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Fitting Yokes

Preached at St. Mark’s, 6744 S. King’s Hwy, Alexandria, VA 22306 (MAPTP internship) on July 3, 2011.
3rd Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 9, Year A (RCL): Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67; Song of Solomon 2:8-13; Romans 7:15-25a;
Matthew 11: 16-19, 25-30

Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful, and kindle in us the fire of your love. Send forth your Spirit and we shall be created, and you shall renew the face of the earth.  O God, who by the light of the Holy Spirit did instruct the hearts of the faithful, grant that by that same Holy Spirit, we may be truly wise, and ever enjoy its consolations, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

There is a legend that Jesus of Nazareth, while working as a carpenter, made the best yokes in all of Galilee. Now can’t you just imagine it: Jesus there, laboring at his workbench, to make one of these wooden yokes that is used to pair animals together. He was probably a conscientious carpenter who worked carefully to fashion the yoke so that it would not rub nor be rough on the animals. His good craftsmanship would demand that Jesus produce something to help the oxen bear their burdens, to pull together, to be more efficient and effective as a team than either one could be alone. These yokes were tailor-made to fit each individual ox. Rumor has it there was a sign over the shop entrance that announced: “My yokes fit well.”

Today in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus invites us to take up a yoke just like this, one custom made specifically for each of us by someone who understands what it means to bear burdens, someone who knows each of us by name, who sees both our gifts and our needs, and wants us not to be wearied or weighed down. Jesus offers us a yoke, made by his own labor and love, which is perfectly fit for us. But wait, there’s more! He also offers himself as our partner in that yoke, to be the One who will helps us bear, carry and pull whatever we are called to face.

“Come to me all you that are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you … for my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

This is a wonderful invitation! Jesus longs to give us release from all the difficulties and problems we face in life. All we need do is surrender them to Him, to lay down our burdens at the foot of the Cross, to turn everything we carry over to Christ, and He will give us rest. It sounds beautifully simple. This kind invitation seems ready made to provoke a quick RSVP to gladly accept.

So why is it that we find this so hard to do? Now, maybe you are folks who can easily turn things over to God. Perhaps you’re good at remembering you are not alone and that Jesus stands with you, saying, “Come to me,” and then you move smartly along with Him. Maybe you have learned that you are strongest when you seek God’s help. Perhaps your first thought when you struggle with a tough situation or heavy burden is to “let go and let God.” If this description fits you, then good on you!

However, if you’re like most people, and this includes me, it can be really hard to surrender and turn things over. All the while, we know in our heads and our hearts, that Jesus waits with his arms of love stretched out upon the hard wood of the cross for each of us to come within the reach of His saving embrace. Jesus waits to take all our burdens upon Himself. Yet it is hard for us to go to Jesus, and to give over our troubles to Him.

There are times we forget that Jesus is there for us. Maybe we see Him, but believe our problems are so small when compared to the mountain of troubles other people face - We don’t want to bother God with trivial things. We should buck up and allow God to tend to those others. Yet we hear Jesus extending his invitation to everyone, everywhere, for now and all time, forever. Are you tired? You should come. Are you weary? You should take. This means you and me. If you bear a burden of any size, big or small, then you qualify.

Perhaps something else that keeps us from accepting Jesus’ invitation is Pride; we do not want to need help. We want to be seen as capable and strong. We believe we should keep our problems to ourselves, and manage to do things alone, to muscle our way through all that anxiety and hardship ourselves to prove our own strength and ability.

This weekend we celebrate Independence Day, the founding of our nation, when we gained our independence from England. Now our tendency is to want to be independent in every way possible. Imagine if we were celebrating Dependence Day!

But if we are willing and able to surrender things up to God, to receive and take upon us the easy yoke and light burden of Jesus, we need to be open to the ways by which relief might come. If you require healing from some level of despair, or if you need help with some form of struggle, let it go and turn it over to God, and then be open to the myriad of ways that that burden will be lifted from you. Say YES to the aid which comes your way. God will help you. Help may come in little pieces which fit together into a whole, something that becomes a life-giving, burden-lifting thing, but you must say YES for the pieces to come.

“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.”

So often we try to manage things ourselves, rather than employ the real strength of knowing our limitations and surrendering our burdens to Christ. Too many times we are like the man who wanted to stay put and wait out the flood in his home. First, there was the radio alert announcing rising waters and the call to evacuate. But the man knew he could handle a little water. Then came a neighbor floating by in a canoe, offering to carry the stubborn stalwart off to higher ground. No, no, I’m sure we’ve seen the worst of it and the waters will begin to recede. Finally, there was a helicopter flying overhead, willing to carry the now stranded home owner away from his rooftop to safety. Eventually the man finds himself prematurely at the pearly gates, speaking to God, trying to justify his actions. “But, Lord, you said you would always be there for me!” And God replies, “ What do you think that radio announcement, man in the canoe, and helicopter were?” Too often, we refuse to “let go and let God.” Yet, Jesus promises that we can.

As Christians, we make a rather revolutionary claim that we are always dependent upon the saving grace of God. That’s a good thing! The Good News of Jesus Christ begins with our Lord offering thanks for those who hear and receive His message, who really understand it as children of God that are dependent upon and open to God’s never-failing help.

I was raised in a Navy family, and I don’t recall church being an important part of my life, or that of my family, until I was seven years old. It was then that my older sister and brother and I were baptized at St. Luke’s in East Greenwich, RI. I remember responding to those questions in our Baptismal Covenant which relate to living out the Christian faith: “I will, with God’s help.” Afterward, I began to wonder: How will I know if, or when, God is helping me?

My sister Lyn is seven years older than I am. To know me and know her, you would think we’re both “two peas in a pod.” Our personalities are so similar. I love her dearly, and she has been a great sibling, mentor, teacher and guide to me. Throughout her life, Lyn had numerous health scares including recurring brain tumors. Each time, I prayed God would spare Lyn of her pain and remove the tumors. It was always a test to me, to “let go and let God,” especially when I knew that she might die. During those times of great distress, I feared my prayers were not heard, and although I continued to hope for the best, I began preparing for the worst.

A friend, sensing my struggle, gave me a plaque with a poem from Mary Stevenson on it, titled, “Footprints in the Sand.” It tells of someone walking the beach with our Lord, revisiting the chapters of their life. Periods of prosperity and happiness showed two sets of footprints as they walked together side by side, but times of trial and tribulation were marked with a single set of footprints. Like the dreamer in the poem, I learned that during times of loneliness and isolation when I imagined myself walking alone, without God at my side, rather it was Christ who had carried me. I know my own footprints, and when I looked, I saw only His. God the Father had sent His Son to minister to me, and I knew His saving grace.

Throughout my life, and continuing today as I pursue a call to be ordained a priest in the Episcopal Church, I've found a growing sense that God has always been my help. Jesus Christ is my Lord and Savior, and I believe that there is nothing impossible for God as the Holy Spirit continues to move among us and inspire us. My dear sister Lyn still lives today (Thank God!), not far from here, and though we talk too little, and don't see one another nearly enough, she remains a living example to me of God’s goodness and grace.

But sometimes we fail to ask for God’s help because we feel undeserving of God’s mercy. Our need for help somehow signifies to us, not that we are as human as the next person, but that somehow we are fatally flawed and undeserving, not nearly worthy of help, even from God. We believe ourselves to be too broken or too marred to be of use or value.

My Brothers and Sisters in Christ, I assure you that God never ... ever ... sees us that way. God knows that we are broken, and where we are broken, and how badly we are broken. God knows that we hurt and ache and chafe under the burdens that we bear alone and share with no one, and God wants to take those burdens from us. God loves us and can use all of us, even as weary and broken as we may be.

Yes, flawed as we are, broken as we have become, we remain perfectly worthy, because of Jesus Christ, to receive God’s everlasting love and steadfast care. One burden we should surrender is to think we are alone, or that we need resemble some perceived picture of perfection, otherwise Jesus will not want to be yoked with us.

No, weariness is the only prerequisite to receive the rest that Christ promises to us. Carrying a burden we want to lay down is the only requirement for picking up the lighter burden of Christ. Being yoked to something we need to let go of is the only condition needed to allow Jesus to give us this new yoke, which is tailor-made to fit each of us just right.

“Come to me, all you that are weary and heavy-laden, 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.”


( 1 comment — Leave a comment )
Jul. 5th, 2011 05:04 pm (UTC)
Another excellent sermon ! I give thanks every morning as I do my morning meditation that you heard our Lord calling you and you respond ; "Here I am Lord, Send me". I have no idea just where He will send you, but I know that where ever you are sent, it will be the right place for both you and Chrissie. Take care. Love, Dad
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