July 9, 2017
Matthew 11.16-19, 25-30
+ You’re going to get a glimpse—a brief one, mind you—into the secret life of a priest. Now before your minds start racing, there’s nothing scandalous about it. And for anyone who has taken my Episcopal 101 class and been through my instructed Mass, this isn’t going to come as any surprise to any of you.
But…what most of you might not know is that all these vestments…well, each one is put on with a prayer. Each of these vestments a priest wears has a prayer that goes along with it. As the priest puts on each articles of clothing, he or she can say a prayer to remind them that each article of clothing has symbolic meaning.
See, it’s really not that secret. If you go into the undercroft, you’ll see on the wall there by the vestments the vesting prayers on the wall.
The prayers are actually good things for someone like me. I need such things in my life to help me get centered. And I really do love the symbolism of them.
The prayers are interesting in and of themselves. For example, when I put on the alb, which is the white robe under these vestments, I pray,
“Make me clean as snow, O Lord, and cleanse my heart; that being made clean in the blood of the Lamb I may deserve an eternal reward.”
When I put on the stole, the scarf-like vestment I wear around my neck, I pray:
“Restore unto me, O Lord, the stole of immortality which I lost through the sins of my first parents and, although, unworthy to approach Thy sacred Mystery, may I nevertheless attain to joy eternal.”
And when I put on this chasuble, this green vestment I wear over it all, I pray a prayer that directly quotes our Gospel reading for today. The prayer I pray when I put on the chasuble is,
“O Lord, who hast said, ‘My yoke is sweet and my burden light,’ grant that I may carry it to merit Thy grace.”
The chasuble, in this sense, really is symbolic of the yoke. And that’s really our word of the day. Yoke. Now this word is a strange one. It’s one we really don’t want to have to ponder, because, let’s face it, no one wants a yoke. When we think of yoke, we no doubt think of something that weighs heavily upon us. We think of something a beast of burden carries on their backs. We can’t imagine anything worse for us. Why would we want an extra burden in our lives? We have enough burdens as it is. We are all truly “weary and carrying heavy burdens.”
And sometimes these heavy burdens truly affect our bodies. As some of you know, I have very terrible back issues. These came from fractured bones I received in car accidents over the years. Just recently, my back has been particularly bad. I can’t stand for long periods. I can’t walk for a long distance anymore. Every time I go to my chiropractor about these issues, he says things to me like, “Father, you’ve been carrying some heavy burdens on your back, haven’t you?”
Well, we all do, don’t we? We are all carrying around things we probably should have allowed ourselves to get rid of some time ago.
So, the last thing we want at this time in our lives is to take on another burden. Jesus shouldn’t be a burden in our lives. Isn’t Jesus supposed to take some of the burdens from us?
The reality is: taking on Christ is equivalent to taking on a very heavy burden. Being Christians means living with a burden. It means we have a structure, a framework that directs our lives. And sometimes it’s hard to live in such a way. It’s hard to live by a set of standards that are different from the rest of the world.
Let me tell you as someone who lives with standards different than the rest of the world (vegan teetotaler that I am).
Still, I think, most of us, even us Christians still bristle when we describe our faith and many of those standards that go along with our faith as a yoke. A yoke on our backs confines us. It does not allow us freedom.
And we, as humans, and especially as Americans, love our freedom. We love “elbow room.” We don’t like anyone telling us what to do and forcing us to go places we don’t want to go.
But the fact is, when we take Christ as our yoke, we find all our notions of personal freedom and independence gone from us. No longer do we have our own personal freedom. No longer do we have our own personal independence. What we have is Christ’s independence. What we have is Christ’s freedom.
Our lives are not our own. As Christians, we don’t get to claim complete personal independence over our own lives. Our lives are guided and directed by Christ. Our lives are ruled over by Christ. The yoke of Christ means that it is Christ who directs our yoke. It is Christ who directs us, if we need to, to go the places Christ wants us to go and do the things Christ wants us to do and live in certain ways that Christ wants us to live. It is our duty to be a “beast of burden” for Christ and for what Christ teaches.
The great thing about that is that if we let Jesus direct us, nothing wrong will happen to us. Jesus will always lead us along the right path. Jesus will direct us where we need to go.
Now I say all of this to you as though I am fine with all of this. I say this to you as though I have completely surrendered myself to Jesus as his beast of burden. I’ll be brutally honest with you, however.
I find much of this very difficult to bear as well. I have always been one of those independently-minded people myself. I know that’s not a surprise to any of you. I have never liked being told what to do or what to say by anyone. Ask my mother. I have always preferred doing things on my own. And for years I struggled with this scripture in my own life. I did not want to surrender my personal independence and my personal sense of freedom.
Which is why that prayer I pray when I put on my chasuble is not always a prayer I want to pray. Certainly, in many ways this prayer defines for me what ministry is all about. When I put on this garment, symbolic of my ministry as a priest, I am reminded of the yoke, of the burden, I carry every day.
In a sense, as a priest, my life is not my own. I’m not complaining about that. I knew the rules of the game when I entered the priesthood. But the reality is that my life is fully and completely Christ’s. As a priest, I don’t always get to do what I want, or go where I want to go. There are standards. There are boundaries. It’s not a free-for-all.
I strive to do what Christ wants and I strive to go where Christ leads me. The key word there is “strive.” I try to do what Christ wants and try to go where Christ leads. More often than not, my own arrogance gets in the way, my own fears cause me to shrug off the yoke of Christ, and my own selfishness leads me to do only what I want to do.
All ministry is a yoke. And ministry, as we all know, doesn’t just happen out of the blue. Our ministry that we do stems directly from our baptism. It is a response to the promises that were made for us when we were baptized and which we re-affirm on a regular basis.
So, when I talk about my life not being my own, it is not confined to just me as an ordained priest in the Church. Rather, through baptism, we are all called to ministry, to a priesthood of all believers. We have all, through our baptism, taken on the yoke of Christ. Because, through baptism, we have been marked as Christ’s own forever and we have been given a yoke that we cannot shrug off.
Our lives are not our own. Through baptism, we are Christ’s—and our lives belong completely and fully to Christ.
Now all of this might seem confined and difficult to accept, but Jesus says, in no uncertain terms, that his yoke is not quite like the yoke put on a beast. While that yoke is heavy and unwieldy—it is a tedious weight to bear for the animal—for us, he tells us, his yoke is light and the burden easy. It is a burden that we should gladly take on because it leads us to a place of joy and gladness. It is a yoke that directs us to a place to which we, without it, would not be able to find on our own. We, in our arrogance, in our self-centeredness, in our selfishness, cannot find the Kingdom of God on our own.
Only through Christ’s direction can be we be truly led there. The yoke of Christ is, in an outward sense, a simple one to bear. The yoke of Christ consists of loving God and loving our neighbor as our selves. It is these two commandments that have been laid on our backs and by allowing ourselves to be led by them, they are what will bring us and those whom we encounter in this life to that place of joy.
So, let us gladly embrace the yoke Jesus laid upon us at baptism. For taking on the burdens of Christ will not be just another burden to bear. It won’t cause us any real pain. It won’t give us aches and pains that will settle in our backs and necks, like the others burdens we carry around with us in this life.
But rather, the yoke of Christ is what frees us in a way we cannot even begin to understand. It is a freedom that we find in Christ.
“Take my yoke upon you,” Jesus says to us, “and you will find rest for your souls.”
Let us take the yoke of Christ upon ourselves with graciousness, and we too will find that rest for our souls as well.