Fellow Passengers: This week’s Primary Passage* (Matthew 11:16-30) transports me to the Pisgah View Peace Gardens, an enterprise designed to build community and reclaim a blighted neighborhood while providing fresh and healthy food to low-income folks. Pisgah View, like many of the older public housing projects of the 70s, was buckling under the weight of many pressures – poverty, neglect, addictions, anger, violence. Bob White and Lucia Daugherty, residents of the projects there in West Asheville, imagined something different for the space, rejecting the yoke of despair that was saddling so many of their neighbors. They had the imagination and the drive to bring the idea of a community garden to fruition. They built it on an old abandoned playground that had become littered with the refuse of the neighborhood. Bob and Lucia put hand to the plow, though, and turned the soil, providing a space for both good food and good work to be enjoyed. According to one article written about the Peace Garden, The joy the space inspires is immediately apparent: Children wander amid rows of bright-red strawberries and play with the chickens roosting in a community-built hen house as volunteers of all ages and races work side by side.
Matthew’s gospel takes us to a different kind of blighted community, buckling under different kinds of pressures, with a different kind of playground. He paints a picture of playtime at the park with spoiled kids who are never satisfied with their silly games. The brats throw a tantrum when others won’t follow their orders and play along – We played wedding and blew Here Comes the Bride on our flutes and you wouldn’t dance! We played funeral and sang Precious Memories but you wouldn’t cry! Jesus understands the impossibility of pleasing these players; Cousin John came acting all dark and gothic like he was in Harold and Maude, and you said the devil was in him. I came acting footloose and fancy free like I was in the Wedding Crashers, and you called me a big fat drunk. Can’t you make up your mind? Jesus invites his followers to solve the problem alongside him by taking up a yoke, plowing up the playground and preparing a peace garden for planting season.
One thing I get from this passage is that we are not too good at calling the shots for Jesus. When we say jump he doesn’t ask how high? Jesus understands that calling our own shots and giving directions to the Almighty is more work than we bargain for; we buckle under the weight of the world’s burden. It’s a heavy yoke, and we don’t gee and haw too well under that responsibility. Jesus invites us to harness ourselves to a different yoke, a yoke that will fit so well, that will feel so light, that the work will feel like rest. There’s only one catch: for the work to be easy and the yoke to be light, we have to surrender to it. Deitrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian who was killed for his resistance to Hitler, writes this in his book The Cost of Discipleship: “Only the person who follows the command of Jesus without reserve and submits unresistingly to his yoke, finds his burden easy.” It’s the truth of the old hymn: Perfect submission, all is at rest, I in my Savior am happy and blest. The work of love is easy and joyful when we surrender our own agenda and yoke ourselves to a better way. In the farm world of draft animals, there is such a thing as a double yoke. An experienced ox is paired with a novice, and the experienced ox does most of the work at first, breaking in the younger animal to the rhythm and pace of plowing. This is the image Matthew provides. Jesus wants to share a double yoke with us; he’ll do most of the work, as we get broken in to the rhythm and pace of the work of peace. We’re invited to join in and help turn the soil, harrow the clods and lay off some rows. The abandoned and polluted playground park becomes a furrowed field. And just as it is with the Peace Garden, the joy the space inspires is immediately apparent.
*Daily Passages are the weekday reflections of Stan Dotson, connecting culture to biblical texts. Each week takes its guiding theme for the daily posts from the gospel reading on Monday, the “Primary Passage.” This week’s theme is “Burdens.” As always, your feedback and comments are welcome. Feel free to share where the passages take you in your journey of faith.