(Matthew 11: 28-30)
This morning, I want to share with you two stories about yokes. Not egg yokes – no, I’m talking about the wooden beam yokes, the kind used between a pair of animals that pull a load together. That’s the literal yoke, from which we get the metaphorical yoke – a burden that must be carried; the weight of a mistake made. The proverbial “yoke” one has to bear….
So here’s the first yoke story. You may have heard me tell this before. There’s a man in his late 20’s and he asks a beautiful young woman out on a date. She is an attorney and he, coincidentally, a minister. They go out to dinner. Have a lovely evening – talk forever. Delicious meal, topped off with a huge slice of double chocolate cake. Which is notable because he hadn’t really been in the habit of eating much chocolate. But something about this evening just seemed to call for double chocolate cake. He notices that his date does not order any dessert, so he offers her a bite of his chocolate cake; which she politely declines. So he enjoys the whole piece cake himself.
And so the next day he calls her up and they talk about how much fun they had and what a great first date that was. And somewhere in that conversation, it comes up that she likes chocolate – in fact, she is a full-blown choco-holic. So when he asks the obvious question – why did she not eat the chocolate cake that was offered – there is silence on the other end phone, after which she shares with the minister that Lent had started that week, and the one thing she had decided to give up for Lent was …. chocolate!
My oh my, the yoke that poor man had to bear! It was a miracle she even picked up the phone when he called, much less agreed to a second date. But she did to both, and many other dates after that. And one year later to the day, at that very same restaurant, at that very same table, that minister asked that attorney to marry him, and she said yes. And the two of them celebrated their engagement dinner with – you guessed it – two slices of double chocolate cake. If you ever see that minister, make sure you remind him what a lucky guy he is!
It’s a wonderful thing when guilt gets transformed to grace, isn’t it? It sure is nice when the yoke, the burden we bear, gets lifted off our shoulders. But it doesn’t always happen, does it? The more you get to know people, the more you see how many wind up bearing the burden of their yoke far longer than they should. And I don’t know why that is. I don’t know why we often wilfully bear the burden of our guilt. Guilt over things we’ve done or things we haven’t done. Guilt over people we’ve hurt; opportunities we’ve missed. Guilt over things we shouldn’t even feel guilty over.
In the psalm Rebecca read earlier, the great King David is wallowing in guilt. Drowning in it. He doesn’t specify the reason why. Maybe it was the whole Bathsheba debacle; maybe something else. Whatever it was, David draws the target squarely on his own back:
For I know my transgressions and my sin is ever before me;
Against you, God, you alone I have sinned
And done what is evil in your sight.
That’s a hard place to go, isn’t it? That place where you say to yourself and God, and maybe even someone else, I messed up – I blew it! It’s painful. It’s guilt.
But then David does something. He pivots and goes a different way; a way that ultimately leads to repentance, transformation, forgiveness. It’s not escape or denial, it’s more like completion – not just God forgiving David, but David forgiving himself, the hardest kind of forgiving. And that is when David writes:
Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love;
Wash me thoroughly and cleanse me from my sin.
Create in me a clean heart, and renew a right spirit within me.
At least that’s how it’s supposed to work, this whole “guilt-to-grace” thing. And yet we can’t help but wonder why is it that so many of us – present company included – always seem to fall short of that. Why? Why do we allow ourselves to get stuck – literally – under the weight of our guilt? It’s a dangerous place to be, friends. Dangerous because guilt unchecked can lead to something even worse – and that is shame. And, as noted writer and speaker Brene Brown says, while guilt says to us, “You did something bad,” shame says, “You are bad.” See the difference? That’s when the yoke we bear becomes the burden engrafted into our very skin.
And that is not the way it’s supposed to be. Shame is not God-given; in fact, shame works against everything that God is trying to do in our lives. Shame paralyzes and imprisons us. Shame tells us we are not children of God. Shame convinces us, in no uncertain terms, that we are unforgivable and unlovable.
I wonder this morning if you know people who are overburdened by their shame. I wonder if you know folks who truly feel that they are bad – not just their actions but their actual selves – and unworthy of being a child of God, or even setting foot in the doors of a church and into the warm embrace of a family of faith?
I wonder if you know people like that. Heck, maybe it’s even you. Maybe you’re worshipping here today, in person or online, not because you feel worthy of being here, but because you feel you have to be here, like an obligation. Like a yoke. Maybe you get through your day okay, running errands and pushing papers and making dinner and driving the kids to practice. Maybe your facade is strong from dawn to dusk. But in the quiet and still of the night, when it’s just you, maybe that’s when the cracks start to show, and the pain and hurt of the yoke you bear weighs the heaviest on your heart.
If that’s you, or if that’s someone you know, then I want you to hear my second yoke story. It’s a story that was shared in a letter I received years ago from a member of a previous church I pastored. I asked their permission to share it one day. And so I’d like to share it now with you:
Dear Steve – since we were talking about shame in our Bible study this morning, I thought you’d appreciate this story about my Dad.
My dad’s mother was 16 when he was born, and his father abandoned them when she was still pregnant. My dad never knew who his father was, or even his name. He just assumed he was illegitimate and was subjected to the taunts of school chums and the whispers of old ladies. When he was young, his mother remarried a man who didn’t like children and they moved out of town. So Dad was raised by his grandmother, an emotionally distant woman. For a long time, he didn’t know the details of his early life. There was always a black hole in Dad’s life where his father should’ve been.
Dad had an uncle, Uncle Bub, the only real male figure in Dad’s upbringing. He was a successful farmer and owned the local bank. Uncle Bub died Dad’s first year in graduate school and left the bulk of his estate to his son and daughter. But to my Dad he left a single leather pouch. There were three things in the pouch. The first was a pile of bank mortgage notes on local farms which Bub held. Bub had acquired these mortgages during the Depression, when many farmers were unable to make their payments. The pouch also contained a handwritten list with the name of the farmer on each mortgage note. Lastly, there was a letter from Bub to Dad directing him, upon Bub’s death, to personally go to each farmer on the list, identify himself, verify that the person he was talking to was the farmer on the mortgage, and then in their presence, tear up the mortgage note. Dad was to perform this immediately following Bub’s funeral.
So Dad arose early the next morning and drove the dusty country roads for his visits. By the time he got to the farms, the farmer and his family were already in the field. Dad had to either call them in or meander through rows of corn and cotton and tobacco to get to the farmer. He introduced himself and asked if the farmer was Mr So-and-so. He marked their name off the list; and then he pulled the farmer’s mortgage from the leather pouch and tore it up. My Dad watched as grown, brusque men would fall to their knees, weeping openly. Hunched-over farmers would then stand tall as the huge burden was literally lifted off their shoulders. I don’t know how many names were on the list or how many mortgages were forgiven, but I do know my Dad made those visits from early morning until dusk and did not return home for over a week.
Dad didn’t tell this to any of us kids until we were grown. I remember my brother asking him why Bub did what he did. Dad said that Bub wanted him to learn the power of releasing burdens. Indeed, this was Dad’s inheritance. Through the process of forgiving those mortgage notes and seeing the power of burdens lifted, Dad slowly began to relieve his own shame, a holdover from his childhood, that somehow his pain was his fault. He needed to forgive himself, even for that which was not his fault. The process did not sink in with the first torn note, nor did it end with the last.
Until the day he died, Dad kept that list with the scratched-off names in the pages of his Bible. He told us that letting go of shame is never easy. It’s hard work. It takes repeated effort. Discipline. But the power it releases for both the forgiver and the forgiven is one of God’s greatest miracles.
Come to me, Jesus says to us. Come to me, all of you who are weary, all who are carrying burdens. Come to me whether the burdens are yours or whether they belong to someone else. Come to me if guilt and shame have set up permanent residence in your heart because you are unable to forgive and love yourself as I have already forgiven and love you. Come to me, and I will give you rest.
Take my yoke upon you, Jesus says. Please, take mine! My yoke is easy; my burden is light. Yours is so heavy – so very heavy! It never ceases to amaze me, how heavy your burdens are. Why do you do this to yourselves? Why do you continue burdening yourself like this?
Turn to me, Jesus says. Turn to me and let’s trade yokes – my easy yoke for your heavy one. Give it to me. Trust me – I can handle it. I can bear your burdens. I can take on your shame. This is what I want to do, because this is what you do for someone when you love them as much as I love you.
In the name of God the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN.
* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.
 Daring Greatly: How The Courage To Be Vulnerable Transforms The Way We Live, Love, Parent and Lead by Brene Brown, pg. 71.
Featured image from https://www.caron.org/blog/guilt-heals-while-shame-poisons