Paula Northwood, February 19, 2017
Scriptures: Psalm 55:1–8, 22; Matthew 11:25–30
Sometimes those of us who are called to preach choose a topic because it is something that we need to hear. That is the case this morning. I was reflecting on how weary I am about what’s happening in the news, in our nation’s capital, in our state and in the Twin Cities. There is a great deal that is burdensome.
I thought that the text from Matthew in which Jesus offers to take on our burdens might be a good place for me to find some kind of comfort. It’s a simple story of Jesus spending time with his followers after they had traveled throughout the area teaching and healing people. They were soul-weary and physically exhausted. Earlier in the text, Jesus gives the impression that their mission was not successful. People were happy to accept the gifts of healing and bits of extra food but did not want to hear the message of repentance, change and transformation. People were resigned to living under an oppressive empire. They were satisfied with a quick fix but their hearts were closed to thinking about how the world could be different.
In this bone-weary, discouraged, fearful state, his followers hear Jesus say, “Come to me, all who are weary and carrying heavy loads and I will give you rest. Take my yoke (my burden) upon you and learn from me for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my way is easy and light.”
Just hearing those words loosens the tension in my shoulders. It’s a beautiful little story. We live by the stories. We live by the stories we tell about ourselves in the solitude of our hearts, stories that help us make sense of our lives. Unfortunately, we have a tendency to tell stories that make us powerless but without blame, isolated but without responsibility, and the present and future often seem hopeless. We all experience this deep soul-weariness at different times for different reasons. Sometimes we know why, but other times we don’t. We just know we are tired. Our weariness can result from the accumulation of layers of life’s complexities. Work pressures; retirement obligations; conflicts in the national, local and home front; health or addiction challenges; financial worries; the little noise that your furnace, car or washing machine is making; and, if you watch TV, there is Hepatitis C and pneumococcal pneumonia to worry about. As if regular pneumonia isn’t enough. I mean there is a lot to worry about. We are an anxious people, but we are also a resourceful people!
All around us we see messages to make life easier—a slogan declared by a number of products and marketing focusing on simplicity. The idea of a simple life and a means to attain one is a sought-after commodity. The term “simple elegance” is frequently used to describe clothing, household and even garden products. The emphasis is on simple lines, graceful flow and an easy, breezy, relaxed, comfortable way of life. It’s classic style to last a lifetime. But if we can’t afford it or realize we don’t really need this stuff, it only creates more stress. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 40 million Americans struggle with anxiety-related issues.
In our frenzied, anxiety-ridden, wearied life, we have our holy teacher say, “Come to me, all who are heavy burdened, and I will give you rest.” I think Jesus’s words extend three invitations: to lighten our load, to learn from him and to balance the load.
Jesus first invitation is to lighten our load. The Mary Oliver poem that Natalie Balaam read earlier (“Storage”) is a good example of letting go of physical possessions that weigh us down. We smile at the recognition of saving things that only clutter our lives and no longer bring joy. Many of you have downsized your place of residence, so you know the freedom of letting go of material things. To lighten our load is not only about simplifying our material possessions but something deeper—it is also a letting go of all that complicates and confuses our lives. It is a way of being present in the moment, one thought at a time, one task at a time and one day at a time. Simplicity is letting go of the clutter of life and opening to the human experience. The focus is not on deprivation but on the openness and freedom to be available for the surprises of life without the complications of too much stuff, both literally and psychologically. Simplicity is more than a key to personal freedom; it’s the basis of human interdependence. We have more time for authentic relationships if we are not dealing with acquiring stuff and holding on to mental clutter. Lightening our load is about letting go of the clutter in our minds and hearts, which segues to the second invitation: to take on the yoke of Jesus and learn from him.
The yoke or wooden harness used to keep oxen moving in the right direction may not work as an image for us today, but it helps to know the context. The idea of the yoke was and is common in Judaism. Becoming an adult, through what is called the Bar or Bat Mitzvah at age of thirteen, was and is all about taking on what was called the “yoke of the Law” or the “yoke of the commandments.” It is a kind of parallel to our confirmation. It recognizes that a person of faith has obligations and expectations on this spiritual journey.
Keeping the commandments was a way of life, a way to be in the world; it was life-giving and would never be seen as a burden. Jesus himself would have gladly assented to all this. But there was a problem in the way certain laws were being interpreted that put legalism over relationships and sometimes even common sense. Jesus saw these man-made rules as a burden and a yoke, grievously heavy to bear. They had transformed religion from God’s intention to a legalistic all-encompassing rulebook.
In our story, Jesus is saying to his followers, “Those are not burdens we ought to be concerned about. Let go of the man-made rules. Think about the things that weigh you down, and whatever is not really important and no longer brings you joy, let them go. Rigid beliefs about dress codes, food restrictions, gender norms, racial prejudices—all these can all be let go, but be open to learn something new!”
There is a Peanuts cartoon where the dog, Snoopy, is sitting on top of his doghouse and typing. Charlie Brown walks up and says, “I hear you are writing a book on theology. I hope you have a good title.” “I have a perfect title,” Snoopy thinks to himself, and in the thought bubble it reads, “Has It Ever Occurred to You that You Might Be Wrong?”
Research reveals that people who are shown solid evidence contradicting their most fundamental beliefs often become more forceful, more adamant in those beliefs. This doesn’t matter whether we are conservative or progressive; both sides operate out of a certitude that keeps us from learning. It also keeps us from having genuine respectful conversations.
When Jesus says “Learn from me,” he is extending an invitation to learn with an open heart. “Heart” in its original meaning points not just to our emotions but to the core of self, that center place where all our ways of knowing converge—intellectual, emotional, sensory, intuitive, imaginative, experiential, relational and bodily. The heart is where we integrate what we know in our minds and with what we know in our bones, the place where our knowledge can become more fully human. It is in this understanding of heart that the divine resides. God is at home there. Yes, our hearts sometimes are broken by loss, failure, defeat, betrayal or death. What happens next in you depends on how your heart breaks. If it breaks apart into a thousand pieces, the result might be anger, depression and disengagement. But if your heart breaks open into greater capability to hold the complexities and contradictions of the human experience, the result will be new learning and new life. A great deal of our stress results from a narrow mindset and a closed heart.
This brings us to the final invitation of Jesus, to balance our load and, in doing so, make it light. It seems like a paradox or riddle when Jesus says, “Take on my yoke and it will be easy,” because we know how his life ends, but I think he is talking about living a non-fragmented life. There is a gulf between the way our ego want us to identify, with its masks and pretentions and self-serving fictions, and what is our true self. When we live out of our true self, life can be more balanced and easy. But it takes spiritual practice to discern the difference. We must listen from within.
It reminds me of the story about Gandhi—a rather busy man who was trying to drive a colonial power out of his homeland and keep Hindus and Muslims from slaughtering one another. At the start of one especially busy day, Gandhi said, “I have so much to accomplish today that I must meditate for two hours instead of one.” We also know from the life of Jesus that he took time apart, during all the good he was doing in the world, to meditate and pray often in retreat or in the wilderness.
I’ve been rereading Parker Palmer’s book, Healing the Heart of Democracy. If you are not familiar with it, it’s a good book to read at this time in history. Palmer writes about an inward practice by saying:
The same is true of being a good citizen in a frenzied world. Once a day we must lock the door to our home or office, turn off our digital devices, put down our work, quiet ourselves inwardly as well as outwardly, and reflect for a while on what is moving us. As this practice deepens, we learn that becoming a monk [I say, “mystic”] every now and then does not mean detaching from the world but entering more deeply into it. . . . The news of the world—all of it, hellish and heavenly—begins in the heart. The better we know our hearts, the better we know our world.
To really find rest, we need to pull back, pray and reflect in our inner worlds about who and what we want to be in our outer worlds. We need to discover the inner desert of the heart, that “still point” of love within that empowers us to do new things. The center of love is God, the inner power who seeks to evolve, to become more conscious and unified. Our challenge today is to trust the power of love at the heart of life, to let ourselves be seized by this love, to create and invent ways for love to evolve into a global wholeness of unity, compassion, justice and peacemaking.
We need a spiritual imagination that ignites our energies beyond mediocrity and fear, one that anticipates a new future for planet life. We are invited to trust, surrender and believe that this world can be different, that justice and forgiveness are possible for the earth’s community. God’s love is ever new, always with us yet ever before us. We are invited to live from the heart to live our true selves, grounded in love so that we can move toward others from a place of promise, not anxiety.
The ancient stories of our scriptures are trying to teach our hearts how to live as human beings capable of choosing hope over fear, self-love over self-doubt and love over isolation and alienation. Religion and spirituality are about transformation. It’s about improving your life. It’s about having a place to go when you feel lost or alone, when you feel bereft or heavy-burdened. It’s a sacred space to renew your sense of being connected to everything, to all that is past and all that is possible. So lighten your load. For some, it may mean cleaning out a closet. For others, it may mean to forgive someone who betrayed you. For others, it may mean to take a break from media for a period of time. For others, it may mean taking more time to meditate and clean out your mind. Join the Contemplative Prayer group or Jeff Sartain’s class on meditation or Julie Neraas’s retreat on “Finding Balance in a Turbulent World,” if you need a place to start. Lighten your load. Listen to your heart. Be present to the moment. It will leave you rested so that you can fully engage in the world and pursue the dream of freedom, peace and justice for all.
May it be so. Amen
Parker J. Palmer, Healing the Heart of Democracy: The Courage to Create a Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit, (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2011) pp. 155–156.