In 1987, I broke my right leg in three spots because I didn’t listen to my mother tell me that jumping on stairs was a horrendous idea. My independent streak was strong as was my defiant streak. With a cast that went up to my waist and doubled my weight, my parents ended up carrying me lots of places. I was too short and small for regular walkers and crutches so we had to wait for pint-sized medical equipment to be ordered. In the meantime, while I milked my new condition with new Cabbage Patch dolls and a healthy dose of balloons, I also milked by dependence on my parents. I loved being carried around again like a baby, being doted upon. But, after a while, it got old and I wanted to move on my own again.
There was a set of pediatric crutches at our house that we were trying to rig for me. They were in the corner of our living room, not to be used until readied. My dad was taking a conference call in his office and with this moment of freedom, I seized the chance at movement again. I somehow wiggled myself over to the crutches and pulled myself up. I can still remember how my armpits pulled, my shoulders hiked high near my earlobes. I tried to reach the handlebars; my fingers slipped off. I took one half-step and collapsed. Wailing and writhing on the floor, my dad came running out to see that his five-year old had fallen – again. Independent, certainly, independent and oh-so-careless.
Our cultural emphasis on independence is fierce. At an early age, we teach our children that independence is valued and lauded. And independence is what we hope for as our children age and transition into adulthood. Independence is often translated as self-reliance in the workforce where those who can accomplish tasks without direction and assistance are praised. We claim independence in our living, no longer living with generations under one roof. Our own town totes its independence from Raleigh and Chapel Hill on a constant, well-marketed basis. When I was at an advisor at Harvard, my students could not be bothered to join other clubs or organizations because they required a trial membership period. So what did they do? Started their own, independent organization that had almost identical structural blueprints as others. Why? Because dependence on others, reliance on structures and systems and communities takes work and for some reason, that isn’t a good thing anymore.
Christ, speaking two thousand years ago, knows that self-reliance and independence is a universal, timeless human flaw. We heard in Matthew’s gospel this morning a promise of rest and comfort. How many times have you heard this – heard this in times of struggle and exhaustion? Come to me, all you that are weary and I will give you rest.
At first glance, this can be an easy pill to swallow. Ah – yes – in Christ, we are comforted and our troubles are eased. A mighty thick protective bandaid from the Lord! But – but – at second reading, it isn’t as easy, as simple as it sounds: For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light. I admit that I didn’t quite remember what a yoke did. A yoke is "a bar or frame that is attached to the heads or necks of two work animals (such as oxen) so that they can pull a plow or heavy load."1 The yoke is not a single yoke – one animal carrying a heavy load – but a double yoke. A double-yoke requires the working bodies of two individuals collaborating, stepping in time with one another. The work is done at a more efficient rate and - this is the important part – a more gentle rate. The work is not removed, does not vanish with this yoke but is made easier. The burden is ever-there, ever-present but it isn’t as heavy when two are carrying it together.
This is far more good news to me than a simple fix. Christ seeks not to remove our burdens all together. Such would be limitation of a full life, a life that necessitates suffering and rest, labor and relaxation. Christ seeks not to ease us of our every malady but instead to co-labor with us. For this is certain: work, struggle, suffering – it will come. There is not an easy fix to that. Christ reminds us that just as painful work and toil is certain, so is the constant presence of a co-worker, a Savior who will not leave you in the field alone.
Ah – that’s beautiful, isn’t it? It is. But, in my reading, it still isn’t the fullness of Christ’s message in the Gospel of Matthew.
Many of you will remember the pivotal point in the movie Good Will Hunting. Will, played by Matt Damon, is a brilliant mathematician who is currently a janitor at MIT, unable to reach his full potential on account of a difficult childhood and past that has taken him prisoner. Sean, played by Robin Williams, is a softy – a bleeding heart therapist who is tender, crude, and serves as Will’s therapist-slash-friend-slash-kind father figure. This scene takes place after lots of build-up. We know that something is brewing in Will’s soul but like a stone, he has stood strong in his therapy sessions, unbreakable, unrelenting. He meets his match in Sean, equally stubborn and relentless in trying to help his young pal out. Sean knows that Will is carrying a burden entirely too heavy for one to bear. It is evident on Will’s forlorn face, his fierce exterior that this burden – this painful past of an abusive stepfather – has taken its toll on his heart and soul. It is time to give in – to let someone else help him carry it. Sean begins to chisel away, to repeat: Its not your fault. Will looks confused at first, trying to feign ignorance. Its not your fault. Will finally says, I know. But this isn’t enough. Its not your fault, its not your fault, its not your fault. Then, it seems as though the weight has visibly left Will’s shoulders and he breaks down sobbing in the arms of his friend, vulnerable and freed for the first time in his life.2
It is a risky business, this following Christ business. It calls us to be vulnerable beyond our comfort. It calls us to be vulnerable and open to the truth: we all have something we’re carrying, a burden too heavy to carry alone.
I’d venture to guess that your closest relationships are grounded in vulnerability, roots deep from years and experiences of giving and receiving, of sharing burdens and walking alongside those you love. This collaborative vulnerability has grown strong because there is mutuality; not one person is dependent on the other but instead, there is an interdependence that moves beyond neediness and pride, beyond co-dependence and independence. It is love; it is devotion.
I’d also venture to guess that being dependent on others is a difficult thing for you. And yes, I mean you. We are a bunch of strong-willed, independent-is-our-middle-name, go-getter people. I’m including myself in this bunch. Are we dependent on others? Do we ever give in and admit what we need most? Admit that we could use a friend, a co-laborer? How often do we actually ask for help? How often do we wave our little white flag and admit that we need someone to carry our burdens with us? And on the flipside, how often do we offer such assistance to our friends? We all know people who need it – who need help, who need a hand to walk through the dark valley? But are we brazen enough to speak such an offer?
What would your relationship with Christ be if we offered ourselves to Christ in our darkest moments, admitted that we could not labor alone?
For even when we are dependent on our friends, on our partners, we are still limited by a humanness that no amount of compassion or empathy can fill the crevices of our hearts. Christ is the only one who can co-labor with us through the most difficult of times. Christ is the only one who can carry the heaviest of burdens with us. Christ is the only one who can offer us pure rest for our weary souls.
This is the Good News, friends. Christ knows suffering – suffering beyond any expansive thinking our tiny imaginations can muster. Christ is not afraid of our burdens, of our fears, of our sins, of our unspeakables. And this, too, is the Good News: Christ is not a bandaid for such pain nor is he going to simply help us carry the load so that our step is a bit lighter. Christ calls us to open ourselves, our burdens to the other so that we might share in the holiest of relationships with him. In order to co-labor with Christ – in order to plow the fields of our sorrow and strife – we have to first admit that we are in need of Christ. Come to me, Christ says. All you that are weary and I will give you rest. Come to me, Christ says, and I will walk with you. But you, he says, must make that step. I am standing waiting for you in the fields of what may come.
1. Yoke, Merriam-Webster, accessed July 5, 2014.
2. A brief summary of a scene from Good Will Hunting, 1997.