Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30
The Rev. Melanie McCarley
There are moments I find myself wondering if our country’s emphasis upon liberty and individuality, might pose a danger, in that it causes individual citizens of our country to miss the point of what it means to pull together. Certainly, the United States of America’s greatest moments and most stunning achievements haven’t been accomplished by individuals on their own, but by all sorts and manners of people channeling their energies and respective talents toward a common goal and purpose. Think of them: The American Revolution, Space Exploration, and the Trans-Continental Railroad, to name a few.
In the Gospel lesson for today, Jesus emphasizes the importance of pulling together. He says: “Come to me, all you that 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 and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
Our first thought might be that a yoke certainly doesn’t sound as though it would make our lives any easier. In popular parlance, a yoke is seen as a burden. And yet—quite the opposite is true. One strong ox can pull several thousand pounds of weight. So, you’d think that by yoking two oxen together they could carry double the burden; but the truth is that by working together they can carry far more without any additional effort. Yokes lighten a burden and strengthen the oxen to carry far more than they could on their own.
Among the great achievements of our country was the opening of the American West through the exploration efforts of Merriweather Lewis and William Clark and their Corps of Discovery. President Thomas Jefferson appointed Meriwether Lewis to lead the expedition.
Lewis began to plan. However, it wasn’t long before he realized he needed a co-commander; not a subordinate, but someone to work alongside him. And he knew exactly who to choose, William Clark. Clark had once commanded Lewis in the army. He was four years older, but less formally educated. However, he had more practical experience as well as a steadier and more outgoing personality. He was a friend to Lewis, but also a perfect complement in both training and temperament to his co-commander.
These two men, Lewis and Clark, along with their Corps of Discovery, would become the first United States citizens to experience and document the Great Plains. Along their journey they would behold the immensity of our country’s skies as well as the rich splendor of its wildlife. Likewise, they would experience the harsh rigors of its winters. They would be the first citizens to see the peaks of the Rocky Mountains and to cross the Continental Divide. Yet Lewis and Clark did not do this on their own. Time and again they were assisted by Native Americans, including Sacajawea, as well as four dozen other individuals who travelled with them on this epic journey. This peaceful expedition was a success—not because one person managed to cross the continent on his own, but because all of them, chose to work and pull together. (Lewis & Clark: The Journey of the Corps of Discovery by Dayton Duncan & Ken Burns)
The adventure wasn’t without its perils. In late July of 1805 when the Corps of Discovery reached the headwaters of the Missouri river and climbed to the top of a pass, they fully expected to see the westward slopes leading down to the Columbia River. Instead, what their eyes beheld was more mountain ranges, one after the other, stretching as far as the eye could see. Take a moment to imagine their disappointment and frustration as they came to the realization that the journey upon which they had embarked would not conclude in the way they anticipated, but would be much longer and far more arduous than they had ever imagined.
Perhaps we can relate. I consider our country to be in something of the same predicament at this present moment. We, too, find ourselves living in the midst of the unchartered territory of navigating the perils of COVID-19. As we look ahead from where we are standing now, we see that the journey will be longer and more difficult than we had imagined a few months past. We won’t get through this alone—but by all pulling together: wearing masks, practicing social distancing, assisting our neighbors in need and searching for a vaccine. Phil and I returned from South Carolina from a funeral last week. I’ll be honest, what we saw was disappointing. Few folks were wearing masks, bars were crowded and social distancing was haphazard. It was like standing on the deck of the Titanic. The warning horns sounding—and few paying attention. It led me to consider that the most patriotic thing that we can do at this time, is to look to the welfare of all of our citizens, rather than simply doing what we want because we want to. Real patriotism is doing what is in the best interests of our citizens and our country. Yoked together, pulling as one—each of us working alongside the other (albeit 6’ apart), that will see us through. If we don’t manage to do this, the costs both in terms of mortality and ongoing economic hardship will be much higher.
When Jesus encourages us to take his yoke upon ourselves, he’s not simply inviting us to a place of rest, he’s also encouraging us to live into the reality that we are stronger and better off, when working hand-in-hand with one another and with the Lord, rather than insisting on going it alone. What’s more, he’s not only suggesting that the burdens we bear as individuals will be lighter—he’s also telling us that we can carry more of them, perhaps shouldering those of our neighbors as well, without increased hardship on ourselves. That’s important news in a time in our national life when the welfare of so many stands in such clear peril.
But the yoke of which Jesus speaks, here, is his yoke, not one of our own making. It is a yoke which finds its best expression in his commandment to love one another he has loved us. It is constructed of compassion and sacrifice, and is able to bear not simply our own burdens, but those of others as well. In so many ways, the worthy ideals of our country have been built upon something similar; a willingness to strive for the common good, to look to the welfare of the many rather than the few and to be capable of making sacrifices for the health and well being of all. These are good lessons. They speak of the finest qualities of our citizenry. They are worth learning again. In Jesus’ name. Amen.