A Yoke of Passion

Rev. Dr. Loraine MacKenzie Shepherd, Westworth United Church, July 6, 2014

 Matt 11:28-30; Song of Solomon 2:8-13

Some people have an amazing knack at fixing whatever things lie broken around them. I’m not one of them. I’m more apt to be the one to break things around me. You will never find the description “handyperson” on my resumé. When something in the house needs repair, I put it off until it begins to scream at me. Then, I grit my teeth and enter the cascading cataclysm of repairs, which means that fixing one thing leads to fixing another, which of course leads to fixing yet another. It is the rare moment when I try to fix something and it works on the first try. That’s when I sit back with a rather stunned expression and wish that I had that red button to hit and hear the soothing words, “That was easy!”

Sometimes we try to make simple things too complicated. The heat of summer reminds us to take life a little easier, a little lighter, to resist complicating the simple. Conversely, when we feel passionate about something, we tend to flatten the complexity of an issue and change its subtle shades of gray into stark black and white. Our passion can prevent us from understanding the other side and can lead us into the temptation of simplifying the complicated. Just as we tend to simplify the complicated with our passions, we tend to complicate the simple with our worries.

Life bears down hard on many. Our worries and fears add to that burden. “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy 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.”[1]

I’ve memorized and reread this passage countless times, but it wasn’t until this past week that I realized something odd about it. Jesus doesn’t tell those who are heavy-burdened by their taskmasters and Roman authorities that he will take their burdens from them. Rather, he tells his largely peasant audience to take on yet one more yoke. But before his audience reacts incredulously to this outrageous request, he explains that his yoke is a yoke of discipleship, of learning. Jesus says gently to them, “I do not require of you subservience to heavy demands of another taskmaster. Rather, I am low of rank and humble in my requests. What I ask of you will give you rest for your souls. You will find my requests to be pleasant and full of kindness. My yoke will give you lightness of step so that you find your burdens less heavy.”

Jesus does not tell his audience that his yoke will be easy, even though that’s how most of our translations read. There is no red button of ease that he gives us to push. The literal translation is that his yoke is kind, pleasant and gentle. This way of living, as we know only too well, is not easy. This way of living calls us to exercise great spiritual discipline that will harness the energy of frustration and anger, worry and fear and meld it into gentleness and kindness.

I have learned the hard way that when people tell me about difficult situations in their lives, I can’t fix things for them and when I try I can make things worse. What is more helpful is if I can listen compassionately and assure them of my prayers and support. Simply knowing that someone understands can make our burden seem a little lighter. God doesn’t promise to remove our difficulties from us, but God does move through the kindness and gentleness of others to help us carry these burdens.

And that’s where our other lectionary reading comes into the picture. This reading comes from the Song of Solomon, otherwise known as the Song of Songs. I find this book to be the most peculiar, most uncomfortable, most curious book of the Bible. Its sexually explicit, seductive passages qualify for an X-rating, or at least a notification of parental guidance. If you’ve never read the Bible, you don’t know what you’re missing.

During Jesus’ lifetime, rabbis were debating whether or not to include this book in the scriptures, but the decision to include it was finally made when Rabbi Akiba, a great mystic and teacher said, “The whole world is not worth the day on which the Song of Songs was given to Israel, for all the Scriptures are holy, but the Song of Songs is the Holy of Holies.”[2]

What makes it so holy? It is a passionate conversation between two lovers, who are equal in strength, seductive power, and gentleness. This, to me, makes it both holy and amazing, knowing that it was written in time of hierarchical and unequal relationships. In this book, the woman and the man are both humble and passionate with each other. Jews have also interpreted this as a symbolic description of the mutual love between God and Israel while Christians have interpreted it as a mutual love between God and the Church.

It is, I think, all of the above. It is a description of God’s passionate love for us, God’s people, as we are able to experience this through our love for one another.

As some of you know, eight years ago, my partner and I were in a serious car accident, which put us in the hospital for some months. It was there when we experienced an incredible outpouring of love and support from friends, from family and from people we didn’t even know. Churches across the country whom we had never even heard of were praying for us. We were overwhelmed with the compassion of others. Nancy had to lie in a semi-prone position for 6 weeks. I had to fight claustrophobia with my casted limbs and then had to learn how to walk again. There were many days of tears and fears. But we were also incredibly blessed by a very real sense of the Spirit’s compassion moving through others.

This is why I believe so strongly that we are Christ’s body; as we love one another, so God loves us. It is this love that helps us carry whatever burdens we may have.

Nancy and I learned a life lesson through this experience. More important than anything else in our life is our relationship with one another, with family, with friends, and God. It has changed our priorities. We are prone to worry, but we try not to let the worries and fears about the future overshadow what we do have now.

The Song of Solomon encourages us to take delight in one another; to thoroughly enjoy and revel in our relationships, for through these we will find Christ’s passionate love sustaining us through whatever burdens we may bear.

[1] Matthew 11: 28-30, New Revised Standard Version.

[2] Mishnah Yadayim 3:5 as quoted by Prof. Kathrn Schifferdecker, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=385