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I Will Give You Rest
July 5, 2020
Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30
There’s a story from the first century B.C. that may or may not have actually happened. This story took place when much of the world was unexplored and largely unmapped. Mapmakers had to have some way of portraying those areas of the earth that were as yet unexplored, so they symbolized those regions by drawing dragons, monsters and large fish there. The message was clear. Uncharted territories were frightening places. Terrors lay buried there. But as many maps declared, “There be Treasures” as well.
The story I’m referring to is this: One commander of a battalion of Roman soldiers was caught up in a battle that took him into the territory that the mapmakers had represented with their monsters and dragons. Not knowing whether to forge ahead into the unknown, or turn back into the known, which would have been seen as a retreat, he dispatched a messenger to Rome with this urgent request: “Please send new orders. We have marched off the map.”
Doesn’t that feel just like the time we’re living in right now? Eight or nine months ago no one had ever heard the term “Covid-19.” And then this strange new virus burst onto the scene, starting in Wuhan, China and then spreading relatively rapidly around the globe.
Economies have been thoroughly disrupted, millions of people have lost their jobs and face masks have become the latest in-fashion accessory — or at least they should be. But more important than any of that is the staggering human toll this pandemic has caused.
More than 10 million people worldwide have suffered with the virus and a half million of those have died from it. Our country has had significantly more cases and more deaths than any other nation with 2.5 million cases and almost 126,000 deaths to date. That means the U.S. also has endured roughly one-quarter of the world’s total reported cases, even though we have less than 5% of the world’s population. And in many of our states, the number of new cases is continuing to rise on an almost daily basis.
To make it worse, there’s evidence that the virus is mutating in a way that makes it even easier to transmit from person to person. To at least some degree, the rising number of new cases is due to our frustration. We so desperately want to return to the life we once knew as normal that we act as if the spread of the virus is slowing. But it’s not. So our impatience becomes an ally to the virus.
The truth is that life is studded with a variety of burdens we have to shoulder. There are those who chafe at the restrictions imposed by health care professionals trying to stop the spread of the virus, as well the anxieties of those who have already caught the virus or whose loved one has.
But beyond our immediate concerns in this pandemic era, there are lingering issues that try to pull us down — tragedies that overwhelm us, failures that depress us, frustrations that haunt us and lingering specters of inadequacy that paralyze us. Everyone has their moments of feeling crushed under the weight of everyday living.
And that’s when we can find the most comfort in Jesus’ saying, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are 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.”
What we often forget when we hear those words is that we all are already carrying yokes of one kind or another. And, although we may hear Jesus’ offer as the imposing of a burden, actually he is offering us freedom from burdens that are far more imposing.
For example, I once knew a woman whose yoke was the need to always be right. It didn’t matter what the issue was. She had to have the last word. If, as it sometimes turned out, her opinion happened to be wrong, she would defend herself by rearranging facts to suit her needs or by simply discarding those facts that didn't fit her ideas. Worse yet, she would also discard people if they would choose to see things in a way other than hers. As you might guess, the price she paid for this behavior was isolation and loneliness. But it was apparently worth it to her to protect her self-imposed burden.
I knew another man whose yoke was money. He gained his sense of self-worth by amassing status symbols and fattening his bank account. The price he paid was an unending appetite for things and a constant sense of never having enough.
In the same regard, I once read about a highly-successful CEO, whose name now escapes me, who was about to retire. This was a man who seemingly had everything — power, status, money and respect. So several candidates were strenuously vying to replace him when he retired. He gathered all those candidates together and told them what it would cost them to take his job.
He told them about the time he was at his daughter’s wedding. As he walked this daughter down the aisle, he suddenly realized that he had focused his life so completely on his work that he had no idea who his daughter really was.
He didn’t know her favorite color or her favorite food. He didn’t know her best friend’s name or anything about what she dreamed for her life. In the eyes of the world, this man had it made, but he had eventually realized that the yoke he had imposed on himself to reach that level was far heavier than he’d allowed himself to believe.
All of us are carrying burdens in our lives, some of which are heavier than others. We may be yoked to the pursuit of success. We may be yoked to the lure of drugs or alcohol. We may be yoked to trying to balance being the perfect employee and the perfect parent and spouse. Currently, we may be yoked to fear of catching Covid-19 or to grief over losing someone to its crushing grip.
There are so many things that we may yoke ourselves to in this day and age, many of which prove to be illusory blessings. Not all of them are bad in and of themselves but they may become bad when they are emphasized far beyond their actual value.
On the other hand, Jesus offers us the yoke of love and grace. Those are values that are sometimes hard to live up to, but they are always far easier than any of the alternatives. And far more rewarding.
R.H. Lloyd says, “A visitor to London a hundred years ago would have noticed that many men and boys earned their livelihood from carrying goods on their backs from one place to another. Sometimes the journeys would be quite lengthy and the carrier, or porter as he was called, would have to rest.
“If he were to put his burden on the ground, he would have to face the difficulty of lifting it back to his shoulders again. So the porter was always on the lookout for a low wall or window-sill on which to place his burden at shoulder height. Some kind people actually erected suitable resting places round and about London. One such resting place still survives on the edge of a pavement near Green Park. It is quite simply made up of a wooden bar resting on two metal legs. Nearby an inscription reads: ‘This porter's rest was erected in 1861 by the Vestry of Hanover Square, for the benefit of Porters and others carrying burdens.’
“The same sort of resting places are to be found in many of the large cities of India. There they are called Soomai Tangi which, simply translated, means ‘a burden bearer.’ These are made up of a stone slab placed across two uprights.
“Some years ago when a new altar was placed in the Chapel of St. Christopher’s College in Madras, the altar was made to represent a Soomai Tangi in order to remind all who worshipped there that worship should be a time of refreshment when we can come to God and rest our burdens on him awhile.”
Anne Le Bas writes, “[…] Jesus’ words to his followers in today’s Gospel often touch a chord in people because so many people feel weary. Of course, it’s not just the tiredness of a day’s work or of caring for children that he means here, but the tiredness that comes from struggling against impossible odds, over and over again, without ever really feeling that you have got anywhere. In the Greek myth, Sisyphus was condemned by the gods to roll a stone up a hill forever, but every time it got near the top it would roll down again. Recognise that feeling? If you do, then what you are experiencing isn’t a simple tiredness that can be cured with a good night’s sleep but the kind of bone-deep weariness that needs something far more radical to sort it out.
“The Greek words Jesus uses in the Gospel to describe the weary and burdened people who come to him would have conjured up a very specific sort of picture to his hearers. They are words that you might use to describe a donkey, loaded with a burden that is too heavy for it, on the point of collapsing, or a ship that has been over-loaded with cargo, about to sink under the weight. In other words, he isn’t describing people who just have a difficult time, but people who are carrying loads imposed on them unjustly by others, loads that will be impossible to bear, no matter how hard they try.”
It may be disappointing to realize that Jesus isn’t saying that he will remove those burdens. Instead, he’s saying that he will help each of us shoulder whatever burden we may be carrying and, over time, he will help us leave our negative burdens behind. In other words, he isn’t offering us a magical cure, but the gift of his time and presence with us. He doesn’t have to do that, but he chooses to do it.
That’s because the real secret at the heart of the universe is that the Designer and Creator of everything — the one who rolled the planets in his hands and lit the stars, the one who established the natural laws and formed the DNA which makes up every living being — has a not-so-secret crush on each one of us. It is pure, unadulterated, head-over-heels love.
When we take up Jesus’ yoke — that is, when we return his love for us — we add his strength to our own and thus lighten the load. So whatever yoke you may be laboring under, Jesus calls to you to find rest and refreshment and true meaning in him.
Therefore, in a short while, when we will share the Lord’s supper from our various locations, I invite you to lay your burden down and rest for a while. Then leave your old burden there and shoulder Christ’s yoke. For his yoke is easy, and his burden is light. Amen.
by Jim McCrea
Rev. Jim McCrea
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