“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 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.”
I’ve seen a few weary, heavily burdened souls around Portland in the past few weeks. Tired, cranky souls, who just can’t seem to find the rest they need, obviously worn down ragged by bucking up constantly against the systems that oppress them. I’m talking mostly about five-year olds. It’s just that time of year. School is out, schedules have changed, and its time for everyone to crash and burn. One such weary soul, took the book she had found in Powell’s earlier this week and threw it down on the floor. “I don’t know where it goes, Mommy! I forgot! I can’t put it back!” I could feel her pain. Who hasn’t perused the aisles of Powell’s Books and found, without expecting it, the perfect, must-have title for the weekend? I get cranky enough when I’m trying to discipline myself against the instant gratification of immediate purchases- to have that power removed one step beyond one’s self by parental authority can be understandably intolerable. Her mother calmly told her that if she could not remember where the book went, she would help her. This was not what the young girl wanted to hear. “I don’t want you to help me!” she said, exasperated, nearly falling on the ground- which was, of course, another way of saying, “Don’t you see how angry I am? Don’t you see how important this is to me? Why aren’t you angry too? This is not the way that I want you to act. I’m afraid you do not understand.”
Around the corner another young girl was on the verge of a similar frustration. “Look at this, Mommy! Look at what I’ve made!” She was clutching a paper scrap scribbled over with wax crayon and you could tell that she had probably, just moments before, been full of delight in her creation. The mother, meanwhile, was balancing the attention of her daughter with her infant sibling and an armload of books, inching the entire crew gradually over to the check-out line. The mother told her daughter that she could see that she had made a drawing and that she would be glad to see it again after they had all finished up in the store and gotten to the car. “No, I want you to look at it now!” Which was, of course, another way of saying, “What is wrong with you? What could possibly be more important in the world than what I have just done? Don’t you see how good I am? And don’t you think that I’m good, too? I am afraid that you do not think that I am very good at all.”
Very real concerns, for each of these young girls: reminders of how frustrating it can be, and has been for us in our own time to be yoked closely with a parent, with a caretaker, who does not give us what we want, or what it has been like to be in union with a source of care whom we do not understand. It is a grace that these two mothers are so patient and wise with their daughters. Many of us have known relationships much more tumultuous than these. And some of us are relieved enough at being our own person at long last, that the idea of a heavenly mother or father is enough to reawaken that memory of resistance. Memories of disappointment, smashed expectations, suspicions that the source of so much of our well-being does not hear us, does not understand.
The crowd whom Jesus speaks to are weary in the midst of their own disappointments, and their weariness begets its own kind of resistance. They are a people in search of the perfect savior, or, at least- a savior who will fit perfectly into the lives which they have made for themselves. Even John the Baptist has just posed the question to Jesus in the passage immediately preceding this one: are you the one to come, or are we to wait for another? Jesus has been preaching good news to the poor and performing deeds of power in the cities of the twelve disciples: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf can hear, the dead rise… and it would seem to not be making much of an impression on anyone. More than that even, it is the cause of outrage. Jesus has a demon, Jesus is a mad man, Jesus consorts with filthy people, Jesus is a drunk. Unlike the disciples, who saw such a striking and profound resemblance to the living God in the person of Jesus, most people, this crowd especially, see the exact opposite. The whole thing could fit right into a modern parish CDO profile: we’re looking for a rector who’s fun to have at parties… just not too fun. The personal boundaries on this Jesus fellow, for instance, raise way too many red flags. And John is just a stick in the mud. If you could, please God, send someone just a little bit more reasonable.” To what will I compare this? Jesus asks. It is like children in a public place, throwing fits. We played the flute for you and you did not dance. We wailed, and you did not mourn. We are angry and we want to see that you are angry, too. You are not acting the way we want you to. We are afraid that you do not understand. Jesus sees this stubbornness, Jesus sees this bucking up against the signs of God’s kingdom, Jesus sees those who are wearing themselves down to the last nerve because they are fighting for some idol in the place of God, some other expectation, some desire deemed to be of more import than the witness Jesus is providing. “Come to me,” he says, “learn from me; myyoke is easy, my burden is light.” You can imagine the eyes that must have rolled at this before moving on with the business of the day.
I can imagine their dismissiveness, easily, as my own. In our time, now, when I hear Christ’s words of promise for an easy yoke and light burden, it is not without my own twinge of suspicion, because in my worst moments, the most burdensome, wearying thing around me seems to be the Mother Church to whom I have tried to yoke myself so closely. I am wearied by calling myself Christian with the fear that others will assume that means I am conservative, hateful, and insecure. I am wearied by the amount of time it takes to move forward as a denomination on issues like the blessing of God’s work in gay marriages. But perhaps more than anything, I am wearied by my very own body’s resistance to the kind of living which I expect the Gospel calls me to. Like Paul in this morning’s reading from Romans, my body does not do what my best intentions have in mind for it, and the resistance is enough to wear me down. I am tired of feeling guilty every time a person on the street asks me for change, tired of wondering if my bad habits are destroying the earth, tired of arguing with people who do not agree with me. And yet the invitation stands: “Come to me, learn from me, for my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
The idea that this could possibly be true is haunting to me, because it makes me wonder if I’m just not doing it right. Are the burdens of my life so easy as to step from them at will? Is my selfishness as simple as the selfishness of a child who cannot get his way and pouts until the day the wisdom of his father is revealed to him? And with what will Jesus give me rest? And where will his yoke lead me? Will he teach me to unbind the chains that I have used to link myself to the un-necessities of this world? Indeed, the only way I can possibly imagine that the yoke which Jesus speaks of is light, or easy, or refreshing or full of any kind of rest at all- is if it is anything like the Eucharist which we celebrate here in his perpetual remembrance every week.
Our worship here together is a kind of yoke, one which we each place about our shoulders every time we gather as a body. In it we each bring all we have to offer, and find our gifts transformed into the very substance which is to strengthen and support every member present for the journey which it offers: praise and prayer, bread and wine. Our worship is a union in step and song, a yoke not of wood but of arms over shoulders- the way a team mate supports his partner off the field when she is injured, the way a line of ballet dancers link their limbs across the stage. We are limping, we are dancing, we are struggling in a three-legged sack race with our God. And the resistance which we feel here at times, yoked together, is as natural as might be expected from a body with so many members, intent on moving onward, outward, forward in step and sync with its own self. Sometimes this is the resistance of treading injustice underfoot, sometimes it is the resistance of our own weakness, and sometimes the resistance budding within us is an urge to shift the whole body in a new direction which God calls us to in song. As Christ yokes us to himself in this way, in this place, with these motions of self-giving and abundance of God’s return, so Christ calls to yoke us in the world. He trains our bodies here to know the distinct feeling of wearying oneself for the kingdom of God’s peace, and to trust that if it truly is a burden for the kingdom, it is not one we will shoulder on our own. He calls to you now, as he did to those first crowds of suspicion and doubt: Come to me, you the tired one, the weary one, the working one: “come to me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”