Lay Down Your Burdens
Sermon by Rev. Steven McClelland on Matthew 11: 16 – 19, 25 – 30. Focus on why Jesus’ understanding of God means we do not follow a religion be it Judaism or Christianity. Check out Kelly Crandell & Alex Pikarsky’s Anthem following sermon.
These words of Jesus are so familiar that it’s easy to read over them with out fully appreciating the depth of their meaning. The English translation we have before us doesn’t fully do justice to their meaning. So I will offer you a translation out of the original Greek that attempts to add the full measure of what these original words meant.
“Any one and everyone who has worked very hard, or diligently labored and has grown weary of the laboring come to me and I – God, will give you an intermission from your labors so you can be refreshed. Take up with me my yoke for I (God) am gentle and humble and have been low in spirit myself and you will obtain the rest for your very being that you long for because, my yoke is well balanced. My teachings are easy to wear and my interpretation of the oppressive law will be useful for you.”
Three questions come to mind. What is the work and struggle from which we can find rest through Him? What are his teachings that he puts upon us and the refreshment that they provide? And why is He and He alone able to give such rest to our lives?
“All who become weary, and struggle” is addressed to all of us though not all of us feel it in the same way. It is the general human situation to be involved in work and to struggle. We all have the work and the struggle that daily living imposes upon us. But that is not the work and struggle that Jesus is addressing. Whether or not we come to Him, the threats of illness and unemployment are not lessened. The weight of our work does not become easier. The sorrow of parents, friends or children who have died is not overcome. Jesus cannot and does not promise more pleasure, or less pain to those whom he asks to come and follow. On the contrary, sometimes He promises more pain, more persecution, and more threat of death. In short, He promises the cross.
Nor is he talking about the struggle against sin and guilt. He does not tell those who come to Him that their sins are not important. He does not give them an easier conscience about their failures and trespasses. On the contrary, He condemns sins, which the traditional theology of His time did not even consider to be sins, such as hardness of heart, nursing anger and a lustful heart.
The burden He wants to take from us is the burden of religion. It is the yoke of the law, imposed on the people of his time by their religious teachers, the Scribes and the Pharisees. Those who work and struggle are those who are sighing under the teachings of the religious law. The law of religion is the great attempt by human beings to overcome our anxiety, restlessness and despair and to make sense of our world which is ever changing, so that we might find peace for our souls, a notion of perfection and spirituality in our daily living and a guarantee of salvation or immortality.
That is what modern religion, in all of its denominational and sectarian forms is struggling with. Christianity today is more about political party affiliation and sexual taboos than it is about understanding who Jesus was and what his purpose was all about. So we have replaced the laws of the Pharisees and Scribes with our own set of laws, which demand that we accept ideas of political nationalism over a body where all the barriers are truly being broken down.
That’s why the place is so special because here we have to learn about others people from differing cultures, colors, nationalities and we know the tough work that real world love Christ like love involves. It’s not just about feeling good. It’s about the hard work of getting into each other in ways that expose our vulnerabilities and prejudices, our true concerns and our deepest fears. Traditionally the Sunday woship hour is the most segregated hour in the country. Most churches overwhelmingly are homogenious and it’s easy to see why shared cultural values become associated with God’s values which we then place on Christ as his values. So we try to meet our anxiety by abstaining from sins we would never even be tempted to commit and then saying in essence – well at least I’m not like this sinner over here. You know the one next to me. Never mind the fact that we ignore the sins we do commit each and every day.
And if this doesn’t work in terms of getting rid of our constant state of anxiety then the other thing we do is attempt to cast away every teaching, doctrine or tradition in order to be completely free of religion, but no one can live in the emptiness of perpetual skepticism, and so many return to the old yoke in a kind of self torturing fanaticism that makes them want to impose it on other people. This is what the cultural war in our country is all about. Who will have the power to impose their will and value system on everyone else?
And for these perfectionists, puritans and moralists Jesus himself becomes a teacher of the religious law putting upon us the heaviest of all possible burdens. Jesus becomes the great champion of family values, never mind that he never married, had children or owned any property and he said such family oriented things as, “if anyone comes to me and doesn’t hate his own father and mother and wife and children… he cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:26)
And don’t kid yourself about who wanted him dead. It wasn’t the sinners. It was the temple elites and the religious populists – the Pharisees – that wanted him crucified.
“Take my teachings, my yoke upon you and learn of me … for my teachings, my yoke is easy and my interpretation of the of the law is useful.” The teachings of Jesus are easy in and of themselves because they are not a new law. They’re a yoke.
There are two types of yokes. There is the single yoke that one person puts across their shoulder and uses to distribute a great weight evenly so it’s easier to carry. The only problem with this type of yoke is that you still get weary very fast and eventually you will put it off completely because you will become exhausted. The was the kind of yoke the Temple priests and the Pharisees were handing out to the dirty people of the land – the Am ha Eritz.
But there is another type of yoke. One that is shared. It requires twice as many creatures to use but if they are a well-matched pair they can work all day, because under a shared yoke one can rest a little while the other pulls. They can take turns bearing the brunt of the labor and weight. And at the end of the day they may be tired but they will not be exhausted and unable to move.
When Jesus calls us, it’s an invitation not a command. “Come to me all who labor and are heavy laden. Take my yoke upon your shoulders” Jesus is inviting us share his yoke. He’s not giving us a yoke that we’re expected to bear alone but he is inviting to help us bear ours. We aren’t alone in carrying the burden of our salvation, Jesus carries it with us. God carries it with us.
It is a reality and power that conquers the anxiety and despair, the fear and the restlessness of our existence. It is here in the midst of us especially when we are facing personal tragedy, because our laws and doctrines no longer give meaning to what we are experiencing. Only the power of God’s love as manifest in Christ once upon a time and now working through the Holy Spirit can give us the rest we long for in life.
This past week I came across an article written by a retired minister who captured for me what this new being is like and how it can grasp us. He entitled his article: “How My Mind Has Changed.”
“…This body of mine that has supported me for so many years has begun to crumble, but my mind has not…. Having gone through four bypasses, dealt with diabetes and kidney problems, my more alert mind has had to change with how I view my own life. Belief is still of vital importance to me, but I don’t waste time on futile and useless arguments. I don’t consider myself conservative or liberal, not even middle of the road. Labels irritate me.
I used to be on guard when people expressed their theological, political or social opinions, now I smile when others differ with me. Arguing for the sake of coming out the champion of an idea doesn’t interest me anymore. I know now that ideas have a way of breaking through in spite of our stubbornness and denials. Heresy, to me, is an intellectual matter. Conduct is more important to me than orthodoxy. Many heretics have higher standards of living than their accusers. I am a stronger believer in Jesus Christ today than I was years ago, but I don’t feel any contempt for those who don’t believe.
I used to be so immersed in myself and in my work that I tended to forget that there are billions of people who share our planet. Now I think more of others, their plight, suffering, and pain. A crying baby brings tears to my eyes. A starving person makes me feel ashamed of myself and of the human race. I enjoy more of the little things life offers us every day. A sunset makes me think of God as much as when I read the Bible….
Yes, my mind has changed! So much so that as I take a look at myself I end up asking, “Who are you, stranger?”
So for all of you who have felt the heavy weight and burden of religious morality, forget your achievements and your failures, when you come to Jesus. Forget your goodness, your idea of God, forget your cultural upbringing, not your being Christian, not your being good. The only thing that is expected is that you come and follow the one who is the way, the truth and the life.
That you commit to your baptismal vows to love, know and worship the Lord with all your heart, soul, mind and strength and that you make this a practice with yourself and your neighbors.
For some learning to love themselves will be the heaviest burden they will carry, for others it will be learning to love anyone but themselves and in all this we either love God or we do not. We either come to know God or we won’t. But the good news is that God himself tells us he will bear that burden with us. And with God all things become possible – even our transformation. Amen