Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Rest for Our Souls: Proper 9 Year A

“Come to me,
all you that are weary
and are carrying heavy burdens,

and I will give you rest.”

These are some of the most beloved and well known verses of scripture. 
In our Rite I liturgy, they are known as the comfortable words. 

Isn’t that why we love them? 
Aren’t we all in need of a little rest, a little comfort? 
And who better to hear these words from than the one we call Lord? 
It is the invitation to lay our worries at the feet of God. 
It is God’s promise of deliverance.

Yet, there is an irony in today’s Gospel. 
The next verse reads:
“Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me.” 
Jesus seems to say:
Lay your burdens down here and pick this up on your way out. 
Like the salesman who offers you two quarters for one dollar
saying, “Two is better than one.” 
But Jesus does not offer empty promises. 
There is something else at the root of Jesus’ words.  

In the context of the Gospel,
these sayings are a response to strict interpretations of the law.  
At this point in history, rabbis referred to the Torah, God’s holy law, as a yoke. 
It is a yoke
that steers and guides God’s people towards holy living. 
However, some of the rabbis,
particularly the Pharisees and scribes,
                                 complicated the law. 
The law became less of a guide
and more of a burden. 
Holy living became more about how you practiced 
and less about what you bore in your heart.   

Enter Jesus who teaches a different way. 
“Give in secret,” he says,
“Pray in secret and pray simply. 
Hide your fasting.”  (Mt 6: 4, 6, 18).  

Jesus’ teaching liberates us
from the burden of perfecting our faith
pointing to the heart of our faith. 

It is what is in our hearts as we give, pray and fast that matters not that we give, pray or fast. 

Over and over again, Jesus makes this point. 

As the disciples travel on the Sabbath,
they pick grain from a field to satisfy their hunger. 
The Pharisees denounce this as work. 
But Jesus denounces them as unmerciful and misinterpreters of the law (Mt 12).  

Or what about washing hands before eating? 
As the Pharisees denounce the disciples for breaking this tradition,
Jesus denounces them again:
“What goes into a man’s mouth does not make him ‘unclean,’ 
but what comes out of his mouth, that is what makes him ‘unclean’’ (Mt 15). 

The words of the Pharisees have betrayed them. 
By making the law complicated and intimidating,
they reveal the hardness of their hearts. 
They are proud and unmerciful. 

Yet Jesus reminds all those who follow him
the heart of the law is gentleness and humility:
“… I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls...”

This is the root of our Gospel. 
The written law, the Torah, is given as a guide, a way to live. 
It is a revelation of the law written on the heart of God
and within our own hearts. 
At the depths of this law are gentleness and humility. 
From these two fundamental qualities,
we find the heart of God. 

They are the qualities that God asks us to take up, to learn. 
For once they are embedded in our hearts;
we find they are not burdens. 
Instead, they ease the weight,
the burdens,
of our lives. 

As I was preparing this sermon, I also had July 4th on my mind.  More than that, I had soldiers on my mind. 

The most popular war story right now is Unbroken by Lauren Hillenbrand
I will immediately confess that I have not read it;  I have skimmed it. 

It is the story of a soldier,
Louis Zamperini,
who, at the brink of young success, goes to war. 
He becomes a pilot’s bombardier and, one day, his plane crashes.
He and two of his comrades float on a raft
for forty-six days. 
They have no food or water. 
Sharks circle their rafts and they are shot at by Japanese forces. 
And one of the soldiers, Mac, dies. 

It is Louie’s ingenuity and bravery that leads to his and Phil’s survival. 
They capture and eat birds and fish. 
They use one raft as a cover from the sun. 
They tell stories, stare at the stars and imagine when they will find land. 
They survive the water. 

Their survival, though, leads to two POW camps,
where they are tortured for two and a half years. 
Despite unimaginable suffering, Louie survives the war. 
He returns home
and finds he has no purpose. 
He lives in a pit of despair:
aimless, tormented by memories, drunk and wanting revenge. 

Louis Zamperini, once an Olympic runner, finds himself in the depths of darkness with no hope. 

His story, though, does not end here. 
Instead, he meets Billy Graham. 
Graham’s sermons turn Louie’s tormenting nightmares
into moments of salvation. 
He never had another flashback. 
He stopped drinking. 

Years later, Louie wrote a letter to his captor. 
This is a portion of what he wrote,
As a result of my prisoner of war experience under your unwarranted and unreasonable punishment, my post-war life became a nightmare…The post-war nightmares caused my life to crumble, but thanks to a confrontation with God through the evangelist Billy Graham, I committed my life to Christ.  Love replaced the hate I had for you…” 

Christ met Louis in his darkest moment. 
He lifted the burden of hate and revenge. 
In their place,
Christ yoked Louis with forgiveness, love and compassion.
With this yoke,
Louis found peace and made a commitment to serve Christ.

“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;
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.”

 What burdens do we carry? 
Illness?  Broken Relationships?   
Anxiety? Depression?
Anger?  Fear? Pride? Shame? 
Jesus invites us to lay them down,
whatever they may be;
to bring them right here to this altar. 

Then,
as we open our hands,
something happens. 
We discover Christ’s life within us
and we are now bound to Christ,
guided by His life.  
This is the yoke of gentleness and compassion, humility and service. 

Our lives, then, are not about us:
our pride,
our desires,
our anxieties. 
They are about Christ and serving God’s kingdom. 
This is discipleship. 
It is the path to peace in the loving arms of our Creator
and 
Rest for Our Souls.  

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