It was 15 years ago in this very church that I was ordained, and I remember that day with gratitude. The spread of food alone was great. And there were all those good wishes and blessings that you showered on me that day.
Now I had prepared more or less 14 years to get to that day. I started my extensive theological education back in Germany and almost made it all the way through, but then life happened, and I ended up here in the San Francisco Bay Area with my young family, and I had to jump through what back then seemed like an endless series of hoops in order to be ordained here. So I was eager, I was hungry, I was ready. 14 years preparing for that day. I expected the day of my ordination to be a day of elation. Finally, finally, I had reached my goal!
And then it actually happened. As it is the custom, at some point Bishop Mullen and all clergypersons who were present, plus Brad Peterson, who was assisting minister that day, laid their hands on me in blessing. And let me tell you, it was so unlike what I had expected. Those hands were not laid on me tenderly and lightly, but with deft and heft. There was all this weight on my shoulders. And as I was kneeling there, struggling to keep a straight posture, I was wondering: is this what ministry will be like for the rest of my life? Jesus Christ, what have I gotten myself into?
Jesus says, ‘Come to me, all you that you are weary and are carrying heave 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.’
It seems to be an oxymoron, doesn’t it? Come to me, you who are burdened, and I will give you rest. And then: take my yoke upon you. This is one of those passages where we might want to say, well, Jesus, is it one or the other? Make up your mind!
But, as so often with the sayings of Jesus, there is no simple solution; on the contrary, Jesus wants to challenge us, he wants us to stop in our tracks and think things over. Yes, in Jesus Christ, we find rest, and we can just dump anything that burdens us on him. But that doesn’t mean that Christ promises us a plush life without any challenges.
And that may be hard to take for us in these post-modern times, when our values, individually and as a society, seem to be mostly about comfort and independence and personal freedom. I don’t want to have to rely on anyone. I don’t want to be dependent on anybody. And, on the flipside: I don’t want anyone to depend on me and my hard-earned accomplishments. Let them fend for themselves as I have fended for myself. I don’t want to carry a yoke.
But, as we all know, total independence, total freedom is an illusion. Unless you live as a foraging hermit somewhere, you depend on the larger community, society; and even as a foraging hermit, you rely on God’s creation to provide you with what you need to live.
And whenever we live in a community, it’s not only take, but give and take. It’s called interdependence – we rely on each other. And, yes, this also means that we do our part, that we serve to our abilities as we are served in many other ways by the community around us. Ideally, we all contribute according to our ability. I know this sounds utopian – or like the kingdom of heaven.
If you will, there is always some sort of yoke on our shoulders. But what is a yoke for? Just think of a work horse or oxen in the fields: a yoke makes work easier for the beast. It helps distribute any weight that has to be dragged more evenly. Often, two animals are hitched to the same yoke, thus helping each other. And the easy yoke Jesus talks about is a yoke that fits well. It makes work and service in this world easier for us. It is a yoke of love, mercy and compassion.
15 years ago, I felt the weight and responsibility of being an ordained minister on my shoulders, quite literally. And ever since, there have been many heavy moments: when I had to comfort a young couple who just learned that the child they were so excited to have had died in the mother’s womb. When I sat with someone who was about to die. When I grieved with families who had lost a loved one.
But fortunately that’s not all there is to ministry. There are the joyful moments, when a child is baptized, or we celebrate worship services with our entire hearts and souls. Moments when I can just sit and listen to beautiful music, like today. And even in the heavy moments, I have experienced grace and blessing. Because people came together, people shared in their grief and hurt. In this community, I felt Christ’s presence.
Christ’s yoke, I have to say, fits quite well for me. It makes the service I’ve felt called to as easy as possible. And because Jesus doesn’t only talk about the yoke, but about coming to him with my weariness and burdens as well, there always has been this gift of unloading, of knowing that I am not carrying all the burdens alone.
My hope and prayer for us all is that we embrace the interdependence we experience in our communities, our societies, and our world. That we receive what others have to offer with gratefulness and do our part with joyful hearts. I pray that we will experience Christ’s yoke as a gift to help us to our part in this world. And that we will not forget that we are not carrying the burden of the world, although it maybe sometimes feels like it – but that Christ offered to take the burden and the sin of the world upon himself. We can throw everything that worries and hurts and burdens us onto Christ. And Christ will give us rest. Thanks be to God.
This post is also available in: German