Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30
Here we are with the 4th of July coming up—and maybe somewhere in between the sales and the fireworks and the family gatherings, we will have a thought or two about the freedom that Independence Day commemorates.
We generally define freedom as independence. Our nation’s founding mothers and fathers certainly saw it that way. They had had enough of being dependent on a country far away and believed they could govern themselves far more effectively. Dependence for them, and often for us today, meant exploitation. It meant lack of opportunity. It meant always being under the thumb of the more powerful. It meant being obedient, which sounded a lot like being subservient. For our founding mothers and fathers, freedom and independence were practically synonyms. You couldn’t be free unless you were independent.
But there is another kind of freedom that does not find its roots in independence. The freedom I’d like to celebrate today is freedom that finds its being in dependence—dependence on the yoke of Christ.
If we read the words of Jesus from just the chapter before our passage today—where Jesus sent his disciples out to preach and heal in his name, our passage is kind of surprising—at least last few, comforting verses. In the previous chapter of Matthew, Jesus gives his disciples many dire warnings about how they could expect to be treated—you know, that they were like lambs being sent out among wolves. And then are more warnings about how he would respond to those who did not acknowledge him. It all sounds pretty dire. So the soothing words here sound like an about-face. “Come to me, all you that are weary and are 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 is light.”
The difference can be explained by who Jesus’ audience is. Here we find that Jesus’ audience is no longer the disciples as it was in the earlier passage. Jesus has left the twelve in order to go and continue his own preaching and healing mission. A group of John’s disciples has arrived to talk with Jesus. John, who is in prison, has sent his disciples to confirm that he got it right along the banks of the Jordan when he pointed to Jesus as the Lamb of God, come to free the world from sin. A crowd has gathered to see how Jesus will respond. As they gather around Jesus, they hear him describe to John’s followers how his deeds speak for themselves: the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead live, and the poor are hearing the good news of God’s kingdom, all in accordance with the words of the prophets. With that matter settled and John’s disciples on the road again, Jesus begins to speak to the crowds who remain behind.
These aren’t crowds of disciples—not yet. Whenever you read about crowds in Matthew, you know he’s always referring to potential disciples. As they gather around Jesus, there may be some who are convinced if who Jesus is. But more likely, they are simply curious onlookers, checking out this celebrity named Jesus. Maybe they are searching for healing and have heard of Jesus’ healing miracles. Maybe they are trying to figure out where this Jesus fits into the swirling stew of competing religious ideas at the time.
Because things were not peaceful in the Jewish community. There were many disagreements about what it meant to be truly faithful. Not only were there different factions with conflicting opinions, but the rules for living out one’s faith had become complicated and burdensome. Some of the religious authorities had added many rules to follow if you were to be faithful to the Torah—the Law.
Keeping the Sabbath holy had become a spider’s web of regulations. Offerings had become a complex maze of rules to be followed even if it meant denying material support to one’s parents. Following the rules trumped caring for people. Since the faith community was at the center of every Jewish person’s life, conflict within the community caused stress and discomfort in every aspect of existence. There was no escaping it—no way to be free of the demands which sometimes seemed to stand in the way of being close to God and neighbor rather than a means of being more faithful.
Life’s not so different for us today, is it? Like those early Christians, we have questions about how to live faithfully. Even though the United Methodist Church doesn’t impose a lot of rules we have to follow to prove our faithfulness, we may still feel burdened by expectations—like the expectations of other people in our lives whose approval we want. Parents, grand-parents, sometimes even our children, our friends, our teachers and bosses, and even those sitting next to us in the pews may have expectations about what a faithful Christian looks like, acts like, thinks like.
Personally, I still have the expectations of my Grandma Williams in my head. Grandma died in 1978, but I’m still following some of the rules Grandma drilled into me, like not using a gift until you write your thank you note. Like, “don’t go barefoot because your toes will spread out.” And especially Grandma’s dress code for church: “No pants for women in worship.”
To this day, I can hear her voice in my head. You don’t know how hard it is for me to wear pants into this service! After years of sitting next to Grandma in church and hearing her assessments of what people were wearing, I can still feel her watching as I pick out my clothes each Sunday. When you see me wearing a skirt in worship, you’ll know Grandma won the wardrobe war that morning. I’m just glad she didn’t insist that I wear gloves and a fancy hat like she did!
Of course, everyone knows a man shouldn’t wear a hat in church, right? A colleague told me a story about a man who wore his hat in church—actually, a baseball cap. He was a young man, not a member of the church and visiting for the first time with his mother, who was a member. He kept his cap on through the entire service. Another member was incensed: everyone knew that “hats, and especially baseball caps, were not to be worn by men in church!” After the service, she told the young man and his mother about this rule in no uncertain terms. The mother was hurt and embarrassed for her son. The young man, who was wearing the cap to cover his head while being treated for cancer, had come to church looking for strength and support. Instead, he left and never came back.
Do you have any rules like that in your life—handed down by people with authority. either official or unofficial, rules that make it harder, not easier, to be faithful? Maybe you’re not sure whether it’s OK to drink, or spend an evening at the casino. What should we think when our son or daughter moves in with a significant other without being married?
Of course, a big area of discussion for us as United Methodists revolves around sexuality. What rules should we follow when it comes to same sex marriage and ordination, and who gets to decide which rules we are to follow? Depending on our upbringing and the views of those who have authority in our lives, we may find ourselves in the midst of many conflicting sets of rules that begin to seem like a litmus test for how faithful we are. They begin to feel like a heavy burden across our shoulders. It would be nice to find some freedom from the rules and all our questions about them.
Jesus, of course, knows all about the different directions in which the crowd is being pulled—whether it was those 1st century listeners or people like us. He knows how stressful and burdened we feel. He acknowledges the disruption in the faith community and society in general. He knows how it can seem like no matter what we do, it’s not the right thing—how we are figuratively and maybe, according to some people, literally damned if we do, and damned if we don’t, just like he and John the Baptist were.
Jesus knows, though, that God’s message does not go unheeded. He is thankful that, even when the ones who should be the quickest to recognize him don’t, the infants hear and see. And these infants are not children in the literal sense, but those who do not allow the world’s “wisdom” and learning to get in the way of seeing the truth about God and God’s kingdom, as it has been revealed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
To these infants—the harried, stressed, conflicted, questioning crowds like us who gather around him—Jesus offers the beautiful invitation to come to him. He extends his hand in welcome to the crowds—those who are struggling to be faithful in a fractured society, trying to obey rules that seem to bring more worry and more stress than a closer connection with God, trying to deal with all the curve balls life throws at them. He invites them—and us—into a relationship with him that can free us for a faithful and loving relationship with God and with our neighbors.
Our Bible translations are so economical with their words that we don’t get the full flavor of how Jesus’ invitation would have sounded to his listeners. There is an excitement in Jesus’ invitation, and a sense of a new start, a weight lifted off. “Come on, everyone!” he says. “Come here to me if you are struggling—whether your struggle is physical, mental, or spiritual! Come to me, if your struggle has made you tired in body and soul, if you are weighed down by stress and conflicting emotions. With me you can find refreshment, and your soul will be renewed.”
There is a catch, though. Just as stress and worries are to be laid down, there is a yoke to be taken up. Jesus’ listeners (and Matthew’s readers) might have found this “yoke” language surprising. Because a yoke was a tool they used to control their animals. In Scripture, it was often used as a symbol of slavery and oppression. It means the same thing to us. To wear a yoke is a symbol of lack of freedom, lack of independence. It’s not an image that sits well with people like us—who value independence as we do. But this yoke is one that offers us freedom—not through independence but by inviting us into a relationship of dependence on Jesus alone.
I used to be a member of a Living History group called “Women in History.” I did 1st-person portrayals of the Iditarod sled dog racing champion Susan Butcher. Not only did I learn a lot about her, I also learned a lot about sled dog racing. And one of the things I learned is that by harnessing a group of dogs together, they are able to pull much greater loads than one dog can pull alone.
They are yoked together, with a lead dog in the front and their team mates all around them. You could say this limits their freedom; they can’t just run anywhere they want. But in reality, they are freed by their dependence on their leader and one another. They know the way to go. They are freed from the exhausting task of breaking their own trails; the lead dog does it for them. They are freed from the fear of meeting danger on their own. And they can run faster and bear their loads more easily when they are harnessed to their leader and together with their teammates.
This is the kind of freedom Jesus offers us when he invites us to take on his yoke—to harness ourselves to him. When we yoke ourselves to him, he guides us and leads us by the power of his Spirit. When we keep our eyes on him, we can stop worrying about rules and expectations that don’t come from him. When we yoke ourselves to Jesus, he shares the loads that weigh down our spirits. When we yoke ourselves to him, we have a leader who, in his death, went before us, freeing us from the power of sin. We have a leader who, in his resurrection, went before us, freeing us to experience eternal life in this very moment.
“Put down that heavy yoke you’ve been carrying and take up mine instead,” he says. “When you do that, you will be able to live the kind of life I live, at peace with God, eternally. This yoke of mine is not intended to burden you but to allow me to share your burdens. My yoke is one of kindness, benevolence, and love, and it will allow you to serve and worship God in the way God intended—with joy and freedom. “
As Americans who value our independence, we can get confused about the nature of the freedom Christ offers. It’s not freedom through independence—a permission slip to do our own thing. It is freedom that comes from being connected to Christ and allowing him to guide us. It’s not freedom from the things that God has ordained—worshiping together, prayer, Communion, study of scripture, service to others—but freedom to give our whole hearts to God, looking to Christ as our model.
Our challenge, then, as disciples, is to see the difference between what the world calls freedom and the true freedom Jesus offers. Our challenge is to choose the yoke of Jesus each day—to choose to live as he lived, serve as he served, and love as he loved in obedience to his example and guidance. It is in taking up his yoke that we find the true freedom that Jesus offers. Amen. ~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young