“My yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” What a lovely invitation. “Come to me all who labor and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” Isn’t that just what we need sometimes?
I suspect we’ve all had times when our hearts are heavy and we are overloaded with baggage, but we find ourselves having to keep going anyway. What burdens do we bring with us today? What do you and I have in our hearts that makes us want to sink into green and restful pastures and set down all that we are carrying?
Safe to say that we all of us have burdens that we bring to this time together, and we all of us come bearing our burdens, coming to Jesus, who looks on us with compassion. And that’s a lesson right there. Over and over again, when I search for wisdom about how to help those who are carrying burdens of grief and loss, I find this advice: Busy yourself in helping others. When we do that, when we carry out this most basic example of the invitation to love our neighbors, it doesn’t reverse the loss. It doesn’t erase the grief. But it gives our hands and feet something to do, and sometimes when we busy our hands and feet, that busy-ness gives our hearts and our minds and our souls the time they need to begin to heal. Could that help us understand the laying down of burdens?
“Come to me, all who labor and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” What precedes this invitation?
The tone of today’s reading begins very differently. Jesus is showing his frustration that the Messiah for whom they have been waiting – for whom their parents and grandparents have been waiting – is right in front of them, yet they are oblivious.
How frustrating is it to be misunderstood – or just plain missed?
Jesus describes a generation that cannot recognize the truth that is right front of them. They think that John the Baptist was a demon and consider Jesus to be “a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinner.” Interestingly, they describe Jesus by the company he keeps.
Jesus, on the other hand, compares them to children. They are oblivious, like children who are preoccupied with playing games. The Messiah, the one they have been waiting for, is right in front of them. Yet, they failed to see beyond the superficial appearances of the prophet and the Son of Man. In this text, it is clear that Jesus knows who he is, but can others see him for who he truly is? Chapter 11 begins with disciples of John coming to Jesus asking: “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” (11:3) It seems this question persists.
How many times have we been misunderstood? Characterized in ways that do not truly describe who we are? How frustrating is it for someone to assume they know something about you based on where you grew up or where you went to school, your gender identity or the color of your skin, a number of factors that simply do not capture the complexity of who you really are.
All of which is to say that the invitation, “Come to me … and I will give you rest” is only part of the story. And the language that Jesus uses to frame his invitation includes an image that would resonate with those who heard it. Maybe it can resonate with you and with me as well.
Jesus offers respite for the weary. But what you and I can easily miss is the importance of instruction. The word “yoke” is so out of date. Hardly anybody anymore will attach a yoke to a pair of oxen and use them to guide the animals and do work for us. In Jesus’ day, the term was used, and used often, to refer to the task of obedience to the Torah. In order to obey the law, one must first know the law. “Ignorance of the law is no excuse.”
This lovely invitation, “Come to me,” is an invitation to learn from him, to know that his gentle and compassionate instruction will enable you and me and all who gather to find rest for our souls, to find wholeness and completion, to be guided onto the paths that our feet need to be on.
Maybe when we bring our burdens to Jesus and pray to him to lift them away, sometimes the answer is that God is right in front of us – that God has already given us the gifts to lift away those burdens and we just need to find them in ourselves. And sometimes finding those gifts in ourselves means turning our hands and feet to the needs of others. Sometimes doing that work will allow us to sort through the knotty problems of our burdens and sort out how to deal with them. How, in other words, to lay them down.
Anne Lamott tells the story of being in the grip of flu, with assorted headaches and body aches, and feeling too sick to take her son to school. A friend called, a friend who happened to be living with incurable cancer.
“Again and again I tell God I need help,” she writes. “And God says, ‘Well, isn’t that fabulous? Because I need help too. So maybe you can get that old woman over there some water, and I’ll figure out what we can do about your stuff.’
“Maybe Rick had told God … that he needed some energy that morning, and God had said, ‘Well, great, because Sam Lamott needs a ride to school. Could you do that for me? And I’ll be getting you some strength.”
“Take my yoke upon you,” Jesus says. It’s why the stole is reserved for the office of the ordained pastor in the Lutheran church. It symbolizes the readiness to bring the burdens – the pastor’s own burdens and those she carries alongside her flock – to Jesus, seeking his guidance in laying them down, asking that these burdens be seen and named and known. It symbolizes a desire to seek God’s will in every situation, to tune the heart to the words of God, whatever the words of God might look like or sound like.
We each one of us has so many burdens. Doesn’t it seem right that we should bring them to Jesus, to receive the rest that he promises? And how amazing and enlightening it can be to discern that “lay your burdens down” so often becomes guidance in how to live as the light of Christ.