Sunday, February 28, 2016

Receiving the Right Yoke: A Sermon on Stress and Rest

The Rev. Dr. Leah D. Schade
Feb. 28, 2016
Text:  Matthew 11:25-30

               “Come to me all you who are weary and heavy-laden and I will give you rest,” (Matthew 11:28).  I think that is one of my favorite sentences spoken by Jesus during his ministry.  Because I don’t know about you, but I often feel weary and heavy laden, and the idea of a rest given to me by none other than Jesus himself just makes me breath a deep sigh of relief. 
But then I read the next line and I realize why it is so difficult for me to receive this gift from Jesus:  “Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and you shall find rest unto your souls.  For my yoke is easy and my burden is light," (Matthew 11:29-30). In order for me to truly lead a life that receives the rest of God given to me both as a gift and a commandment, I actually have to receive this yoke from Jesus.  A yoke, if you’ve never heard of the term, is a crossbar with two U-shaped pieces that encircle the necks of a pair of oxen or other draft animals working together.  

Or it can one piece fitted to a single person carrying it across their shoulders with equal loads on each end, like two buckets of water.

Well, that’s the kind of yoke I’ve got on me right now.  I’m so busy, and I’m carrying such a heavy load, I can’t stop to receive this other yoke from Jesus.   There’s a song by Sandra Boyntonwhich my kids listen to called “BusyBusyBusy” which is the theme song of my life:


We’re very very busy
And we’ve got a lot to do
And we haven’t got a minute
To explain it all to you
For on Sunday Monday Tuesday
There are people we must see
And on Wednesday Thursday Friday
We’re as busy as can be
With our most important meetings
And our most important calls
And we have to do so many things
And post them on the walls…

We have to hurry far away
And then we hurry near
And we have to hurry everywhere
And be both there and here
And we have to send out messages
By e-mail, phone, and fax
And we’re talking every minute
And we really can’t relax
And we think there is a reason
To be running neck-and-neck
And it must be quite important
But we don’t have time to check.


That is my life.  We get obsessed with working and being busy.  It’s like an addiction.  The phrase, “I’m so busy,” is like a mantra in our society.  Sometimes it’s a badge of honor indicating one’s industriousness, and level of success and importance.  For other’s it’s like the plea that goes unheeded.  We feel trapped by all that we feel is required of us, all that we have signed up for and don’t know how to say no to.
A few weeks ago, I had our Confirmation students study the commandment, “Honor the Sabbath and keep it holy.”  They learned that sabbath means “a period of sacred rest.”  Our students took a “Sabbath survey” that provided a snapshot of their own level of stress and “restedness.”  How much sleep should children between the ages of 11-13 get each night?  Between 9.5 – 11 hours of sleep.  Some said they get only 8-9 hours of sleep, and I know some teens say they get 7 or less hours of sleep. It is no wonder, then, that some of them have fallen asleep in class, and others felt they needed caffeine to get through the day.  Healing for our bodies is contingent on our giving our bodies rest – and this is healthy for our hearts, minds and relationships as well.
               A number of factors are contributing to this sleep-deprived state in our children.  Some have to do with the choices they or their parents make.  For example, almost every child had either a t.v., computer, or phone in their room. Add that to 2-3 hours of sports, music lessons, or other extracurricular activities, followed by two hours of homework, and you can see the reasons for their late-night bedtimes (anywhere from 10 – midnight). 
               Part of the problem also has to do with a lack of awareness of just how tired and stressed they are.  When asked if they thought they were too busy, some said yes.  Do they think their parents work too much?  Do they think our society is too busy?  Half said yes, half no.  These young people are so used to life at a frenetic pace that they think it’s normal.  They have nothing to compare it to.  They can’t even remember a time when life was a bit slower, less rushed, and going at an easier pace, because they’ve never experienced it.
               But when asked, they were able to identify the signs indicating they haven’t gotten enough rest.  They know what happens to their mood, their body and their work when they don’t honor the sabbath.  They get grouchy, moody, lose their sense of humor, make mistakes in their school work, feel depressed, and are more likely to get sick.  We as adults have our own warning signs – high blood pressure, headaches, arguments with people, impatience, inability to concentrate, depression, and even falling asleep at the wheel when driving, which can sometimes cause a fatal accident.  So, then, failing to honor the sabbath can actually lead to death. 
The theologian Thomas Merton called this kind of busy-ness a form of violence.  The frenzied pace of our culture kills inner peace.  And when we feel that rushed and desperate, it creates suffering for others. The stress of the “workaholic” assaults the people around them.  Think for a minute of the most stressed out person you know.  Do you like to be around them?  How do they make you feel? 
I asked my kids once if they thought I was too busy and if I ever made them feel like that.  I am ashamed to admit they said yes. So I have to ask myself – what do I want to contribute to the world?  Do I really want to contribute to the stress and emotional violence of this world by continuing this lifestyle that I think I’m trapped in?  Or do I have some choices to make that I wasn’t aware of before?
 And so I decided I needed to stop again and listen to these words of Jesus – “Come to me all you who are weary and heavy-laden and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and you shall find rest unto your souls.  For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”  Then it hit me – Jesus isn’t asking me to take on yet one more burden.  He’s inviting me to take off the single yoke I have put on my shoulders, put it on the ground, and step in beside him on a two-harness yoke. 
Think again of the yoke.  I said before that there are two types – one for a single person that lays across their neck.  That really is a burden because you have to carry it all by yourself.  But the other kind of yoke is when two animals are connected together, each one bearing the other’s burden.  I realize that what Jesus is asking me is not to take up yet one more burden, but to allow him to become yoked to me, so that he can walk beside me, accompany me with his presence and bear my burdens with me.  

And I realize, too, that Jesus has been doing this for me all along in the form of people who have accompanied me in a non-stressful, anxiety-reducing way, modeling for me what it means to live a life that is at peace, honoring the Sabbath.   
Think for a minute – who is the least stressed person you know?  I’m not talking about someone who’s just a slacker and lazy.  I’m talking about someone who maintains a healthy balance, and walks at a breathable pace, and when you’re around them, it feels like you’ve just walked in from a busy city street into a quiet sanctuary.  Who is that person for you?  How do they make you feel?
Now - what type of person are you? Are you a non-anxious presence for your spouse, children, co-workers, fellow church members?  Or are you just one more person who contributes to the overall frenzy of our world?
How can you be more like the kind of person who creates a small sanctuary of peace around them wherever they go, whatever they do, and whomever they’re with do this? Here were some suggestions from the Confirmation students:  listen to music, read, dance, write/journal, take a bath/shower, play with friends, participate in a sport, play a board game, watch or listen to comedy, sleep.
Three of my favorites were “go to church”, “meditate,” and “pray.”  You can also “prune” your activities, both for yourself and your family.  Think of one activity you could give up for a season.  Learn to say “no,” politely, but firmly when asked to take on one more thing.  Learn to say “yes” to time off.  And learn to define and protect your Sabbath.
Here in our own church, people have been responding to the opportunities to take part in these practices that help reduce stress for our minds, bodies and souls.  Kristie has reported that she has more people coming to yoga on Monday evenings than ever before.  Our Bible study has been growing in the number of participants each week.  And the meditation sessions, while small in number, have been enormously beneficial to those who have attended.  And we have two more coming up  - tomorrow at 1 p.m., and I’ve added an evening session on March 10 at 7 p.m.

Think of these Sabbath practices as times of “dormancy.”  Setting aside times of dormancy is like the farmer allowing an overworked field to lie fallow for a season.  It allows nutrients to return to the soil, permits new growth to spring up, and shows respect for the land. Honoring the Sabbath is an act of faith because it shows that we trust God.  We can let go enough to allow God to work in and through us, and sometimes in spite of us!  We can put down our burdens and step in beside Jesus.  We can begin to learn a new way of working, living, and relating to others that releases stress and contributes to the health and well-being of those around us.  But it will be difficult for those of us who are so attached to our yokes.  So let me conclude with this prayer:

Let us pray:  Jesus, we are stopping, right now, here in worship to listen to your words to us, your invitation, your offering of grace in the form of rest.  We are putting down our single yoke, lifting it off our shoulders, putting it on the ground, and stepping into the yoke beside you.  Oh, that feels so much better, lighter, easier.  Teach us, Jesus our friend, so that we may learn from you how to rest.  Amen.  

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