The Table and the Yoke

Preached on the occasion of the Holiday Luncheon at the Cathedral Church of St Paul in Detroit.  Matthew 11:28-30.

Family TableYesterday, I was sitting in a Starbucks in Plymouth… writing this sermon in between quips on Facebook… listening to some pop music on my ipod.  And I was sitting at one end of one of those long tables… chairs lining both sides.  In someone’s home, this table would have been a fabulous place to host a large holiday meal.  A table filled w family and friends… gathered around good food, and joy, and love.  A table of welcome.  A table of love.

As is often the case in these coffee shops, my computer and I outlast many of the other patrons.  At one point, my attention was drawn about halfway down the table to a woman who was sitting down across from a man.  He was sitting next to a teenaged girl – perhaps 13 or 14.  The woman had pulled out paperwork and had begun talking to the man across the table.

Because I’m nosy, I efforted a glance at the paperwork.  Was this a real estate deal?  A business deal?  Well, it turns out it was, after a fashion.  I never read what was on the paperwork but I didn’t have to.  Because soon the voices became loud enough for me to hear over the din of pop music on my ipod – phrases like:
“child support is non-negotiable”
and “here’s what’s going to happen”
and “have to sign it today”
…until finally the man got up and walked out of the shop without saying anything and the women looked at the teenaged girl and said, “this is your father”.
The teenaged girl started dialing her smartphone w a panicked look on her face.  I imagined she was trying to call her father to get him to come back.
This wasn’t a table of welcome or of love.
It was a table of negotiation, a table of contention – a battleground, really.

I spent some time thinking about this interaction afterwards.  About how much pain these people were in.  About how much anxiety the teenaged girl must be feeling.  And about how we do this to each other all the time.  We take positions.   We make threats, sometimes in a passive aggressive way.  We hold ground.  And we pass on the heavy burdens to one another, often to the next generation of humanity.

We do what we can to gain power over one another because it’s somehow more satisfying for us to win territory and make sure things happen on our terms, than to imagine that there might be another way.  We want the people in our lives to conform to what we need them to be rather than to be curious about what they might offer if we sat at a table of welcome.

I find it interesting that we use the language of “come to the table” in both our legal dealings, our negotiations where two sides come to the table… and here in this place as a reconciliation with God, a reminder of Love.

“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.”

Where is the rest for this family I had occasion to eavesdrop on, these children of God?  Granted, this is just a snapshot.  But it was clear to me that this is a family who is struggling mightily with love, invested in hard battles.

And they are not the only ones.  How hard people’s lives are.
How hard our lives are – even ours.  Our lives of comfort and privilege… where we live and work amongst people who not only know the story of the Incarnation, but who believe in its miracle and teach about its love.
How are we challenged on this day by our hard lives?
How are we struggling with love?

“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.”

A yoke, as many of you know, consisted of a wooden or iron frame, attached on each side to some sort of noose designed to go round the necks of a pair of draft animals, such as oxen or horses.  From the center of the yoke, were ropes or chains connected it to the load these animals were meant to pull.

Throughout scripture, the yoke is used as a symbol of hardship or submission.  A symbol of servitude.
Jeremiah, our wacky performance-oriented prophet, actually wore a yoke to demonstrate how strongly he felt that Judah should submit to Babylon.
It is used, in some cases, to refer to hardship – such as sin,
and responsibility – such as obedience to God, or the Law,
and teaching or wisdom – as Jesus does here when he talks about his yoke.

What is important to understand about the yoke, is that it doesn’t refer to what it being pulled by the animals.  The burden, the responsibility isn’t about the load behind you.  The yoke is that which binds you, connects you to what you walk beside – your yoke-fellow.

The submission of being yoked is less about what you’re pulling and more about being joined to another – the submission of one to another in a team, a partnership.  It’s quite a different thing to be yoked to sin, than to be yoked to wisdom.  Are you pulling the load with the hardships of your life as your partner, or are you pulling it alongside the insights you have gained?

And remember Jesus’ yoke, his teaching, is one of compassionate wisdom.  After all, this passage is from Matthew – where Jesus has been preaching the Sermon on the Mount – the beatitudes that remind us of our deep responsibility to one another as sisters and brothers, all children of God.  It is this compassionate wisdom that reminds us of our connections to one another.  That reminds us of how much pain we have a tendency to carry… and, therefore, how much pain we can cause.

I was in a packaging store at Christmas time a few years ago.  And, as you might expect, it was crazy busy.  And as I waited impatiently in line, my glance fell on the counter.  And there, right in front of the register was this little picture frame.  And inside that frame it said:
“Be kind.  Everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”
How exquisitely, terribly, utterly true.
Everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.

And Jesus says, “For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

Jesus invites us to a different kind of yoking, a different kind of submission.  He is not talking about the yoke we create ourselves – one in which we partner w our struggles and our fears and our sins… one that tells us that this life is about gaining power by winning territory on a battleground.
We know that yoke.  We take it on willingly and we sit across from one another at tables of contract negotiation so that we always have something between us, protecting us from the other.

Jesus is talking about a yoke that is so light, so subtle, we don’t even feel it.  A yoke in which we partner w our true power found in the ground of our being that is God – and that power enables within us a compassionate wisdom.  Where there is no territory to win and there is no sin to carry.  No intimidations.  No positions to hold.  But a recognition of our shared humanity.

Not a yoke where we submit to abuse from others, but a yoke where we stand in solidarity with one another in compassionate wisdom, knowing that all of us are fighting hard battles… the biggest of which is simply learning how to stop battling ourselves and take on the yoke of kindness.

A yoke that enables us to extend a love to others that is curious, a love that is wise at a table of welcome.
For this is a yoke where we can run without weariness and we can walk without faint.
This is a table… of reconciliation and fellowship.  A table of salvation and love.

About Michelle Meech

I want to unfold. I do not want to remain folded up anywhere, because wherever I am still folded, I am untrue. -Rainer Maria Rilke
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