Around this time of year, every year, we start getting that question,
“So, how was your summer?”
How was your summer?
I’m not that good at questions like that. I can say basically nothing, like: pretty good. Or I say like everything and start telling people way more detail than they really wanted to hear. I’m still trying to figure out that small talk sweet spot in the middle – authentic, interesting, but brief.
So here’s my stab at this year’s answer.
How was your summer, Steve?
Yeah, it was hard but also kind of easy.
The hard part: At the start of the summer, Grace and I sat down two of our three children – who are all now either adults or right on the cusp of that – and we had this little conversation about what we’re doing this summer and what we want out of it. And let’s just say that our kids’ visions for our family summer were not very well aligned with one another, and they certainly didn’t line up well with what I was hoping for. And, you know, we never really worked that out. Kids grow up, and families grow up too.
Also, my mother in law had a stroke, which has led to suffering for her – a lot, and also a ton of complications for the extended family – also a lot. That has been mostly sad and stressful.
And then I had this big trip to Israel and Palestine planned, but given what was going on, it ended up being a bad time to be away from my family, my poor wife carried too much, and then since I got COVID while I was there, I had to be away from them even longer.
So, there’s more, but summer was hard.
I know I’m not alone. A lot of folks have been excited about more travel, more concerts, more freedom, more a lot of things, but life’s still hard for a lot of people.
I was listening to a podcast with this psychologist I like to learn from, and his guest was like:
you know, humanity’s not doing well. It’s a hard time to be a human.
Does that resonate with you?
It’s a hard time to be a human.
Yeah. But I said hard and easy, didn’t I?
The easy part is what I want to talk about today, because I entered my summer having a harder time praying and a harder time making sense and making meaning about everything I’m experiencing, but I’ve been walking with God, walking with the Spirit of Jesus, in some ways that I feel like are simplifying my life, making things at the same time also feel easier.
That’s what I want to talk about today, about a metaphor for a life of faith that simplifies and clarifies, about some ways of walking with Jesus that make life better.
Last week, I talked about what hell is or isn’t. That talk was related to the part of the faith experience we call salvation – what the worst is in life, and how God partners with us to rescue us. The best lived lives aren’t mostly hero or our victim stories – how we’re the best or the worst off. The best lives are full of rescue stories – how we need help, but how with the help of God and friends, we find our way.
Now this week I talk about the side of faith that we can call sanctification – how we can grow into more of the wholehearted, beautiful life God wants to help us find, how we can find more of the good life for each of us.
Here’s our text today. Just a few words from Jesus:
Matthew 11: 28-30 (Common English Bible)
28 “Come to me, all you who are struggling hard and carrying heavy loads, and I will give you rest.
29 Put on my yoke, and learn from me. I’m gentle and humble. And you will find rest for yourselves.
30 My yoke is easy to bear, and my burden is light.”
Life is hard,
Jesus says. I get that.
Jesus spoke these words nearly 2,000 years ago. It’s hard to get our heads around just how long 2,000 years is. If you were to line up on a timeline your grandma, and then one of her grandma’s, and then one of her grandma’s, and then one of her grandma’s and on and on and on, you’d have to do that like 20 times before you got to the grandma that alive when Jesus spoke these words, nearly 2,000 years ago.
It’s a long time ago. Times have changed.
But at the deepest level, the stuff that’s hardest for us hasn’t.
Sickness – I mean we’ve faced a global pandemic, but that’s nothing compared to the kinds of health problems and sickness and disease that Jesus knew. Life expectancy was less than half for them than it is for us. Sickness and death were everywhere.
And political problems, economic struggles, trauma, anxieties, all that – most of Jesus’ associates were grindingly poor, faced huge tax burdens, and lived under a corrupt and violent colonial government.
Jesus gets it: life is hard.
But he says,
I’ve got a way to make it easier, simpler, more peaceful.
And the way he says is:
Put on my yoke.
Put on my yoke.
What in the world is he talking about?
A yoke is a kind of wooden tool or frame that connects two animals so they can walk together and work together, plowing the field side by side.
Jesus knew about yokes because a lot of people in his time and place were farmers. Walk around the fields surrounding Galilee, and you’d see pairs of oxen, maybe donkeys two, yoked together, plowing the fields side by side.
But Jesus also knew about yokes because he made them. Jesus served his community as a rabbi, teaching about the Beloved Community of God and healing and training students for only two or three years before he was crucified and rose again. For maybe 10-15 years before that, he was a carpenter, a woodworker, a builder.
And one of the many things Jesus’ father would have taught him to make out of wood were yokes that would sit across the shoulders of two animals so they could walk together and work together.
Jesus would have worked hard to make strong yokes, that would help animals stay together and last for many years. And he would have learned to make gentle yokes, that sit well on animals’ backs, that don’t cause them pain or hardship, but that they bear smoothly and easily.
Here Jesus uses the yoke as an image for how we’re connected to Jesus.
Put on my yoke,
Walk with me, side by side. Stay connected.
I’m a good traveling companion,
I’m gentle and humble.
In Jesus’ society, a yoke had also become an image of leadership – emphasizing not just the side by side walking of the two animals, but the farmer’s role in leading the yoked pair.
A yoke was sometimes an image for a leader, like the service required to a king. To follow the laws of the land was to take that leader’s yoke upon you.
And it was sometimes in Jesus’ culture an image for Torah, for living in the community guided by God’s word in the scriptures. To respond to God’s laws and invitations, to let your story be shaped by God’s story, was to take the yoke of God or the yoke of the Torah upon you.
So Jesus is saying,
Walk with me. But also be led by me. My yoke is easy to bear. My burden is light.
I’m not a hard leader, I’m a good leader. I’m a good fit, an easy fit. And when you’re led by me, you’ll find rest.
It’s an interesting promise, because a yoke is a tool of labor. You put on a yoke to work. But Jesus is like:
Walk with me, work with me, and you’ll not just work, you’ll rest. Life will go well for you.
And that fits the context of the passage too. Because right after this, there are a few stories about Jesus, and how he spends his time on the sabbath day, his day of rest.
Sabbath is a promise of liberation, it’s time out from work every week to remember that we are not slaves but free people. Life is more than our work and our obligations.
And sabbath is about restoring the original order of creation, about keeping the balance of the good life. The creation epic of the Bible says God ended six days of creative work with the sabbath rest – a time for celebration and joy, a time to experience that life isn’t just what we produce. It’s how we worship and celebrate and find joy, living in this great created universe, all of which is meant to be a kind of temple for the experience and worship of God.
Friends, in my hard summer, the way it’s been easy has been how I’ve been giving renewed attention to putting on Jesus’ easy yoke each day. I’ve been relearning the best ways for me to walk with Jesus, and let Jesus be my leader. And I’ve been finding that everything Jesus says is true.
He’s a great fit. He’s gentle and humble. And walking with Jesus, following Jesus makes my whole life easier to bear – clearer, simpler, calmer, better.
Let me take a couple minutes each on three ways this is true, OK?
Imagination, mercy, and words.
Just a minute or two on each of those: Imagination, mercy, and words.
“Come to me.”
And his yoke imagery implies walking with him, following him, maybe even working with him.
What does this mean for us, who weren’t with him in Galilee 2,000 years ago? What does this mean for us, who can’t touch and see him?
It means faith, trust that the Spirit of Jesus is with us as Jesus promised Spirit would be, trust that the Spirit of God represents and brings to us a God that is like Jesus, everywhere, always.
The New Testament says that
this is the good life, to walk by faith, not by sight it puts it, to trust God is with us more deeply than we can at first naturally perceive.
The words about the yoke and about rest remind me of the famous poem in the middle of the Bible, Psalm 23, the one that starts saying,
“The Lord is my shepherd, so I lack nothing. He leads me to green pastures and still waters. He saves my life.”
“he restores my soul.”
I pray this psalm almost every day, and I read it or pray it for others really often when I’m at the hospital or in the nursing home, as I’ve been this summer many times, both as a pastor and as a relative.
I’m praying for myself, and often holding someone else’s hand and praying for them that we’ll know God leading us tenderly, guiding us toward refreshment, restoration, and rest. But also that when we’re in the valley of the shadow of death, we’ll know there too that God is with us, leading us through that place too.
The Valley of the Shadow of Death is a real place in Palestine, the place now known as the West Bank. It’s a deep, long rift in a hot, forbidding desert. Jesus had walked there before, knew it was one of the scariest, most deserted, hardest places to need to walk through.
Kind of like when you’re vulnerable in the hospital or the nursing home, or when you know your health is failing, or even that you are dying.
When we’re vulnerable, suffering, fighting for survival, we need to know that there too God is with us.
Jesus is saying:
Life is hard. I want you to know, though, that I’m in it with you, that you are not alone.
And that can help us carry the load.
Jesus’ contemporaries practiced faith in how God was with them in Jesus by literally walking with him.
We practice that same faith, and receive the comfort and strength of God’s presence by believing God is with us, by imagining that this accompaniment we can not see is real.
We do that when we gather for worship together, like we do on Sundays. And we can do that daily as we pray as well.
What is God like when God is with us? How does God share the burden?
My word for that today is mercy.
Jesus says he is
gentle and humble.
Psalm 23 says
God’s goodness and mercy will follow us all the days of our life.
There’s an old and very short Eastern Orthodox prayer that I’ve been praying a lot this summer too. It just goes:
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.
Or sometimes have mercy on me, a sinner. You can include the sinner part or not. But that’s not the key word. The key word is mercy.
Jesus, have mercy.
When I first learned about this prayer, more than 20 years ago, I didn’t like it much. It seemed kind of grovely, thinking I’m this despicable sinner who needs Jesus to be nice and not zap me or something.
I’ve come around to this prayer, though.
After all, mercy means more than I used to think. I was taught that grace is giving good things that aren’t deserved and that mercy is not giving the bad things that you do deserve.
But mercy is wider and deeper than that. The word translated “mercy” in the last verse of Psalm 23 is hesed. It means lovingkindness, and it’s the core quality of God, the scriptures teach.
So I think about the chaotic, violent, messed up state of so much in this world, and I hope God will be kind and helpful to us beyond what we deserve. I pray: Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy.
And I think about the hard parts of my summer, which feel like more than I can handle, and I ask for God’s help and for God’s lovingkindness to grow in me and all the other people as I pray: Jesus, Son of God, have mercy.
And sometimes I catch myself stuck thinking on an anxiety I have about the future or a regret I have about the past, and I remember that the Spirit of Jesus is with me, wooing me away from fear or regret and toward faith, hope, and love, and I look for more of that as I pray: Spirit of Jesus, have mercy on me.
Praying for mercy, believing in mercy, welcoming mercy doesn’t make life not hard. But it’s easier when I know I’m not expected to have the answers. It’s easier when I know I’m not supposed to be strong enough. And it’s easier to know God never wanted me to be able to just handle it all. It’s an easy, unburdening feeling to know God isn’t showing up to criticize me but to bring lovingkindness, to be merciful, to be in my corner as a help and support.
Lastly, the words of Jesus. Jesus says,
“Take my yoke upon you and learn from me.”
Jesus was a rabbi, a teacher, and through the gospels and through the Spirit of God, Jesus can be our teacher too.
I read a little section of the gospels just about every day. That way I’m reading through all four several times per year. It doesn’t take long, but it’s one of the ways I stay yoked to Jesus, or at least try to.
And Jesus has never stopped being provocative and helpful to me.
Like last week, I read Mark’s version of Jesus feeding the crowds and how pretty much the next day, the disciples were traveling with students and got worried about running out of bread.
And calmly, Jesus is like:
What happened yesterday? And how much food was left over? Don’t you understand?
And I smiled a little but the truth was I felt just like the disciples. What came to mind in that moment was that I’d been anxious about a few things in my life – big things like how we’re ever going to pay for our three kids’ educations, and little things like an email I was waiting for with some news.
And I felt an invitation from the Spirit of Jesus to lean into these words.
Don’t you understand, Steve?
Don’t you remember?
When have I not been enough?
And I thought about lots of answered prayers and times it seems like life worked out better than I could have hoped. And I thought about hard times too, when circumstances didn’t go my way, but how even then, the help of God and friends was enough, and the love and goodness in my life was more than enough.
And that kind of made a break in me, helped me start to let go of my anxious energy and open me up to an unburdened, easy spirit.
Friends, your summer may have been a lot of things – awful, great, or anywhere in between. But anywhere that life is hard these days, let me assure you that God knows and understands. And let me encourage you that the Spirit of Jesus is still saying to us:
I get it. If life’s hard, could you come to me, so I can give you rest.
Put my yoke on you. Let’s walk together and work together. Learn from me. Follow my lead. I’m gentle, I’m humble. My burden is light. I’d love to help share the load.