The Light Burden of Love
[A sermon on Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30; and Romans 7:15-25a]
[for an audio recording of this sermon, click here. photo by Matt Seymour on Unsplash]
“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest….”(Matthew 11:28).
I will admit that I need that message this week. I am weary. I am weary in body, mind, and spirit. I could blame the physical demands of packing in preparation for my family’s move next week, or the strain of parenting 24/7 while also trying to work, but those tasks are not the primary source of my tiredness. Rather, I am feeling drained by the same pain of heart and spirit that I know many of you are carrying.
We are nearly 4 months into the shifted reality of this virus that has reshaped our world in ways none of us could have imagined. We are weighed down by personal and collective grief for the lives lost, as well as for the deep disruption of our lives. And we are grappling with the erosion of hope. As caseloads spike to the highest levels yet, and the virus mutates to even more contagious strains, we realize this is not going to resolve easily or soon. And as the early optimism of “we are all in this together” disintegrates into partisan positioning, and decisions whether or not to follow public health guidelines become political statements, we add the deep grief of division on top of everything else.
This week, I came across a musical parody that sets the public debate about mask wearing to several songs from the Broadway hit Hamilton – which, of course, tells the story of Founding Father Alexander Hamilton against the backdrop of revolution and the back-biting schemes of nation-making.
The parody is hysterical, but I also found myself wincing as I realized that a backdrop of violence and vitriol are uncomfortably relevant to the topic at hand. The Freedom that we celebrated this weekend should be about much more than an inspiring patriotic slogan. Freedom – whether in the context of historic revolution, or current public health, or the unveiled racial tensions that also weigh on our hearts and nation – freedom is a much more fraught and complicated topic than fireworks and Independence Day celebrations usually confront.
If we really want to talk about freedom, then we have to ask the question: where does one person’s freedom end so that another person’s safety can begin?
And if we fail to grapple with that question, then what moral standing does our celebration of freedom have?
So, yes, I imagine most of us are feeling a bit weary, a bit weighed down by heavy burdens of frustration, and strife, and the exhaustion of moral wrangling.
And then we hear Paul’s letter to the church in Rome in our second lesson today. “I do not understand my own actions” he writes. “For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” (Romans 7:15), and again “I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it.” (Romans 7:18).
Frankly, I’m not sure how to respond to this confession. On the one hand, it’s reassuring to know that even the great Apostle Paul, author of half the New Testament and dedicated leader of the early church, claims such weakness of will. If he can confess how far he falls short of God’s law, then surely I can too. But on the other hand, it piles on the hopelessness! If even Paul laments his own wretchedness, then what chance do I have? What chance do any of us have to do better than we are doing right now?
And we NEED to do better! Because sin does dwell in us. In dwells in our bodies and in our body politic. The very things that weigh us down – the angry, scornful, divisive conflicts over COVID and over racism – are evidence of that sin.
And they are evidence of the harm caused by sin, here and now. Evidence that the hope of eternal grace does not resolve the entire problem. Yes, we are forgiven. The realities of our sin do not damn our souls. But they can still do harm. And that matters!
The law that Paul laments his failure to uphold is God’s law. And that means it is the law of love: The law that teaches we are to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, AND to love our neighbor as ourselves.
This is the law that we WANT to follow. We KNOW, in our “inmost self,” that this is right. It’s God’s love that draws us to this faith; that makes us want to follow the teachings and the way of Jesus. The love of God, the love God calls us to practice speaks to the deepest longings of our souls.
But even though we “will what is right,” we cannot do it. We get seduced by our “rights,” by our “freedoms” and our need to defend them against the claims of other people’s needs and pain. Or else we wall up our hearts with self-righteous scorn for those who disagree with what seems so clear to us. We resist Paul’s example of honest confession, and we embrace defensive postures that divide us from each other and focus our attention on being right, rather than being loving.
I know. I do this too.
I’ve been indoctrinated by the same world that teaches me never to follow Paul’s example, never to admit my weakness; always to defend my “rightness.”
And it’s exhausting. It is a drain on the love that gives me life. And so, I long for rest. I long to dump the heavy burden off my aching shoulders and say to Jesus:
“Take it! I’m tired. I’m done. I can’t fix any of this. I can’t fix this broken, suffering, divided world. I can’t even fix my own heart. YOU DO IT! I’m going to go take a nap.”
In my weakness, I want that to be the promise Jesus extends in his invitation to rest in today’s gospel. Or at least I think I do. When I am feeling most drained and defeated. In my weary flesh; in my nature that feels so frustrated and also so ashamed to admit my weakness.
But thankfully, God knows better than me the kind of rest that I, that we, that our broken world really need.
We don’t need a dictator God who will swoop in and take over... to violate the freedom to which we cling and to coercively re-make us according to God’s law.
Because that wouldn’t be love at all! It would just be control. And it would be inconsistent with Jesus’s revelation of God’s character. As we discussed in our book study conversation this week, it’s not Jesus’s way to step in and take over. In Jesus, we see the revelation of God’s self-restraint: God’s refusal to make use of infinite power to just re-make the mess we’ve made of God’s good creation.
Instead, Jesus’s way is to do just what he promises in today’s gospel: To join us! “Take my yoke upon you,” he invites “and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” (Matthew 11:29).
To be honest, my first instinct in response to that promise is to say: “a yoke doesn’t sound very restful!” After all, a yoke is a tool used with beasts of burden. It links two animals together, so that their shared strength can be used to accomplish a task that would be too difficult for one alone. A yoke is not something you put on to take a nap!
But that’s because the rest Jesus offers is not the temporary relief of giving up, of abdicating the call to love. It is the rest of partnership, and of learning. Jesus tells us to take his yoke and to learn from him. He promises that we are not alone in our striving, for he is shouldering the burden beside us, and he is teaching us the way that he has already walked ahead of us.
Paul is right that we cannot love as we wish, not on our own. We cannot, in our own strength, let go of the self-centered focus that our nature and our culture teach us to cherish. But we have another option. We can learn from Jesus. Because giving up his strength for the sake of others is what he did. And he gave up far more than his rights and his freedom; he gave up his infinite power as God and he gave up his life! For us. For love.
Jesus offers us rest by teaching us how to do the same thing. If we will follow his example. If will we yoke ourselves to him, to walk his way of love.
“Come to me, all you who 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.”
Thanks be to God.