I have been trapped in a bureaucratic nightmare for a long time, but in the last few months the situation has intensified. In short, one of my children’s birth certificate is not accurate due to a mistake on behalf of North Carolina Vital Records. Their name is wrong, and actually mine is too. However, their name is right in the social security system. It has been round and round for a very long time. It sounds dramatic, but I have literally cried on the phone with representatives from Vital Records, simply out of frustration. Earlier this week, someone told me “we believe the mistake was made in our office but we don’t know how to fix it.” To which I responded, “so what do I do now?!” It remains to be seen. Also, NC Vital Records is a year behind on processing birth certificates, so no one can speak to the timeline of resolution. On the one hand, I trust that at some point, we will be able to get this resolved. I realize it isn’t a true crisis, but on the other hand, it is so frustrating and infuriating, and potentially really harmful for my kid. I don’t have to tell you all why it is important to have a birth certificate. It’s like this burden that I’m always carrying, just sitting there in the back of my mind as a knot that I have to figure out how to untangle and I just don’t know how. It just feels too hard.
There are moments in life when we feel like too many things are out of our control. Life can sometimes just feel too hard. I know you know what I’m talking about. Your burden is different (at least I hope it is). Maybe yours is the overwhelming and terrifying diagnosis of someone you love. Maybe it is a broken relationship that shows no sign of healing. Maybe for you it is physical, financial, maybe it is an addiction, a mental health crisis. Perhaps yours is domestic violence or physical or emotional abuse. Maybe your burden is that you quite simply have more on your to-do list than your schedule can accommodate. Maybe your burden is feeling like you need to be perfect, to have it all together. Maybe your burden is feeling like a fraud, feeling faithless. Maybe it is a combination of these things- a buffet of struggles, a pu pu platter of hardship.
And of course, there are people who live in situations far different and more dire than ours. Parents who are watching their children starve or suffer from thirst. People who don’t have a safe place to live. People whose suffering permeates every moment of their lives. We might hear Jesus’ words here in Matthew 11 and want to scream. “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens”?! Who isn’t tired? Who isn’t carrying heavy burdens? It’s an invitation that might seem insulting to those of us who find ourselves exhausted with caregiving, with frustration, with loneliness, with fear. Or maybe it just feels stressful. “On top of everything else, I have to somehow have to figure out how to have a deeper relationship with Jesus? I don’t have the energy for that.”
I trust that Jesus understands our feelings. The invitation to come to Jesus isn’t another “to do,” it isn’t guilt or shame that if you had a better relationship with Christ your life would be easier. It isn’t any of that- it’s an invitation into holy rest. Jesus says “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. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” The metaphor of the yoke may be familiar to you. Imagine a team of oxen working to plow a field. The two animals would be held together by a wooden yoke that stretches across their necks to ensure that the team stays together, working side-by-side and matching pace. A good yoke would be specialized for the particular oxen who use it. The farmer would trim and sand it to fit their exact bodies because if the yoke fit badly it would cut into the animal’s body, cause blisters, and rub the ox’s skin raw. And of course, an injured animal can’t work. The fit of the yoke matters.
At the end of this section, Jesus says “my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” The word there often translated as “easy” is the Greek chrestos. Probably a better translation would be more like “kind, good, or useful.” It’s not that Jesus’ yoke is easy breezy or that it takes no effort, Jesus is saying that his yoke is the kind that will fit you properly. It won’t cut into your back or chafe. Jesus’ yoke will enable you to do the right work the right way.
But “yoke” was actually a common metaphor in Jesus’ time. It was often used (and still is!) to describe a disciple taking on the teachings of a specific rabbi, or teacher. If you were the disciple of a rabbi, you would take on the yoke of those teachings. You would live by their interpretation of the law. So, when Jesus invites his hearers to come and he says this about his yoke, he’s inviting the tired and heavy laden to follow him, his way of life, and to know that his teachings will be good, and kind. Jesus is inviting us to a life that is made easier rather than harder by his presence in it.
After these words, Matthew transitions to recount a story in which Jesus uses an object lesson to teach about the sabbath. The Pharisees saw Jesus’ disciples snacking on the tiny grains they plucked as they walked. For the Pharisees, this picking counted as work, and so was against the Sabbath law. But rather than rebuke his disciples, Jesus reminds the Pharisees that the revered King David did a much more profane thing by eating the bread of God’s presence from the Temple. His point is that the Sabbath is meant to be a gift, not a burden.
Taken together, Jesus makes some very clear points in these verses. First, I think Jesus’ words about the yoke should cause us to ask, “am I yoked to the right thing?” In the same way that a poorly fitted yoke would harm an animal, a poorly fitted yoke will harm us. Carrying burdens that are not ours to carry? Exhausting. Attempting to control things that are out of our control? Frustrating. Worrying about other people’s opinions of us? Fruitless. Living in expectation of bad things? Depriving us of joy now. If your burden is too heavy, if you’re exhausted and faltering, maybe your yoke is the wrong one. Perhaps you’re living up to ideals that don’t match up to what God desires for your life. Perhaps you’re pulling burdens that simply don’t belong to you.
There’s another piece of the yoke image that’s important. It can’t be used alone. A yoke is for two animals. So, part of what Jesus is reminding us is that we are not meant to carry our burdens alone. Hebrews 4 reminds us that Jesus can empathize with our suffering, with our weaknesses. Jesus is with us in whatever situation we find ourselves, and so we can take comfort in the scriptural invitation to “cast our cares upon the Lord.” Not only that, but in Galatians 6:2, we’re told to “bear one another’s burdens.” Just as one ox cannot plow the field alone, we are not meant to do our work, to carry our burdens alone. We do life together, that is how it is meant to be.
Brain science actually supports the value of sharing our struggles with other people. When you’re in that exhausted, frustrated, agitated, or aggravated place, the part of your brain called the amygdala is in control. The amygdala helps you to evaluate threats and make the right choices in response. But science shows that when we can talk or write about what’s happening for us, other parts of our brain kick in and help us process what’s happening. The big, hard thing shrinks and softens and becomes a little more manageable simply because we’ve told the story and put words to the experience. So literally, we were created to do life together, to not have to carry our burdens alone. Last weekend I was in my hometown and my sister and I were getting dinner. It had been a long, hard day, and as we followed the hostess to our table, I heard my name. My best friend of nearly 35 years just happened to eating in that same restaurant with her family. She knew why my day had been hard and gave me the best, tightest hug. And then we ate dinner with our respective families. That hug, those 10 seconds of squeezing felt like grace. We are not meant to do this all alone.
Finally, we turn our attention to the lesson about the Sabbath. I find it interesting that keeping the Sabbath is the one of the Ten Commandments that we blatantly ignore. In the order of the Ten Commandments, it’s the hinge that bridges the rules that structure our relationship with God and our relationship with others. Sabbath keeping echoes throughout scripture, but very few Christians take it seriously. Perhaps we mistook Jesus’ permissiveness to mean that practicing the Sabbath is optional. It is not.
Over and over, we are told to keep the Sabbath day holy. Yes, absolutely, Jesus is reminding us here that living merciful lives is more important than flawlessly keeping the Sabbath according to the law from Moses. But Jesus never says that we should not keep the Sabbath. In fact, the opposite is true. Over and over, we find Jesus setting an example for us by going off alone for prayer, quiet, and rest. Jesus kept the Sabbath.
And it wasn’t because he was tired. Jesus kept the Sabbath because time spent resting with God, in whatever form, is a gift from God. In our country, in our society, we have come to believe that our value is in what we can do, what we can produce, how we spend our time, perhaps even in how much our burdens weigh. None of that is true though, or at least it’s not the deepest, truest true. The truest truth is this: we were made to glorify God and enjoy God forever. And that happens not in our frantic hauling of impossibly heavy burdens, it happens in rest.
In resting, we find creative solutions to our problems, we have new ideas, we find energy we didn’t otherwise have. In resting we can learn from God and others- perhaps our approach was wrong all along. In resting we can stop and see situations from a new angle. We reprioritize; we learn what matters. In resting, we learn who we are, in a much deeper way than a birth certificate can tell us, by the way.
There’s a story of a father who was trying to work with his young son at home. Of course, the child was distracting, as most children are. Many times, the child disrupted his dad’s work, and the dad was really doing his best to not get snappy and grumpy with his son. Finally, the dad had an idea. He grabbed a nearby magazine and opened it to a page that had a world map printed on it. He tore the page out and then ripped the page into several small pieces, essentially making a puzzle. He handed it to his son, feeling smugly proud of having invented an educational activity that would surely occupy the child for 10 minutes at least. So, you can imagine the dad’s astonishment when his son had reassembled the world map in under a minute.
“How did you do that so quickly?” the dad asked. “You don’t know what the world looks like!”
“Easy,” his son replied. “There was a picture of a person on the other side of the page. And I knew when the person was right, the world would be too.” That is an image of Sabbath- making the world right by making ourselves right. We do it by accepting Jesus’ yoke, the yoke that fits, by sharing our burdens with God and with others, and by finding the rest he gives us.
Friends, we must seek the kind of holy rest that makes us right. We must seek the kind of peace and wholeness that comes from time with God. We need to accept the invitation Jesus offers for us to exchange our damaging yokes for Jesus’ life-giving yoke. When we slow down and prioritize restful time with God, perhaps we will find that we’ve made the world a little closer to right. May we, in our holy rest, join in God’s work of healing the world. Amen.