Matthew 11

We Christians have some old stories. One of the oldest is about work in Genesis Chapter 2—

“Long ago, God made the man Adam and placed him in the garden ‘to till it and keep it.’ It was a place of abundance. Tilling was not hard in the place loaded with fruit trees. Adam and Eve knew the satisfaction of labor and the joy of a job well done without struggling for it.

“But when the man and the woman disobeyed God, they brought a curse on themselves. Work was no longer a joy or satisfaction, but toil. God said, “Cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust and to dust you shall return.”

It is a sad story, one which we recognize not only from our scriptures, but also from our own lives. We know the difference between enjoying our work and the tyranny of work. Sometimes it can just be sheer volume that makes the difference. When the demands of work increase, it leads to higher stress levels, worse physical health, higher rates of depression, and a reduced ability to take care of oneself. One feels under compulsion to work; it is no longer something freely taken on—it’s toil. And that lack of freedom saps the joy and satisfaction out of our efforts and our lives—a curse indeed.

But there is another old story about work. Genesis Chapter 1 tells how God made the world in seven days, beginning with light, moving on to water and dry land, the plants and animals, all saying how God’s work was good. On the sixth day, God created human beings. We usually think of this as God’s final act in creation, but actually, God creates something on the seventh day: Sabbath—Sabbath which means literally, “To cease, desist.” In other words, to rest. The crowning effort of God’s creation is actually not work, but rest, and that Sabbath rest forms the order of God’s universe.

It is this tension between work and rest that Jesus addresses when he says, “Come to me, all who are weak and heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take up my yoke and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble of heart, and you’ll find rest for your souls, for my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

The yoke was a well-known symbol in Jesus’ day. It was indeed used for agriculture to harness the labor of an animal, but it was also used as a sign of subjugation. Prisoners of war and slaves were forced to wear yokes. As a people living in an occupied land, paying tribute to Rome, the day laborers and peasants of Jesus’ day lived hand to mouth. They were trapped like a yoked animal in a cycle of poverty and oppression from which they could not escape.
But Jesus’ yoke was different. Like other rabbis of his day, Jesus’ yoke was his teaching, and his disciples willingly took it on. Their work in following Jesus signaled their freely made commitment to him.

This yoke would indeed harness the work of Jesus’ followers, but it was not a forced labor—wearing the yoke was a labor of love. For the person who wore it received rest—Sabbath rest—being part of created order as God intended it. In God’s order, there is no exploiter and exploited, no excess or poverty; all contribute, and all receive.

Those of us who gather this morning come from different situations around work.

Some are fortunate enough to do what they love, and on the balance feel happy and fulfilled. Others are at a point in their lives where they do not need to work for income and can choose what they take on. Still others are working stressful jobs, with little security. For them, there is not a lot of wiggle room. Given all these differences, what would it mean to take on Jesus’ yoke in our lives—at work, at home, here at church and our other voluntary commitments?

I think the answer to this question begins with assessing how you feel about your commitments. Do they feel heavy?  Is there a sense of dread or resentment? Does the word ‘should’ come up a lot when you speak about this work? Or is there joy, a lightness or ease with which you approach the commitment? Is there something that stirs excitement about what you are doing?

It is surprising how often we lose sight of this basic analysis. We think that because we have said yes to something that it would be wrong to step back. This can be especially true at church. It’s as if somehow the work is holy, and that we should just keep on going even if we are burning out.

But Jesus clearly wants disciples who are eager to pull with him in the yoke, and eagerness cannot be faked. Jesus’ yoke is fitted—that is, it matches up genuinely with one’s passion and calling. Those things change over time. When a person lets go of a commitment that has become burdensome, that makes room to try something new—to find a new avenue to serve, rejuvenate, rest. It opens the community to change as well, as some ideas and activities end their life cycle, leaving space for others to begin.

Jesus invites his followers into the order that God created in the beginning: an order of gratifying labor and enjoyable rest. Jesus invites us to wear his yoke, to take it on freely, and to find there freedom in serving, to find our efforts matched by his, and to see with joy how much we accomplish together.

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