I was ordained as a Presbyterian minister in August of 1989. The service was held in the cavernous, modern chapel on the campus of the College of Wooster in Ohio. I had joined the campus congregation, served on its Session and went through the ordination process there. Like many things, in retrospect, I had no earthly idea what I was getting myself into!
As many of you know, Presbyterian ordinations are fairly prescribed affairs. There is an ordination commission, made up of ministers and elders. There were representatives from several of the congregations I or my family had been connected to. My father served on the commission.
Ordinations tend to be wordy affairs. Along with a sermon and lengthy ordination liturgy, there are what we call “charges,” which are, in fact, mini-sermons, and often not so mini. Sometimes there is a sermon and two charges – one to the new minister and one to the new congregation. In my ordination, since the new congregation was off in Chicago, we got away simply with a charge to the new minister.
I will, I hope, always remember that charge. It was offered by a minister named William Briggs, who had served with my dad as the minister for community outreach in our church in Zanesville. Bill Briggs was the first exposure I really had as a kid to a vision of the church’s mission beyond its walls. In this case, his ministry was extensively with the Appalachian poor who dwelled throughout southeastern Ohio. Bill Briggs worked hard at an important task, dismantling the boundaries between those with means and those without in that very economically diverse community. He remains a kind of iconic role model for me.
I don’t remember specifically what Bill Briggs said in his charge. But I do remember what he gave me – a yoke, a replica, hand-made yoke. It has resided within my sightline and my consciousness ever since.
His reference was to Jesus’s words from the gospel of Matthew, chapter 11… “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. 29Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
Those were great words to hear as I was being ordained, and the yoke remains an important symbol for me. It represents humility, am important leadership trait. And it reminds me continually that God is God and I am not. Lightness and gentleness are values always to keep before us as we seek to serve.
A reflection from the Taize community shares that “In a sense, we are all weary and overburdened. In our depths lies hidden a poverty which, because it frightens us, oppresses us and drags us down…Christ welcomes us in our vulnerability and does not seem to be afraid of it. ‘Come to me,’ he says… Accepting our inadequacies, Christ takes upon himself what hurts us in ourselves.”
Elisabeth Johnson asks: “What is the yoke Jesus offers?… (I)t is his teaching, his way of discipleship, which is not burdensome but life-giving. He invites the weary to learn from him, for he is not a tyrant who lords it over his disciples, but is ‘gentle and humble in heart.’ To take his yoke upon oneself is to be yoked to the one in whom God’s kingdom of justice, mercy, and compassion is breaking into this world, and to find the rest for which the soul longs.”
From the Taize community: “Not only is God unafraid of our poverty, but in addition he invites us to undertake with him the great work he is accomplishing in the world: to liberate by bearing the burdens of others, especially the self-imposed burdens that are sometimes borne out of self-contempt…we are called…to divest ourselves of our own worries and to accept Christ’s concerns in their place, to take upon ourselves a burden that, paradoxically, lightens our load..”
Elisabeth Johnson puts it this way: “It is not that Jesus invites us to a life of ease. Following him will be full of risks and challenges, as he has made abundantly clear. He calls us to a life of humble service, but it is a life of freedom and joy instead of slavery. It is life yoked to Jesus under God’s gracious and merciful reign, free from the burden of sin and the need to prove oneself, free to rest deeply and securely in God’s grace.”
That is what Bill Briggs meant when he gave me that yoke all those years ago.
Bill died in July, at the age of 86. His good work goes before him, and the seed he planted in me years ago – a vision of servant leadership symbolized by a simple yoke – abides and flourishes still.