July 9, Fifth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 9):
Draft text of the homily, it may vary considerably from the recorded version. Please pardon any typos, and do not cite without permission.
“Take my yoke upon you and learn from me…for my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
It’s another one of those paradoxical images that Jesus presents us with.
Yokes are those wooden or metal things that go over the heads of animals (usually oxen or mules) and make them pull together.
Usually yokes are metaphors for endless, thankless toil…subservience…oppression… In the book of Leviticus, God reminds the Israelites that God is the one who “brought you out of Egypt, so that you would no longer be slaves…broke the bars of your yoke and enabled you to walk with your heads held high.” (Lev. 26:13).
Slavery and tyranny are yokes.
Yet, today Jesus gives us a more positive image of yokes…his yoke…which he assures us is easy. Jesus is focusing on a slightly different aspect of yokes…the relational one. Because the primary function of a yoke is to bind two animals together. Once bound they can then plow, or pull, or move in the same direction…increasing the power…and the force of the work, because they’re doing it together.
Jesus wants us to be yoked together with him…helping him do his work.
Let me offer a midrash on yokes. A midrash is a way of interpreting scripture used by many rabbis. This particular midrash comes from Rabbi Robert Zimmerman (you may have heard of him…he’s also known as Bob Dylan).
“You may be an ambassador to England or France
You may like to gamble, you might like to dance
You may be the heavyweight champion of the world
You may be a socialite with a long string of pearls
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody,
You may be a business man or some high-degree thief
They may call you doctor or they may call you chief
You may be a state trooper, you might be a young Turk
You may be the head of some big TV network
You may be rich or poor, you may be blind or lame
You may be living in another country under another name
You may be a construction worker working on a home
You may be living in a mansion or you might live in a dome
You might own guns and you might even own tanks
You might be somebody’s landlord, you might even own banks
Might like to wear cotton, might like to wear silk
Might like to drink whiskey, might like to drink milk
You might like to eat caviar, you might like to eat bread
You may be sleeping on the floor, sleeping in a king-sized bed
Still, you’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes
You’re gonna have to serve somebody
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody.” [Copyright © 1979 by Special Rider Music]
We are all yoked to something. And what we’re yoked to might be oppressive, or it might be redemptive…but were all yoked…you gotta serve somebody.
That’s why very wise spiritual directors often say, “if you want to know what people really care about…what’s really important to them—what they are truly yoked to—take a look at their checking accounts, their calendars, and (these days) their web browser history. These things tell us what we are truly yoked to.
So think about that…You gotta serve somebody….So what are you are yoked to? What are the things that captivate your interest?…that command your attention?…are they simply things that you consume?…or are they things consuming you?
Here’s another question…how are you yoked to Jesus? To God? What about that relationship? When you take a look at all of the things that command your time and attention (and yes money)…where is God in all of that? How are you nurturing and developing and growing that relationship?
It is so easy for that relationship to drop off the calendar…slip from the radar…and keep moving further and further down the priority list.
Benedictine nun Joan Chittister writes: “It is so easy for good people to confuse their own work with the work of creation. It is so easy to come to believe that what we do is so much more important than what we are. It is so easy to simply get too busy to grow. It is so easy to commit ourselves to this century’s demand for product and action until the product consumes us and the actions exhaust us and we can no longer ever remember why we set out to do them in the first place.” And she reminds us of the “ The hard fact […] that nobody FINDS time for prayer. The time must be taken. There will always be something more pressing to do, something more important than the apparently fruitless, empty act of prayer.” (Chittister, Wisdom Distilled from the Daily, p 30-31).
You gotta serve somebody…it may be the devil, or it may be the Lord, but you’re gonna have to serve somebody. “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me…” What is it that we learn…when we allow ourselves to be yoked to Jesus? The way of prayer is the place where most of us begin… And what do I mean by prayer? My favorite definition of prayer is “wasting time with God.” It might appear to all the world like the most unproductive way to spend your time…but that’s sort of the point. By the way of prayer, I mean taking time—every day—to be open to God…open enough to changed by God…open enough to begin to understand all of the ways that we are yoked to God and to one another, individually communally.…
Yes, prayer is sometimes talking to God…but more often it’s just listening. You probably know the story of when Mother Teresa was asked what she said to God in prayer? She replied, “I don’t say anything, I just listen.” So then her interviewer asked, “so what does God say to you.” She said, “God doesn’t say anything, God just listens.” It’s fine to talk to God in prayer, but the real function of prayer isn’t to get God to change (although we often act like it is), the function of prayer is to change us…it’s to enable us to put on the mind God…to bind ourselves to the yoke of Christ. Taking time every day…to be with God…to feel yourself yoked to God…Through our regular practices we come to understand that prayer is less something we do, and more like the filter through which we see everything. Prayer is what makes us conscious of God’s presence, and binds us more and more fully to God’s will.
We’re all yoked to something…many things actually. What are the things that you are yoked to? Are they destructive or redemptive? Do they open up spaces for real listening and silence, or are they just filling the space with more noise? Do they help you remember who you are, and why you’re here, or do they try to convince you that you’re not enough…? Remember, you gotta serve somebody, and we have the assurance that if we take Christ’s yoke upon us, and learn from him…that his burden will be light…and we will find rest.