Proper 9A: The Right Yoke
By: The Rev. TJ Tetzlaff
As I walked into the church, the first thing I noticed was that there were no pews. Instead of those orderly (and immovable) wooden pews found in nearly every church, my new call had cushioned chairs—chairs that could be picked up and rearranged for different liturgies. As someone who likes to experiment with liturgy and blend the classical with the contemporary, having chairs we could move meant we could create new points of focus. We could rearrange the worship space to fit each liturgical season and (I thought) inspire fresh engagement with worship.
During my first few weeks I was told by dozens of people how my predecessor often rearranged the chairs. About half the congregation made a point of telling me how much they liked having the space rearranged and they hoped I would continue doing it. I also heard from the other half of the congregation who couldn’t stand it and wanted me to leave the chairs in one place.
While trying to decide what to do about the chairs and whether to move them or leave them alone, I finally realized that no matter what I did someone was going to be disappointed. The chairs could be moved or left alone but either way someone wouldn’t be happy. It doesn’t always matter how something is presented. If you’re in a position of leadership then at some point you are going to disappoint. There will be times when you will be judged and critiqued regardless of the action you do or don’t take. This is something Jesus knew and experienced, and something he had no patience for.
In Matthew 11:16-19 Jesus addresses the crowd and describes the differences between himself and John. One is a bug-eating ascetic, the other enjoys celebrations and making wine at weddings. One lives in wild, isolating places, while the other surrounds himself with crowds of people and travels to the heart of cities. John and Jesus are dramatically different people; one rough and uncouth, the other accepting hospitality. Each implores their followers to repent and turn back to God. Yet for John and Jesus, their lifestyles were used as an excuse to reject the message. It might not matter if you’re an ascetic like John or outgoing like Jesus: if the crowd doesn’t like what you’re saying then they’ll come up with a reason not to listen. Jesus and John both faced Ad hominem attacks. Similarly, young or newly ordained clergy can be easy targets of such attacks. Especially if they preach on a controversial topic.
Powerful sermons about social justice can be ignored if the preacher is “young” (therefore “naive”). A message about gender equality can be ignored if it’s preached by a woman who “is just a man hater.” The more controversial a topic is the quicker the rejection will come. If a congregation doesn’t want to hear a difficult message, then they are going to push back. If they can’t deny the truth of the message then their criticism will focus on the messenger. And yet the responsibility of clergy is to proclaim the Gospel regardless of the rebukes they get for it. People may push back for any number of reasons, but the only response we have to concern ourselves with is God’s response. The prophets received anger and ridicule for proclaiming the message they were given; nevertheless, they persisted. Proclaiming the Good News to the world does not mean you will always be loved by others; more often than not it means taking heat and having confidence in what God has given us to do. In light of this, Jesus’s statement that his yoke is “easy” and his burden “light” can seem comical or cruel. But if the yoke we’re wearing feels too hard and the burden heavy then we need to wonder if we’ve been strapped to the right one. In ancient Palestine, the yoke was carefully adjusted to fit the ox. The load’s weight had to rest on the right part of the animal or it could risk getting injured and the work wouldn’t be done. A farmer had to adjust the yoke to match the height, weight and girth of each animal or the field wouldn’t get plowed.
If the burden feels too heavy, then you need to reassess what you’re carrying. The biggest cause of clergy burn-out is being strapped to the wrong yoke. Clergy can spend years thinking they’ve picked up their cross and are wearing the right yoke, only to discover much later they were carrying someone else’s burden the whole time. It can be easy for clergy to become weighed down by expectations. Whether it’s our expectations of ourselves or the congregation’s expectation of what we can achieve. Sometimes we struggle because we have been living under the wrong expectations. We can help someone pick up their load but we can’t carry it for them. Carrying too much is how we end up getting injured. God has given each of us our own work to do and at times we need to hand someone back their yoke so we can focus on our own.
The only standard we are called to live by is the one Christ set before each of us; the yoke which has been personally adjusted for our lives. That is the deed which vindicates wisdom; to follow God without playing to other people’s expectations. God may ask us to do something unpopular for the sake of the gospel but true wisdom is trusting in God despite how others react.
The Rev. TJ Tetzlaff has served as Priest-In-Charge at the Episcopal Church of Our Saviour in Madison County, Kentucky. This summer he and his wife–The Rev. Chana Tetzlaff– will be moving from Winchester, Kentucky to Wilmington, North Carolina, to continue following where God calls. He received his Master of Divinity from Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts and has served as a board member for the Clark County Homeless Coalition.