The Yoke’s On You

Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

So how’s it going for you?  Are you getting a good handle on life in 2020?  How are your stress levels?  I mean, I know Jesus told us not to worry (Matthew 6, Luke 12), but sweet Lord, have you looked at 2020?  So far we have had a pandemic that looks like it’s going to be around for quite a while, we’ve had an economic collapse, and recovery doesn’t seem to be looking all that imminent, the stock market is bouncing up and down like a yo-yo,  ongoing civil unrest and demonstrations for racial justice have rocked our cities and spread across the globe, we’ve seen increasing political polarization as the election draws closer, we’ve stumbled through botched primary elections— All things considered, there’s more than a little to be stressed about.  Even nature seems to be in on the conspiracy of turmoil.  We’ve had record high temperatures in Siberia, Sahara dust storms landing on the American South, we’ve got Murder Hornets showing up in the Pacific Northwest, and now they’re warning that alligators in Florida may be more aggressive because of crystal meth that’s been flushed down the toilets.  Oh, also there’s a newly discovered species of shark in the Australian archipelago that can walk on its fins and briefly leave the water.  Fun times. 

So, in light of all that, how’s it going for you?  

You know, most people I talk to simply say they’re doing fine.  Just fine.

Do you know what fine stands for?  F.I.N.E.  Frazzled, Insecure, Neurotic and Emotional.  FINE.  Thank you to Pastor Kevin Mohr for that useful definition.  

Frazzled, Insecure, Neurotic and Emotional.  Yep.  I think we’re all just FINE.  And we’ve been FINE since even before the pandemic.  It’s no wonder that the world has developed so many coping mechanisms for reducing stress.  

Aside from guided meditation and mindful breathing and prayer (remember prayer?), here are a few of my favorites.

  • According to The Atlantic magazine, cleanfluencers have become very popular for helping people destress.  You say you don’t know what a cleanfluencer is?  That’s a person, usually a woman, who cleans her house or apartment on social media.  Apparently, thousands of people find it a great stress reliever to watch this.  Many swear that watching one of these 10 to 25-minute videos is just the ticket to help them fall asleep when nothing else will.
  • This next one is a little gross, but I swear it’s true.  Some people, especially younger ones in their teens and twenties, find pimple popping videos relaxing.  Yes, you heard that correctly.  These are videos of dermatologists such as Dr. Sandra Lee, known to her millions of viewers on YouTube as Dr. Pimple-Popper, using the proper tools to correctly extract the goo from blackheads and whiteheads.  According to Time.com there are several theories about why people find watching this so satisfying and relaxing.  Personally, I think it’s the catharsis of seeing something unhealthy and unsightly so quickly opened, and the bad stuff removed.  Problem solved. There’s a theological metaphor there just begging to be exploited but I’ll save it for another day.
  • I think my favorite recent example, though, of people being inventive in dealing with stress comes from Japan.  When Itaru Sasaki’s cousin died he was overcome with grief.  Itaru and his cousin had grown up in the same town and been best friends all their lives.  But with his cousin gone, he missed the times when they would hike to the top of the hill that overlooked the town of Otsuchi and just sit together and talk about anything and everything.  

   Then Itaru had an idea.  At the top of that hill where they had had so many long conversations, he built a white phone booth out of wood and glass.  Inside the booth he installed a chair and an old rotary-dial phone that wasn’t connected to anything.  Whenever he felt the need, he would hike up to the phone booth and dial his cousin’s number on what he called kaze no denwa, the Wind Phone, because his words to his cousin would be carried on the wind.  

   About a year after he had built the Wind Phone, the town of Otsuchi and that whole region were hit by a triple calamity, an earthquake, followed by a tsunami, followed by a nuclear meltdown.  More than 10% of the population of Otsuchi was lost.  A few of Itaru’s friends who knew about the Wind Phone began to ask if they could use it, too, and it wasn’t long until a steady stream of visitors began to make their way up the hill to dial the numbers of their lost loved ones so they could speak to them on the wind, to say the things left unsaid, to make confessions, to just chat about things, or to simply say one more time, ‘I love you.’  Before long, people were not only coming from all over Japan, but from distant parts of the world to deal with the stress of their grief by speaking to the departed on the Wind Phone.

Stress isn’t new.  It was just as common in ancient Judea as it is in our modern world.  Everyone was carrying some kind of burden.  Everyone was under some kind of yoke.

According to Rob Bell, when a rabbi in ancient Judea recruited a bright young student to be his disciple, he would drape his stole over the student’ shoulders and say, “Take my yoke upon you and follow me.” If the student was willing to be that rabbi’s disciple and learn his way of interpreting scripture, he would reply, “I take your yoke upon me.”  From that moment he would be a disciple and, for all intents and purposes, a slave to the rabbi in hopes that he, too, might someday become a rabbi.  The disciple would prepare the rabbi’s meals, run his errands, prepare his writing materials, serve as his bodyguard, and carry his belongings when he traveled.  It was no easy thing.  It was a kind of voluntary slavery.

“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest,” says Jesus.  “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.” 

Honestly, I think sometimes we misunderstand what Jesus is telling us here.  I have frequently heard people refer to this saying of Jesus as if he is offering to solve all their problems.  But I just don’t see Jesus volunteering to be our panacea or our get out of jail free card.  I do believe, however, that we can take him at his word.

He is making the invitation to discipleship.  But he is not making us his slaves. He is offering us an alternative way of life, a more peaceful way.  He is offering to teach us his understanding not only of scripture but of God and he has only one interpretive principle: Love.  Love God, love your neighbor, love yourself.

We can lay our burdens down at the feet of Jesus and rest.  We can shake off whatever yokes we’ve been laboring under and take up his gentler, easier, lighter yoke as an act of love.

We can lay aside the soul-killing burden of always trying to be worthy of love, of always trying to be good enough, because Jesus reminds us that we are loved and invites to live in the community of the beloved.  

We can put down the burden of striving for status because Jesus has told us that we are children of God, and there is no status in heaven or earth higher than that.  

We can stop striving to be visible, to be admired, because Jesus has told us that God sees us and knows us and has given us the kingdom.  

We can shake off the yoke of perpetual penance because in Christ we have endless grace so that we can go about the business of restoring relationships and building new ones.  

We can lay down our addiction to stress.  We can rest in Christ. We can take the yoke of Christ upon us and find rest for our souls.

In Jesus’ name.