Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30
[Jesus spoke to the crowd saying:] 16“To what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another,
17‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance;
we wailed, and you did not mourn.’
18For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon’; 19the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.”
25At that time Jesus said, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; 26yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. 27All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.
28“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. 29Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
At our Northern Illinois Synod Assembly in Rock Island last month, we were happy to have the Rev. Dr. Rafael Malpica Padilla present a few times. He’s the ELCA’s director of global mission and his travels, combined with his upbringing in Puerto Rico, gives him a fascinating view of the world that we probably would never have. He spoke several times in our assembly about the work of the ELCA around the world, not just here. As recognition of that, we’ll start doing something a little different in our worship services, at least for a little while. During the offering, we’ll begin hearing about the ELCA’s work in different countries. It may not give us the first-hand experience, but it may help us see our larger church body with a new lens.
But that’s not exactly why I brought up my friend Rafael (I can call him my “friend” because we’re officially friends on Facebook and everyone knows that you don’t really know someone until you are Facebook official). No, I did so because these readings today remind me a lot of something he said during a presentation at the Synod Assembly. He spoke about the work of the church is often done in the gaps – the gaps between polarized political parties, between the abused and the abuser, between those without food and water and those with more than enough. It is in the gaps of our world, where people both separate and collide, that the work of the Church, the work of the Kingdom, is done. Jesus here even mentions the gaps between expectations – some expect him (and his followers) to be stoic and somber while others expect them to be joyful and enthusiastic.
And I love Jesus’ yoke metaphor we read today, because it does take a yoking together to help this happen. Many of you are farmers, so you may have an understanding of this already, but in the days of yore, before tractors were the standard tool of field work, animals would pull the wagons, carriages, and plows. Specifically, in Jesus’ day, it was oxen or donkeys. But if you’ve never worked with animals like this before, you know that it’s not exactly in their nature to pull implements like this. Animals would much rather simply roam, graze, drink, and sleep (and if I’m honest, the same is true of me, as well). If you want them to work, you have to catch them, tame them, and hitch them together. That was the work of the yoke – it kept the teams of livestock moving together, in the same direction, at the same time. It helped train the young ones, helped strengthen the weak ones, and helped balance the work load.
So when I hear Jesus talk about discipleship as a yoke, I imagine the people who heard it could immediately recognize the implications. The yoke is not easy or light because there is no work to be done, but because you aren’t supposed to do it alone. It’s not easy or light because the life of a Christ follower is easy, but because the life of a Christ follower is linked together with others. Those who are young in their faith are tied with those who have pulled the load before. Those who are weak are pulling with those who are stronger and, by doing so, they become stronger. The weight is balanced and the work gets done because we do it together.
And, to keep using the yoke metaphor, there is a reason we need a yoke. Paul, in Romans, very quickly gets to the point – that even if we have the best of intentions (which I believe most people do), we don’t have the ability to carry them out. When I worked at camp, we called this passage the “do-do” passage. While we often want to do good things, in our limited insight and will power, we often don’t. There is a gap – the gap between our intentions and our abilities. So, in that gap, there you will find the Church, the body of Christ. We can all understand this gap, although it will take different forms for each of us – some of us will see it in addiction or mental and physical illness, while others will find the gap in their poverty, greed, or power hunger. And it goes much further than just personal downfalls, because as communities, we’ll find other gaps between what we want to do and what we actually do. That gap is the gap in which you will find Christ and Christ’s Church.
But I want to say that this yoked experience of working in the gaps means that sometimes we are yoked with people that we don’t know or even particularly like sometimes. The gap isn’t filled with worldly success or fame or fortune, with individuals or communities that always do the right things, the good things. It’s hard work and it’s dirty work and it’s work that relies on the power of Christ and other people to do the work of the Church. The work of feeding the hungry, caring for the sick, and giving voice to the oppressed is not easy work. Yet, the work of Christ is precisely in these communities and in these people.
And if you find yourself in the gap, which I hope we all do, there is no fear. Because that is where Christ is, yoking together the people he finds there. That is where Christ is, showing love through the presence and solidarity of his life, death, and resurrection. You’ll find Christ in the gaps, yoking together women and men of different talents, passions, ethnicities, lifestyles, beliefs, languages, and races. Christ himself is our yoke, the one who keeps us bound together and moving in the same direction. The promise of baptism is that we are yoked together by God’s grace, God’s forgiveness, and God’s mission and that nothing can revoke that status. The bread and wine of the Eucharist, Holy Communion, further reconcile us together and yoke us together with the Church.
And, united by God’s grace, gifted by the Holy Spirit, and sanctified by Christ’s presence, we position ourselves in the gaps. Responding to God’s love, we make God’s love known. This is the yoke that find ourselves bridled with, this is the cross that we take up each and every day. It is easy and light because it’s not just yours to carry. The work that we do as the Church, the Body of Christ, is the work of Christ himself – to meet people where they are, proclaim that the kingdom of God is near, and do what is in our power to help them, realizing that it is only through the work of the Holy Spirit that we can even begin to understand what this work is all about.
Yoked by God’s love, Christ’s resurrection, and the Spirit’s inspiration, we go to fill the gaps in the name of Christ, in the character of Christ, in the love of Christ. Amen.