A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on July 3, 2011 (Proper 9, Year A)
Have you ever seen a couple of yoked oxen at work in a field? I have – thanks to YouTube. I watched a couple of videos this week while thinking about today’s gospel passage which ends with these words from Jesus: “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.”
I’m not much of a farm boy but let me tell you, that looks like some hard work; hardly restful, easy, and light. More like painful, difficult, and heavy. The yoke keeps the animals moving at the same pace as they drag a heavy plow behind them, lightening the load for the farmer but doubling it for the poor oxen. Of course that’s what they’re bred for – these castrated heads of cattle. But it just doesn’t look like a whole lot of fun for anyone involved.
So when Jesus invites us to put on his yoke, it hardly seems like a compelling offer. The yoke is the ultimate symbol of servitude and captivity. And it stands out all the more on a weekend where we mark and celebrate our freedom. Last night many of us were out taking in the fireworks over Hingham Harbor and reveling in our national freedom. Yet this morning here we are being told to stick a yoke around our necks.
To non-believers the yoke probably looks a lot like a millstone. “Let me get this straight. Being a Christian means you have to get up early on Sunday mornings, give away your hard-earned money, and hang out with a bunch of people you might not even like?” That’s what the yoke of Christ must appear to be to those who haven’t experienced the spiritual power of a vibrant community of faith.
But as people who live out this faith as best we can every single day, we experience the great freedom of being yoked not to our worldly cares but to Jesus Christ. We walk with the one who helps to bear our burdens in this life; the one who is yoked to us in a never-ending relationship; the one who never leaves our sides whatever hardships we may encounter. With Jesus a symbol of servitude becomes a symbol of freedom. For Christians there is freedom in the yoke of Christ.
But beyond oxen, the yoke is a particularly tough image because slave traders were known to utilize human yokes when marching slaves across plantations. And it’s a reminder that such images in Scripture were abused by slave masters to keep their slaves in line. They often encouraged their slaves to embrace Christianity as a way to keep them in their place – to mollify and placate them. In the context of such a system passages were often read and interpreted as a means of justifying slavery. From First Timothy: “All who are under the yoke of slavery should consider their masters worthy of full respect.” And from Ephesians: “Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ.”
Of course slavery in Biblical times was much different than what we know from the American experience. There was slavery in the ancient world but it was much more humane than what was practiced in 18th and 19th century America. Not only were the vast majority of slaves employed in domestic service most of them had the opportunity to eventually be freed – few were considered slaves for life. There were also cultural norms that governed the benevolent treatment of slaves. So while the Bible doesn’t overtly condemn slavery it does call for a new relationship between Christian slaves and masters – one governed by mutual respect as being members of the body of Christ. Hardly the model followed on American plantations.
Even though the yoke of Christ represents true freedom it isn’t without its responsibilities. In fact, it’s a pretty loose fitting yoke. One you can slip off. Jesus doesn’t insist you wear it, rather he offers it; he invites you into that unique relationship with God but it’s not compulsory. Many choose not to take Jesus up on the offer. But of course that’s a recipe for true slavery. You will be yoked to something – whether to God or to something that draws you away from God. And when we’re yoked to things like money or power or sex or addictive behavior these become the true millstones around our necks, weighing us down and burdening us with fear and doubt and anxiety.
So what are our responsibilities when we put on the yoke of Christ? The big one is simply giving our lives over to him. Which is both a responsibility and a relief. We who are heavy laden with all sorts of emotional and spiritual baggage are encouraged to drop it at all at Christ’s feet. Not to dump everything on Jesus but to allow him to bear the bulk of the load. In return Jesus promises us rest for our souls. The long-term implications are eternal life. In the short-term rest for our souls means knowledge of the peace of Christ in this world. In other words, spiritual comfort and spiritual refreshment and spiritual freedom.
I admit that when I think of baggage and burdens my mind immediately goes to traveling through an airport with small children. We’re thankfully past that stage now but I well remember those years of being the people I used to laugh at schlepping through airports. Pushing a cart stacked to overflowing with luggage and car seats and strollers. Hauling screaming kids around and feeling like little more than a yoked ox. I would have thankfully dropped my burden at the feet of a skycap. Well, not the kids – but the rest of it. That’s the image I have when it comes to approaching Jesus with all of the burdens of this life. And who wouldn’t want some help shouldering the load? We crave it, we need it, and the yoke of Christ brings us sweet relief.
Some of you may know that a priest’s stole symbolizes the yoke of Christ. I’m not going to claim to be a spiritual beast of burden – though there are some days – but priests are yoked to Christ’s service in a unique way. Though it’s hardly something limited to clergy. Jesus asks us all to wear his yoke, to be drawn to him, to place our lives in his. In the words of the old Prayer Book rite, “Come unto me all ye that travail and are heavy laden, and I will refresh you.” We all need refreshment from the burdens we haul around in this life; both the exterior ones that people can see and those interior ones known to us alone. The good news is that Jesus is always with us, offering the freedom of his yoke and patiently extending his invitation to refresh, renew, and relieve the burdens we shoulder.
© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2011