The Better Burden: A Sermon Preached at St. Margaret of Scotland Anglican Church, Barrie, Ontario (Diocese of Toronto), 9 July 2017
Readings for the Fifth Sunday After Pentecost, Genesis 24:34-38,42-49,58-67; Psalm 45:10-17; Romans 7:15-25a; Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30
28 "Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. 29 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. 30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light."
If you are an Anglican of a certain vintage, you will recall that in the Service of Holy Communion according to the Book of Common Prayer, there were four quotations from scripture that were collectively referred to as the Comfortable Words. One of them is taken from today’s gospel reading from Matthew 11.
Come unto me all that travail and are heavy laden, and I will refresh you. St. Matthew 11.28
Taken together, the four quotations of the Comfortable Words functioned as an assurance of salvation. They assured the would-be communicant that he or she would be welcome at the table of a loving and gracious God who had forgiven our sins. In a very real sense, these words reminded us that there were no barriers between us and God. They were comfortable in the sense that they eased the troubled and guilty soul and allowed us to relax into God’s love.
My Anglican upbringing probably explains how I reacted once to a certain question. When I was responsible for the chapel of a small military base out West, I got a call from the Base Maintenance office to say that I they wanted to replace the old sign on the front lawn with a new one. “What do you want on your sign, Padre?’, they asked me.
I thought long and hard about what sort of sign might attract the many young soldiers passing through the base, many tired and stressed after long wargames out on the prairie. I remembered listening to the Comfortable Words as a child and I decided on Matthew 11:28: "Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” That verse beautifully captured the sense of welcome and peacefulness that I wanted the chapel to offer to its visitors.
It may not surprise you to learn that the following verses, 11:29-30, did NOT make it onto my sign. For one thing, there wasn’t enough room, but even if there had been room, I wanted to avoid the two mentions of “yoke” and the word “burden”. Neither word seemed to offer the right sort of invitation to someone who’s been sweating for weeks at a time under a heavy pack and helmet.
Even for us civilians, unburdened by helmets and rucksacks, there is a paradox in these words of Jesus. How can a yoke be easy? How can a burden be light? And beyond the paradox lies a thought which our contemporary mindset finds deeply unattractive. When the idea of the good life, to quote the old Eagles song, is to be “running down the road, trying to loosen my load”, who really wants to be yoked or burdened?
Well, I suppose it depends what we are yoked to and burdened with, and what we think freedom really is. While Jesus’ invitation to become his disciple may use the uncomfortable language of the yoke/burden, the larger context of Matthew 11 makes it clear that this is a pretty good deal he is offering. Earlier in Matthew chapter 11, we learn that John the Baptist, who is in Herod’s prison, has sent a message asking Jesus if he is the savior that the people have been waiting for.
2 When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples 3and said to him, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’ 4Jesus answered them, ‘Go and tell John what you hear and see: 5the 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. 6And blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me.’
If we hear all of Matthew 11, then, Jesus is offering good things: healing, wholeness, restoration, resurrection. It is all we would expect of the Messiah and Saviour and then some. So why the language about yokes and burdens?
I think that today’s second reading from Romans helps us to understand the gospel better, because when Paul writes about sin, he is talking about something which looks like freedom but which is actually a yoke and a heavy burden. Paul’s theology, because it depends on terms like “the flesh” and “the body”, is often taken to mean that he hates the physical human body, which in contemporary society is celebrated as the source of beauty, sex and power. In fact, as U understand it, Paul what Paul means when he says “the body” is in fact the whole human condition, which consistently brings us up short of our ideals.
For Paul, even when we know what God wants of us (“the law”), we fall short because of our imperfect human nature. For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.” (Romans 7:23)
Sin for Paul includes all the things – our impulses, temptations, thoughtless and weak moments – that cause us to fall short of the good life that God calls us to. Often we mistake sin for something that seems like freedom, and learn the difference too late. A fun trip to the casino might lead to poverty, sexual fantasy might lead to adultery and broken relationships, while a seemingly harmless racial stereotype or joke can lead to hatred and bigotry. Sin can be anything that seems to promise escape, fun, and freedom, but which can lead to captivity and constraint. Our popular culture and advertising offers endless examples, from wealth to sex to beauty.
When Jesus calls us to follow him, he offers us true freedom but it is the freedom of discipline and the ability to say no to false freedoms and bad choices. David Lose notes that “We don't (the like (the word no) because it is, well, just plain negative. Even more, it stands in our way, negating our immediate desires and wishes, withholding something from us that we want.” Saying no to ourselves or to those we love and care for may be difficult because it negates an impulse or desire that might seem like a good idea at the time.
Lose also notes that the church needs to work hard to recover an idea of discipleship that actually connects our faith lives to our real lives. Putting on the yoke of Jesus means that there we give God a say in what we do with our bodies, about the kinds of words that come out of our mouths ad keyboards, how we spend our money, and all the myriad choices that we make in a typical day. This a huge idea that needs far more time and attention that I can devote to it at the end of a summer sermon, but it is a something that always needs to be foremost in our minds as we think about what it means to be followers of Jesus.
If we read Matthew 11:28-30 again, we notice that Jesus speaks to those who already are carrying heavy burdens, to “all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens”. I think of several images from films where this mage is acted out in spiritual terms. I think of Marley’s ghost in A Christmas Carol, shacked to the cashboxes that he chose over his fellow humans as his life’s concern, or the conquistador in The Mission who punishes himself for a murder he committed by dragging his heavy, rusting armour everywhere he goes. I think of the things I can’t let go of, and wonder what other invisible burdens the people around me are carrying. I think of Jesus, waiting to set us all free of these burdens, and calling us instead into a life of true freedom, and I see that as the true message and goal of the church, to bring the burdened to Christ so they can find true freedom.