A number of years ago, my wife, Erin travelled to the Dominican Republic with her mother. On one of the days, they travelled into Santa Domingo to see the sites. I remember the story she told about the bus ride back, as I know she does as well. More than the beach and the food, it made an impression on her. On the ride back, the bus drove through a field where people were working, harvesting sugar cane. These were workers who had travelled in from Haiti, to earn a little money to send home to their families – and they included very small children, painfully thin, who ran up the bus hoping it would stop, and perhaps offer a few coins or food. Beside the road a team of oxen were pulling a heavy wagon, guided by the yoke across the backs, and the driver was cracking a whip over their heads to move them forward. On the bus, which did not stop, a number of tourists loudly exclaimed about the poor way the oxen were being treated. No one said a word about the little children.
I offer this story this morning, because it is a lesson in all the yokes we wear in life. There are the ones that decide what and who we choose to see, the ones that constrain who we decide to help, and ones that keeps us looking straight ahead when what really matters is to the left and the right of our path. These are the ones that Jesus wants to lift from our shoulders, to remove that burden. Not only because others suffer when neglected, but because we also are neglecting ourselves. To feel helpless in the face of poverty, or paralyzed while bearing witness to grief is a soul-searing yoke. And yet the lesson of the gospel is that we are not helpless, we can act, and the burden this creates for us, is one we can bear.
Jesus speaks to the sides of our lives in the gospel of this Sunday. “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” Weariness comes upon us all kinds of ways: we grow weary caregiving, wearing of the pain of an injury or health problem, weary of this pandemic, weary of fighting with a family member. Weariness is not the same as being tired; when we are tired, we find rest in sleep. But weariness seeps into our bones, and changes the way we see the world. To those who are weary in this way, Jesus promises them rest.
But what kind of 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.”
The rest Jesus is talking about is not the wallowing kind. It is the service kind of rest; the doer’s rest. When we take on the burden of others, we tend to forget our own internal troubles. How much should our troubles be forgotten then by sharing the burden that Jesus carries – to do better, to be better, and to make the world better. This the yoke that Jesus speaks of: it is the gospel.
Now we are not oxen to be subject to someone else’s yoke. We make that choice – which yoke we will wear and why and which way it will point us – and so Jesus frames his offer as a choice and not a command. We decide who we will see standing in the field while we sit on an air conditioned bus.
But Jesus promises us one more thing. He says: “My yoke is easy and my burden is light.” We know that any restraint we choose to wear just doing whatever we want, may not be easy, and will indeed feel like a burden. But I think what Jesus is saying to us is that the yoke of the gospel, in the end, is easier and lighter to carry, than others – the yokes of consumerism, and materialism and xenophobia and racism and homophobia that eventually lead us to that deep down weariness. Jesus is saying the burden easier to carry is the one that is most worthwhile.
The thing about a yoke is that it is typically used to by two oxen working together to pull a heavy load. So who is the one beside us, helping us with our burden. Jesus calls it his yoke, and claims it, not only because he is the creator of it, but he also is guided by it. He doesn’t push us from above; he pulls with us alongside. The yoke is a burden he helps us carry.
Come, Jesus says, and I will give you rest. What does a real rest feel like? It is sleep knowing a good day is done. It is quiet moments of joy. It is the pause of satisfaction. Jesus soothes our restless spirits by fulfilling us, by giving our lives meaning. May we stand at the edge of the field and see what is before our eyes. May we pull the yoke of the gospel with all the strength we can muster. May we accept the burden that Jesus offers, and know the rest that Jesus promises.