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"My Yoke is Easy..."

Rev. Daniel A. Smith
Sun, Feb 11

Text: Matthew 11: 28-30

I’d like to begin my reflection with a poem, excerpted. It’s called 'Beginners' by Denise Levertov. It starts with an unattributed quote:

“From too much love of living,
Hope and desire set free,
Even the weariest river
Winds somewhere to the sea—“

The poem continues…

But we have only begun
To love the earth.
We have only begun
To imagine the fullness of life.
How could we tire of hope?
— so much is in bud.
How can desire fail?
— we have only begun
to imagine justice and mercy,
only begun to envision
how it might be
to live as siblings with beast and flower,
not as oppressors.
We have only begun to know
the power that is in us if we would join
our solitudes in the communion of struggle.
So much is unfolding that must
complete its gesture,
so much is in bud.

Today, I mostly just want speak from the heart… For those who are visiting, please bear with me. As you’ve heard, I’m about to leave on my second sabbatical in almost 20 years of ministry. Special thanks to Karin for her words just now and sharing some of the biblical context for this tradition. It’s an incredible gift and privilege to be just hours away from four months of rest and renewal and from a focused time of study and reflection.

The last time I took a sabbatical I was utterly exhausted. I spent the first two months lost in sheer recovery. This time, I’m leaving with more energy and direction. Rather than an end of a chapter together, this one feels more like a new beginning, with much that is in the bud! Don’t get me wrong, there is weariness in this river, and if anything, it is born of "too much love of living," and the genuine love of ministry that I’m called to do with you all every day. I chose our text from Matthew in part because of its reference to weariness, and knowing that we could all stand to hear Christ’s invitation to come to him and his promise of rest. Like many of you, my day/night/weekend job pulls me in a thousand different directions, and I mostly love it! My one regret about our staff sabbatical policy is that it’s not shared by all professions. I know many of you are carrying burdens and more than deserve just such a gift, and a release for a time from daily and weekly burdens.

I also chose our passage from Matthew because of what it says about Christ’s yoke being easy. A helpful note on the text here-- When Jesus says this, he’s invoking the image of a wooden frame or harness that fits over the neck or shoulders of a person or an animal and that may attach to a plow, cart or buckets. Some of you have heard me say before that another way to translate that word “easy” is as “well-fit”. My yoke is well-fit. Back in the day, imagine shops or traders in villages who made yokes, and adjusted them, so that they wouldn’t pinch or cause pain to a person, ox or donkey as they went about their labors. What Jesus may be saying here is that we all have our burdens and labors, but that God has a yoke, a custom fit way for each of us to carry those things that will make it more manageable. The idea of a well-fit yoke is one for us all to ponder. Can we imagine that God has a perfectly tailored, custom-made yoke that fits beautifully onto each of our lives? It may be in the form of a vocation or personal passion or maybe it's some way that our lives and stories have uniquely equipped us to carry those “burdens hard to bear” that inevitably come our way. What's more, a yoke isn’t necessarily designed for one person or animal, but as something that crosses over two sets of shoulders. When we share that yoke with Jesus, even when we share the burdens of each other’s crosses, the weights and burdens we bear can become even lighter!

As I look ahead to my study leave and to where the congregation will be, I pray that God gives to each of us such a well-fit yoke in the coming months. For me, the timing of this break couldn’t be better. We’ve come through a remarkably successful capital campaign together-- Alleluia! We have a full and highly functioning staff which I trust with my life and the life of the congregation. Please be especially understanding of the extra burdens they will be shouldering in the coming months! Karin, I cannot thank you enough. The same goes for the rest of our staff. I pray this time apart creates new space for creativity and leadership. I’m thrilled for what’s in store and, quite frankly, am sad to miss it. I will miss you all, dearly.

But this sabbatical also comes at a good time for my family who graciously endure some of the burdens of my job and its often unexpected schedule changes. My son Julian is graduating from high school soon. As many of you know, my father died two days before the start of my Senior year. The privilege of watching Julian make this transition has filled me with new compassion for my parents who faced this moment with the knowledge that my Dad would not see me graduate. The recognition of how short life can be makes this an especially poignant moment.

Also, that touchstone of grace and grief in my life is part of what is calling me to this work of remembrance, and part of why my study project is feeling so well-fit. Before I knew the history of our congregation and had discovered those 39 names of enslaved person on our membership roles, before Black Lives Matter and white supremacist rallies and heated debates over confederate memorials, long before the idea of a public remembrance project entered my mind, I was already fascinated by the theme of memory and remembrance. I wrote my divinity school thesis on memory and mourning, focusing in part on the power of the AIDS quilt and Maya Lin’s Vietnam memorial to foster continued bonds with the dead. No doubt I was wrestling with my memory of and grief over losing my dad seven years before. Today though, I know that I and many of you carry a profound sense of shared grief over this moment in our nation’s history and a renewed recognition of our systemic racism and economic inequality. As we learn more about our own lives and histories, how can we not be carrying a weight in hearts right now? But what better a moment to put our shoulders to the plow, to take on what I trust can be a well-fit yoke, one that we can share with God and Christ, and one that flows out of the specifics of our collective stories and grief and hope!

So yes, I’ll be researching northern slavery, visiting lynching memorials down south and holocaust memorials in Germany to learn what I can! Some of you have noted that it sounds heavy at a time when I’m trying to lighten the load. True, and yet…. Perhaps it's not so much laying my burdens down but instead finding new ways of carrying that utter fullness of life. For me, fullness of life has come to mean a constantly jam-packed calendar from 7 a to 10 pm, an always full if not overflowing heart that carries powerful and painful stories, and along with it an often over-full belly! My inherent drive for meaning has had me always wanting more, but as I turn the corner into my second half of life, I’m eager to appreciate a new way of holding that fullness -- of letting it come, rather than making it happen, of appreciating the abundance of empty space and quiet time, of trusting that less really is more! For me, a chance to take in meaning, rather than to make it, a chance to have time to process what I’ve receiving will be a revelation, and I believe there will be plenty of time for fun and recreation too.

Speaking of which, a few of you know that I recently scraped together some funds from various line items to buy the church a gift. You might think it’s for the youth, which it is. Ultimately, it’s a major projection of my inner life onto the congregation. I knew it’s what I needed so I assumed it’s what you all needed too! Next time you are in MJH, look in the corner, and under a gray cover, check it out – First Church is now the proud owner of a new and royal blue ping pong table! As a place of employment, we’re about 20 years behind those Silicone Valley tech start-ups that would put such games tables in the middle of their offices to increase productivity! For me, it’s way of making space and creating a lightness of being to balance all of the serious work of God’s business that we are part of around here. It’s a chance for some Godly play! And you all are invited to enjoy it, especially while I’m away! After some heavy-hitting, soul searching bible study about remembering the sins of our past, go ahead and take it for a spin! After or instead of a committee meeting, how about a round robin of doubles, or even just a few minutes of volleying!

Given these wearying times we are living through, may it remind us each that God never intends for our burdens to cause constant pain – we all need time to adjust our yokes, to rest our hearts, to enjoy one another’s company-- sometimes without words, and instead with smiles and laughter as we swing and miss and swing again!

Weary as our rivers are, just imagine it…
How could we tire of hope?
We have only begun
To imagine the fullness of life.

We have only begun to know
the power that is in us if we would join
our solitudes in the communion of struggle,

and the communion of frivolous joy!
So much is unfolding…
So much is in bud,
And we have only begun!

Thank you First Church, for letting me begin this sabbatical time, today! I can’t believe it's here! And I can’t wait to see what’s grown in the new space between us when I come back!


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