“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.”
It didn’t help that she was already late for the meeting. Rushing past the sexton who was putting the recycling out, she had her own arms full as she tried to get the back door of the church open. Juggling her lunch bag, laptop bag, and pocketbook, she tried to pull the door open. She knew that in the humidity the door would often stick, but this time, it just wouldn’t budge. Not wanting to set anything down, she just pulled as hard as she could, hoping the door would budge and she could still make it in time. No such luck. She gave up and noticed the sexton was watching.
“Did you pull as hard as you could?” he asked.
“Yes, I gave it everything I’ve got.”
The sexton smiled and said, “No, you didn’t. You didn’t ask me to help you.” He walked over, took her bags off her shoulder and said, “Now try it.” The door came open on the first try.
In today’s gospel lesson, Jesus promises us rest for our souls by coming to him. He promises us that we can set down our burden and yokes and take up his easy and light ones instead. By talking about yokes, Jesus is using an illustration common in his time, but not so common in ours, at least in our part of the world. A yoke is usually made out of wood. It fits across the shoulders of the animal or person who is using it. With oxen, a yoke connects animals to each other and also to a plow or something else the animal is pulling. The purpose of the yoke is to harness the power of the animal to do the work required of it. Yokes are also used by people to carry water or other things.
Justin Martyr, writing in the second century, said that when Jesus was working as a carpenter, one of the things he made was yokes. Perhaps we can imagine Jesus making these wooden yokes meant to join pairs of animals together. Of course, the carpenter would want to make the yoke so that it would fit just right – not rub or be rough on the animals, but something that would truly help the animals bear their burdens, pull together, be more efficient as a team than either would be alone. We imagine Jesus the carpenter, sanding down rough spots, fitting the yoke, checking it, making it just right for the job – a perfect fit.
Jesus invites us to take a yoke just like this – made exactly for us by someone who understands what it means to bear burdens, someone who knows us each by name, knows our gifts and our needs, who does not want us to be wearied or weighed down. Jesus offers us a yoke, made by his own labor and love, made perfectly for us. And that’s not all; he offers himself as our partner in the yoke, the one who will help us bear, pull, carry – whatever we are called to do.
“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.”
What a beautiful invitation. Jesus longs to give us rest from all the troubles and hardships and burdens we carry. All we need to do is give up our burdens, turn everything we carry over to Christ, and he will help us: a beautiful, utterly simple invitation.
So why is it so hard to do? Perhaps you are able to turn things over to God pretty easily. Perhaps you are good at remembering that you are not alone and that Jesus is standing beside you saying, “Come to me,” and you go to him. Perhaps you have learned that you are strongest when you ask for God’s help. Perhaps your first impulse when struggling with a tough problem or heavy burden is to “let go and let God.” If this describes you, well done.
If you are like many people, however, it is really hard actually to turn things over, even if we know in our heads that we’re turning them over to Jesus who stretched out his arms upon the cross that he might embrace the whole world and take all of our burdens on himself. It’s hard to go to Jesus, and give up our burdens to him.
Sometimes we forget he is there for us. Or we trust he is there, but we don’t really think he’s talking to us. “Oh, our problems are so small compared to other people’s problems, I really shouldn’t bother God with this,” as if God can’t handle our burdens, or is too busy dealing with others to notice us. No, Jesus was speaking in the plural when he gave his invitation, and he was speaking to everyone, everywhere, for all time and forever. You come. You take. Are you weary? Then this includes you. Do you have burdens, big or small? Then you qualify.
Perhaps another thing that keeps us from taking Jesus up on his invitation is that we don’t want to need help. We want to be strong and capable, and we think keeping our problems to ourselves, trying to do things alone, trying to muscle our way through anxiety by ourselves is proof of our strength and ability. We’re celebrating Independence Day this weekend, when our country became a country, independent from England. But we tend to want to be independent in every way. Can you imagine us celebrating Dependence Day? As Christians, we make a startling claim that we are always dependent, and that’s a good thing. Our gospel begins with Jesus giving thanks that those who get his message, those who really understand it, are like children, who are dependent and open.
Too often, we want to handle things ourselves, rather than use our real strength, which comes from handing our burdens over to Christ. Too often we are like the mountain climber in the old joke who slipped and fell on a difficult cliff. He grabbed a branch and hung on as tightly as he could. He shouted out, “Is there anyone up there? Help me!” A voice came from the skies and said, “I am all good, the God who loves you. I will save you if you let go.” The climber thought for a few moments and then said, “Is there anyone else up there?” Too often we are reluctant to let go. But Jesus has promised, we can.
If we are able to give things up to God, to take on Jesus’ easy yoke and light burden, we need to be open to the ways the relief will come. If you need healing from some despair, if you need help with some struggle, turn it over to God, and then be open to the ways that burden will be lifted. Say yes to the help that comes your way. God will help. But very often that help will come through people who will offer you comfort or direction. That help may come in little pieces that fit together into a whole, a life-giving, burden-lifting whole, but you need to say yes to the pieces.
Sometimes we don’t ask for God’s help, because we don’t think we’re actually deserving of it. Our need for help somehow tells us, not that we’re human, like everyone else, but that somehow we are fatally flawed, and undeserving, not worthy of help. We see ourselves as too broken to be of any use or value.
God never ever sees us this way. God knows where we are broken. God knows where we are hurting and aching, and chafing under our burden, and wants only to take that burden from us. God loves us and can use us, as weary and broken as we may be.
The author of this story is unknown. It has shown up in many places on the Internet in several versions, set in various countries, but the point of the story is the same in each case. A water bearer in India had two large pots, each hung on each end of a yoke he carried across his shoulders. One of the pots had a crack in it, and while the other pot was perfect and always delivered a full portion of water at the end of the long walk from the stream to the master’s house, the cracked pot arrived only half full.
For a long time, this went on daily, with the water bearer delivering only one and a half pots of water to his master’s house. The cracked pot was ashamed of its imperfection, and miserable that it was able to carry only half a load of water. One day it spoke to the water bearer by the stream. “I am ashamed and I want to apologize to you.”
“Why?” asked the water bearer. “What are you ashamed of?”
“I have been able to deliver only half my load because this crack in my side causes water to leak out all the way back to your master’s house.”
The water bearer replied, “As we return to the master’s house, I want you to notice the beautiful flowers along the path.” And as they went up the hill, the cracked pot noticed the sun warming the beautiful flowers on the side of the path. This cheered the pot some, but he still felt bad about being broken.
The water bearer said to the pot, “Did you notice that there were flowers only on your side of the path, but not on the other pot’s side? That’s because I have always known about your flaw, and I used it. I planted flower seeds on your side of the path, and every day while we walk back from the stream, you’ve watered them. For years now I have been able to pick these beautiful flowers to decorate my master’s table. Without you being just the way you are, he would not have this beauty to grace his house.”
We are all broken, all flawed, and all perfectly worthy, because of Jesus Christ, to receive God’s love and care. One of the burdens we can give up is the burden of thinking we need to do things on our own, that we need to match some picture of perfection, and that otherwise Jesus will not want to be yoked to us.
No, weariness is the only requirement to receive Christ’s rest. Having a burden we want to set down is the only requirement for picking up Christ’s light burden. Being yoked to something we need to let go of is the only requirement for allowing Christ to give us a new yoke, tailor-made for us.
“Come to me all you that are weary and are heavy-laden, and I will give you rest.”