Not long ago, I was driving out near Coburn to do some fishing in Penn’s Creek, when I happened to notice an Amish farmer out working in his field.
Not an usual site, as there are a lot of Amish farms out that way.
But it was the farmer and a boy — what I imagined was his son — driving a small team of plough horses through a field.
Although my first thought was “Gosh, it would be so much easier on a tractor,” I quickly realized how wonderful this scene was.
I thought how great it must be for the man and boy to just have some meaningful conversations through the heat of the day.
And I thought about planting only what you need, not all this extra to sell to international retailers.
And I also thought how nice it must be for the horses, too.
That they didn’t seem to be breaking a sweat.
They looked amazingly cared-for, and why wouldn’t they be?
They were using their bodies and flexing their muscles in a way that looked like they were not only meant to do, but they wanted to do.
Sort of like the Alaskan huskies who can’t wait to pull the musher’s sled.
They seemed content. It was easy work for their powerful frames to follow a gentle tug or wave of the harness.
Fear of rejection
In our reading today in Matthew 11, Jesus uses the idea of the yoke as a metaphor.
But before we get to that, we see Jesus sort of introducing himself through the lens of the elite power holders of the day — the Pharisees and the Roman Empire.
He paints an image of the Good News that first John the Baptist was introducing, and Jesus was delivering.
But not many people pay any attention, except to criticize them.
Verse 18: “For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon;’ the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, “Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of the tax collectors and sinners!”
How ironic, isn’t it, that the purpose of John and Jesus is to bring freedom to all God’s children, yet instead, they reject them, even eventually kill them.
And has much changed in the world today?
Are we, as Christians, still not called hypocrites?
Are we not made fun of?
Are we not persecuted still?
Because we want to work for peace?
Because we strive for justice for all, not just some?
Because we want to create an alternative to the reality in which we live in today because Christ calls us to it?
Because we understand or are seeking to understand God’s promise and will in our lives?
Yet instead of continuing to move forward in the direction we know in our hearts is right, we step back into the strict constraints of what is and what is not acceptable in our society.
If you don’t believe me, then ask yourselves:
When do I not act like I follow Christ?
Am I afraid to say grace over a meal with my family or friends at the table in a public restaurant?
Am I afraid to pray aloud with a friend?
Do I call out the injustices Jesus denounces, or am I afraid of being criticized?
And are these more rules we must follow?
I’d argue that no, they aren’t rules.
Instead, they are the responses that should well up in us for understanding and appreciating the love and grace that God gives us.
They are a response.
They are a heartfelt “Thank you” that we say to a kind gesture.
They are a response.
Instead, tho, we cave to the culture.
Even though we know that Jesus and his teachings are counter-cultural.
And it becomes safer to just go with the flow, to follow the rules and not question them.
To get in line,
When did we get so strict?
When did we start thinking that religion meant more rules to follow?
Jesus may have given us a roadmap, but it wasn’t a 12-step program; it wasn’t an exam we had to pass; and it wasn’t a gauntlet of seemingly unattainable piety and morality to negotiate successfully.
It was meek. It was down-to-earth.
And it was exactly what we are capable of and want to do.
We were built for this and made in God’s image.
Jesus was a friend to the tax collectors and drunkards. An outcast.
They said he should be killed for being so irresponsible.
But what was Jesus doing?
He was doing God’s will.
And that is what God wants for us.
What does a yoke do on an animal, like on a horse?
It allows the the rider or farmer to direct it.
But generally, do you see the rider or farmer putting much effort into steering the animal?
Most of the time, it’s a gentle guidance.
A loose grip.
An encouraging call.
The yoke and harness is a form of communication.
And the more the animal understands what the rider or farmer is “saying,” the easier the yoke becomes for him or her.
The yoke can be seen in three ways in this reading.
Beginning in Verse 29, Jesus tells those whom he is teaching:
“Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle, humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden light.”
1. Jesus uses the image of the yoke as a metaphor — like I said last week, Jesus isn’t a very literal guy most of the time.
He has a multitude of meanings in what he says.
And in this first meaning, the yoke that the people to whom he is speaking have been told by the religious leaders of the day — the Pharisees — that there are countless rules, laws, mandates and specifics that are almost impossible to follow if they want to be righteous.
Further, who is Jesus befriending? Yes, the tax collectors and the drunkards — the unrighteous.
Are they really unrighteous?
No, but the Pharisees keep these people down and in the margins by giving them a heavy and constricting yoke.
Impossible to carry.
And that assures the Pharisees prominence in society.
2. The second idea of yoke is the imperialism that the Roman Empire has placed on the shoulders of the Jews.
Remember, in Jesus’s day, all of Judea has been taken over and is being run by the Roman Empire.
The yoke that the Jews must bear now includes the unbearable taxes, the threat of losing their heritage and the imperial rule and culture they must adhere to.
Under Roman occupation, the Jews will never be able to rise, they will never be anything but oppressed.
The burden of that yoke is impossibly heavy.
Can we see how ironic this language is?
Against the Pharisees — the ones who we would think are supposed to be helping the spiritually needy — Jesus is saying their burden is too heavy.
And, in fact, the Pharisees are the ones who are spiritually impoverished.
And the idea of the yoke is also ironic for the Roman Empire.
Jesus actually usurps this imperialistic language.
That means Jesus uses the exact language and words that the Empire uses to control its people to free God’s people.
And so what is Jesus’s language, then?
That the yoke Jesus offers is light and easy.
It is a gentle guidance that leads us to “rest for your souls,” Verse 29.
So now we get this picture of the yoke Jesus places on us, but what does that yoke really represent?
What is the third way?
3. The yoke, unlike the Pharisees or the Roman Empire, is NOT intended to “break” us, like we might break a horse.
It’s meant to guide us. The yoke is good.
And that begs the question: Guide us where?
What is the yoke?
The yoke is God’s will for us.
If we follow Jesus, he will guide us in following God’s will.
And — this is important — it is easy.
Jesus is “gentle and humble in heart.”
Think of Jesus as king — not the kings of the world, who strut around in all their self assurance thinking they are the free and we are the oppressed;
Jesus is a meek king, a humble king, a loving and giving king.
And he guides his people, not to control them, but to bring them into the kingdom.
It’s a small burden for us.
How do we know that?
He says it in his prayer to God, the Father, beginning in Verse 25.
He says “you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to the infants.”
The word infants here doesn’t mean babies or innocent or pure people;
infants means outsiders to the society. The disruptive and the vulnerable as the NRSV notes.
And it is the infants — us — who he offers the yoke to.
This is the rest that the yoke brings us to in verse 29: “You will find rest for your souls.”
Notice, it’s not the powerful and the corrupt leaders who are offered the yoke; it’s the infants — the vulnerable who are offered the yoke.
That’s proof that the yoke Jesus is speaking of isn’t meant to “control” or “snap us into shape,” but to help us find our way.
In need of a savior
We might not see ourselves the same as being drunkards, tax collectors, and prostitutes in this world, but in many ways, we are.
We wrestle or just accept what the world feeds us rather than what Christ calls us to.
Think of our beliefs and convictions and test them against what Jesus tells us and what he shows us.
Do we know what he says and what he teaches?
Do we practice love and acceptance and justice?
Again, what are the convictions and traditions we won’t let go of — that just don't seem right?
We need to ask ourselves, What does Jesus say about these convictions?
Did Jesus give them, or did the world give them?
He flipped the Roman Empire and the Jewish Pharisees on their heads.
And he calls us to continue to flip the empire and the pharisees over when they are going against God.
Again, do we know what Jesus says and what he teaches?
Or is it only here, in church on Sunday mornings, that we catch a glimpse of that?
It’s not enough to simply come to church.
The light and easy yoke Jesus offers is to be intimate with the Bible, and intimate with God in our prayer lives.
If we don’t, we risk becoming like the empire and the pharisees, thinking we’re above need.
We are meeting our own needs just fine, thank you very much.
We are people who are in need.
Maybe not drunkards, cheaters or prostitutes, but broken just the same.
What we are in need of is a Savior against all that.
And we have the Holy Spirit, this wonderful Compass, within us to guide us there.
This is our yoke who gently guides us.
Finally, who are we here together as a church?
Do you see how we are yoked to one another, all of us?
Look around you.
Look at how different we are, yet because we are part of this body of Christ, we are yoked to one another as well.
The proof of that is in our sacraments — Baptism and Communion.
In each, we become one with the body, in the body of Christ.
We are here to support one another — to grow together in our spirituality, to help a brother or sister in need, and to encourage each other when we slip off that yoke.
Today, we welcome new members into this church.
And we vow as a congregation to help them “be true disciples who walk in the way that leads to life.”
And they promise to be in union with the church which Christ has opened to everyone.
Jesus shows us in our reading today that to be yoked or connected to the world — the empire — is an awful burden and leads us away from life.
But Jesus shows us that to be yoked — or connected — to him is easy because that yoke is God’s will.
We must ask ourselves, does God have any sort of obstacle or weakness in which God can’t fulfill God’s will?
The God who created the universe and everything in it?
The God who left the Kingdom of Heaven to come to earth as a lowly child, then be sacrificed for our own brokenness?
The God who promises us eternal life together?
When we accept this yoke, the burden is light because Jesus is gently leading us.
And we can — and will — witness that here today, among one another, helping one another, loving one another, and encouraging one another along this journey of life and faith.