Saturday, July 8, 2017

Proper 14, Year A

Comfortable Words

Readings: Genesis 24:34-48, 58-67; Psalm 45:11-18; Romans 7:15-25a; Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

Jesus is in a pensive mood. “We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn,” he says, and then goes on to reflect on the life of John the Baptist as well as his own situation. John the Baptist lived simply, practicing ascetic behaviour that put him at odds with society. Jesus points out that because he wouldn’t dance he was considered to be a madman.

Jesus, on the other hand, lived life and laughed and welcomed all kinds of people. He ate and drank with outcasts and sinners. Yet his Jewish contemporaries condemned him. Because he didn’t mourn with them when they “wailed” they wrote him off as a glutton and a drunkard.

“You just cannot win,” Jesus seems to be saying. And we can all relate. We have all felt that way at one time or another. We do everything we can and find ourselves being criticized. It happens in family relationships. It happens in our work. It happens in churches. It happens when society looks at the church and finds it wanting, considers it hypocritical. Jesus is feeling down about it, but not for long. There comes a change of tone. How did he chase the blues away? How did he bring things back into perspective?

It seems to me that it happened through opening himself up to the wider mission, to the larger picture as he considered the task God had in mind for him. And from his prayerful reflection came a newfound awareness of the state of the human condition. He perceived the heavy load that we carry as a result of our humanity. He understood the sense of loss that we all feel.

That is what is reflected in the words that follow. "Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens,” Jesus says, “and I will give you rest." 'The comfortable words' we call them in the Book of Common Prayer. And on the surface they are comfortable, for with them Jesus extends an invitation to us. It is an invitation that offers fulfillment. It is an invitation to unload the heavy burdens we carry. Or if not to unload them, at least to have someone share in bearing the load. Who has not felt at one time or another the cares and burdens of life? Finding our way through life is tiring. We suffer through no fault of our own. From unemployment, unexpected expenses, marital discord, depression, illness, loss, fear! We can easily become overwhelmed with life.

On the other hand, many people go through life carrying heavy loads of their own making. They let life make them weary. They remember everything that ever happened to them. They remember the harm and damage done to them far better than the joy and affirmation they received. They won't eat macaroni and cheese because it reminds them of tough times when that was all they had to eat. They don't relate to certain groups of people because once long ago someone said something or did something to harm them. They end a friendship because of some little thing that happened. Years later even though they have forgotten the details they avoid that person. They are in fact a terrible burden both to themselves and to those around them. They never forgive; they never forget.

All of us know such people. If we are honest with ourselves, we have all been there. There is something of them in each of us.

We also know people who are able to overcome great suffering and turn it into powerful ministry. We know that they have not had an easy time. We have heard bits and pieces of their story. They have overcome great obstacles in their own lives. Yet they have time for a cup of tea with a friend. They have time to listen to the pain of others. They may not have much to say, no great words of wisdom. But they are the ones to whom we turn when we need a listening ear. Henri Nouwen, theologian and writer, calls them the “wounded healers” of our world.

What do such people possess that helps them not only to deal with what happens to them in life, but to reach out to others with the love of God? They have allowed themselves to be touched by Jesus. They have given the heavy burdens of life to him to carry. They have found rest for their souls.

There is a scene from the movie The Mission that speaks to me of that need to rid ourselves of our burdens. It is the story of the Jesuit mission in South America. The movie is about their mission to the Guarani, a tribe the Spanish are attempting to wipe out. One of the central figures in the movie is Mendoza, a slave trader who makes his living trapping these same people. After he kills his brother in a flash of anger, he yearns for redemption. The missionaries assign him a penance. He must climb a huge cliff by a steep waterfall, dragging behind him a net filled with armour. Again and again he attempts to scale the cliff only to have the net drag him down. In the end it is one of the Guarani, who cuts the heavy weight from his back. The anger drains from him and he collapses in a fit of laughter freed by the very people he has persecuted.

Many of us go through life without ever letting go of our burdens. We get used to the weight. We become somehow attached to them. Imagine yourself trudging along a road. The air is stifling hot. You are weighed down by a heavy backpack. With every step you take you wonder if it will be your last. A car stops beside you. A friend offers you a lift. You gratefully get into the car but you never remove the backpack. You continue to bear the full weight of the load even when you are in the car.

It doesn’t make sense, does it? Yet when we are offered forgiveness we often choose to hang on to guilt. When we are offered help we often choose to go it alone.

If you are experiencing loss and grief, is there some way God wants to use your experience to bring life to others? If your life is going well, how can you give a little bit more of your time, treasure and talents to ease somebody else's pain? It begins by turning your burdens over to Jesus, by leaving them at the foot of the cross.

Life will continue to put obstacles in the way. Life is like that. To be human is to suffer. But yoked to Jesus we will be better off. His yoke will be lighter in the long run than the one we are carrying. It will mean the end of much of the tension and depression that weighs us down. It will end the discouragement and negativity under which we live. With our burden lighter, we will travel lighter and breathe more easily. It is so much easier to carry our burden when someone is sharing the load.

What is the yoke that we will be taking up? Is it the world with all of its problems? The starving, the deprived the oppressed! It is difficult to imagine that such a yoke could be easy. But it is the yoke of our Lord, the yoke he asks us to take upon ourselves. Taking up that yoke, we can lay claim to his promises that we will find rest for our souls. Amen.

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