On Hard Yokes and Heavy Burdens

burdenby Martin Fisch licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

Dear Working Preachers,

I remember well the first time I preached on Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30. I was on my internship at First Evangelical Lutheran Church in Mount Vernon, WA, with supervising pastor, Mark Johnson. In many respects, it was a normal internship year, representing the breadth of parish ministry — exactly what every intern needs. At the same time, that particular year the congregation experienced the deaths of three life-long and prominent members.

In each death, I was present in some way. With Ben, I was there when he took his last breath. To this day, I still correspond with his widow.

With Bill, I had just arrived at his house for a visit. Ruth came to the door, opened it, and said, “Oh, Karoline. Bill just died. I can’t believe you are here.”

Then there was Wendy. Diagnosed with aggressive breast cancer at the age of 43 only a week before my internship started, she was one of my first pastoral-care visits, sitting with her as she was getting chemo. And then I was there every week. When the cancer came back, I took her to radiation appointments. I was engaged that year, planning a wedding that would happen soon after the internship would end. She hosted a bridal shower for me. The morning she died, my supervisor and I had left her only hours before.

For a good portion of those last hours with Wendy, I played my violin. That’s what she wanted. She had an extraordinary voice, loved music, and wanted me to play for her. You see, in my former life, I was a violinist. It was my perceivable career choice until I came up with the idea, or someone else did, that I could do something in the church and decided to go to seminary. So I played my heart out. Hymns, mostly. I recall one comment by a family member, that “I played her into heaven.” She certainly didn’t need my help for that. But you sure play differently when you sense what’s at stake. True for preaching as well.

Wendy died July 11, 1993, and I had to preach on this text the following Sunday. Matthew 11:28-30 made me angry. Furious, even. Appalled. Shocked. Jesus was speaking words that made absolutely no sense to me. To take on his yoke? That he could provide the kind of rest I needed from the weariness of this year, from the exhaustion of accompanying someone who is dying, from the heavy burden of grief and loss? Really, Jesus? Are you kidding me? And then, to have to preach it, and to a congregation that I knew had to be feeling what I felt? I also had a few choice words for my internship supervisor for making me preach.

Of course, there were other texts I could have chosen for my sermon. But it’s funny how we are drawn to the text that might simultaneously be the one we need and that is the hardest to preach. Why is that? Why was that, that week in July over 20 years ago? God seemed to know that I needed to hear this text and that the congregation needed it preached. And somewhere in that listening I started to hear promise.

There is something crushingly honest about these verses. In Matthew, Jesus doesn’t beat around the proverbial bush when it comes to being a disciple, as we have seen thus far. To believe in Jesus is not escapism from burdens or struggles or the events in our lives that cause the kind of weariness that might strip us of our very souls. To be a disciple is to be yoked to Jesus.

We are yoked to Jesus, whose yoke is kind, good, useful (better translations than “easy”). Yes, it is still a symbol of burden, oppression, and hardship. But we can’t forget who is pulling the burden with us, with his head through the other oxbow.

With that truth in mind, I think this text says more than: you are not alone in your suffering. Although that is also true about this passage, nevertheless I think there is a promise that the load really will feel lighter. True, you are not alone. And therefore whatever burden you bear, you do not bear it alone. There’s the difference. There’s the good news — realistic, good news we might actually experience.

Our congregations are full of people bearing all kinds of burdens, of all sizes and meanings. A few people in the pews will hear Jesus words in 11:30 and think, “Yeah? That’s a load of crap.” That’s when we say, “I know. Let me tell you why.” And then preach about the one who also knows what it’s like to be weighed down with pain and anguish and who is still with us always, to the end of the age.

Faithful followers of this column know that David Lose posted his final “Dear Working Preacher” letter last week. On September 1 he begins a new chapter in his career as president of the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia (LTSP). David and his family moved to Pennsylvania last summer, and he is a graduate of LTSP, so this is a great and exciting opportunity for him. While his absence will certainly be felt at Luther Seminary, by the team of Working Preacher contributors and support staff, and by his loyal readers, his new position is a wonderful new avenue for him to work toward his vocational goals.

David’s vision was the impetus behind the creation of Working Preacher at Luther Seminary, and the website has grown into something that benefits preachers all over the world. Under David’s leadership, the website has earned a reputation for faithful biblical interpretation, reliable help in weekly preaching, and creative content. The many people that make Working Preacher what it is today are committed to keep Working Preacher working for you. In this case, that means we are committed to continue making this column a valued resource in your weekly sermon preparation. For the time being, I will be writing the column, and we value your insights and your ideas for what this column might be in its next chapter.

With gratitude,