Fifth Sunday after Pentecost

Sermon for Fifth Sunday after Pentecost, Sunday, July 05 2020, 10:30 am
Mtr. Maggie Helwig, Church of Saint Stephen-in-the-Fields, Toronto
Genesis 24:34-38,42-49,58-67; Psalm 45:11-18; Romans 7:15-25a; Matthew 11:16-19,25-30

There is a particular sharpness in our absence from our church building today, because, as most of you will remember, the archway at the entrance to the sanctuary bears that line from today’s gospel —“Come to me, all ye that labour and are heavy-laden, and I will give you rest.” Interestingly, the same line is printed, in German, in the same place in the Lutheran church across the street. And much as this community has changed over time, I think it has never been one where ease or safety could be assumed. It is a neighbourhood of people who have worked hard, often against great obstacles, people who have struggled with an unjust world, and often been exhausted, and yet kept going because they have had no choice. This is us, and this is our place, even when we are not physically there.

The image of the yoke is frequently misunderstood, I think. It tends to be presented as an image of some kind of disciplinary measure or difficult obligation, something Jesus imposes upon us to keep us in line or teach us a lesson or something—an image of submission. But what a yoke is about is making an already existing weight easier to carry, distributing it, balancing it, sharing it.

Rebecca, in our first reading, would very likely have used a shoulder yoke to carry water home from the community well, because the carrying of the water was unavoidable, but the yoke distributed the weight more bearably, freed up her hands, made the task lighter. In the context of agriculture, a yoke was used to share the weight of a plow between two animals, it was and is a kind and humane device, one which shares weight, shares work, makes it less difficult and damaging for everyone involved. It is a tool of balance, and a tool of community, an expression of relationship. It is no mistake that the yoke is also used as marriage imagery—and today’s first reading features a marriage which, though it has its business-like aspects, also seems to have been one of the few reasonably happy and affectionate partnerships in scripture. There is a sense of permanence to the imagery of the yoke—oddly, since in real life yokes are taken on and off frequently – and marriage is one of those persistent relationships which can model the sharing of burdens and joys; there are, of course, many other types of persistent relationship as well, and all of them rooted in our persistent relationship with the God who comes to us in Christ.

And when Jesus says, “my yoke”, he does not mean what he is sometimes presented as meaning—a yoke of which he has personal ownership, and which he applies to us in order that we must work for him. This is not that kind of God, God the taskmaster, the farmer driving his animals. This is the God who came to us in our human flesh, our human pain and limit, who was hungry and tired and frustrated sometimes, who knew grief and abandonment, who was tempted in the desert, the God who handed himself over to power in an act of ultimate vulnerability and love, the God who allowed us to kill him because he would not resist, would not be a power in the world of powers, the God who went down into death to free us from death. The yoke is the yoke which Jesus himself wears, the yoke of the incarnation, of God’s absolute intimacy with us and with our struggles; it is the yoke which allows him to lift some of the weight from us, to share it with us, to make our necessary work in this thorny world more bearable. To allow half-broken bodies and hearts to rest.

To value rest, even to allow rest, to insist upon it as a proper part of human life, is a radical thing to do in this world. There is less and less rest granted to all those upon whose work our society depends—the retail clerks, the migrant farm workers, the PSWs, the cleaners, the warehouse employees, the gig economy couriers, not to mention the unpaid labour of caregiving and domestic work. The engine of capitalism must never stop, now; the economy must churn on, and the workers in that economy work longer hours, and have far fewer days off, than medieval peasants. And those who cannot sustain the pace are cast aside shattered, subjected to punitively low social assistance rates. There cannot be rest, not time to recover, not time to pray or to think.

Hard as the lockdown was for many, and while one would never wish for a pandemic illness, those few weeks also offered us a glimpse of a world slowed down, a glimpse of quiet, the hint of a world where unending and inadequately compensated labour and the wheel of consumption are not the only truths. Here and there, for just a little while, at least some people without employment were given what they needed to live on, at least some people without homes were moved into private rooms, and a moment of rest seemed, just briefly and under deeply unwanted conditions, barely imaginable. Birds and foxes came out of hiding in the quiet city. The recovery which is underway is necessary and good—the elderly and vulnerable are at least a bit safer, people can be with their families and friends to some degree, even if not yet fully—but we need to remember that the society we are re-opening was and is in many ways not a good one, that it was built on inequity and exploitation, that the gods of the economy cannot be trusted, and that people should, in fact, have time to stay home, bake bread, and go for walks. There should be time to listen for the voice of the beloved, time for the blossoms and the singing of birds. The rest which our souls and bodies need should not be the brief and partial accident of a crisis response, but part of the way our community is structured.

If the yoke is a tool of balance, part of our responsibility to is insist upon that balance for everyone. If it is a tool of relationship, we must assume that relationship ourselves, must find the ways in which each of us, in our condition, can take some of the weight off the people around us, and the ways in which we can allow ourselves to be helped by others, to let them be the presence of Christ for us, yoked with us, sharing our burden.

To turn towards and into God’s desire, rather than all the disorganized, selfish, grasping desires which too often seem to make up the whole of our beings, that is not quick or easy. And all of us have known at some time or other what it is to see the just and loving choice, to want it, to want it desperately even, and to fail; to let the bitter, needy self prevail, to make someone else lose so that we can feel like winners, to make someone else suffer so that we can feel well. To slide into the safe embrace of the way things are, knowing that it is not the way things should be, but that it is, at least, easy. It is a real and all too familiar human dilemma which Paul captures here—to know the right thing, to want the right thing even, and to fail to do it, not just once but over and over and over. This is Paul in full rhetorical humble-brag flight, Paul the super-sinner, super-redeemed; but it is also, in its way, a powerful description of what it is like simply to be human, to be complicated, to be torn, to struggle for a perfection and simplicity of desire and action which we cannot attain. This is part of our burden.

But it it those who are burdened for whom Jesus came. The agricultural labourers who worked the fields for which St Stephen’s is named, and the migrant workers in Leamington now. The immigrants who created and sustained Kensington Market through the generations, shopkeepers, builders, artists, all the workers. And all of us divided creatures struggling with our conflicting longings, all of us wanting to be good and failing. All those who know, one or way or another, that it is not quite all right, that things are not well as they are. All those struggling to survive in an unjust world, all the sick and the hungry and the worried. All those for whom the bridegroom calls, all those who are offered the yoke of Christ’s humanity, the love which shares our labours.