It is a look – a visage, if you will – that’s all too common this time of year, but one that I hadn’t seen much of this summer till just a few days ago; when the temperature here in New Hampshire pushed past 90 degrees and the air, as they say, “was thick with hum-dity.” You know the look, and this week it was everywhere: where perspiration, dehydration and utter fatigue have all conspired to leave us, shall we say, bedraggled; where even the most upbeat and enthusiastic among us can do no better than to manage a half-smile that fairly resembles a scowl; and where we gaze upon others with weary (and wary!) eyes, making the minimal, necessary personal contact, though all the while deeply yearning to be somewhere – anywhere (!) – other than where we are (perhaps “uptacamp” or by a swimming pool, or least on the business end of a glass of iced tea!); silently wondering why it was we ever complained about the snow and cold back in February!
You know the look!
And It’s no coincidence that “the look” (and the sweltering heat that provokes it) usually coincides with the need and desire for a little vacation or, at the very least, a bit of a break; a little “R and R;” or as the Little River Band used to sing, “time for a cool change.” Sultry summer weather aside, I’ll confess to you today that as my own summer vacation draws near, I’m starting to feel that need; and I suspect I’m not alone in this. After all, all we who labor can easily become heavy laden with the burden of fatigue and the sheer weight of all that has to be done in our daily lives; in even the most invigorated life, there comes that day when our enthusiasm for what we do dulls and our excitement for it dissipates. And what’s a vacation if not an annual time of “marvelous unburdening,” the glorious opportunity to set aside daily responsibilities and simply unwind, a time when hopefully our biggest concern will be how to unfold a beach chair and deciding what to barbecue on the grill!
That having been said, however, I think we all understand that sometimes there are burdens that can’t be lightened merely by a week or two away. It’s one thing to be dealing with physical fatigue, but then there’s emotional and spiritual exhaustion; times when the mind, body, and spirit are all so bombarded that we are dragged down for the weight of it.
Oftentimes it does have its source in physical pain or illness; anyone who’s ever had to deal with chronic pain, for instance, will tell you that the sheer stress of merely having to cope with such matters from day to day will wear you out! And then there are the things in life that create what doctors refer to as “situational depression:” the grief and sorrow that comes at the loss of a loved one; going through the loss of the job, or the breakdown of a relationship, the toll of having to make some unexpected and unwanted transition in your life. Sometimes, it’s existential; what I like to refer to as the stuff of life with a capital “L,” those times when we find ourselves questioning who we really are in relationship to ourselves, to others or to God; which can be life-affirming and agonizing all at the same time! And then, so often it’s simply the effort it takes to try to live our lives with integrity and with faith; especially when all around you are those who would attack and reject you for it.
My point is that whatever the source of it, life “its own self” can create a burden that’s exhausting for us to carry for very long; and it is not uncommon for our spirits to start to feel the weight of it, and quite literally cry out for some kind of relief; for rest, reprieve… and renewal.
That’s why it’s good news, indeed, to hear that in the midst of our burden, there is one who loves us and answers those cries; one who comes to us in our pain and stress and who will bring us his comfort and strength; one who sees the deep fatigue that permeates our lives and will give us the calm and stillness we need to have our lives and our faith restored. There is one who gives us the power to keep on trying, even in trying times; and he is the one who spoke those beautiful and familiar words: “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.”
It is very telling, you know, that these words of Jesus we heard in the scripture this morning were actually spoken in the context of his own exhaustion; during a time in which he and his disciples were not experiencing rest or peace, but rather rejection! For as much as Jesus’ teachings were being heard and taking hold, there was also a fair amount of opposition to what Jesus was saying; either coming directly from the Pharisees and the Scribes, or indirectly by the indifference of those in some of the Galilean cities.
Everywhere that Jesus and his disciples journeyed, there would always be those who were constantly about the business of either finding fault with who Jesus was, or for who he wasn’t; that is, the kind of Messiah that they’d been expecting. In fact, as we pick up the account from Matthew today, Jesus – not mincing words at all, by the way – compares such people to “spoiled children whining to their parents” [from “The Message”] about what they think they want! A Messiah? Well, first they got John the Baptist, but that wasn’t good enough (he was just a wild-eyed desert preacher, after all; too eccentric and off the wall) and now that Jesus has come, he isn’t good enough either (he’s a “glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!”)! By the way, I love how The Message translates the next verse in this verse, very apropos to our own time, I think: “Opinion polls don’t count for much, do they? The proof of the pudding is in the eating!”
So, you see that there’s this palpable burden of fatigue that can be heard in Jesus’ words; and yet how does Jesus respond to this? First with a prayer of thanksgiving, thanking his Father in heaven for hiding “these things from the wise and the intelligent,” and “reveal[ing] them to infants,” and then by offering an invitation… and it’s an interesting one. “Come to me,” he does say, “all you who are weary… and I will give you rest,” but then Jesus adds this: “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me.” Now, that’s a contradiction, to the say the least; that comfort and strength to those who are burdened comes in taking on even more of a burden! Martin Luther actually said that “only Jesus could say ‘Come to me all you who are heavy laden’ in one breath and ‘I will place around your necks a yoke’ in the next breath.” But, you see, it makes sense, for just as Jesus understood that “the proof is in the pudding;” that is, that God’s own truth is made real even in the face of opposition, so also through faith will God’s comfort and strength be made real even in the face of the greatest adversity and the deepest fatigue.
You see, what Jesus understood is that for all of us who are trying to live in trying times, it’s not a question if we will be burdened but rather of which burden we will choose to bear. The issue is not if we shall be yoked, for we are always yoked to something or someone–the question is, to what… or to who?
In other words, we can let ourselves be weighed down by all the debilitating burdens of life and living; becoming drained by obsessing on that which we, try as we may, can’t control or fix; or, we can take on the yoke of Christ, where the burden is light, and through faith we are given truth that sets us free, establishing us in a relationship with God that makes life brand new and brings new perspective and even joy into that which we have to face from day to day in this life. When Jesus offers us rest for our souls, you see, he’s not speaking about some sort of cosmic vacation or “getting us away from it all,” but rather about bringing us to a new way of life with shifted priorities and a fresh purpose that comes in participating in Christ’s ministry to the world. And in that kind of relationship, we will have discovered a new path for our troubled, turbulent souls.
I am aware that a great many of you have come here this morning very tired; not so much from the activities of a busy holiday weekend as from the constant weight of the day to day burdens in your life. I know that some of you have come to church today hoping to find something in our worship – a song, a prayer, a word of scripture, perhaps feasting at the table of our Lord – that might just serve to relieve you from those burdens; if only for even a moment or two. And the hope is we might all leave here today feeling better in that regard than when we came in. But that being said, I also hope that what we do here each Sunday morning has more to do with the journey than the destination.
I knew somebody years ago who loved coming to church, and in particular loved the feeling she had while she was at church – but she could never make the connection between what happened in worship and what went on in her daily life; she used to say to me that she always wished she could bottle the warm feeling of a Christmas Eve service or the joy of an Easter morning, so that whenever things got bad in her life, she could just pop the cap, open the bottle and “get the good feeling.” That sounds great, but what she didn’t understand is that Christ does not provide us “bottled peace!” Jesus doesn’t call us to come to him so that we might gain an instant fix; but, he says, to come “and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”
It’s discipleship; it’s about following, imitating, learning from Jesus; it’s about being on a daily walk with him and growing in courage, strength, love and joy along every step of the way. No, Jesus does not promise us that our lives will be lived without trouble or conflict; in fact, sometimes the troubles will come because of faith, not because we don’t have it! What Jesus does promise, however, is that as we with him on this journey, and as we seek earnestly to do as Jesus would do – which is what it means to take on his yoke as our own – then we will surely find “rest for our souls” as we discover new power for living that will be more than sufficient for the facing of this hour and onward through the living of these days. For truly, his “yoke is easy, and [his] burden is light.”
Even now, beloved; Jesus is calling us to come to him; to put down our burdens and find our rest in him. And today, he’s set the table give us the food we need for the way – his presence in the bread and cup.
The question is… it always is… are we willing to come?
Something to think about today as we feast at his table.
Thanks be to God!
AMEN and AMEN!
c. 2014 Rev. Michael W. Lowry