I am tired. And it’s not just because I generally don’t get a lot of sleep on Saturday nights. I have been tired for many months now. I am worn out with worry and uncertainty. I am exhausted with trying so hard to be a good pastor when it’s hard to be sure what that even looks like right now, in the times we’re living. I have been feeling cut off from you, from my people.
I have been struggling a lot with my mental health these past few months – with depression and PTSD and anxiety. I’ve been feeling even more isolated than usual; and those negative internal voices that are always there start to get really loud without any kind of external connection or feedback to interrupt them – those internal voices that tell me that I’m not doing enough, that I’m not good enough, that I am worthless and unloved.
Maybe you know what it’s like to struggle with those internal voices as well. And even if you don’t, I’m sure that the last several months still haven’t exactly been an easy time for you. I imagine that you are also tired. I imagine that worry and uncertainty also keep you awake at night. I imagine that you are also worn out from trying to do the best you can for your family and for your community.
For me it can be hard to open up about just how much I have been struggling. It feels risky and vulnerable to speak openly, especially about mental health issues; it often leaves me wondering how other people might see me because of it. And I think that this is at least partly a feature of our culture. We are afraid to show weakness. We feel like we have to be strong – and that being strong means we carry our burdens all on our own.
But in our gospel reading for today, Jesus has something to say – to you, to me, to anyone who might be struggling with a heavy load:
“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, 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.”Matthew 11:28-30
“Rest for your souls” sounds pretty darn good to me right about now. And I imagine that it probably sounds pretty good to you too. Jesus invites us to lay down whatever heavy burdens we may carry – to stop trying to lone wolf our way through life – and to trust him with our troubles instead.
Of course, one important way we do this is through prayer. Like the old hymn goes:
Are we weak and heavy-laden,Hymn: “What a Friend We Have in Jesus“
cumbered with a load of care?
Precious Savior, still our refuge;
take it to the Lord in prayer.
But that’s not the only way that we can lay our cares on Jesus. As Christians, we also know that one of the surest places that we can encounter Christ is in the face of our neighbor – especially where two or three are gathered. After all, together we are the body of Christ, and we are often called to be “little Christs” for one another.
For me, over the last several months, one of the places that I have most encountered Christ is in the cluster meetings I attend every Tuesday (via Zoom, of course). I have been so, so grateful for this little group of fellow clergypeople. We were originally a text study group – and we do sometimes still get around to talking about the texts – but more than anything, our time together now is a time to check in with each other. It’s become a place where I am able to unburden myself, where I know that these dear friends and colleagues will listen to me with love and help to lighten my load.
And I do the same for them. Just as they have helped shoulder the weight of my burdens, I have also helped to take up theirs. Some weeks are harder than others. We even joke that each one of us gets to take our turn having a total meltdown – crying and venting as much as we need to – because we know that the next week we will be there to comfort someone else.
And I think that this is exactly the kind of thing that Jesus is talking about when he says: “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me… for my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
I spent some time researching yokes this week as I was doing my sermon prep. Yokes are a common biblical image – even this stole that I wear is basically the liturgical version of a yoke – but I had never really done much digging into what that symbolism means. The yoke is a farm implement that has been around in some form or another for thousands and thousands of years. And I learned that, while single yokes do exist, designed to be pulled by just one animal, they are a lot less common. It is much more common to see multiple animals yoked together. When they are yoked together, a pair of animals – whether they be oxen, horses, cows, whatever – combine their strength so that they are able to carry a load that neither one of them would be able to pull on their own. In fact, if you look at the word “yoke” in a number of languages – from Latin to German to Greek – you’ll find that the root meaning of the word is to “unite” or “join.”
So taking up Christ’s yoke is not just about making our burden lighter. We are being joined to Christ – we are being yoked together with Christ. Like a pair of oxen yoked together, he joins his strength to ours and helps us to carry our burdens. And when we are yoked together with him, we have to walk where he walks. The call to take up Christ’s yoke is ultimately a call to discipleship.
For me, this calls to mind some of the passages from Romans we’ve been reading over the past couple of weeks. Paul has been rejoicing in our freedom through grace. Yet even as he writes about grace, Paul adamantly reminds his readers that being saved by grace does not mean that we are completely freed from any kind of obligation. Instead, as he wrote in our second reading last week, we have been freed from sin so that we may become servants of God and of one another.
This is the yoke that Jesus is talking about. Grace is the easier yoke that Jesus invites us to take up, the lighter burden he calls us to carry. We have been freed from the yoke of sin and death so that we may now be yoked with Christ. And that means all of us. Being yoked to Christ means that we are also yoked to one another. And being yoked together means that we are called to help carry the burdens of others – just as they help us carry our own. And like I have found with my cluster friends, sharing our burdens makes the load lighter for all of us to bear.
But it’s important to remember that our call as Christians is not just to be yoked with people we know, whose problems we understand. We are also called to share in the burdens of people whose struggles we might not understand. And like we practice in my cluster group, we are especially called to share in the burdens of whoever is hurting the most. Right now this might be the people in our community who are most at risk of contracting the coronavirus – like those working in the packing plant and at the hospital and the grocery stores. It might be the hundreds of food insecure people coming to the food pantry for assistance every single month. It might be our Black siblings and other people of color who are still in the streets mourning the violence against their communities and demanding justice and accountability.
Yoked to Christ, we do not get to choose to only care about some and not care about others.
Instead, laying our burdens on Christ and taking up his yoke means recognizing that we all depend on one another. We are all deeply connected to our neighbors, both near and far, whether we realize it or not – whether we like it or not. We are all one in Christ. And we are called to open ourselves, to allow others to share our burdens and lighten our load; and we are called to keep ourselves open so that we might share the burdens of others in return.
In short, we are called to take up the yoke of grace. We are called to take up the yoke of Christ, who is gentle and humble in heart. His yoke is easy, and his burden is light; and in him, we will all find rest for our weary souls.