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When Marcus and I met to plan today’s service we started out with a general conversation about how wearying it has been these last few weeks to see our nation’s capital and many other places in the country under siege by protesters. Part of what’s been wearying for me is the way respected symbols have been desecrated and appropriated. When we see people wearing yellow star of David badges to suggest that having one set of rules for people who are vaccinated and another for people who aren’t is akin to segregating Jews in Nazi Germany or we see orange t-shirts with the words Every Child Matters being used to suggest that making our children wear masks in school is akin to forcing them go to an Indian Residential School it is deeply disturbing, upsetting and exhausting. It can start to feel like all the marches and all the efforts in support of movements like Black Lives Matter and Idle No More have been for naught.
Even though Covid restrictions are beginning to lift and the hope of a gentle summer lies ahead, we are a bone weary people and it is not just the pandemic that is making us feel this way, it’s the divisions in our country, sometimes in our families and among our circle of friends and in the disparities in our world. .
As Marcus and I were acknowledging this I found myself thinking about the Walk for Reconciliation that many of us went on back in September 2013 as part of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings that were happening here at that time. If you were there, you will recall that the guest speaker for that event was Bernice King, daughter of American Civil Rights hero Dr. Martin Luther King. She told us that with the momentum that we had in that energetic moment must continue. “This is no time for apathy or complacency” she said. “This is a time for vigorous and positive action. We cannot afford the luxury of cooling off or slowing down.” And then she quoted her father and said “Don’t cha get weary now. Don’t cha get weary.” .
And yet here we are, weary as all get out. No wonder Jesus words resonate so deeply: “Come unto me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens and I will give you rest.” .
It’s so inviting that word “rest” isn’t it? And yet in the next breath Jesus is putting a yoke around our necks as if to say resting in this instance doesn’t mean stopping. There is still work to be done. .
In its original context, Jesus is addressing his followers in this passage about the weariness they are feeling because although many are being healed in Jesus’ presence, his message of inclusion and dignity for all seems to be falling on deaf ears, especially when it comes to the political and religious leaders of the day. But he knows the importance of the work that still needs to be done. He knows it’s no time for apathy or complacency, so he offers is a different way of getting the work done, a less exhausting way. To illustrate what he’s talking about, what his way is all about, he uses this metaphor of taking his yoke upon us. .
Now those of us who live and work in urban areas might not know a lot about yokes. I certainly don’t but what I understand about them is that are made to order. Traditional yokes were hand carved to fit around the neck and shoulder of an animal or a person so they wouldn’t feel pain or discomfort as they worked to pull a plough or carry a heavy load. In other words a right sized yoke makes work easier. So it seems like Jesus is offering us a right sized, made to order yoke in this passage. To work in the field of creating a world of equity and justice a place where everyone is loved and valued for who they are and where there is an abundance of what is needed for the flourishing of life, to carry the heavy burden of working for peace in our world, a right sized yoke is what is needed to make the work easy and the burden of being responsible for this work, light. It’s a yoke that tells us we don’t have to do it all ourselves or go it alone. .
That’s what Jesus, what God, what the Love that created us gives us, an easy yoke but what happens in the fields of life is that too often we as human beings turn that easy yoke we are given into a hard one. We push ourselves to achieve more to do more to be more and to do it all ourselves. We act as if we have to prove ourselves worthy through our efforts. When we do that two things happen. The first is that we get tired. We burn out. The second is that we begin to treat others as if they have to prove themselves worthy, as if who they are just because they exist isn’t good enough. And when we start making each other prove our worthiness or treating each other like some of us are more worthy than others we make the work we are meant for in this world very, very hard. We make it hard on one another and we make it hard on ourselves. .
One of the great things about this being Black History month is that it gives us the opportunity to preference stories and voices our history books have not always deemed worthy of sharing with us. This week for example I learned for the first time about the Amber Valley community of Black farmers in northern Alberta. Back in the early 1900’s, the Canadian government advertised south of the border for farmers to move Canada, specifically to Saskatchewan and Alberta. What they didn’t anticipate was the influx of African American farmers who came with their families from Texas and Oklahoma to settle on the land. Officials were surprised but they didn’t worry too much because they thought they wouldn’t stay given the harsh conditions of the northern climate. But stay they did and soon others began to join them until the locals who clearly thought they were more worthy of working that land then any person of colour began to fear that they would take over. So the Canadian Government created a policy against the further migration of Black people. The entire community of Amber Valley was made up of people who migrated there between the years of 1910 to 1912. One wave of immigration, that’s all. .
I can’t imagine how difficult it must have been for them to live and till the soil in a place where they knew they were unwanted. How exhausting that must have been. Why didn’t they just go back to where they came from? Because in Canada, despite the hardships, they had their freedom. They yoked themselves to freedom. .
In addition to her clarity about the need to keep on keeping on when it comes to the work of Truth and Reconciliation, when it comes to the work of righting historic wrongs and working towards a day when everyone’s worth is valued, Bernice King that day of the Walk for Reconciliation reminded us that until all of us are free, none of us are free. We as human family are inextricably tied to one another. We are in a sense yoked to one another and ultimately that’s a very good thing for all of us. .
There are only two types of yokes for bearing burdens and getting work done, single yokes and shared yoke. When you are wearing a single yoke you have to bear the load entirely on your own. With a shared yoke one can rest a bit while the other pulls and then the other can rest a bit while the other one pulls. Apparently when it comes to yoking oxen there’s also a practice of yoking older more experienced animals to younger ones, so the younger ones can learn from the older ones and perhaps so the younger more energetic ones can share a bit more of the load. .
Bernice King says that freedom is never really entirely won. Every generation has to work to win it in their time. It’s another way of saying that each generation brings its own call to freedom, its own call to being about the work that Jesus was about centuries ago and is still about today in the way the Spirit is present to and with us giving us rest, calling us on, reminding us we are not alone, giving us a yoke that is made just for us and therefore easy to bear. .
When the first Black settlers in Amber Valley faced individual and systemic racism they yoked themselves to freedom. My guess is they also yoked themselves to one another. I know they must have yoked themselves to their faith because years after they arrived the descendants of Amber Valley founded Shiloh Baptist Church in Edmonton, one of the only Black churches in Western Canada. From Amber Valley came also Oliver Bowen an Engineer who managed the design and construction of the first line of Calgary’s Light Rail Transit System and Vi King the first Black female lawyer called to the Bar in Alberta and Floyd Sneed, drummer for the band Three Dog Night and many other unsung but significant contributors to the fabric of Canadian Society. .
Let’s give thanks that we are yoked to them and to one another by virtue of our common humanity. Let us give thanks and celebrate that we are yoked to God, the very source of life by virtue of our faith and to Jesus and his legacy. And in knowing we are not alone may we find sufficient rest to be about the work that is ours to continued doing together. .