Just a heads up. There won’t be a Bible Study next weekend. The first weekend of November is when my siblings and spouses and some of the grandkids will gather in Paris, Tennessee to inter the ashes of my father. Dad has been sitting on our mantel since shortly after his death. We had him cremated, as he requested, and will bury him next to Mom in the cemetery across the street from the house they lived in for almost forty years. It will be a celebration of life and family and love, as well as the sadness of the end of an era and the grief of losing the last parent of our generation.
We chose this weekend because it is the anniversary of his birth. He would have been 89 on that Saturday, November third. The church Dad and Mom attended there in Paris is throwing a Birthday Party reception for us after the graveside service. My siblings and assorted family members are gathering in a cabin in a nearby state park. Partly because Dad loved camping and the outdoors, partly because it can accommodate us all, and partly because it will be good to be a family again, even if for a short time. For the last time.
Who knows whether we will have occasion to all gather together again? We can say we will do it, but will we? We might connect in other ways in this technologically rich world in which we live, but will we occupy the same space again, like we did when we sat on the floor in our footie pajamas and blinked our way through a Christmas morning? We’re losing something next weekend, a father, yes, but also the glue that held us together, the reason we gathered when we did. We spent the last however many years gathering because we needed to provide care for Mom, or make decisions about Dad. Before that it was so that Mom and Dad wouldn’t be alone on Christmas. So, what will bring us together now? We can make the effort. We can pledge to stay connected, to stay close, but given what else is going on in all of our disparate lives, will we? Can we carry this load along with all the other loads we are given to carry?
Matthew 11:28-30 "Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. 29 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. 30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light."
Contextually, Jesus was referring to the burdens placed on the people of God by those in leadership who expanded on the law. When God gave the law to Moses on Mt. Sinai it was a pretty simple thing. Ten Commandments carved onto two stone tablets - straightforward, clear and concise, just what we expect from laws! Right? Uh, no. Ever read the simplified tax code from the US Government?
God tried to keep things simple. There were laws about how to worship and laws about how to live in community - and what else do you need? Well, heaped on top of these ten laws were literally thousands of interpretations and applications that also must be followed in order to stay right. It became so onerous that no one could remember them all let alone obey them. So, every one lived out of sync with God’s law, at least according to those in charge. Most people wanted to be right, wanted to follow the law, but it was impossible. So, they lived with the burden of not being right, not being pure enough to worship, not having access to God, except through those in charge who guarded the gates religiously.
Jesus came along and said “take my yoke.” One of the concepts we struggle with in this passage is the fact that there is a yoke to take and that there is rest to receive. Which is it Jesus? Yoke or rest? A yoke implies work, and rest implies ... well ... NOT work. We like the rest thing, aren’t too sure about the yoke thing, to be honest. Even if it is easy and light.
Someone called this passage the Great Invitation. That makes four “Greats” that I can identify. There is the Great Commission - “Go and Make Disciples” (Matthew 28:19); the Great Commandment - “You shall love the Lord” (Matthew 22:37 et al); the Great Requirement “Do justice, love kindness, walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8); and now the Great Invitation - “Come to me” (Matthew 11:28).
But the real question is, to what are we invited? Is it work or is it rest? Labor and struggle, or vacation and getting away from it all? Is this about heaven or about earth? Yes. To all that precedes. Yes. And no. The invitation is to a relationship. “Take MY yoke,” says Jesus, “and learn from me.” He is inviting us into a partnership, to labor alongside him in the fields of the Lord. He wants us to take on his spirit, his heart. He asks of us to be “gentle and humble in heart” as we live and work in this world. It is not a task so much as a way of living, a way of being alive.
So, it IS a yoke. There IS a burden. But it is a yoke that is easy and burden that is light. Does that mean that there is no effort here? That it is something we do without thinking, without straining? Not necessarily. “Easy” in this case really means “well-fitting.” The yoke that Christ offers is a yoke that fits us, it is right for us. It doesn’t rub in the wrong places and make us sore. There is effort, there is struggle at times, but it is good effort, it is healthy struggle and we feel the better for it. The burden of walking in the way of Christ is light because it is right, it is good, it builds us up rather than takes us down.
Christ doesn’t offer us an effortless life, but one that means something. We don’t get a struggle free life, but one that accomplishes something, and makes a difference in the world. Those around us are better because we are there. We are better, happier, more whole. That is the promise.
Sounds good, but it doesn’t sound like rest to me. Unless by rest he meant something other than what we first imagine. Unless he meant something like the antidote to restlessness. That what he was offering was not so much a sun drenched beach upon which to kick back and nap, but a sense of belonging and of purpose that allows us to know that we are right, we are in sync with our deepest selves and with our loved ones (which is always a bigger crowd than we acknowledge) and with him. The offer of rest is another way of describing salvation, which has less to do with the gates of heaven and more to with the fields we plow when we are yoked to Christ. Certainly there is a promise of eternity and an invitation into the presence of God, but that promise and that presence are what make the burden of living so light and what make the yoke of Christ so easy. We will find, says Jesus, rest for our souls. Our backs are into the labors of love, our shoulders are bent to the tasks of justice, our hands are busy with the works of kindness, but our souls are at rest.
We conclude our Micah 6:8 series this week. “Do justice, Love mercy, walk humbly with God.” This is not, I’ve come believe, a checklist that we can mark off one by one. Instead it is a formula that only together is it even possible. Doing justice is a task beyond us, frankly. It is too big, too intensive, too worldview for our individual minds. Unless we learn to love through acts of kindness to each and everyone around us. When we love kindness (and notice it is love kindness, not do kindness. There is something about the motivation that makes a difference) we begin to do justice. When we act locally we think globally! But, then how do we love enough to act kindly to everyone we encounter? That seems beyond us. And it is. Unless we can walk humbly with God. Not just walk with God. Many of us want to walk with God, and serve in an advisory capacity, telling God what ought to be done. But we’re called to walk humbly with God. Which means first of all acknowledging that God is God and we are not. Walk humbly with God until hesed, God’s steadfast love, and mispat, God’s desire for justice, begin to rub off on us. Walking humbly with God is offering yourself to the yoke of Christ. Walking humbly with God is not about feeling inadequate or shamed, keeping our head down in sorrow. It is about keeping our heads up that we might see God at work in and through us and then all around us too. It is to join up in the kingdom building force that does justice and loves kindness because God does that too. Keep your head up, and see the face of God.
I have walked with my family for my whole life, humbly and not so, I must confess. So, I’ll keep my head up and keep holding on to them as we walk into the future God has in store. Walk with me.