A sermon preached at St. Francis by the Lake, Canyon Lake, Texas.
The readings for the Feast of St. Francis are here.
Once upon a time in a town in the Midwest United States, a woman put a five foot tall gargoyle statue on her front porch and named the gargoyle Frank. As Christmas approached, she put a Santa hat on Frank one morning and left for work. When she returned, there was a note taped to her front door from a neighbor that informed her that gargoyles had nothing to do with Christmas and to remove both the hat and the gargoyle immediately. Over the weekend, she gave Frank an wreath and then added some fake snow and a little Christmas tree. At one point Elf on the Shelf joined in, sitting between Frank’s ears. The neighbor was not impressed and left additional notes, threatening to report this to the HOA and then even the mayor. Frank’s owner took to the internet and created a page to tell the story and immediately began gaining followers. Wanting to show the goodness of Frank, she used it as a way to raise money for her local food bank, asking those who enjoyed the story of Frank-the-Gargoyle vs. Karen-the-neighbor to donate. Through the seasons and holidays of the new year, Frank’s apparel changed and new porch friends joined him. All the while the neighbor’s complaints were getting uglier and uglier. Frank’s owner uses his fame to continue to raise money for various charities and to bring humor to the 3/4 of a million followers.
Now, you may or may not be wondering why I’m telling you a story of Frank the Christmas Gargoyle in the beginning of October and I really hope you are wondering what on earth does any of this have to to with Jesus talking about yokes. Any ideas? If you stick with me, I promise I’ll bring it all home in the end.
So where are we in the whole of God’s story in our reading today? Jesus has called his twelve disciples and gave them authority to throw out unclean spirits and to heal every disease and every sickness. He’s given them real expectations: not everyone will like them or what they have to say, sometimes not even their families but that God will provide what they need when they need it.
Jesus sends them out to proclaim the good news and begins doing some public teaching in which he scolds the towns of Galilee in which he had done some significant miracles because they hadn’t opened their hearts to God’s way. He compares them to towns outside of the region which were not predominantly Jewish, basically saying that those outside of the tribes of Isreal are more accepting of God than those who claim to be God’s chosen people.
And then he immediately breaks into this prayer, “Thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth. you’ve hidden these things from the wise and intelligent and have shown them to infants” and extends an invitation of goodness and rest with the seemingly inappropriate image of a yoke.
A yoke, as you know, is a tool used for harnessing animals in farming. It enables the farmer to guide and control the animals.
It is also the word used for taking on a Rabbi’s teaching as a disciple.
The Old Testament prophets spoke of the yoke as the brutal weight of slavery and oppression and of God breaking the yokes of the nations and kings opposing Isreal.
Yokes, real and symbolic, are used to control others. In first century Palestine, the Roman yoke was one of brutality; the yoke of the Pharisees was fear and guilt and shame.
What are our 21st century yokes: consumerism and consumption, aka “keeping up with the Joneses.” Anger? Fear? Political affiliation? What are we letting guide and control our behavior? Who are we letting yoke us and how do we try to control the behavior of others by attempting to force our yoke on them?
And the best question yet, why would Jesus even use the idea of a yoke to describe his way?
Because that’s what Jesus does with all of his parables and stories: Jesus offers us a whole new way of being in this world. He takes something common and gives us a completely different way of seeing it. Jesus gives us a whole new definition of ‘yoke’.
Jesus extends the invitation “follow me” and then let’s us choose. He doesn’t coerce or manipulate or force us. Jesus tells us his yoke, his way of guiding us is easy. Not easy in the sense of ‘not difficult’ because following Jesus can be quite difficult. But easy in the sense that Jesus’ way is what we are created for, the way God intends for us to be. The Greek word would be better translated, as it is in other places in scripture, as good or useful or kind.
My yoke is good. My yoke is useful. My yoke is kind.
Jesus doesn’t force his yoke upon us but invites us to take it up with intention.
And to take on Jesus’ yoke we must first take off the yoke we already wear, because we can’t wear two. We have to let go of the yoke of having to prove ourselves worthy of God. Let go of the yoke of being good enough for our family, the yoke of presenting the right image to the world, the yoke of looking a certain way, the yoke of being perfect, the yoke of being the best helper so others will like us, the yoke of having the perfect plan, the yoke of knowing everything, the yoke of doing everything, the yoke of being everything to everybody.
These yokes of our choosing are burdensome and do not enable us to live as God’s beloved children. They are not good or useful or kind. And they definitely aren’t easy. But we wear them, we keep putting them on because we’ve let this world teach us that somehow they will make us whole. And yet that emptiness inside of us isn’t fulfilled and so the yokes become more and more burdensome.
Blaise Pascal, the seventeenth century physicist, philosopher, and theologian said this, “What else does this craving, and this helplessness, proclaim but that there was once in man a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace? This he tries in vain to fill with everything around him, seeking in things that are not there the help he cannot find in those that are, though none can help, since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God himself.”
Jesus’ yoke – that which is to guide and direct us – is love, God’s unconditional, uncontrolling love. Jesus’ yoke of love enables us to discover who we are at the core of our being, the image of God in which we are created.
Jesus’ yoke enables us to know we are loved so that we can love God, our neighbor, and ourselves. It is in these relationships that we participate with God and each other in bringing about the Kingdom on earth.
To choose Jesus’ yoke, we have to let go of our ‘adultish’ habits of self-sufficiency and assuming control and enter into Jesus invitation as children, with the child-like willingness and openness to learning a new way, a better way, a good and useful way.
So, back to Frank the Christmas Gargoyle. Frank’s owner could have let the yoke of anger guide her but she chose differently. She chose to use the situation to raise funds to help others in need. She chose love.
We choose our yokes: We can choose the yoke of anger and complaining, looking for all that is wrong in this world and with our neighbors. We can choose the yoke of having to prove ourselves. We can choose the yoke of being perfect. We can even choose to try and force our yokes on others so we can control them.
Or we can choose Jesus’ yoke, becoming childlike in our willingness to be guided by Jesus’ teaching of love.
One of my seminary professors says, “it is the vocation of every Christian to DARE to follow Jesus on his terms.” Do we dare to take on Jesus’ yoke? Not everyone will like it when we do. But we will be living in the freedom of knowing whose and who we are: God’s beloved children, following Jesus in the revolution of love that is very, very good. Amen.