My yoke is easy and my burden is light

Sermon preached by Rev’d Dr Jonathan Arnold at St Mary’s Garsington and across the benefice on Sunday 9th July.

Reading: Matthew 11: 20-end

‘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.’


Do you know what the nation’s favourite poem is?   [people can guess here…]


Here’ the final stanza of the favourite poem from last year apparently:


If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,

Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch,

If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,

If all men count with you, but none too much;

If you can fill the unforgiving minute

With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,

Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,

And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!


Do you recognise it? It is, of course, ‘If’ by Rudyard Kipling. Written to his son as a piece of advice for life. I wonder why it people’s favourite poem? Is it because of the perfection of the poetry, or the guidance it gives as a code for life?


I have always thought that, as a gift from one’s father, it is a set of guidelines for life that is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to achieve in practice, because it requires one to be faultless, regardless of the faults and imperfections in the world and other people, and whatever challenges life throws at you. This poem asks for perfection. And then, even if you manage to achieve everything, you attain the reward of being ‘a man, my son’, or I dare say, ‘a women’ in the case of a daughter. You earn the reward of being counted as part of the human race, no more nor less. Is this really a reasonable requirement just to be regarded as a decent human being? Is it not more akin to the list of advice that Polonius gives to Laertes as he sets sail, in Hamlet Act one, scene three?


‘And these few precepts in thy memory

Look thou character. Give thy thoughts no tongue,

Nor any unproportioned thought his act.

Be thou familiar but by no means vulgar….

…. Neither a borrower nor a lender be,

For loan oft loses both itself and friend,

And borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry.

This above all: to thine own self be true,

And it must follow, as the night the day,

Thou canst not then be false to any man.

Farewell. My blessing season this in thee.’


In order for all of us to flourish and grow in this village and the wider community there are many aspects of behaviour that we might adopt from these passages of poetry by Kipling and Shakepeare, such as respect, kindness, friendliness, understanding, for instance, but perfection, I propose, is not one of them. We might strive to be the best we can possibly be, and enjoy the challenge, but perfectionism is a different matter and can lead to a counter-productive result. The problem with perfectionism is that, because it is unachievable in all areas of life, it can lead to giving up completely. There are many pressures to be perfect in all areas: socially, domestically, at work or school and, dare I say it, even in our online, social media presence. In the midst of this busy life, Jesus says to all of us: ‘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.’


What Jesus highlights, in his generosity, is that the burdens we all carry are very often self-imposed by our minds: burdens of ‘shoulds’ and ‘oughts’, guilt, regret, ambition, and those most deadly of inward-looking weaknesses, centered around pride, such as anger, envy, and greed. But these are heavy burdens and, far from enhancing life, they stifle it.


Here’s an example of where perfectionism can lead:


I never really watched the Great British Bake Off, but I remember that Katie and I did manage to see an extraordinary incident on TV. Not so much ‘incident’ as ‘bincident’. It involved a highly-talented contestant, Iain Watters. The task was to make a Baked Alaska. The dish is made of ice cream placed in a pie dish lined with slices of sponge cake and topped with meringue. The entire dessert is then placed in an extremely hot oven for a brief time, long enough to firm the meringue. The meringue is an effective insulator, and the short cooking time prevents the heat from getting through to the ice cream. However, on this day the temperature outside the oven was so hot that the ice cream began to melt and the contestants had to quickly find freezer space so that their ice cream didn’t melt. After Iain’s Alaska had been temporarily removed from a rival contestant’s his ice cream was melting all over the table and it was time to present it to the judges. Sue Perkins was just beginning to suggest how the situation might be rescued when Iain picked up the whole concoction and put it in the bin. It was the bin that he presented to the judges, Paul Holywood and Mary Berry, but they couldn’t give him any marks and he was sent home.


What struck me about this episode was not just that he gave up but how the judges reacted, saying ‘was your sponge alright?’, ‘Yes’, said Iain, ‘was your meringue alright?’, ‘Yes’, said Iain. ‘Well we could have tasted those.’ The point was that there was some work to try, and even enjoy, had not the perfectionist in Iain literally thrown it all away. Moreover, if Iain had raised his head from his own problem for a moment, he might have seen that everyone else had exactly the same problem. Everybody’s ice cream was melting. He was not alone.


In our daily lives we might find that things do not always go our way, that there are bigger mountains to climb than we thought, that our work is more demanding or harder than we thought, or that people are not always as pleasant as we expect. But remember this: you are not alone and whatever you are going through, you will not be the first to go through it and there are probably several other people experiencing the same thing. Being perfect does not make us better people, for it is through our mistakes more than our successes that we learn.


Jesus knows that we cannot be everything that Kipling or Polonius would have us be. He knows that we are heavy laden with self-imposed burdens. We are like the oxen ploughing the fields with a heavy lead of the wooden yoke upon our shoulders. But Christ makes us an offer, not only to take away our heavy burden of pride by his gentle and humble sacrificial love, but also to share in our troubles, and by so doing, to ease them. When we share the light and easy yoke of Christ’s love, he shares in our lives and carries our sorrows for us, as he joins us on the journey and we continue to plough our furrow with Jesus by our side and, at the end of the working day, at the end of our lives, find rest for our souls.


‘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.’