Text: Matthew 11:16-30
Several months ago we sold our 1994 Toyota Corolla wagon. It was a sad day indeed. But I was glad that it was purchased by a guy who really loved it. His previous vehicle was a Mercedes with 370,000 miles on it and he said it was getting to be difficult to maintain it. (Go figure.) So, this was a like-new car as far as he was concerned, with only 170,000 miles.
It had a little rust, and he thought it might need a new thermostat, but both were fixable and it was generally in pretty good shape. It was a Toyota, which was good (at least in 1994 that was good), and it was a wagon, which for a Corolla was rare. But here is one of the things he really liked about the car: it was simple. It had a manual transmission. Roll-up windows. Manual door locks. Buttons and controls that were mechanical, not electronic. There was no fancy stuff on this car. There was a lot less to go wrong than on newer vehicles, and when you keep your car until it has 370,000 miles, you have probably seen a lot of things go wrong.
Despite the merits of having a car in which fewer things can go wrong, most vehicles today have all kinds of electronic equipment, all kinds of knobs and buttons and gadgets. Part of this is we just seem to be drawn to complication. Simple is bad, we think; complicated is cool.
Of course, this extends to a lot more than automobiles. Life is complicated. Life can be complex. Life can be hard. And things can go wrong.
I don’t think we need to shoot for a life of ease, mind you, and we often grow when accomplish difficult goals. But often, we make things more difficult than they need to be. We make life harder than it has to be. We help to create complications in our lives that can take the joy and the zest out of living.
Today’s scripture from the eleventh chapter of Matthew gives us a lot to think about. It begins with Jesus speaking of the way that he and John the Baptist had been received, especially by the ruling class. John was an ascetic, lived in the desert, separate from society, ate locusts and honey, and they called him a mad man. Said he was weird, mixed up, whack. Jesus, on the other hand, mingled freely with all kinds of people, went to social occasions, shared meals with people, and they said that it was conduct unbecoming a religious leader. He hung out with people who ate too much and drank too much and did not follow all the social niceties, and it was guilt by association.
You know, if people want to complain, they can always find stuff to complain about. Folks don’t like the message, but rather stating their objections to the other person’s position, they go into attack mode and go after the person’s character. “Look at John. He’s a mad man. Has a demon, if you ask me.” “Do you know what kind of people Jesus hangs out with? I wouldn’t listen to someone like that.”
We all know that this phenomenon is alive and well today. We label and name call and write people off without having to really engage the merits of what they are saying or doing.
John and Jesus both came proclaiming truth, and they were rejected – one for being too worldly, the other for being too removed from the world. These were really bogus objections so that people wouldn’t have to listen to John’s and Jesus’ messages.
From there, Jesus goes into a proclamation of woes, or judgment, on unrepentant cities. Woe to you, Chorazin and Bethsaida and Capernaum. You refused to listen. You are worse than Tyre and Sidon, he says – foreign cities of the Phoenicians, pagan cities. You are worse than Sodom – if Sodom had seen the mighty acts you have witnessed, everybody would have repented.
And again the problem was that they refused to listen. Jesus said that it is like a bunch of children playing. One says, let’s play wedding, and everyone says, “No, we don’t feel like being happy. We’re not gonna dance.” And another says, “Let’s play funeral, and everyone says, “No, we don’t feel like being sad. We’re not gonna mourn.” Jesus had preached and taught in these cities, but the people just would not engage the message being proclaimed.
We continue reading, and Jesus gives thanks that the things of God had been hidden from the wise and revealed to infants. Upstanding folks had refused to listen, but outsiders had responded. Prim and proper religious leaders had cast aspersions on Jesus while those ridiculed as gluttons and wine-bibbers were participating in the kingdom. The so-called simple folks proved to be more attuned to the things of God than the religious leaders.
This all leads to the part of today’s scripture I have been especially thinking about. “Come unto me, all you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens, 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 light.”
These are familiar words and much-loved words. Who doesn’t want rest? Who doesn’t want their burdens lifted?
I wonder if some of the difficulties we face, some of the burdens we feel – I wonder if the tiredness and heaviness and exhaustion that we experience in life comes because we ourselves are making things complicated.
A number of years ago I was part of a work group at Green Lake, our American Baptist conference center in Wisconsin. I was working with a couple of guys from our church in Arthur and our task was to paint the trim on the preschool building. The building is built up off the ground and there is a concrete slab underneath where the kids ride around on Big Wheels. The building is also set on a hill, and from the back side it is a long way up. So, there was scaffolding in place so we could paint the trim. But the best part was that we had use of a bucket truck, like utility companies use. For two days, I had my own personal bucket truck. I was in the bucket and I could push a button and raise and lower it, move it from side to side, and reach all of the difficult, hard to reach places. It was great.
Meanwhile, Susan was on another work crew. There was and I’m sure still is a problem at Green Lake with Buckthorn trees. They are invasive trees that will just take over a forest. They are small trees and create a dense underbrush. Birds eat their berries and drop them and there are seedlings everywhere. They can choke out pretty much everything else – wildflowers and forest plants as well as other, more desirable trees.
The immediate issue this work crew was dealing with was Buckthorn spreading out from the woods into yards and grassy areas. So they went around getting rid of Buckthorn. But here is how they did it: they dug it up, by hand. How would you like to spend 2 or 3 days digging up trees by hand? It was hard, dirty work. The sun was hot. Marvin Reeves, one of the guys painting, thought it was just terrible. We all agreed that power tools would have been a better choice, but apparently there weren’t enough power tools to go around. They needed the tree-removal equivalent of a bucket tuck. A chainsaw and lots of Roundup for the stumps seemed to all of us the way to go.
Marvin had this mantra: “Work smarter, not harder.” I’ve remembered that ever since. Work smarter, not harder.
I read about an ordination service in which a few members of the congregation spoke about the pastor being ordained. A young man who has a syndrome that affects his cognitive abilities was one of the speakers. It is sometimes difficult to follow the thread of what he is saying. But those who know him know that it is good to pay attention when he talks. This young man said that this pastor had helped him understand that God wants us to make things easier for ourselves, not harder.
What about that? Do you agree? Does God want to make things easy for us, or difficult? It’s not a trick question.
Somehow our best efforts to make life easy don’t always pan out. All of the wonderful electronic devices can somehow wind up taking all of our time. Computers and cellphones and pagers and Ipads and facebook and twitter and whatever the latest thing may be can make us constantly available but never quite fully available. We live with material goods unimaginable to earlier generations. Cars and boats and houses – along with loans and mortgages, and working like a dog to keep up payments after we have overextended ourselves financially. We have all these appliances and time-saving devices, but some weeks it seems like it’s the revolt of the appliances: the water heater is on the blink and the air conditioner isn’t cooling like it should and we have to wait around at home for the garage door repair guy. We can end up servicing our machines rather than having them serve us.
We are very busy, sometimes frazzled, and we know about burdens. Some of us are overscheduled, but life’s greatest burden is not having too much to do. (Some of the happiest people around are the busiest.) What is worse than too much to do is having nothing worthwhile to do. People burn out not from too much to do but from constant engagement with the trivial and inconsequential.
We know about burdens. When Jesus speaks of the heavy burdens that people carried, he was most likely talking about burdens placed on people by religion. Faith should make life easier and lighter, but often that is not the case. In speaking of the scribes and Pharisees, Jesus said in Matthew chapter 23, “They bind heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on one’s shoulders.” In the passage immediately following this one, Jesus’ disciples are hungry and pull some heads of grain in a field to eat, and some Pharisees say, “Hey – your followers are disregarding the Sabbath law.”
We know about burdens. Your burdens may be no heavier than a cell phone, your physical labor no more demanding than pushing the buttons on the microwave, but you know what it is to long for rest. Or maybe you have no work at all, laid off after twenty-five years with the same company or trying to find your first job. Or maybe in retirement you are looking for something to keep yourself busy and out of your spouse’s hair. Or maybe you are facing health problems, your own or a loved one’s, and you are feeling pressure and worry. Maybe your days are not filled with work, but neither are they exactly graced with rest. This too is a burden.
What Jesus means by rest is more than sleep. It is more than just a break, though that may be part of it. It is interesting that Jesus goes from talking about rest to talking about taking on his yoke. It seems very odd to in one sentence say, “Come unto me and I will give you rest” and in the next to say, “Take my yoke.” But we need to understand what Jesus means by taking his yoke.
If asked, we would all say that we don’t want to be yoked to anything. We don’t want to be tied down, we don’t want to be controlled. We are free agents, we decide our own destiny.
Tomorrow, we will celebrate Independence Day. The people of this great nation will celebrate the day that we announced to King George that all people everywhere have the God-given, inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. We have that freedom. But strangely enough, the way many folks use their life and their freedom, to pursue their own personal happiness, has somehow left them very unhappy.
We may feel that we are completely free and kind of chafe at the idea of being yoked to anyone or anything. But the fact is, we are going to be yoked to something. To our mortgage, to our image, to our job, to expectations, to all kinds of things. The real question is, to what or to whom will we be yoked?
In Jesus’ day, yokes were made for oxen. They were yoked together to pull a weight. We might think of having to wear a yoke all by ourselves, but that is not the image here.
To take on Christ’s yoke means to be yoked to Jesus, to know that Jesus is with us through the difficulties of life. Jesus’ yoke is not a yoke for servitude or bondage, but a tool of connection, a way of being in relationship with Christ that makes our work easier, not more difficult.
Being yoked to Christ helps us to discern what is worthwhile and what is needed and what is important, and that can be like a burden lifting. Being yoked to Christ means that rather than just busyness we can aim for meaningful activity, and that can be like a burden lifting. Being yoked to Christ means that we are yoked to Christ’s church, to a community meant for support and encouragement and mutual care – and that can be like a burden lifting. Being yoked to Christ is something like working smarter, not harder. It is more like painting with a bucket truck than digging buckthorn by hand, and that is certainly like a burden lifting.
Being yoked to Christ means that we find rest with Jesus. It is a genuine rest, real rest, which is refreshing and energizing and which is something rather than nothing. It may sound counter-intuitive, but being yoked to Christ is freeing – it can free us from those other things that can tie us down and demand our allegiance.
“Come unto me, all you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens, 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 light.” May it be so. Amen.