The image of Christ in today’s gospel is that of the Servant Christ. If one’s burden is heavy — too heavy to bear, the yoke of Jesus is light. He bears it with you. It is here that Jesus invites the weary: "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" (11:29-30). At that time, the yoke was a familiar symbol of burden bearing and oppression. Yokes were laid on the necks and shoulders of oxen and also on prisoners of war and slaves. The image of the yoke alone is substantial.
Reflecting on the Servant Christ, there is a relationship between the message in this passage and the ministry of a deacon. The duties of early deacons bore distinct symbols of Christ the Servant. They functioned as models of common Christian service who led, enabled, and encouraged other Christians in charitable deed. Jesus proclaimed his life’s work as service for others. Jesus served the presence of God within humanity by incarnating it in himself and by allowing others to see it in him. Jesus is the deacon of God’s presence.
And what does it mean to take up the yoke of Christ? Accepting the yoke evokes imagery of willing struggle; it can sometimes mean pain and discomfort in the process of relinquishing control. Taking up the yoke of Christ is not easy.
It also means guidance and revelation, and of connection to something greater than ourselves, which serves as a reminder in the midst of pain and discomfort that we are not alone. All of this suggests that something more than simply letting go is required in taking up the yoke of Christ. What Christ seems to point to in Matthew 11 is entry into a covenant relationship. As Episcopalians, we enter into a covenant relationship through the sacraments which our Anglican tradition recognizes as “outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual grace.” The Holy baptism and the Eucharist are the two great sacraments given by Christ to his people.
Through the sacraments, we are connected to Christ, like a tether, which then connects us to God. And choosing to follow Christ with the life given to us by God, we are connected as Christ’s body: The church. We are all invited to participate in the Servant Christ. This covenant relationship means both mutual participation in the church and in the world. Through baptism, our baptismal covenant reaffirms and renews our commitment to Jesus Christ through service. One who is willing to go where the Spirit is calling; one who, in the image of the Servant Christ, serves those who are heavy-laden, weary, marginalized, burdened in body, mind or spirit.
Being in relationship with God is a bit of a dialectic, as is faith, as is the story of Jesus. For those of you who may not be familiar with dialectics, they suggest that two opposing ideas can both be true at the same time.
Death and resurrection, darkness and light. There are so many dialectics in Christianity. I can experience both pain and joy. I can believe and doubt. And following Jesus can mean I let go of a burden and still experience pain. Taking up Jesus’ yoke does not mean that we are shielded from pain. Pain is part of what it means to be human in this world. Jesus’ crucifixion most poignantly demonstrates the dialectic that grace and suffering can both exist at the same time. I come back to a lovely sentiment written by Cynthia Borgeault that I shared in a past sermon at the beginning of the year. It rings true with even greater relevance now. She writes that suffering is the inevitable outcome of the conditions of this planet, which include hard edges and finite boundaries. She writes that this is not random;
God has created it in precisely this way because it is precisely in these conditions and only in these conditions that certain aspects of love shine forth so luminously—and it is precisely this luminosity which God is trying to reveal, the innermost self-disclosure of the heart of divine love.
Even the ministry of a deacon is dialectical because the ministry of the deacon is transitory. The Deacon works with the Bishop to go where needed to bring the needs of the world to the church and the needs of the church to the world; thus, the time a deacon shares with a community is about 3 years. Which means the ministry of a deacon often requires a balance of building up and letting go all at the same time. The body of Christ is a community of people, who through their relationship with Christ, actually becomes a kind of sacrament. This means that the church is both a community of human believers and an instrument of grace in the world, uniting individuals whether in the walls of a single church community or on the other side of the globe. Faith is the word here. Faithfulness demands action and requires risk.
A burden heavy on my heart for the last several years is my mom’s declining health. I believe I have shared with this community before that my mom has been living with a chronic, terminal cancer that can only be managed with persistent treatment. The treatment stops working about every two years and it is always a very scary time because of the uncertainty of the new treatment’s efficacy. Due to concerns regarding her health right now, and to be present with her at the start of this new treatment, I have made the very difficult decision to leave my New Mexico community to be with my mom and family in North Carolina. This is quite the dialectic. July 19th will by my last day present with the St. Michaels’ community. Though I hold grief and pain in leaving this community, I am also filled with much hope and love knowing that we are bound together in the body of Christ.
The great discipline of faith is to be present in each and every moment, especially the hard ones, trusting that God is present too. Each of us is weary. We carry our individual yokes, and we carry the yokes of our communities across the world in a time of civil unrest, social isolation, illness and dying, and systemic oppression. Yet we also carry the unwavering sacrifice of first responders, healthcare and essential workers, and those on the front lines of this pandemic. We hold those who fight for justice and equality tirelessly across our nation. Oh, God, we are tired and heavy-ladened people. Grant us rest. May we be still in Christ’s gentle presence. Let us take up Christ’s yoke so that Christ may carry ours.
I would like to offer a word, “Yokefellow,” which means being fastened together as companions. No matter where we are, we are fastened together in Christ. As we have learned in this pandemic, despite geographic or physical distance, we continue to remain a community of people called the church; a symbol of grace in the world that reveals and makes true the presence of God.