The Rev. Elaine H. Breckenridge
Sunday, July 6, 2014: The Fourth Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 9
Listen to this…Sermon 2014.07.06 EHB
Once upon a time, there was an older woman who lived in London, England who had terrible shoulder and back pains. So she went to her doctor, seeking treatment. After asking her some questions and examining her, the doctor asked to see the woman’s handbag. She passed it to him and the doctor felt its enormous weight. “Good heavens!” he said, “What’s in the bag?” And so the woman opened her bag to reveal a very heavy flashlight, a hammer, a wrench, and other assorted tools. The doctor asked the woman, “Do you carry this stuff with you everyday?” “ Yes”, she replied. “But why?” asked the doctor. “Well, she said, “During the second world war, one never knew when you might needs tools after an air attack. This flashlight and these tools saved my life and others more than once. I guess I just got in the habit of carrying them around.” The doctor wrote out a prescription which simply said, “Loose the tools!” She did, and remarkably her pain went away.
“I guess I just got in the habit of carrying them around.” I wonder how many emotional or even religious burdens we simply get in the habit of carrying around?
In this morning’s Gospel, Jesus, the doctor of souls, speaks of rest, not to the physically fatigued, but to all those who were burdened by the demands of the religious establishment. Jesus was in fact critiquing his own religious tradition, the many laws that had evolved over time in the Jewish religion. Instead of ten commandments, there were 604 commandments proscribed by the scribes and pharisees. It required a lot of work and resources if you wanted to be righteous in the day of Jesus. By instituting so many ritual practices, the religious elite had tied heavy burdens on the shoulders and backs of the people.
Jesus came to challenge that. He was a rebel. He ate and drank while others fasted. Mourned while others celebrated. He rejoiced in God while others prayed solemnly with long faces. And sin of all sins, he healed on the Sabbath. No wonder some say that Jesus was a Galilean peasant with an attitude! (John Dominic Crossan)
In truth Jesus was a liberator. He was against the details, the letter of the law because he knew that so many rules and regulations kept people from practicing the heart of the law. And what was heart of the Jewish law? Love.
Jesus came to remind the religious that they had forgotten the doctrine of love. “Hear O Israel, the Lord your God is one and you shall love this God with all your heart, all your mind, and with all your strength. And to that he added the important commandment that trumps them all–loving the Other, both neighbors and strangers and the all too forgotten shadow sides of the Self.
“Take my yoke and learn from me,” says Jesus today. The meaning of the yoke is love. That is the yoke, the call to attach ourselves to Jesus and the way he lived. Jesus still comes to lift the burden of religion which some of us carry around habitually. Like the woman in my opening story, we may still be carrying burdens that were meant to be put down a long time ago.
Does that sound odd to you? Perhaps you do not feel bound by your practice of faith or religion. You might ask yourself a few questions to get an accurate reading. Does the practice of your religion– praying, worshiping or serving give you a sense of joy and peace? Does it bring you into contact with the divine–with God, Jesus, or the Spirit? And most importantly does your practice come from a place of love?
Preacher, priest and teacher Barbara Brown Taylor once said, “I may believe that I live by God’s grace, but really I act like a scout collecting merit badges. I have a list of things to do that is a mile long. The majority of them are things I think I ought to do and things that I had better do or else God will not love me anymore.” She goes on to say, “I thought that the way to find rest for my soul was to finish my list of things to do and present it to God like a full book of savings stamps.”
Ironically, too often religion, the practice of religion gets in the way of paying attention to God. This church, for example, has a huge to-do list. Just taking care of the building, keeping track of people, raising money, designing worship that’s meaningful, and figuring out what it means to be a missional congregation can fill lots of notebooks with lists. And like most Episcopal Churches we want to grow in numbers.
We want to have more people to join us on our mission so that they can do what —share the burden of our ministry and mission.
But I wonder. Perhaps we need a new model of ministry. Maybe people who are seriously seeking, don’t want to join a church so that they can have a longer to-do list. Their lives give them at already. Maybe there are people out in our community who are genuinely looking for a vital experience of God, worship that will change their lives and a place where they can be equipped to serve. Maybe they are looking for the yoke of Jesus, a place where they can love and be loved, a place where they can lay down the burdens which our busy and competitive culture tries to impose upon everyone.
A couple of years ago, an article on emotional intelligence was written by David Brooks and published in the New York Times. And in this article, he wrote, “Over the past few decades” we have tended to define human capital in a narrow way, emphasizing I. Q., degrees, and professional skills. Those are all important, obviously, but new research illuminates a range of deeper talents. Talents like the ability to enter other minds and learn what they have to offer. Talents like the ability to serenely monitor the movements of one’s own mind and correct for biases and shortcomings. Talents like the ability to fall into a rhythm with those around you and thrive in groups.”
To his list, I add, we are all gifted with the capacity for transcendence. And by that I mean the ability to experience the Presence of God. The conscious mind or ego will always hunger for money and success and a to-do list to go with it. And ironically, the conscious mind or ego, also likes escaping from the expectations of that same to-do list, hence the problem of addictions.
But the unconscious mind, the soul, hungers for moments of transcendence, the “the thin place”, enlightenment, whatever you want to name it. It’s those moments when all boundaries fall away and we fall in love with the divine, experiencing a deep sense of peace and joy.
Those of us on a spiritual path know this. We know that life is limited, when we live only on the ego level. We know the difference in our lives when we are paying attention to God and when we are not. We know that respecting our own emotional intelligence is important. And we know that Jesus came to show us The Way.
It does however, come to a question and a decision point. Whose yoke do you want to put on today? The yoke of “doing just one more thing so that you earn some rest”? The yoke of finding something to do, anything that will be a pleasant diversion or distraction from the daily grind? Or are you so heavy laden that you are prepared to put on the yoke of Christ? If so, all that is required is a desire to lay your burdens down.
What burdens are you carrying that you would rather put down? When was the last time you looked into your handbag, your brief case, your backpack to see what you are carrying?
Too much of a good thing, perhaps? Anxiety about the future? Resentment? Fear of failure? A wound from a fight with a family member? Loss of a love? Loss of faith in the God of your childhood? Loss of the dream and hope that you once had for the world? Whatever it is, the comfortable words invite us to come to Jesus and let it all go.
I find it helpful to physically, lay my burdens down. You might write your burden on a slip of paper, then burn it. You might pick up a stone or two and cast them into the nearest body of water. You might tie a knot in a piece of yarn, and bury it. Trust your own soul, even it if seems silly, to create a ritual that is just right for you. Trust your own emotional intelligence.
And then let Jesus come to you, out of the Words of scripture, out of a walk in a vineyard, out of a conversation with a trusted friend. Today and everyday, keep company with Jesus, in the doing and in the being and learn to live freely and lightly. Let us pray.
O God, all that you wish us to leave behind we surrender. Lead us on our journeys to places of resurrection, to dwellings of peace, to healing of wounds, to the joys of discovery. In the name of Jesus, we pray. Amen.