The second of three sermons (edited for my blog), preached at Fremont United Methodist Church, Portland, Oregon, 7/23/17. This one is based on Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30.
My son and I recently traveled in northern New Mexico and parts of the Oklahoma Panhandle in search of my mother’s family history. It was a great trip through beautiful high desert country, and we actually found the marked graves of my great grandfather, William O’Donnell Cochran, his wife, Nancy, and a couple of my granduncles, Achilles and Doc. They are buried in Kenton, in OK, home to about 18 folks—but once a thriving ranching community where my great grandfather and grandfather lived, worked, raised horses and cattle, and tilled the earth. Thanks to the records of the Bureau of Land Management, we found their homestead. Along the way we visited a few museums, searching for information; one common display in those museums is a yoke. I always knew what a yoke was but I guess I never realized how important they were. Most of our trip paralleled, crossed and re-crossed, the Santa Fe Trail—still visible to the eye. My vision of the west was formed largely by Hollywood’s cowboys and Indians. Contrary to that vision of horse drawn Conestoga wagons racing away from the bad guys, most of the wagons were pulled by oxen.
Have you ever looked at or touched a yoke? We used to have one in a meditation garden where I work. A lovely symbol, but they don’t look very comfortable; they are heavy and many are quite rough. But the technology is really simple. A carved, contoured beam that fits behind the ox horns laid over the necks of oxen. There are actually several different kinds of yoke but the one we are most familiar with looks like this. They have two U-shaped attachments that fit around the necks of a team of oxen or other draft animals, with a central ring for hitching the team to a cart, plow, or other load.
In one sense, the early history of the US, perhaps even the world, can be linked to this technology. Yokes were pervasive in Jesus’ day; while in this Matthew passage, Jesus is speaking metaphorically, no one in Jesus’ crowd needed a photograph. Most of his listeners understood what one was and how it worked. But Jesus’ listeners also understood yoke in an oppressive way—the yoke of slavery and oppression. In the Bible yoke is usually a metaphor for slavery and the hardships people must bear. When the yoke of bondage or slavery became severe, it is termed “a yoke of iron upon your neck” (Deut 28:48). Sometimes the term is used to describe the burden of a person’s sin and its punishment: “My transgressions were bound into a yoke; by his hand they were fastened together; they were set upon my neck” (Lam 1:14).
But they would also have understood it in terms of liberation and hope—at least a broken yoke. Isaiah states that the Messiah will break “the yoke of his burden” (Isa 9:4) for all. “The yoke will be destroyed from your neck” (Isa 10:27). When God delivered Israel from Egypt, God said, “I have broken the bars of your yoke and made you walk erect” (Lev 26:13).
So, what’s going on here? What’s Jesus doing? In the early part of this reading—and in the Matthew passage from two weeks ago—Jesus is discipling his followers about living faithfully in a complicated, often perplexing and oppressive world:
“But to what will I compare this generation?” He asks. “It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another,
‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance;
we wailed, and you did not mourn.’
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 tax collectors and sinners!’”
Some suggest that Jesus seems perplexed here. They rejected John the Baptist and are rejecting him—two very different men who went about ministry in very different ways. He seems to ask, How will they hear that God wants us to live differently? To live with gentleness and humility. I like this idea that Jesus might have been genuinely perplexed. Certainly, he seems sad and maybe even a little or a lot frustrated.
But we might also paraphrase these words this way: You’re never going to make everyone happy—no matter how hard you try. Then, he says, again my paraphrase, if this is how it is, what can be done about it? How can we live as disciples in this setting? Well, his first answer is: Stay focused: “Remember who I am and stay focused on that”: I am God’s son and God loves me, and I reveal God to you. I reveal to you as loving parent.”
Typically, Jesus turns the metaphor of work, bondage, and oppression upside down and says, “Take my yoke.” At first glance, not a pleasant offer and one that begs the question: What kind of yoke are we offered? He describes it for us: it will provide rest; it is a teaching yoke—yoked to Jesus we will learn what we need to know to live in the world. What does this teach us about Jesus? We need to consider that there are two sides to this yoke. We are not only yoked to him; he is yoked with us. Jesus is not driving the oxen; Jesus is not walking alongside the oxen, goading us on; Jesus is not pulling us forward by a ring through our noses; Jesus is yoked with us. He not only wants to be with us, he wants to be joined with us, which is why St. Clement called this “the yoke of grace.” So, to be yoked with Jesus is to be in relationship with him but this also begs a question: Who is this Jesus we are yoked with? Everything hinges on this question. Who is this Jesus with whom we are to be yoked?
At the heart of both the health and unhealth of all of us—and the church—is the image of Jesus we carry in our hearts. Who Jesus is; how Jesus relates and cares; our unhealthy and non-biblical pictures of Jesus—each of these contributes to our own sense of esteem, how we relate to others, and how we relate to God. If we are yoked with a Jesus who is judging, angry, and finger pointing, our yoke will be anything but easy and light. If our view of Jesus is of one who is excited to be with us, who is, welcoming, accepting, encouraging, compassionate, embracing, and yes, lovingly confronting Jesus, then our lives and our ministry together will be connected, healthy, compassionate, and open to God and others.
This yoke means this: We are not alone; we don’t have to live alone; we don't have to work alone; we don’t have to do anything by our own strength. It is grace. It also tells us something about the kind of relationship we are invited into because, Jesus says, my yoke is easy [good, helpful, kind, profitable], and my burden is light. A well-made yoke, evenly distributes the burden; there is an equality about a yoke; each ox is worthy and each ox is necessary and each ox eases the burden of the other.
I grew up in a church where we sang the following with some regularity; I wonder now how true it was for those folks and how true it is for me. (It was written by D. S. Warner and published in 1893.)
The words matter and I remember the music as light and fetching:
I’ve found my Lord and He is mine,
He won me by His love;
I’ll serve Him all my years of time,
And dwell with Him above.
His yoke is easy, His burden is light,
I’ve found it so, I’ve found it so;
His service is my sweetest delight,
His blessings ever flow.
No other Lord but Christ I know,
I walk with Him alone;
His streams of love forever flow,
Within my heart His throne.
He’s dearer to my heart than life,
He found me lost in sin;
He calmed the sea of inward strife,
And bade me come to Him.