Our Readings are Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67 and Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30
“For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
In 1884 James Wells, Moderator of the United Free Church of Scotland, wrote a book in which he told the story of a little girl who was carrying a rather large toddler. When someone noticed her struggling they asked her if she was tired. She replied, “No, he’s not heavy, he’s my brother.”
That phrase was repeated in 1918 in a home for abandoned children in America. A child named Howard Loomis came to Father Flanagan’s Home for Boys. Young Howard had polio and wore leg braces. Getting around wasn’t easy for him, soon other boys were seen carrying him up and down the steps. One day Father Flanagan saw a boy called Rueben Granger carrying Howard. He asked him is carrying Howard was hard. “No,” Reuben replied, “he ain’t heavy Father, he’s my brother.”
Those words became immortalised as the title of a record released by the Hollies in 1969.
Our first reading tells of Isaac finding a Rebekah, it is a story of hope and comfort. The fact that Rebekah’s story is told reminds us that the Old Testament narratives take the lives of women seriously. To be fair the text usually focuses on the men, Abraham and Isaac for example, but we know their stories cannot be told with reference to women who shaped history.
Stories of brothers matter. God’s best hopes for his people are often derailed by the conflict between brothers. It begins with Cain and Abel, Jesus has this in mind when he tells the story of two brothers – a story we get wrong when we call it the prodigal son. It is not just about the son who was lost and returned home. It is also about the son who stayed and home and was lost.
In this passage meet Rebekah and though our reading today is a happy one we know that in the years ahead there is another story about brothers. When she has borne two sons, Jacob and Esau, it is Rebekah who meddles in their lives to deprive Esau of his birthright.
It is a nasty little tale oft repeated, Esau had married Judith, Rebekah and her daughter-in-law were at loggerheads, so Rebekah tricks Isaac into giving the blessing to her favourite, Jacob.
So stories of brothers are not always happy. The burden is not always light.
Jesus grew up in a carpenter’s workshop, one of the regular jobs would have been to make yokes for the oxen used to plough the land. It was a work of skilled craftsmanship. “For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
The Greek word used for ‘easy’ can also mean ‘well fitting’. A yoke needed to fit well or the ox would be injured. Each yoke was tailor made to fit an individual animal. Jesus is telling his friends that what God asks of us is fitted to us. It is within our abilities, it is guiding us the way we need to go. As we reopen our churches great challenges lie ahead of us. The way we were has gone, the things we were used to have gone, this virus has changed our world in ways we haven’t even begun to imagine.
As we reopen our churches we face change and challenges and opportunities. And as we gather together again we know that we are not complete. Many of our sisters and brothers cannot be with us. This isolation has affected people very deeply. There are many who cannot venture out, many who are fearful and anxious, many who mourn, many who carry resentment and anger, many who have lost livelihoods.
We need to learn to travel into a new life in much the same way as Rebekah did, travelling light, travelling in hope. We have shaped a pattern of services which are simpler and we hope bring a lighter touch to how we do things. We want people to be part of this, but in their own time and in a way that is not a burden. Maybe that is something we have learned the hard way through this experience – how much of our church life laid heavy burdens on some. Well, we have had an opportunity to put them down, now we can decide which to take up again.
The Rabbis said that a burden has to become my song. That does not mean that the burden is not significant, that it has no weight, no challenge, rather, that what we take up in love does not weigh us down. We need to approach burdens in ways that turn them into song.
Our church is different. We are not yet all gathered in one place. This new life together is a journey we all share. We have to find out together how to make this work.
comfort of the afflicted and healer of the broken,
you feed us at the table of life and hope:
teach us your ways of gentleness and peace,
that all the world may acknowledge
the kingdom of your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.