We Are Not Alone
A Sermon by the Rev. Janet L. Abel
Preached on Sunday, July 13, 2014
What Jesus Didn’t Say
We are not alone. A great passage of Scripture and one of my personal favorites is the excerpt from Matthew 11: 28 that I just read (NRSV): “Come to me, all you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens.” There are times in our lives when we know that this excerpt hits us in a special way. We need these timeless words. Other times we may be less vulnerable and less receptive to them. So what makes a burden heavy? By its very definition, a burden is always heavy.
Here’s what Jesus didn’t say: Come unto me all you who are skipping with happiness. Come unto me all you who have not a care in the world, you who are completely happy. Know that this invitation is issued to those who have some burden they are carrying. The weight of the world is on their shoulders. In the Greek – which I often bring up since I suffered through an entire year of Greek – it translates as “all those who toil and having been laden.”
We’re all toilers at something at some time. Thankfully, however, work doesn’t always feel like toil, does it? Every job, inside and outside the home, can sometimes feel like toil, and at other times it’s a blessing. Aside from the obvious, work has seasons, like life. At times work is wonderful; it gives us purpose, something to do, and it goes well. At other times it really feels like toil. It’s both, a little like toil, nothing major.
You know I have two cats at home. One, named Steve, is two and a bit of a character. We’re close, and I occasionally joke that Steve is my fiancé. People at work are confused because I sometimes wear my mother’s diamonds. When he’s bad, which is frequently, I take the ring off. This morning when I got up, the curtains were on the floor, with the curtain-rod brackets down somewhere on a chair. I thought, that’s just great! The last thing I wanted to do was to hang curtains before going to work. But I did. It was a bit toilsome, but not bad.
The Seasons of Life Include Both Toil and Rest
Life has its seasons, and, like life, work is sometimes toil and sometimes not. The second half of the invitation is for all those who are carrying heavy burdens. What might those burdens be? What is it that can make life heavy? But burdens are a fact of life, aren’t they? A burden is a load that we’re given or that we take on. We can assume a burden either way. It can result from a diagnosis of disease, from a job that ends with no other job in sight, from a new job that’s just beginning, from a new term of office here at the church, from a family member who’s in trouble, or from any one of hundreds of other causes of a new burden.
I have a friend for whose husband we prayed for a long time. He died in early May. Then just a couple of weeks ago, her sister came to my friend’s front door at 5:30 in the morning – you know that’s not a good sign – and told her that her grandson had been in a serious car accident. He lingered between life and death for weeks in the ICU, and it felt too heavy for my friend. She was being handed too much, on top of grieving for her husband. She was additionally burdened with worry about her grandson, not knowing whether he was going to make it or not.
Sometimes we’re given too many burdens at once. It’s been said that we’re not given any more than we can carry, but that’s not true, is it? Occasionally we get too much. And then there’s the thing itself that happens, the cause of the worry and anxiety that surround it. That too is a terrible burden. Sometimes I think it’s often worse than the thing itself. Anxiety and fear cut us off, isolate us. That’s also an awful burden. I had been thinking about illness itself, but isolation is one of the worst things about being sick. Whether mentally or physically, we feel cut off. We feel as though no one understands what we’re going through when we’re ill.
A Prescription for Rest
“Come to me all you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” Oh, that word “rest.” That’s a much more agreeable word, isn’t it, than “burden”? What comes to your mind when I say the word “rest”? What is your favorite image of rest? I think there’s nothing more restful than lolling about in a hammock on a summer day, when you should be doing yard work. If you come to my house, you can tell I’ve made my peace with weeds. I’ve decided that they deserve as much of a chance at life as do plants.
There’s something about hammocks. I sleep better there than almost anywhere else. My couch also comes to mind when I think about rest. It faces the TV, the stereo, and the fireplace. I love my couch, I really do. And as I get older, I have to tell you, there are times when I’m toiling that I picture my couch and can’t wait to get home to it.
Vacations are a special treat in these summer months. A lot of you have been away or might be going away. Beach or mountains, camp. Swimming and grilling, picnics. Good sleep at night is good rest, and that is a blessing when we realize that insomnia deprives some of us of sleep. That’s a burden, not being able to sleep. And after a good rest on vacation, there’s less pain on sitting or standing. Some of us know what that’s like on a daily basis. And perhaps the ability to rid ourselves of anxiety, of fear, of isolation. That’s no easy thing to do, is it?
“Take My Yoke Upon You”
In the three last verses of Matthew 11, Jesus is getting at how to do just that. Don’t we all want to hand over our burdens? Don’t we want to worry less? Don’t we want the load of what we’re carrying at least to feel lighter? But frankly, we can’t always hand off what we’ve been handed in life. It’s our load to carry. But Jesus said to us, “Take my yoke upon you.” Excuse me? When I first read that, I thought, “How does that lighten our load?”
And what is a yoke anyway? You’ve seen it in the movies, or maybe some of you know from a farm what a yoke is, how oxen are yoked together. It’s a big two-piece wood-and-metal contraption that curves over the base of the necks of a team and under their necks, against which the force of drawing is exerted by their shoulders.
And Jesus is saying, here, are you heavy-laden? Clunk. Sounds odd, doesn’t it? How does that lighten our load? Well, two oxen wear that yoke so they can pull and plow more effectively together. Their load is theoretically cut in half. Not only does it keep them together, but it also spreads out the burden of whatever it is they’re pulling, the plow or the cart.
In a similar manner, humans can bear their burdens more effectively by working together.
In the Ancient Near East (ANE, shorthand for the time period in which Jesus lived), during the old days of Israel and the Middle East, this mechanism was used on human beings in order to control them as prisoners or slaves. You’ve probably seen that in the movies too, when actors wore those wooden contraptions with their arms attached to them. It’s not a pretty image to think of these things in use on humans, even in the early days of our own country.
A yoke was a symbol of control, ownership and service, and early on it became a mark of slavery, which was common. Marks or brands were also used to identify slaves. Earrings too, as well as tattoos. Forced economic or political labor was known as “bearing the yoke,” as Israel bore the yoke of Imperial Rome. Is that the kind of yoke that Jesus meant? “Take my yoke upon you.” I don’t think so.
The Yoke as a Symbol: You’re Never Alone
So what Jesus really means is that we’re never really alone. Our heavy burdens can make us think so, but Jesus is right there because we are all connected. And if we feel that connection, for that’s what the yoke represents, then we know, deep in our soul, that we’re never alone. We’re all here to help carry each other’s burdens.
And that’s why our last two hymns today are “Abide with Me” (you’re right here with me) and “Blest Be the Tie That Binds.” Take my yoke upon you, and there you will find rest for your soul. What kind of rest is that? It’s not just putting our feet up, is it? Not the kind we get from lying on a beach in Hawaii. But it’s the kind of rest we feel inside, no matter what is going on in our lives. The knowledge, the sure knowledge that all will be well and we that have nothing to fear. We are never, never alone.
So “Come to me all you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest,” says Jesus. “You will find rest for your souls, for my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”