit that we will enjoy work and school more – do better — if we attend regularly … attend almost without thinking.
And don’t get me started about Methodists attending church, but not Sunday School. We’re wrong in saying that all God asks of us is two hours a week, but even if that is correct, we can’t even give two hours. We’re doing good to muster one hour a week.
We show up at work and school because there are consequences if we don’t. There will be consequences if we don’t attend church and Sunday School – even when we don’t feel like it. We show up at work and school even when we don’t want to because deep down inside we know it’s worth it in the long run. So much of church is about the short run … today … this moment. Help me feel better and stronger for what I’m facing right now. And there is certainly a need for that. But there is also a need for preparing for the long run … for a life well-lived … for eternity.
Another way of describing Christ’s yoke and burdens is to consider them our crosses to bear. Mark 8:34 tells us to pick up our cross and follow Jesus. Martin Luther advised that true penitents welcome the cross laid upon them by God because it conforms them to Christ and so prepares them for heaven … for eternity.
You say, “Pastor, I’m still preparing my flood renovation; I’m still preparing for this hot summer, and then the August anniversary of last year’s water, which will bring all those horrible memories back again. I’m still preparing for my next doctor’s visit.” In other words, you’re busy preparing for today. I humbly suggest that the way you prepare for your daily crosses prepares you for eternity. Indeed, the crosses were given you to bear in order to better prepare for eternity. Follow the yokes and the burdens … don’t fight them … pick up your crosses and follow to where they lead … all the way to eternity.
Crosses to bear may be considered yokes and burdens on us, and through the years many pastors and churches have left Jesus’ cross laying on the ground. The renowned theologian H. Richard Niebuhr bemoaned our wanting a “God without wrath who brings men and women without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.” But brothers and sisters, there was a cross.
Just as we eventually appreciated our parents or parent figures who instilled discipline and boundaries, and a government which prevents anarchy and chaos, we must come to appreciate our yokes, our burdens and our crosses as disciples of Jesus Christ. They are there for a reason: to lead us on the right path.
GIFTS: What about your pledge of gifts? Notice that we very purposefully avoided the word “tithe” in our membership vows. Little wonder many in the Baby Boomer generation and younger haven’t got a clue as to what the word “tithe” means. ( It’s like singing “Bringing in the sheaves.” What is that? ) They think “tithe” is a Latin term eliminated by Vatican II. And even if many members know exactly what a tithe means – ten percent, because we don’t use the actual word and because we don’t stress it, or ask for it, a growing majority of members don’t know what a commitment to tithing would mean and look like in their lives.
No, we opted for the term “gifts,” – scared of including even the adjective, “financial” in front of it. Maybe that’s why some have interpreted “gifts” to include our time and talents. “Well, if I sing in the choir and go to rehearsal once a week, I don’t have to give as much toward the church budget.” And we wonder why churches are having to cut back on everything from staff size to missions. We couldn’t run our household that way, and yet we’re supposed to run our church houses on the accepted attitude of “I’ll give the same amount I’ve been giving for years;” “Write the church check last rather than first to make sure it doesn’t bounce;” and “Pastor, just get used to and accept our routine changes in giving patterns during the summer. We might even skip a month if we’re out of town.”
If your church giving is not a burden or sacrifice … if it is not a yoke, leading you somewhere you may not really want to go … I urge you to revisit your church membership vows. I urge you to reconsider the blessings you have received.
SERVICE: We also pledge our service. I believe that includes our non-financial gifts. Otherwise, there would not have been a separate vow. Service would have been combined with what are considered financial gifts. But it is not; it is separate. In God’s kingdom there is room for and a need for both time and money. Are you giving both?
I know many of you served and worked on behalf of others a lot more in the past, and it’s harder to do so with aging and poor health. But I urge you to still prioritize what may feel like a burden. Perhaps just serve in different, more creative ways. But as in the past, it must be somewhat of a burden and sacrifice; otherwise you are just doing it for yourself … to feel good … to assuage your guilt.
WITNESS: A few years back our denomination added the vow of “witness” to our membership vows. “Witness” is more sanitized and seems less burdensome and threatening than “evangelize.” Of course we have watered down that vow as well. Rather than talk to someone about Jesus, rather than introduce someone whom we claim to be our savior, our best friend and the Lord of our life, we cower behind the bromide of “My witness is the way I live my life. I witness by example.” We don’t need to actually talk with someone or invite them to anything. They see; they know.” Doesn’t sound very burdensome. And probably won’t be very effective.
If what you do with and for the Lord involves no burden, no sacrifice, no commitment through good and bad, easy and hard, your religion is an add-on. Your religion is on an as-needed basis. Your religion is a source of comfort and self-satisfaction. Your religion is more “me” than “others.” It is more entertainment than engagement.
We sing with solemnity “Where He leads me I will follow,” but we want to be yoke-free. Americans don’t like the word “yoke.” We’d rather be unfettered and free. We associate the word “yoke” with the expression used by one spouse about another: “He (she) is my ball and chain.” If you equate Jesus’ yoke with “ball and chain,” maybe you need to be praying more; attending church more; maybe you need to be giving more of your wallet and your time, maybe you need to be talking to others more about Jesus, and learn the freedom that comes with those kinds of yokes and burdens.
Accept the yoke of Christ. It is for your good, and it keeps you on the right path. It leads us not into temptation. We have more than a “do what you feel like” religion. If we don’t accept the yoke and burden of Jesus Christ … if we only go where we selfishly want to go, without a plan and without direction, one day there will be no organized religion in America, as has happened in so much of Europe.
What about the sacrament of Holy Communion? Is it, like the “Passing of the Peace,” for many, a chore … a burden, for whatever reasons? Ha! I’ll share a little dirty secret: the sacrament of Holy Communion is a yoke and burden for many pastors. But they offer it because they are good disciples, or at least are trying to be.
You can look at this as a regular ritual and as a heavy, constraining yoke that this church imposes upon you about once a month – an inconvenience – or you can see it as a sacrament, a welcome implement of guidance and direction and support. The yoke of the Holy Spirit is as light or as heavy as you need it to be. The yoke is on you, praise be to God.