Sunday, July 3, 2011

Proper 9A - Jul 3, 2011

Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY
Br. Robert Sevensky, OHC
Proper 9A - July 3, 2011

Zechariah 9:9-12
Romans 7:15-25a
Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

I returned earlier this week from a six-day silent directed retreat at the Jesuit Center in Wernersville, PA. I went there rather exhausted after our Order’s Triennial Chapter meetings seeking both rest and direction…rest for my body and my mind and my spirit and direction for the exercise of my ministry and work in the Order. I am happy to report that I got some of both, though I discovered that my needs were perhaps deeper than I had realized and my inner resources thinner than I had imagined.

As is the custom at such retreats, you meet with your director as a group on the first night and he or she then lays out the shape of the week, arranges times for daily private conferences, and offers words of welcome and encouragement. Normally the director also offers you some passages of Scripture to pray with and encourages you to articulate to yourself and to God what it is you desire, what it is you want or hope for or need from the Lord, or in the language of Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits, to ask for the graces that you desire. I had already been thinking about what it was that I wanted or needed, so that part came easily. But what struck me were the Scripture passages that my director, Fr. Jack, offered us. In addition to the usual suspects such Psalm 139 and Isaiah 55, there was the passage from today’s Gospel reading:

“Come to me, all you that are weary and 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.”

It is such a familiar passage. We hear it sung regularly at Compline. And when I came into the Anglican tradition some years ago, it was still being recited, at least in part, at every celebration of the Holy Communion. I knew it by heart. And I couldn’t keep my mind or my heart off of it. I kept repeating it:

“Come to me, all you that are weary and 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.”

It became my mantra for the week.

I remembered how often I had told people visiting our guesthouses for a period of retreat: “Take time to rest. You probably don’t realize how tired you are.” And guests often reported how for their first or second day, all they seemed to do is sleep, taking naps, dozing on a bench, staring in the middle distance. Is it prayer, they might ask? I don’t know. But call it what you will, it is certainly “grace,” a gift from God for tired bodies and troubled hearts and restless minds.

Whatever else Jesus is doing in this busy chapter of St. Matthew’s Gospel, he is surely calling out to all who are just plain tired…those tired of working so hard trying to make ends meet or to put bread on the table, those tired of looking for health or happiness, those tired of attempting to live lives that are at least a little bit just or patient or loving, those tired of trying to be good or good enough, those trying to be holy, trying to be human. And he certainly calls out to those who are just tired of being tired, inviting them especially to lay it down for a while, and rest in him. He is, in other words, calling out to us, to each one of us here this morning.

He calls out and says, “Take my yoke.” We know that in the world of Jesus, taking the yoke was a technical term, referring to submitting oneself in obedience to a teacher or to a way of life. The Hebrew Bible speaks of the yoke of Torah and the yoke of the Kingdom, not to mention the political yoking or subjugation that was constant in the tumultuous and often violent world of the ancient Near East. Taking the yoke is a way of talking about becoming an obedient follower, a student, a disciple, under the direction and discipline and tutelage of a master.

“And learn from me” he adds, “for I am gentle and lowly in heart and you will find rest for your souls.” We learn that the rest we seek for our souls is to be found in the imitation of Christ. Do I want rest for my soul? Do you? Then do like Jesus, be like Jesus. Do we want soul rest? Then be gentle and lowly of heart like him. Not pushy or aggressive and proud, but meek and unpretentious and humble. Who knew? But now we know. Lord have mercy!

So he adds: “For my yoke is easy and burden is light.” This too surprises. Jesus is on record in Matthew’s Gospel as criticizing the religious teachers of his day for laying heavy burdens on others, that is, imposing religious or ritual or social obligations that seem impossible or worse, prove soul deadening. Not that we Christians have ever done anything like that in our history or experience, right? Yet note well: Jesus is not promising us a easy time of it, an easy way up and out, an easy life…just an easy yoke, one that makes the inevitable burden bearing that is part of every human life that much more tolerable and efficient.

I think it true to say that we are all yoked. That is, every one of us is connected to each other, to the creation, and to God, sometimes in close and immediate ways, sometimes more distantly. We all bear burdens, and if we are truly human, we share each other’s burdens. But it is also true to say that one can only bear so much. I think of St. Augustine who once said: “Everyone loves. The question is, what is the object of your love? In Scripture we are not urged to stop loving, but instead to choose what we love.” In the same way, we might say: Each of us is yoked, each of us is burdened; that’s part of the human condition. But be careful what you are yoked to and burdened with. Many, it is true, have no little or no choice in this. But how many of us are exhausted because we are carrying the wrong burdens or unnecessary yokes of our own creation or ones that in fact belong to another…and in the process avoid the authentic and unique burdens that are ours alone to bear? How often do we bear what is not really ours to bear because we were taught to do so by parents or teachers or religious authorities and still seek, perhaps unconsciously, their approval…or perhaps we need to feel wanted or useful…or we remain fundamentally un-attuned to and out of touch with our own psyches with their rich and insistent and legitimate demands? How many of us are weary and heavy laden with stuff that is not rightfully ours, wasting energy and creativity and leading us to exhaustion and resentment?

I am reminded of Jesus telling us to take up our cross and follow him. How often have I attempted to carry someone else’s cross—whether they wanted me to or not—or invented whole new crosses not of God’s devising or approval, and refused the saving dynamic of taking up my own unique cross and bearing it with some degree of grace and endurance and even beauty?

There is an extraordinary literature of biblical scholarship on this passage, as there is on all the texts of our Holy Book. It is worth exploring…at least some of it is. But what I found most helpful and moving in my reading was the devotional treatment of this passage by the popular Scottish Biblical scholar of half a century ago, William Barclay. In his commentary on this passage, he tells a story about Jesus, precisely the kind of imaginative engagement that Ignatius of Loyola would encourage for anyone approaching Scripture as a platform to prayer. Barclay says:

“The word easy is in Greek chrestos, which can mean well-fitting. In Palestine, ox-yokes were made of wood; the ox was brought, and the measurements were taken. The yoke was then roughed out, and the ox was brought back to have the yoke tried on. The yoke was carefully adjusted, so that it would fit well, and not chafe the neck of the patient animal. The yoke was tailor made.

“There is a legend that Jesus made the best ox-yokes in all Galilee, and that from all over the country people came to him to buy the best yokes that skill could make. In those days, as now, shops had their signs above the door; and it has been suggested that the sign above the door of the carpenter’s shop in Nazareth may well have been: ‘My yokes fit well.’ It may well be that Jesus is here using a picture from the carpenter’s shop in Nazareth where he worked throughout the silent years.”

Imagine that: Tailor-made yokes. Bespoke. Custom designed and fitted. One crafted just for you, and one created just for me, and another designed specially for the person next to you. And all to be worn as lightly and as comfortably as possible until that day when they are finally removed from our necks and we are put out to pasture.

Well, I’m afraid I’m getting carried away with the metaphor. So why don’t I just end by reading again these “comfortable words” from the marvelous paraphrase of Eugene Peterson’s The Message, though I admit they sound a bit like a late night commercial:

“Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.”

May God grant it swiftly. And let us say, Amen.

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