Have you ever needed a vacation from your vacation? Have you ever come back from what was supposed to be restorative time away even more tired than when you left? I know I have. I’m not saying that my vacation last week was like that…oh wait. We came back exhausted.
I know it’s an over generalization, but it sure seems like, as a culture, we have a hard time resting. It’s “go go go” all the time. We take time “off,” we go on vacations, but rarely is it restful and restorative. We fill that time with itineraries and meals and entertainment, connecting with family we don’t see frequently, and staying up way past our bedtimes. Or, if we choose the increasingly more popular “staycation” we find ourselves catching up on a list of neglected household chores. Sure, our time away is often fun and meaningful, but very rarely do we simply “rest.”
I don’t think we really know how, when it boils down to it. We run ourselves ragged and a long weekend does nothing to help us catch our breaths. One of my friends who comes the closest I’ve witnessed to actually resting always takes two weeks of vacation at a time for the sole purpose of giving himself one whole week to wind down so that he can truly relax. But not all of us get the luxury of two weeks in a row, do we?
Whether you’re good at resting or not so good at resting, the vacation season of summer seems like an appropriate time to read what Jesus has to say about it: “Come to me all you who 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 in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
Now, if you wanted to, I suppose you could use this passage to justify a week at the beach, lounging in the sun and sipping cold drinks with little paper umbrellas. Or, you could use this passage to remind you to take what we call a Sabbath–a day of rest. We could, together, explore the benefit of rest for our bodies and our spirits and talk about how restorative rest is a gift from God and how we can’t possibly keep on keeping on in this life if we don’t occasionally take a break to recharge. I could use this passage to give you permission to practice radical self care–to be amazingly kind to yourself in life-giving way. We could do all of this, and that would be faithful, and even if you spent one day being kind to your body and your mind and your spirit, we could call that “success.” But to leave you with only that message would be to ignore a word in the passage that Jesus uses as frequently as he does the word ‘rest.’
That word is ‘yoke.’ It, of course, refers to the piece of wood that connects two animals to farm equipment–oxen pulling a plow, for example; or horses pulling a cart. Though we use this passage often to talk about rest, a yoke is not a piece of equipment that animals wear when they are resting. They wear a yoke when they are working, which sure changes the emphasis of this passage from that of rest to that of work. It makes even more sense when you take into account all the instructions Jesus has been giving (for the past four weeks!) about discipleship.And discipleship, like it or not, is work. Maybe we don’t rest well because we don’t work well.
In my first semester of seminary I took the class called Introduction to the Old Testament. It was a required course and there were about seventy students in the class. When it came time for the final exam, the professor distributed study questions; if you could answer all of these questions, you, presumably, would be well prepared for the final. Most of the students formed study groups. They divided and conquered the material, each taking a question or two and then sharing answers with one another. By sharing the work, each person’s prep time was cut at least in half. Well, individualistic, hard-working person that I am, being part of a study group felt like cutting corners to me; I felt like I needed to all the work–to read through all my notes, to come up with all the answers by myself. Little did I know that I would run out of time and that, the night before the final, I would be hugely unprepared. Thankfully, my roommate at the time was in the class and was also in a study group that “divided and conquered” the material. I suppose she could have thought that I got what I deserved by not joining a study group, but instead, she shared her study group notes with me, which enabled me to do just fine on the final. That’s what it means to be yoked to someone else–you share the burden so that the work is not as hard and so that it gets done better than if it had been done alone. Though certainly not a vacation, a yoke does provide a certain amount of rest, or at least peace of mind.
We are absolutely yoked to one another, in that we bear one another’s burdens, but we are also yoked to God. The stoles that clergy wear around our necks are symbolic of yokes. They remind us that we are yoked to God. A yoke, by definition, is a shared burden. If I were not yoked to God, I would collapse from the weight of this work. It would be too much to bear this work by myself. I need God’s help. And, when I forget that is when I get in trouble. When I try to do it all by myself is when it starts feeling like I’m trying to fit a square peg into a round hole–exhausting. But if I seek help from God, if I pay attention to scripture and to the words of the hymns I sing and if I’m attentive to my prayer life, things get much easier and the yoke I carry feels shared with One who is greater than I.
The good news here is that you don’t have to be a pastor to share your yoke with God. What would it be like if, in your daily work–whatever that might be–the work for which you get paid, or the work of seeking employment (which, we all know is a job in itself), or volunteer work, or being a citizen of the community, or being a student, or caring for family–what would it be like, if we all understood ourselves as being yoked to God? What would it be like if we all imagined ourselves as wearing stoles to remind us that there’s nothing that we do that we do alone and that there is always someone sharing our burden? It would change the way we work drastically. We would find a certain amount of rest that a whole month of sitting on the beach sipping cold drinks with tiny paper umbrellas could never give us. You’re doubtful, I know, but I dare you to give it a try.
Let God do some of the work. Trust that God is doing some of the work.
You are yoked to God, if not by ordination, then by baptism, for it is baptism that sets you apart for God’s work, but never sends you out alone, without God’s help. Believe this, ask for help when you need it, and I guarantee you, you will find rest for your souls, for with God, the yoke is easy, and the burden is light. Amen.