A Good Fit
A sermon preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli for Foundry UMC July 5, 2020, fifth Sunday after Pentecost. “Living As If…” series.
Text: Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30
It has become very clear over the past couple of weeks that many of us are feeling a deep weight and weariness in the wake of all that has happened and is happening in our world. And today we hear Jesus say, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” I want to swim into this invitation like cool water on a hot summer day. But notice: as soon as Jesus says, “Let me help you lighten your load,” he invites us to pick up something else: “Take my yoke upon you…” What’s up with that?
Well, let’s get clear about what a “yoke” is. A yoke is a wooden crosspiece that is fastened over the necks of two animals and attached to the plow or cart that they are to pull. Yokes were carved carefully to fit the animal who would be using the device; a carefully made yoke would rest well on the shoulders and wouldn’t bind or blister. The Greek word for “easy” (chréstos) can also mean “well-fitting.” The well-fitting yoke was used to make carrying a burden or pulling a load easier. And the yoke allowed two animals to share a load, thus lightening the load for both. The Judeo-Christian tradition uses the metaphor of the yoke to describe the way of God revealed through the law and the prophets. It is also a word used to describe the teachings and way of life of Jewish Rabbis—that is, the way a rabbi interpreted and practiced Torah, the law, was that rabbi’s “yoke.” A disciple of a given Rabbi would take on the “yoke” of that teacher.
In both the literal and figurative sense, a “yoke” is something you put on, that you wear. And think for a moment about things you wear that don’t fit well…they’re unflattering at best and really uncomfortable at worst. Ill-fitting or inappropriate shoes can cause blisters and over time can affect your whole body alignment causing strain and pain. In the same way, ill-formed, ill-fitting yokes do damage. If I put on a yoke that was made for a body with much broader shoulders than mine, think about what that will do to my body. If I take on an interpretation of biblical law that is ill-formed—say lacking careful study or grace—just think about how that will affect the shape and health of my whole life. If I am yoked with someone who is pulling in an opposite direction from me or if I’m unwilling to move when the person with whom I’m yoked is trying to move, we’re both going to get hurt. If the yoke is well fitted for me but ill fitted for the person with whom I’m yoked, even if we’re traveling the same path, my way will be easier than that of my partner on the journey, though we will both struggle more than is necessary. The bottom line is that yokes—both literal and the law—can either do damage to those who “wear” them or can provide help and freedom from carrying burdens too hard to bear alone.
Jesus invites us to put on his “yoke,” the way of life he taught and embodied, a way of life guided from start to finish by the great commandment to love God with our whole being and to love our neighbor as ourself. This, Jesus says, is the yoke that’s “easy,” that’s a good fit for our most human shape. Jesus’ embodiment of love that preaches good news to the poor, healing for the wounded ones, freedom for the captives, mercy, compassion, and peace for a bruised world, gentleness, humility, and justice in our relationships with one another, is the yoke we are all made to put on. I have heard folk describe the yoke Jesus offers as an exclusively “me and Jesus” or “God and me” situation—that is, the yoke is about Christ helping us carry our load. I don’t disagree that’s part of the promise. But here’s the thing: Jesus’ yoke—Jesus’ way of life—binds us to one another, commits us to one another, connects us, yokes us. It’s never going to just be “me and Jesus” because whenever we invite Jesus into our life, he brings all his friends with him.
I have been ruminating on the juxtaposition of Jesus’ invitation to take on his yoke and this weekend when our country observes Independence Day. On the one hand, you could say that Jesus’ way of life, his yoke, is about liberation, about freedom so it’s a happy coincidence to get this text in the lectionary on this day—plus the bonus of Jesus giving us permission to rest, to chill. But a couple of things give me pause. The story we have traditionally told is that Independence Day is a celebration of our freedom from tyranny, our commitment to “liberty and justice for all.” And the words penned at our founding are beautiful and the goal lofty. They would seem to align with the vision of care and right relationship that Jesus taught. But the truth is that the liberty, the freedom, the justice, was for some, not for all. The yoke of Christ was severed from the beginning.
Over the years I have come to more deeply perceive the irony of a national celebration of “freedom” first celebrated in 1777 when one in five people in the colonies were African human beings who were enslaved by white people. Frederick Douglass in 1852—well before passage of the 13th Amendment that ended slavery—brilliantly denounced the national celebration of July 4th saying:
What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer; a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants brass fronted impudence; your shout of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanks-givings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, are to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy—a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of the United States, at this very hour.
Then a hundred years later Langston Hughes wrote a poem with the refrain “America never was America to me.” He wrote:
O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.
(There’s never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)
Hughes, of course, was African American and in this poem he speaks not only for his community, but also for poor whites, indigenous people, immigrants, and all who hope in the dream of America yet find “only the same old stupid plan / Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.” And fifty years since Langston Hughes passed into the next life, we find ourselves in this moment.
Some would argue there is much to honor from our past and also much that’s changed for the better. Both are true. But our present moment has blown the lid off the injustice, suffering, and rage so many of our neighbors continue to experience in their lives. Poverty, systemic racism, homophobia and transphobia are still rampant in our country, placing crushing burdens upon beloved children of God. Pernicious interpretations of religious texts, twisted applications of biblical law, and greedy, unjust civic laws and policies create a reality in which some are free, expecting and enjoying every opportunity life affords, and others can’t drink the water from their tap, can’t go for a run, can’t answer their front door without fearing for their lives. Some in our land suck up all the air leaving others with no air to breathe.
Our Gospel for today begins by Jesus highlighting the fact that some people are determined to judge and reject anything that might challenge them to perceive something new or to change. Both John the Baptist and Jesus were called names and rejected, even though their practices and message were very different. Different approaches didn’t reach those who were challenged by the message of the Gospel. If people don’t want to hear it, they won’t. And we sadly see this right now in many ways related to safety protocols for COVID-19, systemic racism, skewed narratives of American history and more. To be asked to acknowledge the suffering of the most vulnerable and oppressed, sacrifice some comfort to protect others, accept that part of our past and present as a nation is marred by racist violence and greed, is perceived by many as impinging upon their freedom. No matter how lovingly or authentically it is shared—whether in protest, movie, data and studies—if folk don’t want to hear it, they won’t.
But, Jesus says, “wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.” And wisdom made her home in Jesus and guided Jesus’ teaching and actions. And Jesus offers his “yoke”—an offer that is heartily received in Jesus’ time and in our own by those weighed down with the burdens of injustice and systemic violence. Jesus comes alongside the downtrodden, the sick, the disinherited, the oppressed and says, “You matter. Let me share the load, carry your burden, journey with you. You are not alone.”
And the offer of a well-fitting yoke is extended to everyone. Jesus wants all of us to put on a way of life that does no harm, a yoke that doesn’t do damage to others or to ourselves. That is our work—each and all of us in our own way. We are called to set down hurtful things that have creeped up around our shoulders and into our thoughts and hearts. That stuff is ill-fitting, heavy, and shreds our soul. We are invited instead to pick up and put on the yoke of Jesus who says, “Learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”
Be gentle and humble with others in this time when there is so little grace margin in the world. Be gentle and humble with yourself. And trust that Christ will help you do the hard work needed for the living of these days. And it is hard work. The “yoke” Jesus offers is not an “easy” life without any burdens or challenges. Rather it is a yoke that is well-fitting, that doesn’t do harm when we put it on, that binds us to Christ AND to one another, so that the burdens we bear become lighter because they are shared.
I believe the heart of the teaching today is that true freedom in human life is not found in independence but rather in interdependence. We are created for interdependence and the yoke Jesus offers is fitted with that in mind. It connects us to God and each other in love, in compassion, in mercy, in grace and helps us pull together toward the Kin-dom vision that’s our goal. And that means that your suffering is yoked to me and my suffering is yoked to you. As Paul taught, if one member of the body suffers all suffer together with it (1 Cor 12:26). God gives us grace to help one another carry the burden, to ease the weight, to lighten the load one for another. Your life is bound up with my life and my freedom is bound up with your freedom, your safety is bound up with my safety and my good is bound up with your good. No one is free until all are free.
Many of us are weary today. Many are carrying heavy burdens. And the pain of the world can seem too much to bear. But the good news is we are yoked to one another and to Christ. And together we press on to freedom. Thanks be to God.