Come and I will Give You Rest
The Yoke of Christ frees us to recognize God at work in each moment.
We can dance when we hear the flute and mourn when others wail.
It's refreshing and restful, too. Like a soft melody in the heart,
we become more fully human the more we hum along.
Reverend Teri Daily
The Yoke of Christ
Whatever our burdens may be, can we trust God enough to let go of them and, instead, grasp onto the yoke of Christ? Can we will the one thing with singleness of purpose? To the extent that we can, we will find peace, wisdom, and meaning in all the other many things that comprise our life. We will learn to recognize God at work in the world in each and every moment. We will learn to dance when we hear the flute, and to mourn when others wail. We will learn to hum the right tune. We will take on the yoke of the kingdom of heaven, and find within it rest for our souls.
The Yoke of Christ
Philosopher Soren Kierkegaard wrote that “purity of heart is to will one thing.” In his book Holy Longing, Catholic writer Ronald Rolheiser explores how different icons of the 20th century fared when it came to this ability to “will one the thing”--when it came to the ability to channel their energy and passion in one direction.
First, there’s Mother Teresa, who despite her small size was full of intimidating energy; she was someone who had the remarkable discipline to channel that passion into her devotion for God and the poor. Second, there’s Janis Joplin--another woman of incredible spiritual energy, but without the discipline to channel that creative energy into any one thing. Wanting to drink in all of life at a frenetic pace, she burned out on life way too early, overdosing and leaving so much of her talent unwritten and unsung. And finally, there’s Princess Diana--a combination of Mother Teresa and Janis Joplin.
Diana was a woman with a celebrated passion for life, a person who willed to do good for others, and she was also a celebrity who lived a life of glitzy vacations, tumultuous relationships, and worldly pressures. In short, she struggled in the midst of the complexity of life and of what Rolheiser calls the “oh-so-human combination of sin and virtue.” Perhaps Princess Diana’s popularity lies partly in the fact that, in her, we see vividly portrayed the tension that pervades our own lives. Of the three, she is most like us.
Most of us choose God (and in so doing choose the good of others), but we will this one thing very imperfectly, because the truth is that we find ourselves willing or choosing many other things along the way, too. These other things can be distracting; they can cloud our judgment and prevent us from seeing the world around us clearly. These other things can keep us from seeing where and how God is truly at work in the world, and so they can prevent us from participating in that divine work. This was as true in Jesus’ day as it is in our own.
In today’s gospel reading, Jesus points out that when John the Baptist came along with an ascetic lifestyle--fasting, wearing clothes of camel hair, and spending time in the wilderness--the people of his day said, “He has a demon.” But then Jesus came eating, drinking, and fostering a community of followers, and the people said, “Look a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!” For this reason, Jesus speaks of his generation “as children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another, ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.’” The people were not in tune with what God was doing in their midst, with how the story was unfolding right where they were.
Priest Bob Eldan describes it this way:
The first part of this Gospel starts out with children piping a ditty, and no one does the jig. So they change the tune to a dirge, and no one grieves. This graphic metaphor was Jesus’ take on his generation. Not much has changed. We are still often out of step, blind to the wisdom of the moment. We fear violence, so we go to war instead of dancing for peace. We have poor and abused people all around us, but we don’t weep because we are preoccupied with balancing the budget. We miss the middle, midpoint of wisdom, because of our left or right purisms. Ditty or dirge, our selfish desires prevent us from humming the right tune.
Our many desires pull our attention in one direction and then another. And in the process we are like children in the marketplace who miss out on the game altogether because we can’t decide what game is appropriate for the moment. We lack true wisdom.
See, we often understand wisdom as the knowledge of certain facts or the mastery of a body of information. But the Jewish wisdom tradition, at its roots, isn’t about the possession of factual knowledge--it’s about understanding the fabric of life. It is about reading the times, being in harmony with the world around us, and seeing the world through the eyes of God.
Often those who best exemplify this type of wisdom are not those the world would consider “wise and intelligent.” The kind of wisdom Jesus is talking about is not found in the rich and powerful, or even in the religious authorities of his day--the scribes, Pharisees, and temple priests. Instead, in the stories of the gospels, true wisdom is found most often among those who are poor, ill, persecuted, and merciful--those who are lepers and tax collectors. If we look back at the Beatitudes, it is precisely these to whom the Kingdom of heaven belongs.
Jesus describes those who are not typically thought of as wise and powerful as “infants” here. I know the word “infants” might sound condescending to our modern ears, but I want to explore something in the image that does ring true for this passage. See, infants and children know what they want. If you’ve seen a newborn cry when they’re hungry, or a three year old find a toy in the store that they can’t leave without, then you know exactly what I’m talking about. Infants and young children have the remarkable ability to “will the one thing.” There is a certain simplicity about them--“simplicity” not in the sense of naïveté, but in terms of oneness in purpose or being. It is such simplicity that marks the lives of the saints, the lives of Trappist monks, and the stories of martyrs. It is also this simplicity that is found in the lives of certain ordinary people who have a deep peace, whose lives express a certain coherence and unity when it comes to their purpose, whose being seems to be “all of a piece.”
We all sense this need for unity--the need for our lives to be cohesive, ordered, and purposeful. Without it, we lack inner peace. As William of St. Thierry wrote in the 12th century: “A man whose spirit is disordered is never alone, even when by himself, but is ever in the midst of a turbulent crowd.” It is this kind of turbulence that caused Catholic priest and writer Henri Nouwen to spend time in a Trappist monastery. He describes his spiritual state at that time this way:
Reflecting on my past three years of work I realize more and more that it lacked unity. The many things I did during those years seem disjointed, not really relating to one another, not coming from one source. I prayed during certain hours or days but my prayer seemed separated from the lectures I gave, the trips I made, the counselling I did. … My fears and my resulting fatigue over the last three years might well be diagnosed as a lack of single-mindedness, as a lack of one-eyedness, as a lack of simplicity. Indeed, how divided my heart has been and still is! … The characteristic of a saint is, to borrow Kierkegaard’s words, ‘To will one thing’. Well, I will more than one thing, am double-hearted, double-minded, and have a very divided loyalty.
If we’re honest, most of us can relate to Henri Nouwen, just as we can relate to Princess Diana more than we can to either Mother Teresa or Janis Joplin. We live fairly divided lives.
But in our gospel reading from Matthew, Jesus offers us rest from the turbulent voices that cause our lives to be disjointed. He calls it taking on his yoke. A “yoke” is the piece that goes over the neck of an animal and connects it to the plow or cart the animal is to pull. But it was also used to refer to the teaching of a particular rabbi. To follow a specific rabbi was to take on the yoke of that rabbi’s teaching. It was to submit oneself to that rabbi’s vision, way of life, and understanding of reality. So to follow Jesus is to take on his yoke. Far from being oppressive, Jesus tells us that his burden is light and his yoke is life-giving; his yoke leads to Sabbath rest.
What exactly does Sabbath rest look like? Well, it’s no coincidence that, in the gospels, Jesus gets in trouble for healing on the Sabbath. Sabbath rest looks like healing and wholeness, a life that is all of a piece, where all the parts fit together harmoniously, a life that is in step with the way God is working in the world.
But here’s the thing: we don’t get to this place of peace, wholeness, and meaning by seeking peace, wholeness, and meaning itself, or by balancing all the parts of our lives perfectly. Instead, we get there by making Christ our goal--by seeking him with simplicity, with oneness of heart and mind.
So, what are our burdens? What makes us weary and tired to the bone? Is it the drive to accomplish more and be more, or the weight of our possessions, or the feeling that everything should be in our control, or a lack of meaning? Whatever our burdens may be, can we trust God enough to let go of them and, instead, grasp onto the yoke of Christ? Can we will the one thing with singleness of purpose? To the extent that we can, we will find peace, wisdom, and meaning in all the other many things that comprise our life. We will learn to recognize God at work in the world in each and every moment. We will learn to dance when we hear the flute, and to mourn when others wail. We will learn to hum the right tune. We will take on the yoke of the kingdom of heaven, and find within it rest for our souls.
 Ronald Rolheiser, The Holy Longing: The Search for a Christian Spirituality (New York: Doubleday, 1999) 11.
 Bob Eldan, Preachingtip website: http://preachingtip.com/archives-year-a/pentecost-year-a/proper-9-year-a/.
 Thomas Merton described the monk’s wish as one of offering himself “all of a piece to God.” Esther de Waal, The Way of Simplicity: The Cistercian Tradition (Collegeville, Minnesota: Liturgical Press, 1998) 71.
 As quoted in de Waal, 71-72.
Also by Teri Daily
For My Daughter: Getting Rid of Media Voices GO
Pentecost as Dreams that Linger in the Air GO
Forever Incomplete: Alanis Morissette, Gregory of Nyssa, and the Bats of Austin, Texas GO
The Downward Mobility of God: A Homily for Holy Week GO
Mothers of God GO
What I Learn from Process Theology GO
Embracing Tensions: Relational Power and the Cruciform Life GO
The Space to See Things Differently GO
The Space within the Trinity: All Beings Included GO
Angels Everywhere: Revelation's Image of the New Jerusalem GO
Love's Oblivion: Mary Anoints Jesus' Feet GO
May I Try That One Again? The Grace of a Million Second Chances GO
Love Made Gritty GO
Fear of Missing Out: Thinking about the God-Shaped Hole GO
Beyond Catfights: A Feminist Critique of the Mary/Martha Story GO
The Gentlest of Judges: God's Critique of Perfectionism and Purity GO
The Grace of Being Known: The Woman at the Well GO
Grace that Both Disturbs and Delights: Dinner with a Rabbi GO