Sermon for 5th July 2020

Taking our Father’s yoke

Have there been times in the past when you may, like me, have said: stop the world, I want to get off! I want a break from this roller-coaster ride of working, rushing about, doing, doing, doing. We imagine it would be restful, restorative, a relief to put down those burdens we carry about day in and day out.

Well, lockdown has, in a way, stopped the world. So, how’s it been for you, then? It has been some sort of break, of relief from the business for some of us. Time to reflect, time to enjoy the emergence of Spring and Summer, more time at home. But even for those who are not employed in health care, or grocery supplies, or any of the other jobs that continue unabated, it has not been Easy Street. Far from it. We may have laid down some burdens, only to turn around and pick up others in their place. It is human nature to do so.

I have read several commentaries on this passage in Matthew, but none of them noted the point that struck me this time. You see, Jesus said, ‘come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me.’ Jesus never said: come to me and you won’t be burdened anymore.’

Carrying burdens is in our DNA, part of our human condition. We need help.

In 1989, a musician named Bill Withers wrote and recorded a song entitled ‘Lean on Me.’

I’d imagine most of us have heard it before. And it’s popularity is due not only to its catchy melody—one that might be running through your head right now—the song also deals with that issue that applies to all people of every generation: ‘We all need somebody to lean on.’

And so Bill Withers sings: ‘Lean on me, when you’re not strong, and I’ll be your friend, I’ll help you to carry on, for it won’t be long, till I’m going to need somebody to lean on.’

We need people to talk to. We need people who will listen to us and advise us. We need people to lend us a hand when we can’t do things on our own and to lift us up when we are down. But leaning on someone else doesn’t always work, does it?

It’s great to have people in our lives that we can count on, but sometimes they aren’t strong enough, and sometimes they aren’t equipped, and sometimes they are sorely in need themselves.  We all have limitations. We are all in the same boat. Life and stress…they go hand in hand.

On considering this, I realised how much we lay burdens on each other, These last few months has been a time of slogans. While necessary, some reveal the special burdens of this time:  Stay at home, save lives. Protect the NHS. Stay alert. Keep your distance. Wear a mask.  Don’t visit your friends. Go to the nearest testing station.  Stay away from grandparents. Keep in your bubble. Follow the science.

Some slogans became a bid to keep us going: Clap for carers, Progress in the search for a vaccine, Congratulations Captain Tom, We’ll meet again.

And then two slogans emerged that revealed the most bitter of burdens: Black lives matter. I can’t breathe. And all the goodwill we had been feeling, and the sense that we were carrying each others burdens came crashing down. The cruel actions of one man in Minnesota reminded us, or revealed to us, that thousands of people carry intolerable burdens from the past and into the present. It has been said that nothing can fully teach us how to live in another person’s skin. At this time, these words have another, profound meaning.

We are called to bear one another’s burdens, and we may try to understand, but are we too glib? We see fault in others, and the burdens it creates, but at what point do we look at what we are doing and consider it wrong? The burdens tend to heap up, don’t they? Our sinful natures not only cause our suffering and the distress of others, but blind us too, and we need to own up. To each other, yes, but also to God our Father.

Doug and I get daily recordings of what our grandson is doing. Two weeks ago he went through to the kitchen with a big ball of play dough in his hands. My daughter in law asked him: ‘What do you have there Miles?’
‘It’s a mess’ he replied, not looking up from his handful.
‘And who did it Miles?’
‘Miles did it, I did it’, I did it,’ he said, going back to the living room, trying to prise the pieces apart. He knew he had done wrong; as young as he is (about 2 and a half years), he knew he should not have put all the different colours of play dough together.

If we can tell the difference between right and wrong so young, why do we continue doing what is clearly damaging? At what point do we stand back and see that the way we live is so contrary to what our excellent and loving God, our Father, intends for us? ‘Wretched man that I am!’ declared Paul. ‘I do not understand my own actions. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it!’ This burden of our sinful nature, how, oh how, do we deal with it?

That yoke for our burdens that Jesus spoke of, that is prayer. Prayer that lifts the burdens from our hands, from holding onto our issues, dragging us down and restricting what we do and where we go. Lifting our burdens on a yoke (as you would do if you were carrying something in that way) brings into sharp focus what we are burdened about. Our Father does not expect us to be free of burdens, but gives us a way of coping. He would have us bring our burdens to him.

As Pope Francis writes: ‘Prayer gives us nobility. It is capable of securing our relationship with God who is the true Companion on the journey of every man and woman, in the midst of life’s thousand adversities. Always prayer: ‘Thank you, Lord. I am afraid, Lord. Help me, Lord. Forgive me, Lord.’ Because the nobility of prayer leaves us in God’s hands. Those hands wounded by love: the only sure hands we have.’

God knows that evil and sins do not define us; they are like diseases, infections. And he comes to heal them with His Spirit in worship and praise and in the Eucharist. We will always remember our failures, troubles, problems at home and at work, our unrealized dreams. But their weight will not crush us because Jesus is present even more deeply, encouraging us with his love.”

In closing, I wish to share another little story with you. George McCauslin worked for the YMCA in the United States. A busy man, he found himself getting little sleep at night. When he was not working, he was worrying and fretting about the various problems that beset him.

He went to a therapist who told him he was on the verge of a nervous breakdown. He realized that he had to learn somehow to let go and let God into his problems. He didn’t know quite how to do that.

So George McCauslin took an afternoon off, took a pad and paper, and took a long, unhurried walk in the western Pennsylvania woods. As he walked through the cool woods, he could eventually start to feel his tight body and his tight neck start to relax. He kept walking, and eventually sat down under a tree and just sighed and breathed deeply. For the first time in months he felt relaxed.

He knew he had to keep working, he knew his family relied on him in so many ways, but he also knew he had to stop worrying about every little detail, and also about those wider issues for which he could do nothing. He took out his pen and wrote, ‘Dear God, today I hereby resign as general manager of the universe. Love, George.’

When he told his wife, he added, with a twinkle in his eye, ‘And wonder of wonders, God accepted my resignation.’

I don’t know about you, but I think I will be a bit cautious of ever again saying ‘Stop the world, I want to get off, I want a break’. Better to do as Jesus said, take his yoke, and learn from him. For he is gentle and humble in heart, and we will find rest for our souls in the care of our loving God.

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