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Saturday, July 2, 2011

The Yoke’s On Us

How shall I describe this generation? They are like kids playing in the streets and shouting at each other, “We put on some rock and roll, but you wouldn’t dance; so we put on some funeral music, but you wouldn’t go into mourning.” For John offered a harsh, rugged life, and people say, “The guy is nuts.” I, the son of man, offered laughter and joy, and people say, “Look at that guy. He is a no-good bum who runs around with Communists and peaceniks!” So, if intelligence can be judged by its fruits, well -- !

About that time Jesus said, “I fully agree with you, Father, Ruler of things both spiritual and material, that you didn’t let the bright boys and the experts in on these matters, but made them clear to the ‘babies.’ Indeed, O Father, this is the way it seemed best to you.”

My Father has left everything up to me. No one truly knows the Son except the Father, and no one truly knows the Father except the Son and whomever else the Son wishes to introduce to him.

Come to me, all of you who are frustrated and have had a bellyful, and I will give you zest. Get in the harness with me and let me teach you, for I am trained and have a cooperative spirit, and you will find zest for your lives. For my harness is practical, and my assignment is joyful.

Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30 -- Cotton Patch Version, by Clarence Jordan

Among the hundreds of photographs my father took of me as I was growing up is one taken on a family trip to New England when I was about ten years old. I am standing outside a maple syrup mill, wearing a wooden yoke across my shoulders, and from each end of the yoke is hung a wooden bucket used for ferrying maple sap from the trees to a wagon. For many years, when I read the Revised Standard Version of this saying of 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 -- I thought of that maple sap yoke in New Hampshire. It made no sense: Jesus’ yoke is anything but easy and light. Jesus’ yoke is shaped like a cross. He carries the brokenness of the whole world on his shoulders. How is Jesus’ yoke going to give rest?

Clarence Jordan was a South Georgia Baptist preacher with a Ph.D. in New Testament. Jordon rewrote the New Testament as though Jesus had been born in Georgia in the twentieth century, and called it The Cotton Patch Version. Because he knew New Testament Greek so well, he caught many of the nuances of the language and the subtleties of Jesus’ meanings in ways other, more formal translations, could not. Often, Jordan’s paraphrase is in fact a more literal translation of the Greek than other, more official versions. So, when I read the Cotton Patch Version of this passage about Jesus’ yoke, the heavens opened up for me.

Instead of yoke, Jordan talked about a harness. There were still people who used horses and mules for farming in South Georgia, and they knew what it meant to hook an animal up to a wagon or a plow. So, Jordan translates, Jesus invites us to get into his harness. But listen to the difference: Get in the harness with me and let me teach you, for I am trained and have a cooperative spirit, and you will find zest for your lives. For my harness is practical, and my assignment is joyful. That one-person yoke I wore as a child in New Hampshire is not the yoke Jesus is offering us. Jesus is inviting us to share his yoke, not save the world on our own. Jesus’ yoke is not a solitary yoke – it is always shared.

Let’s walk through these two verses, and see what Jesus is telling us about what it means to follow him.

Get in the harness with me. The early Christian theologian, Justin, writing in the second century, says that when Jesus was a carpenter, he made wooden yokes for cattle, so farmers could work their fields and pull carts on the roads.[1] Imagine Jesus fitting the yoke to the cattle the farmers brought him, planing the wood so it would fit the neck of the animal, making the harness practical and useful. Jesus knows what yoke fits us – he knew, when I was determined to be an aerospace engineer, that yoke would never work on me. But he knew there was another yoke – of pastoral ministry, that would fit me better. Jesus knows us, and he has a yoke that fits your gifts and graces and passions.

But, it’s not a solitary yoke, like the one in that picture of me. Jesus invites us to be yoked with him. The healing of the world isn’t up to you, and you, and you, and me, to stumble through on our own. Why does Jesus say his yoke is easy and his burden light? Because he does the heavy lifting. So, if you feel weighed down by the cares and sorrows of the world, if you feel as though you’re being crushed under an impossible load, it’s probably because you’re wearing that yoke all by yourself. Get in the harness with Jesus, because he’s going to do the hard work.

Let me teach you, for I am trained and have a cooperative spirit. In a harness – for a dog sled or for a team of mules or horses – there is a lead animal who is trained to respond to the master’s commands. Horses, dogs – and people – are pack animals. Watch The Dog Whisperer on the Discovery Channel, as Cesar Milan teaches owners of neurotic dogs how they need to be the pack leader. Just like dogs and horses, if people don’t have a trained and cooperative pack leader, their lives become chaotic. That explains a lot of politics, a lot of churches, and a lot of families. The pack leader doesn’t have to be a tyrant – but he or she needs to be trained and cooperative. Clarence Jordan says the Greek word in the Sermon on the Mount that is translated blessed are the meek is a word that applied to horses and mules: a meek horse was one that had been trained to wear a bit and bridle, and to respond to the rider’s commands. Jesus knows his Father’s voice, he knows the path ahead, and if we will get in the harness with him and let him be the pack leader, then life will become so much clearer: you will find zest for your lives.

What drains our energy and our joy more than not knowing what we’re supposed to be doing, where we’re supposed to be going, and feeling as though the whole world depends on us? My brother Methodist monk Bill Davis, Senior Pastor of Bon Air United Methodist Church, is one of the freest spirits I know. Years ago, when another bishop gathered all the clergy and spouses and told us we were going to be assessed for the new Conference Capital Campaign, and our giving would be tracked, I went nuts, complaining to Bill. Bill listened quietly and, when I was finished, said, “I’m not worried about this. In forty or fifty years, hey, I’m going to be dead!” Bill knew the world would go on just fine whether he gave money to the campaign or not. He was in the yoke with Jesus, and he could laugh.

For my harness is practical, and my assignment joyful. Our Church Council is studying together a wonderful little book called Simple Church. Its thesis is that as organizations grow, they lose touch with their reason for existence, and take on all kinds of good things that sap their energy, and may have nothing to do with why they were founded in the first place. Organizations, including churches, need to go back to why they exist and align everything they do with that central purpose. Anything they’re doing that isn’t about that simple and central mission needs to be questioned and maybe eliminated.

Jesus’ mission statement is pretty simple: when he was asked to sum up 613 commandments in the Hebrew Bible in twenty-five words or less, he said Love God with everything you have and your neighbor as yourself. A few months ago I told you radical preacher Will Campbell’s summary of the gospel: We’re all (jerks) but God loves us anyhow. The older I get, the more I am convinced that we have made the Gospel so complicated that it’s impossible to follow – which is exactly the point. What if it’s just that simple: love God with everything you’ve got, and love your neighbor as yourself? Wouldn’t that be the essence of practicality, and wouldn’t doing those two things lead us to incredible joy?

Listen to Jesus. Anybody here frustrated with life, with church, with work, with all the craziness the world piles on us every day? Anybody here had a bellyful? Anybody here crushed by trying to carry the burden of your life and your family and your work and your church and the whole world? Well, you’re in the wrong yoke. Get in the yoke with Jesus. Let him lead, let him do the heavy lifting. And I promise, you will find zest for your lives.

If it doesn’t work, we’ll refund you 100% of your misery.

[1] Dialogue with Trypho

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