Speaker: The Rev'd Emily Griffin
It’s hard to make a yoke sound attractive. It’s also hard to see how the image of a farm tool holds the promise of rest, yet that is what Jesus seems to be offering in today’s Gospel. Again, not so good at the marketing, our Jesus. For those who aren’t up on their primitive farm equipment, a yoke is a wooden crosspiece that is tied across the necks of a couple of animals (typically) so that they pull whatever they’re carrying behind them – usually a cart or plow - more effectively. Is that really good news - that in Jesus we have a way to carry our burdens more productively? Wouldn’t it be preferable, more freeing, not to have to carry them at all?
Personally, I find the models offered by our Old Testament readings today more alluring. Who isn’t drawn in by “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away”? The promise of the Song of Solomon – of young love, of springtime, of escape from the judgmental eyes of others – that sounds a lot more liberating than a yoke. Our psalm each week, or in this case our poem, is chosen to go along with the first reading; it’s not too hard to see why the lectionary paired this with the courtship of Rebekah and Isaac. What’s harder to see, maybe, is why we’re reading either passage in church. Who cares about how two young people met and fell in love? Does it really matter who we’re yoked to? Isn’t this trivial compared to the great issues of our day? Well, let’s take a closer look before we decide what’s important and what’s not.
We’ve fast-forwarded quite a bit from Abraham’s hospitality to strangers a few weeks ago, when his aged wife Sarah had quite the laugh when she overheard the news that they’d finally have a son. Their miracle son, Isaac, has grown up now; he’s of marrying age. Sarah’s just died, and Abraham wants the assurance that his family will continue before he shuffles off this mortal coil. So he sends his most trusted servant back to the land of his people to find a wife for Isaac – the land he’d set off from decades before when God told him to “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” Why not let Isaac find a wife for himself here in Canaan? Well, part of it was ancient Near Eastern custom. People tended to marry within their own kinship group, and marriages weren’t necessarily about love. Besides, Abraham’s not so sure about his newfound neighbors; he doesn’t know what kind of gods they might entice his son to follow. Isaac is, after all, the most passive of the patriarchs; he’s rather easily led. Abraham wants to make sure that Isaac sticks with the God who promised him land and progeny; after that near-sacrifice episode and now the loss of his mother, Isaac’s loyalty to the God of Abraham might understandably be a bit shaky.
The servant sets up a little test for Isaac’s would-be-bride, and Rebekah passes with flying colors. She’s a woman after Abraham’s own heart. We talk a lot about the faith of Abraham and the courage it took to keep following God despite every test; in her own way, Rebekah is no less inspiring (especially for those of us who need a few more matriarchs in our communion of saints.) For what it’s worth, she speaks more words than any other woman in Genesis; in some ways, she’s also the most active and decisive of our early foremothers. She might play favorites with her kids later, but to be fair – so does everybody else in Genesis. And yes, she might make some questionable choices in relation to her sons’ futures; but at least they’re her choices. No one else dare make them for her. I like that about her.
In the first of several parallels to Abraham, Rebekah’s first recorded act is one of extravagant hospitality. It’s one thing to offer a drink to a thirsty man in the desert; anyone might do that. It’s quite another to quench the thirst of ten camels; she becomes a one-woman bucket brigade for no other reason than kindness. She doesn’t know who she’s helping or what the servant’s about to offer; what we might get in return is never the point of hospitality. She simply sees a need and offers to fill it. And for that simple, if wearying act of generosity, her life changes forever. Before the next day is through, she too will leave her country and her father’s house for the land the LORD will show her.
I love these adventurous examples of faith – these invitations to courage, to leap out into the unknown and start a whole new leg of the journey. They help me to know I’m not alone when I need to make a big, life-changing choice. The God of Abraham and Rebekah, the God who cannot possibly be contained by any dot on a map, is with us. That’s good news. And I’ll be honest; I like it when the command is to go and start again; it can be a lot harder when the invitation is to stay and start again. The heroics of the everyday aren’t nearly as obvious.
The truth is - sometimes we are called to stay put and carry our burdens and do the work that is immediately before us. Whatever freedom we’re offered in Christ, it’s not to live a burden-less existence. The demands of justice, the well-being of our loved ones, the commitments we choose that tell us who we are – these are burdens we are meant to carry. I’m not just talking about the commitment of marriage or our commitment to God; there are all kinds of ties that bind – ties created by friendship and family and vocation, ties of hospitality to the stranger, ties that link us to the rest of creation, ties of care that reveal themselves in grief as well as in joy. We can’t just slough off those ties whenever our taste for adventure kicks in – or whenever our shame makes us think we’re not worthy of love or community.
The trick is figuring out which are truly our burdens vs. all those other things we find ourselves carrying. At times we carry the burden of impossible expectations – be it others’ or (more likely) our own. We expect perfection from ourselves, or imagine that’s what God expects from us – and the weight of that can be crushing (not to mention completely unnecessary.) Other times we’re carrying other’s responsibilities for them instead of with them – either because they’ve dropped them on us or because we’ve convinced ourselves that they’re somehow ours alone. Our identity can get wrapped up in carrying as much as possible, as if shouldering all that weight automatically makes us stronger, and therefore better people. It’s these kinds of burdens that Jesus is trying to free us from – so that we have the strength to carry what is actually ours.
Here’s where the image of the yoke may at last prove helpful. When we’re yoked to another – tied so that we’re sharing common work, we’re not carrying our burdens alone anymore. The weight is shared and made bearable. We gain strength from pulling in the same direction and keeping pace with each other. We may not go faster (at least at first), but we’ll definitely go farther in the end. That’s what Jesus’ yoke offers. And rest assured, it’s not all about productivity for productivity’s sake, as if our worth could ever be measured that way. The promise that sustains us in the Christian life is not just the invitation to work, thanks be to God; it’s the promise of rest for our souls – time to lay our burdens down so that we can pick them up again, time for us to dream and open ourselves to whatever God has for us next, whether it’s to go - or to stay. Or as Jesus puts it, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” Sounds like good news to me.
In the silence that follows, I invite you to consider who God has yoked you to in this season of your life. It could be your spouse or partner, but it doesn’t have to be. It could also be a co-worker, a friend, a family member, even this community here at St. Alban’s. It could, and probably should, be more than one person. No one person is meant to be Jesus for us. Who is Jesus trying to speak and act through in your life today? Who can you share your work with and find rest with? In the Name of the One who knows better than to let us go it alone – Amen.