By The Rev. Sherry Deets
4 Pentecost, Proper 9 – July 6, 2014
Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30
Jesus says to us, “…my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” Sometimes we hear this and think, “yea, right, Jesus?” How can you ease my burden?
In Pat Conroy’s memoir, My Losing Season, Pat tells the story of his senior year as point guard during the Citadel’s basketball season, and what he learned from losing. He also describes the people in his life who smashed him to pieces.
Conroy’s father was a master at demeaning, attacking and undermining his son. He did it verbally, emotionally. Conroy writes, “There was nothing my father could not teach me about the architecture of despair. I knew all its shapes and blueprints, the shadows of all its columns and archways. My father could send me reeling down its hallways and screaming into its bat-spliced attics with a curl of his thin-lipped mouth. His cruelty baffled me, shamed me, and I promised myself I would never be anything like him.”
Conroy’s life is marked by the persistent and severe ways in which his father tore him apart — and ways in which he returned to irritate the most severe wounds so that they never healed. “My father possessed a genius for scab-flicking, for zeroing in on that tenderest spot of the psyche where healing was most difficult, exposing the rawness of the wound again and again.
Conroy’s psyche was tested further by his coach, Mel Thompson. His harsh words and loathing attitude beat down Conroy and his teammates. Conroy is haunted by particular phrases: “You’re just mediocre.” “You might as well not shoot.” He and his teammates struggled against a coach who reduced them to pieces: “My teammates had found themselves reduced to a state that was birthplace and hermitage and briar patch to me —a despair with no windows or exits, a futility that made hope vain and future unthinkable.”
“Come to me, all you who labor and are overburdened, and I will give you rest.” But what is this labor that Jesus talks about, this heavy burden. It is certainly not work, per se. Hard work is central to any productive, contributing life. Jesus worked hard and so have all who have made any contribution to this world. Those who do not give themselves to labor end up soft and shallow and self-indulgent. So what kind of labor does he invite us to flee?
It is the drive to prove ourselves, in order to establish our worth. It is doing in order to be. To be worthy of life, to be acceptable, to be loveable, I must measure up, perform, please, prove myself worthy, acceptable. Continually trying to justify one’s existence on the planet. This is the heavy burden that Jesus is talking about, of which Conroy is an extreme example.
Every Jew listening at that time would have known precisely what Jesus meant. The burden, the yoke was the law, that massive body of statutes and commandments found in the books of Moses which every good Jew was bound to worry about and struggle with lest he fall out of favor with God and community. His very existence, happiness, well-being depended upon his performance of these high and heavy demands.
“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” So, what is this soul rest? It is rest in that strange love that affirms just as we are, no matter how the day has gone, no matter how anyone else feels about us, no matter the achievements and failures of life. It is the deep-seated recognition that we don’t have to prove a thing to anybody. We have a right to be… who we are and where we are. With all our strengths and weaknesses, successes and failures, profile and peculiarities, we are acceptable.
It is rest in the grace of God we see in this Jesus. Salvation is the grace that comes in him, liberating us from the condemnations of the past so that we may live forward with free spirits. Lewis Smedes, who died too young, after a life of inspiration to many of us, wrote a description of the grace that is rest for our souls. It goes like this:
Grace does not make everything right in our world.
Grace’s trick is to show us that it is right for us to live;
that it is truly good, wonderful even,
for us to be breathing and feeling,
at the same time that everything clustering around us is wholly wretched.
Grace is not a ticket to Fantasy Island;
Fantasy Island is dreamy fiction.
Grace is not a potion to charm life to our liking:
charms are magic.
Grace does not cure all our cancers,
transform all our kids into winners,
or send us all soaring into the high skies of sex and success.
Grace is rather an amazing power to look earthly reality full in the face,
see its sad and tragic edges,
and yet feel in your deepest being that it is good and right for you to be alive on God’s good earth.
Grace is power to see life very clearly,
admit that it is sometimes all wrong,
and still know that somehow, in the center of your life, “It is all right.”
This is one reason we call it amazing grace.
Grace is the one word for all that God is for us in the form of Jesus Christ.
That’s rest, is it not — rest from the struggle to be somebody, to prove to a father long gone, or mother present, or colleagues and friends or crowd that you are somebody special, rest in the reality that no matter what else you are, you are nothing less than a son, a daughter of a loving God.
Conroy finally found that rest in a friend who became this grace, an English professor who befriended him and encouraged him to become a writer. But it was not the gift of language that brightened the eaves of Conroy’s brain: it was also the gift of Doyle’s friendship. At a pivotal point the Professor told him, “You’re too hard on yourself. For reasons I don’t understand, you are deeply unhappy, and it pains me. I think you could be special if you only thought there was anything special about yourself. Someone has taught you to hate yourself. I hope I haven’t crossed some line, Mr. Conroy. I value our friendship so much.”
With those words and friendship Conroy was able to begin putting the pieces of his life together again. L. Gregory Jones, dean of Duke University Divinity School comments on the story. “All of us emerge in pieces out of complex factors that include our own sinfulness as well as the sins we suffer from others —haunting words, tattered emotions, in all too many cases physical wounds. We search for friends of our mind, people who mediate God’s grace in Jesus Christ in ways that give us back the pieces of our lives in the right order.
But then as we reflect on those people who have been the friends of our minds and given thanks for the healing balm of friendship they offer us, the question rebounds: To whom are we called to be holy friends? Who needs us to give them back the pieces of their lives in the right order?
Jesus urges us to take his yoke upon ourselves. A well-made yoke distributes the load evenly, making the task easier. A well-fitted yoke follows the contours of the oxen’s neck so that it does not rub or chaff. The yoke that Jesus offers us is not the kind that is burdensome or heavy, that chafes and rubs, but it is a yoke of love.
Here Jesus is offering us a yoke, a partnership, a relationship, fellowship with himself, the opportunity to learn from him the art of gentleness, warmth and assurance. Being yoked to Jesus means to walk with him and do the things he does – to be gentle and lowly, putting the cares and needs of others before his own.
There is a legend that tells us that at first birds had no wings and that they rebelled when wings were fixed to their bodies because they seemed to be such an extra burden to carry around. However, when they stopped seeing their wings as burdens but as a whole new world of opportunities, they were lifted to the sky by what was previously a burden.
“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. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” Amen.
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