Lay Down Your Burdens

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A sermon on Matthew 11 given by the Rev. Teri Daily on July 5, 2020

I haven’t made a New Year’s resolution in the past three years. It took me fifty years to learn that a fresh infusion of motivation doesn’t automatically happen on New Year’s Day. I’m not sure why I thought things would be different during a pandemic. When the quarantine began four months ago, I watched the news almost twenty-four hours a day, I put jars of milk in the freezer, and I immediately ordered bandanas, sanitizing wipes, hand gel, gloves, and zinc lozenges. After pandemic precautions were in-place, I began to think of all the ways I could use the time at home “constructively.” I would try new recipes, exercise faithfully, clean out my closets so I can actually find things, read several books that have been in my bookshelves for years, and order new window coverings. I saw myself emerging from the pandemic a leaner, more educated, more organized, more culinarily savvy, and more fashionable version of myself. Given that Facebook feeds have been filled with banana bread, new gardening projects, and people in workout clothes, I don’t think I was alone in my intentions. Self-improvement techniques permeate our culture.

There is nothing wrong with the desire to be the best version of ourselves; but as the late psychiatrist and spiritual director Gerald May noted, we are obsessed, in today’s world, with fixing ourselves.[1] Somewhere along the way we, as a culture, have taken a step back from living our lives and have instead begun studying them. We have begun to see ourselves as objects to be fixed. And, it seems, there is no end to the ways we can make ourselves better – thinner, more attractive, more efficient, smarter working, more popular, more saintly. Every time one goal doesn’t bring us the wholeness or happiness we seek, we move on to the next one. Maybe if we fixed something else… What a burden to carry – always thinking about ourselves, always looking for ways to make ourselves better. Place these alongside the burdens common to all of us – a place to live, food on the table, the loss of people we love, violence in the world – and at times it can all seem too much to bear. 

The crowd hearing the words of Jesus in today’s gospel reading had their own set of burdens – they were living under imperial rule, as happens now religious leaders often interpreted commandments in ways that emphasized purity more than mercy, and women had little access to property or inheritance. The people in Jesus’ day and those in Matthew’s day knew what it was to carry heavy loads, to struggle to meet expectations, to live as a slave to their cultural, religious, and political setting.

While our gospel reading from Matthew includes just two portions of chapter 11, to understand those verses fully we need to start at the beginning of the chapter. The disciples of John the Baptist come to Jesus while John is in prison. Is he the one they are waiting for – the Messiah – or should they wait for someone else? Quoting the prophet Isaiah, Jesus tells them to relay to John what it is that they hear and see – “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” The answer to John’s question is yes.

Jesus then tells the crowd that John the Baptist is the messenger spoken of by the prophet Malachi – the messenger who is to prepare the way for the Lord’s coming, the one who is to lead the people to repentance and purification. The people, though, have not recognized either John or Jesus. When John came abstaining from food and alcohol, living an austere life, the people said he had a demon and rejected him. In other words, when John wailed, they did not mourn. When Jesus came with an inclusive ministry centered on the grace-filled concept of Jubilee, the people said he was “a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.” When Jesus played the flute, they did not dance.

Our lectionary skips the next five verses, but I’m going to give you the Cliff Notes version. Jesus declares woe to the cities of Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum, all towns in Galilee. When Jesus worked deeds of power in their midst, they refused to repent. They would not align their lives with the kingdom of heaven.

The cities who had seen great deeds of power, the scribes and Pharisees whose rigid preconceptions neither John nor Jesus fit, and the wise and intelligent – they all missed the kingdom of heaven in their midst. Even John the Baptist had grown tired and weary it seems; even he began to wonder if he had really gotten it “right.” In a reversal typical of the gospel, as Jesus says it is the “infants” – those without religious standing, those without any claim to superior knowledge, those humble in heart – who see that in Jesus the kingdom of God has entered the world.

This revelation comes as pure grace, given to those who are open to receive it, given to those who know themselves to be in need of salvation from outside themselves. It is to these that Jesus issues the invitation: “Come to me, all you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn form 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.”

In other words, lay down your burdens and pick up mine. Take on my yoke. A “yoke” is the piece that goes over the neck of an animal and connects it to the plow or cart the animal is to pull. But it was also used to refer to the teaching of a particular rabbi. To follow a specific rabbi was to take on the yoke of that rabbi’s teaching. It was to submit oneself to that rabbi’s vision, way of life, and understanding of reality. Living the kingdom of heaven, Jesus says, will give us rest.

We labor under false understandings, ideas, and expectations – mainly that we can fix our lives, that we can heal ourselves. Once again, this is where I find the work of Gerald May helpful. Healing is something that happens, not something that we do. It’s not even what a physician or a psychiatrist does. Take a deep cut, for instance. The doctor may cleanse the wound and bring the edges together with stitches, putting things back in their natural alignment, but the skin grows back together over time. The actual healing is not something we do – it is something that happens.[2]

If we were to put our burdens down and take on the yoke of Christ – if we were to hand ourselves over to the one in whom we live and move and have our being, place ourselves in alignment with the deepest reality there is – could we then find rest? Could we trust that healing would happen? What if we spent less mental energy trying to fix ourselves and our own lives and more energy living into the kingdom of heaven – welcoming the poor and the sick and the stranger, living a Sabbath life of trust, seeing ourselves and the people we meet as the children of God that we are? Would it really bring rest for souls, freedom to our hearts, and the world ever closer to the kingdom of heaven?  Do we have the courage to try it? Are we so tired of trying to run the world ourselves that we are finally humble enough and open enough to receive the yoke of Christ as the grace that it is?

A few years ago, I felt the weight of a heavy burden, and I spoke with a Catholic nun about it. She suggested an exercise… Imagine, she said, a time in the gospels when Jesus experienced and felt just what you are experiencing and feeling. Place yourself in that story with Jesus – see the emotion on his face, hear the voices in the crowd, feel the rejection he encountered or the love he experienced, look upon him as the child of God. And then, she said, bring Jesus into your story, your experience, and your feelings. How does that transform your burden?

I was skeptical that a simple exercise could ease the weight I felt, but it did. I realized that Jesus was right there with me, and knowing that we share the load with Jesus brings freedom, peace, and rest for the soul. It places our burdens and hurts within a larger framework, within a larger purpose.

Taking on the yoke of Christ does not mean that our life will be clear sailing, without any obstacles or pain. Shedding the burdens that the world places on us and we place on ourselves and, instead, picking up the burdens of Jesus is not just another self-help method to arrive at an easier or more successful life, this time under the guise of religion. We will still feel pain and loss and fatigue, and yet our souls will find rest and freedom. Why?  Because we share the yoke with Jesus, and that changes everything.

[1] Gerald May, MD, Simply Sane: The Spirituality of Mental Health (New York: Crossroad Publishing, 1993) 1-30.

[2] May 70-76.

Lay Down Your Burdens
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