No doubt, you have come across in one way or another a poem called “Footprints.” You have heard it recited, or you have seen it printed and framed on someone’s kitchen wall. The poem, the authorship of which is unclear, is so well known that it has become a most celebrated cliché. In its several versions it tells of a dream or a vision in which a person perceives the episodes of his or her life in a long progression, marked by two sets footsteps in the sand: one belonging to the narrator and the other belonging to Jesus. But the narrator notices that during the most difficult, painful, and trying times of life there is only one set of footprints in the sand, and so questions the Lord, “I don’t understand why, when I needed you most, you would leave me.”
I can see that you are all already completing the well-worn ending of the poem in your minds, when Jesus says, “It was then, my child, that I carried you.”
Now, clichés become clichés for a reason -because they ring true more often than not – so it’s not my desire or intention to sell this little poem short. But I am willing to acknowledge that the poem and its visual representations have achieved the very summit of kitsch.
There are those who contend the Footprints poem has its origins in a sermon preached by the great Charles Spurgeon on a Thursday evening in June of 1880: a sermon that is considerably longer than the poem, and which does not really make the point that the poem makes about Jesus carrying us through the tough times. But Spurgeon’s sermon does begin with an allusion to Jesus’ footsteps:
“And did you ever walk out upon that lonely desert island upon which you were wrecked and say, ‘I am alone—alone—ALONE—nobody was ever here before me’? And did you suddenly pull up short as you noticed, in the sand, the footprints of a man? I remember right well passing through that experience—and when I looked, lo, it was not merely the footprints of a man that I saw, but I thought I knew whose feet had left those imprints. They were the marks of One who had been crucified, for there was the print of the nails. So I thought to my-self, “If He has been here, it is no longer a desert island. As His blessed feet once trod this wilderness-way, it blossoms now like the rose and it becomes to my troubled spirit as a very garden of the Lord!”[i]
Spurgeon’s sermon is a four-point sermon that goes on, in printed form, for more than 6 pages of single-spaced, small-ish type; and the text he is preaching on (from Hebrews) has nothing to do with any of the texts we’ve read today. But this introduction to the sermon shares a theme with the Footprints poem, that Jesus is with us, and that especially when it comes to times of trial, Jesus has already been where we must go, and that he will be with us in love and support throughout the hardest periods of our lives.
This way of thinking of Jesus as our spiritual companion is pervasive in modern Christian thought, and again, I have no interest in debunking it. But like the Footprints poem, the opening of Spurgeon’s sermon relies on an image that is not found in the Scriptures, which doesn’t make t wrong, but it only goes so far.
The Gospel reading today, from the eleventh chapter of Matthew, however, does provide a powerful image of Jesus’ connection to each and every one of us in times of trial. He says to his disciples, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. 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.”
Now, a yoke, the dictionary tells me, is “a wooden bar or frame by which two draft animals (such as oxen) are joined at the heads or necks for working together.”[ii]
The image here is not of Jesus carrying us; it is not the assurance that Jesus has already trod where we must tread ourselves. No, the image that Jesus himself supplies is one in which we are bound to him in mutual service, working together. And the irony of the analogy (or the grace of it) is that very instrument that signals the great weight and demands of the work we must do with him, the very tool that must imply straining muscles and sweaty work, this yoke that we must share with Christ – by which we may be bound to him – this yoke, if it is his, is easy to bear, and the burden is light.
It is an odd, and somewhat un-lovely image: to be invited by the Son of God - whose path leads inevitably to suffering and sacrifice – to be yoked to him. But recall to whom it is that Jesus addresses the invitation: “all you that are weary, and are carrying heavy burdens.”
Last week in Honduras, I noticed all week long that among the slightly chaotic traffic of cars, and trucks, and motor-bikes, and three-wheeled tuk-tuks, and countless people on foot, we also encountered the not uncommon sight of carts drawn by a single horse or a single donkey. I take it as a sign of the poverty of that nation that you never see two animals working together – what a luxury that would be: a team of animals to bear the load! And it is true, in the most literal sense, for you semanticists out there, that a yoke can sometimes refer to an apparatus that is used by only one creature. But the common usage of the term implies that two are yoked together, sharing the load.
“Come to me, all you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens… take my yoke upon you.” Do you hear what Jesus is saying? Do you understand how this works?
Jesus is not saying, “Follow me, and put your feet here in the prints of my feet, so that you will know the way.”
Jesus is not saying, “Let me pick you up and carry you in my arms through your roughest days.”
No, Jesus is not reciting a sentimental poem. Rather, Jesus is saying, “Let me share with you the burden of your load. Let me walk beside you, so that our shoulders rub together, and we can hear each other’s breathing, and we can match our footsteps one to another. Let me be your partner, your friend, and your helper. And you be mine, too. Let us share together in the work and weariness of this life. For although I am the very Son of God, I know your weariness, your sadness, and your pain. Let me yoke myself to you, and you, yoke yourself to me. And see, just see, if it isn’t easier this way, better this way. See if your load is not lighter this way.
“What a way this is to go through life – yoked together, you and I. We are bound to one another. I see you are weary, and I know weariness, but I am strong. I see you are lonely, and I know loneliness, but yoked to me like this, you will never be alone. I see that you are heavy laden with your burdens, and I have carried the Cross to my own crucifixion – I know what it is to carry heavy burdens. But I turned that instrument of death into the means of resurrection life. Imagine what I can do for you! Come to me; take my yoke upon you, and see if it isn’t easy, here next to me, see if my burden isn’t light.”
Considering the poverty of a place like Honduras, and contrasting it to our situation here on Locust Street, it is notable that somebody decided, when designing the marvelous red doors through which you walk into this church, and the tympanum, with its figure of Christ the great high priest, somebody decided to carve these words above those doors, in the rather more idiosyncratic Prayer Book translation of the text: “Come unto me all ye that travail and are heavy laden and I will refresh you.” Who were they thinking of, I wonder, when they chose that text?
Our stretch of Locust Street is not one closely associated with weariness, travail, or heavy burdens. Back when carriages were pulled down this block, I have no doubt that there were pairs and teams of handsome horses with polished harnesses who delivered the dignified denizens of Rittenhouse Square to these doors.
And yet among the well-heeled of our neighborhood, were there not a few who had known sadness and pain, who had experienced great loss, who carried in their hearts (if not on their backs) heavy burdens?
And come to think of it, could not the same be said of most of us here today? Are there not a few of you who are weary in this life? Don’t you know pain? Don’t we carry a weight of sadness with us? Is it more than you can bear sometimes? And do you wonder if you can carry it on your own?
What you need for your weariness – whether you are rich or poor – is not a somewhat glib poem that purports to tell you that things were never as bad as you thought they were.
What you need – what I need – is a partner, a companion, a friend, and a Savior who has himself known weariness, sadness, and pain every bit as deep as the weariness, sadness, and pain that you know; and who invites each of us to yoke ourselves to him and see, just see, if his yoke isn’t easy, if the burden isn’t light.
I don’t have three other points to make this morning. This is all I have - this yoke – along with the testimony that my life has always been better when I have taken Jesus’ yoke and let him help me with the burdens. My life has always been happier when my steps have been locked in with his, than when I have tried to go it on my own. Every load I have ever known has been lightened by his friendship and his love, and every path I feared I could not walk has disappeared behind me with his help. For his yoke is easy, and his burden is light. Come to him, and try it for yourself!
Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
9 July 2017
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia
[i] “Spurgeon, Charles, “The Education of Sons of God,” June 10, 1880, The Metropolitan Tabernacle, Newington
[ii] Merriam-Webster Dictionary