Sermon: “The Yoke of Grace” (July 6, 2014)

Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“The Yoke of Grace” (Matthew 11:28-30)
July 6, 2014
Dave Johnson

Posted July 6, 2014

In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Today I’m preaching on Jesus’ gracious invitation to all of us:

Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. 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” (Matthew 11:28-30).

At the risk of sounding pessimistic, everyone I know is weary in one way or another. Everyone I know is carrying “heavy burdens” of some kind.

During these summer months many of us go on vacation seeking some rest, some relief from the heavy burdens we carry—but sometimes these vacations can themselves become heavy burdens that leave us even more weary than we were before.

In his hilarious book of essays, Dad is Fat, comedian Jim Gaffigan describes this:

Last summer I took my family on vacation. Well, I should clarify. We went to Disney World…Disney is not a vacation. To me the term ‘Disney Vacation’ is equivalent to the term ‘Chuck E. Cheese Fine Dining’… I did figure out what makes Disney so ‘magical.’ It’s because you can walk around sweating for twelve hours and still gain weight—‘I know it’s a hundred degrees outside, but these fries are great’… We eat constantly because there is pressure to have a good time on vacation. If we are lucky, we get seven days and two of those days are spent in airport security lines. So the rest of the vacation we are under this cloud of ‘Hurry up and have fun before we have to pack’ (244-246).

Vacations may provide a respite from the weariness caused by some of the external heavy burdens we carry—like a demanding job or an unremittingly demanding schedule—but all of us become weary from internal burdens as well.

These internal burdens may include toxic family dysfunction, a besetting sin, an addiction, guilt, regret, anger that you harbor towards someone, the prolonged illness of someone you love—you can fill in the blank (or blanks) in your life.

And while going on vacation may provide a break from some of your external burdens, it also tends to open up the floodgates for the internal burdens that you hold at bay during the course of your over-busy everyday life—because these internal burdens are immune to your vacation schedule.

That’s why many people are often edgy or preoccupied while on “vacation.”

Abraham Lincoln, upon returning from vacation, was once asked if he got any rest. He replied, “It was a great relief to get away from Washington and the politicians…but nothing touches the tired spot.”

In his moving song, American Tune (1973) singer-songwriter Paul Simon puts it this way:

Many’s the time I’ve been mistaken
And many times confused
Yes, and I’ve often felt forsaken
And certainly misused
Oh, but I’m all right, I’m all right
I’m just weary to my bones…
Still, tomorrow’s going to be another working day
And I’m trying to get some rest
That’s all, I’m trying to get some rest

And of course being a Christian does not let you off the hook from weariness due to carrying heavy burdens. In his Second Letter to the Corinthians the Apostle Paul vulnerably writes about his heavy burdens—both external and internal:

(I am) on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from bandits, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers and sisters; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, hungry and thirsty, often without food, cold and naked. And, besides other things, I am under daily pressure because of my anxiety for all the churches (11:26-28).

Moreover, in today’s epistle lesson the Apostle Paul writes about one specific internal burden all of us carry, the inner war between the flesh and the spirit that wages in our hearts:

I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate…I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do…For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members (7:15, 18b-19, 22-23).

More often than not we find ourselves doing what we didn’t want to do, or not doing what we should have done, making bad decisions. All of us can relate to the character Bart Simpson from the long-running animated hit show The Simpsons—we all have our “Doh” moments.

Paul ends his description of this inner conflict by doing the only thing we can do in the face of all the burdens in our lives, especially the inner conflict within all of us—crying for help: “Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me?” (7:24).

And that’s where the gospel comes in, for Paul gives the following answer to his question: “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (7:25).

Jesus is sensitive to the weariness caused by the heavy burdens in our lives. His ministry was characterized by relieving people of their burdens, not adding to them. In fact, Jesus was blunt when it came to those who add burdens to others in the name of God:

Do not do as (the scribes and Pharisees) do, for they do not practice what they teach. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them (Matthew 23:4).

Sometimes people who are weary from the heavy burdens in their lives go to church hoping for some comfort, reassurance, relief, only to find more burdens added to them—or sometimes we can’t get our mind around the fact that Jesus really is about relieving our burdens and not adding to them.

Many years ago I heard a story in a sermon about a backpacker who was hiking along the side of a desolate country road, straining under his heavy burden. Someone driving a pick-up pulled alongside and offered a ride. “Put your pack in the back and ride up front with me,” the driver offered. “I’d rather ride in the back with my gear,” the backpacker replied.

When they pulled into town, the driver got out and saw the backpacker squatted down in the bed of the truck with his backpack on, still straining under the load of his gear. “What are you doing?” he asked. “Just trying to do my part,” the backpacker replied.

That’s a silly “preacher story” but it reveals what many of us try to do when it comes to the heavy burdens in our lives.

But “doing our part” has nothing to do with the gospel. The gospel is that Jesus takes our burdens upon himself.

What does this look like?

In his epic novel, Les Miserables, which is replete with images of the gospel, Victor Hugo describes the ordeal of Cossette, the little girl who has been sent out by her abusive guardians, the Thénardiers, in the middle of a winter night to get water. Cossette finds herself overcome with weariness by her heavy burden.

She grasped the handle with both hands. She could hardly lift it. She went a dozen steps this way, but the bucket was full, it was heavy, she had to rest it on the ground. She caught her breath an instant, then grasped the handle again, and walked on, this time a little longer. But she had to stop again. After resting a few seconds, she started on. She walked bending forward, her head down, like an old woman; the weight of the bucket strained and stiffened her thin arms. The iron handle was numbing and freezing her little wet hands; from time to time she had to stop, and every time she stopped, the cold water that sloshed out of the bucket splashed onto her bare knees. This took place in the depth of the woods, at night, in the winter, far from all human sight; she was a child of eight…the poor little despairing thing could not help crying…

And here is the gospel…

At that moment she suddenly felt that the weight of the bucket was gone. A hand, which seemed enormous to her, had just caught the handle, and was carrying it easily. She looked up. A large dark form, straight and erect, was walking up beside her in the darkness…This man, without saying a word, had grasped the handle of the bucket she was carrying…The child was not afraid (Signet Classic edition, 389-390).

Each of you have your own buckets, your own heavy burdens that leave you so weary that you—like Cossette—cannot help crying.

And in response to our weariness Jesus comes alongside and with his strong pierced hands, takes ahold of our buckets and walks beside us—and we don’t have to be afraid.

Sometimes this takes place through the Body of Christ, the Church, carrying one another’s buckets—“Bear one another’s burdens,” Paul wrote to the Galatians, “and in this way you will fulfil the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2).

And on the cross Jesus, who was himself “forsaken and certainly misused”—took the heaviest burden of all, the sin and guilt of the world for all the times we, like the Apostle Paul, did what we did not want to do—and Jesus bore it in our place.

And in its place Jesus gives us the yoke of grace—the yoke that keeps us connected to the One who bears our burdens because he bears us, as an anonymous Church Father wrote many years ago:

The weight of Christ helps the one who bears it, because we do not bear grace; grace bears us. It is not for us to help grace, but rather grace has been given to aid us (Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, Vol. 1a, 233).

So this morning as you come to Jesus by coming to Holy Communion—with empty hands and perhaps some of you with very burdened hearts—remember Jesus’ invitation to you—“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens and I will give you rest.”

That is good news that can indeed touch the tired spot.

Amen.