The Weight of Burdens
Matthew 11: 16-19, 28-30
Our second Scripture reading this morning comes to us from the Gospel of Matthew. We will be reading selected passages from the 11th chapter – our lectionary reading skips a portion in the middle of the chapter – and the passages chosen for today portray a Jesus we’re not used to seeing. At first, Jesus seems to be a bit of a fire-breather – he offers criticism in harsh and prophetic fashion to a generation. I won’t read through all the ‘woe to you’ section in the middle, but Jesus warns whole cities of the perils that lay ahead – even his hometown of Capernaum. And then he concludes with one of the more familiar refrains of compassion.
Jesus is speaking to the disciples and he is explaining to them what to expect from the experience of discipleship. He’s trying to help them understand that it won’t be easy, that it won’t be a breeze. But, he promises that discipleship will be a relationship and that they will not be alone in life. He speaks of a more life-giving way of being than one consumed with self-reliance or self-righteousness. Jesus understands the complexity of being in relationship, and he warns them that even in relationship with God, they may encounter hardships along their journey, the purpose is meaningful and they need not bear the weight alone.
So, let’s get to the text. Feel free to open your pew Bibles and read the section that I will omit and let us listen for God’s Word to us from the Gospel of Matthew 11: 16-19, 28-30.
Let us pray: God of Compassion, God of Call, open in us an awareness for another way, another path which leads to reconciliation and peace everlasting. May we listen for your Word. May we heed your call. Amen.
“But to what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another, 17‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.’ 18For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon’; 19the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.”
“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. 29Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
This is the Word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God.
Let’s start at the beginning of this text. You may note that Jesus has a tone that we are not as accustomed to hearing. While talking about the ministry of John the Baptist, he speaks in a tone that is most associated with that of a prophet – one more like John the Baptist, actually. And he speaks of John’s ministry in comparison to his own. Both of these men have come to deliver a message to the world of God’s great love for the world. John’s message was cast in more abrasive tones and was wrought with claims of judgment and warnings while Jesus tended toward compassionate and redemptive expressions. And, here, in this text, Jesus highlights the experience both of his own disciples and of John the Baptist’s followers – that rejection should be expected, but that God’s faithfulness sustains.
So, let’s unpack that first part a little bit before we get to the heart of the text. Here, Matthew, generally known to be hyperbolic in his expression of Jesus’ teachings, uses the expression “this generation” not to speak of his contemporaries alone. When Jesus calls out “this generation,” the author is referring to those who are unfaithful, unrepentant, and ultimately violent in their defiance of God. Stanely Saunders, a professor of New Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary points out, “this is the same ‘generation’ that mocked Noah’s preparations for the flood, turned to idols after God delivered them from Egyptian slavery, and repeatedly pursued their own imperial ambitions in the face of prophetic warnings.” By telling the disciples of “this generation,” Jesus is warning the disciples that there will always be those who will object to and reject what he has to say.
So, Jesus warns the disciples through a parable. Jesus compares those he and John had encountered to children refusing to play each other’s games. One group of children wants to play “wedding” but can’t get the others to dance when the music starts up. The other group wants to play “funeral” but can’t get the others to mourn with them. Mourning and dancing coincide with the differing expressions of Johns’ and Jesus’ ministries. Some refused to repent when challenged by John, so, too, some refuse to join the celebrations of Jesus. The children all just sit, hurling their bitter insults at one another and this becomes the new game. There is little interest in finding a mutual path. It seems easier to take the all-or-nothing approach – my way or the highway. Perhaps we are not foreigners to this game and can point to evidence of “this generation” in our time. But, Jesus doesn’t throw up his hands out of exhaustion and stop there. He claims that wisdom is vindicated by her deeds and there is more to life than one way or the highway. He goes on to share with the disciples that the efforts to seek reconciliation, to seek a more mutual path, are not only important, but meaningful and life-giving.
“Come, all you who are weary and carrying heavy burdens and I will give you rest.” Aren’t these some of the most beautiful words of Scripture? “Come, all you who are weary and carrying heavy burdens and I will give you rest,” says Jesus. I don’t know what your experience of these words is, but I can hardly read or say those words without feeling a sense of freedom gained and overwhelming gratitude. I just want to soak them in, breathe them into my heart and sigh with exhaled relief at the sound of them. We’ve prayed them countless times and though I tend to shy away from proof-texting, this is one of those verses that I have plucked out of the Bible and recite over and over as a reminder that I am not alone and that I don’t have to bear this burden alone – whatever the burden may be.
This is Good News, indeed. This is Good News for us as individuals, this is Good News for us as a community, and this is Good News for us as the world. Weekly, we gather here as a community and we lift our voices in prayer together of the burdens we bear – of the regret we have for our complicity as nations war against nations, as oppression and discrimination are sustained by the privileged, as the earth aches and pains while we search for ways to live in harmony. And, I’m sure each of us could offer a list out of our personal lives, which articulates individual burdens we bear. The judgment we harbor for others, the anxiety engrained in us, the desire to hoard control, the insecurity that overwhelms, the lament of mourning for what once was, the lists can go on and on and the burdens we bear are incredibly heavy. “Come to me all who are weary and carrying heavy burdens and I will give you rest.” For those in need of rest, this is Good News, indeed.
But it doesn’t stop there. Jesus goes on to say, that while we are recipients of God’s compassion in all times and in all places, we can experience God’s compassion more fully when we practice showing compassion. “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me…For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” With imagery of a yoke, a thick, rigid wooden harness worn by oxen to haul heavy machinery, one couldn’t possibly imagine that the weight of our burdens could be more than the weight a yoke – yet, the lived experience of being in relationship with God, like the disciples in relationship with Jesus, is a mutual exchange. Jesus will share my burden and I will take my part in sharing the load Jesus carries. Jesus will share the burden of the world and we will seek to transform the world, reflecting God’s love. When we respond with hatred or hardened hearts, regret lingers, pain continues and reconciliation doesn’t seem possible – it feels like a yoke an ox would bear. But in trusting God with our burdens, God frees us to take up Christ’s yoke to love God and love the world.
Most of you are aware – a couple of weeks ago, a team of 7 of us from this congregation went to Chavies, Kentucky on a mission trip to serve with the Appalachia Service Project. I was the only one to have been on an ASP trip before and that was about 10 years ago so the whole experience was very new to all of us. We are going to lead a worship service in September (September 14th to be exact) to share more of our stories and reflections, but today, I couldn’t help but draw a parallel with the Scripture reading so I want to apologize to Peter if I’m telling his story out of turn – be sure to follow up with him after the service for the whole story.
Our week was pretty incredible – for a number of reasons – and I invite you to ask those who went for some of their reasons. For me – one of the reasons I thought it was so incredible was because we spent the week experiencing something entirely new together. We were in a completely different setting than where we sit today. We were in the mountains of rural Kentucky – distant from our urban lives in the Washington area. We were staying at the ASP Center with three other church groups, all of whom espoused a more conservative theology than ours. We did manual labor for a family – demolition and construction work – a far cry from our normal pencil pushing and clicking keys behind our desks in offices or schools. We slept in bunk beds and shared bathrooms with dozens of others. And, we didn’t really know each other either – Peter and Calvin knew each other best as members of the same Confirmation class a few years ago, but for all of us in one way or another, we journeyed from being acquaintances, where we may have exchanged pleasantries, to becoming friends with whom we exchanged ideas and stories, shaping one another. And, each of us arrived with an openness and a readiness to work.
On several of the evenings, the ASP staff led an Evening Gathering. It was a time of reflection and story-telling, of learning and sharing. On the last night, everyone who stayed at the Center that week had to share their experience of a “God Moment.” Again, the theology was a bit more conservative than our own so we had a little trouble coming up with responses that were about just one particular moment – it’s sometimes tough to identify one specific moment when we believe that God is with us at all times in all places – but we appreciated the exercise and we all participated too. Peter was the first of our team to share and he went after about 25 other youth and adults from other churches had shared their moments. Peter stood up and talked about perseverance. He and Calvin had worked all week long on what we lovingly called “devil’s corner” – it was the dormer section of the room we were working in and over the course of the week, Peter and Calvin removed particle board which was nailed every 3 inches or so, installed insulation and then dry-walled the walls and ceiling. It was hard work in a cramped space and they worked at it all week long until they finished. They persevered. And, Peter shared with the larger group his amazement at the fact that they persevered through that hot and grueling work – the way we all did throughout the week – and did so because it wasn’t for us. The work was not for our own benefit – it was for Bethel and Jeffrey and David and all their family – it was to ease someone else’s burden. It wasn’t easy to leave our homes – take time off work, arrange pet care, leave family and friends, engage in exhausting manual labor – but by the end of the week, what we feared would be burdensome for ourselves had evaporated. And instead we experienced the ease of God’s yoke in service of others.
“Come to me, all you who are weary and carrying heavy burdens and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me…my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” All too often, we cling to our burdens as if they are inseparable from our very being. Our insecurities, our anxieties, our prejudices, our biases, our self-consciousness, our pride – we are invited to bring all of this and share it with God and we have the promise of rest from it all. And, when we do, we are open to the possibility of looking beyond our own burdens to the needs of those around us. It won’t always be easy to see the needs of others – it is not easy to see brothers and sisters in poverty, to see pangs of mourning, to open our eyes to see victims of war, victims of abuse, victims of injustice. But, the yoke is easy and the burden is light as we become co-creators of a world where reconciliation is achieved, where justice rolls down like waters, where love is shared out of abundance and not scarcity.
So, I ask you, what burdens can we share with Christ? And what yoke are we called to bear?