For the last three Sundays in our Gospel readings we have heard Jesus telling his disciples what life will be like for those who follow him.
At first, life as a disciple sounds pretty good. Jesus gives his friends and followers the authority to cast out demons, to heal the sick, to cure diseases, and to preach in his name.
He tells them to always work in pairs so that they will have companionship. He tells them they don’t need to carry money or food because people in the villages they visit will care for them.
Not such a bad life, it seems. But then comes the hard part.
His disciples will be persecuted, Jesus warns. They will be arrested, beaten, and jailed. They will be despised by both governmental and religious authorities. Their own families may turn against them. They will be humiliated, mocked, and scorned.
“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth,” Jesus tells them. “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.
After three weeks of listening to Jesus spell out the hardships of being a disciple, today we hear him say these words. “Come to me, all you that are weary and 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.”
These words seem to contradict everything we have heard Jesus say recently. Since when has persecution been restful? How can alienation, humiliation and scorn be a light burden? How can taking up a yoke that may lead to arrest and even death seem easy?
In our technological world we do not see yokes very often. A yoke is a wooden harness placed around the neck of animals so that they can pull plows and work in the field.
A yoke is a symbol of hard work, submission, and obedience.
Whenever I hear this invitation from Jesus to take up his yoke, I remember a former student of mine in a refugee camp in Thailand. Rin Vuth was a 19-year-old Cambodian, who stepped on a land mine and lost his leg in his flight from his homeland.
Vuth was depressed, shy, and withdrawn. He told me one day he wanted to be an artist. I brought him a sketchpad and within a week he had filled it with drawings of the story of his life under the Khmer Rouge.
In one drawing he is wearing a yoke, pulling a plow across a field, while a Khmer Rouge soldier whips him, demanding that he go faster.
That vivid, painful drawing stands in my mind as what it means to take up a yoke.
And yet Jesus uses the yoke as a symbol of rest, freedom, and liberation. “Take my yoke upon you and you will find rest for your souls.”
Yoking oneself to Jesus, becoming his disciple, working for him, does not mean that life will be easy or trouble free. There may be persecution, ridicule and shame.
Jesus’ disciples will have the same tragedies that beset the rest of humanity. Illness, death, poverty and grief come to those who follow Jesus just as surely as they do to the rest of the world.
But Jesus tells us today that these woes, tribulations and persecutions are not God’s final word.
The distinctive thing about the yoke of Jesus is that it frees us from the enemies that eat away at our humanity – the greed, the hatred, the fears, the insecurities and despairs that surround us.
Jesus discloses these enemies for what they are: a lie about what God intends for us. Jesus’ yoke is easy because the yoke of love is a lighter burden than the yoke of hate; the yoke of forgiveness a lighter burden than the yoke of vengeance; the yoke of compassion a lighter burden than the yoke of anger.
By taking on Jesus’ yoke we can swap despair for joy, fear for courage, anxiety for peace. We still must labor, but we work knowing that Jesus is beside us, working with us.
The rest that Jesus promises is not a rest from physical labor, but a rest from the fears and anxieties that beset the world.
It seems appropriate to hear this invitation from Jesus to share our burdens when we have just celebrated the founding of our country.
“Come to me, all you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest,” sounds very similar to words written by another Jewish prophet a century ago.
“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
“The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
“Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost, to me.”
These words by Emma Lazarus, the daughter of a wealthy New York Jewish family, are inscribed at the base of the Statue of Liberty. They were written in response to the persecution of Jews in Russia.
They sound like they could have been said by Jesus.
It is not accurate to call this country a Christian nation. Perhaps the majority of Americans identify themselves as Christian, but we are also Jewish, Buddhist, Muslim, Hindu, or no religion at all.
But the values at the core of our country’s founding, the values espoused in this poem written by a Jewish girl in response to the world’s persecution and suffering, express many of the same values at the core of our faith.
Jesus offers us welcome and salvation. He tells us the sufferings of this life are not the final word. He promises to share the burdens of our lives, and to give us rest and peace.
America at its best also offers welcome and salvation of sorts. At our best, we offer refuge to the world’s wretched. At our best, we invite in the tired, poor, and homeless of the world and treat them with dignity and respect, the way Jesus would have treated them.
We invite those like my Cambodian friend to lay aside the yokes of oppression and servitude and take up the responsibilities of freedom and liberation.
Just as Emma Lazarus’ words welcome those who enter this country, so should Jesus’ words welcome all who enter the church.
We know that too often our country fails to live up to the sentiment expressed on the Statue of Liberty. The church also too often fails to live up to Jesus’ words.
But whatever conflicts and disagreements we have, we must remember that Jesus’ invitation is extended to all. We must welcome the stranger in our midst, we must learn to share each other’s burdens, to treat each other with gentleness and humility, to offer rest and respite from the problems of the world.
That is what it means to be a disciple of Jesus.