Text: Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30
In a perfect world, stress would come with an on/off switch. And instead of two-day weekends, there would be six-day weekends. But we don’t live in a perfect world or a six-day weekend world; and the reality is that stress is a part of our lives. Relationships, money, children, work, and day to day life stress mean that it’s not always possible to adjust the volume and intensity of stress in our lives. Often these stresses leave us feeling weary and burdensome, like we are carrying the “weight of the world” on our shoulders.
But stress is not just a feeling. As you know, mounds of research show that stress changes our brain function. It has an actual physical and mental effect on us. One health and science writer noted that “We tend to think of stress as an immediate problem: The boss hovering over our desks; the mad dash to the subway at the end of a long day. And in the short-term, stress makes us feel irritable, anxious, tense, distracted and forgetful. But that’s only part of the story. Over time, elevated levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, can chip away at our physical, mental and emotional health. The link between chronic stress and the potential for mental health conditions—such as post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, depression and other mood disorders—is well-established.” (Carolyn Gregoire, Health and Science writer for HuffPost) We also know that stress, and heavy emotional burdens can have serious physical health consequences.
Just as researchers have uncovered the effects of stress on our physical, mental, and emotional wellbeing, they have also discovered what helps us manage or reduce our stress. A Google search will yield hundreds of suggestions on ways to manage and reduce our stress. At the top of the lists are: exercise, listening to music, disconnecting from our gadgets, spending time with family (we probably need to add some qualifiers with that one), pursuing a passion, reflection, taking a walk, de-cluttering, and my favorite—minimizing chores. One list even suggested smiling more and taking Fido to work with you. Yes, it has been well documented that dogs in the workplace actually reduces stress in the workplace. But at the very top of the list of how best to reduce and manage stress and lay down those burdens you are carrying is the practice of mindfulness and mindful meditation.
Borrowing from our Buddhist sisters and brothers, mindfulness has made its way into the mainstream of American life as people try to find ways to reduce stress and unload the heavy burdens they carry. As a way to practice mindfulness, many Americans have incorporated yoga into their daily and weekly schedules. Some years ago, I too, tried to unburden myself by signing up for yoga classes. Now, if I am truthful with you, I was kind of tricked into signing up for yoga by my good friend, peace be upon her, Bonnie Stone. It was one of those deal-making situations with Bonnie that turned on me. But being true to my word and my friend, I upheld our deal.
Here’s what I CAN say about my yoga experience. And please, yoga lover’s, forgive me for what I am about to say. And before you suggest it: no, a different instructor wouldn’t have made a difference. I loved the instructor I had. BUT, what I was asked and expected to do in the first 45 minutes of the class was the most stressful and burdensome thing I had ever tried to do. Not to mention painfully awkward. Me doing downward facing dog, plank pose, bridge pose, AWKWARD!! The ONLY non-stressful and un-burdensome part of yoga was the final five minutes when I got to lie on my bank, and breathe deeply while listening to soothing music. And while I kept my word and attended class each week for three months with my friends Bonnie Stone and Sylvia White, I have never felt more stress relived and un-burdened as when that last class ended.
I share that story to say that what helps one person manage or reduce stress and unburden may not be what helps the next person. While there are common stress reducers, each of us must find what works best for us. As for me, well I’ll stick to smiling more, taking my dog to work on occasion, pursuing my passions, and lighting my little candle each morning and sitting in silence to begin my day.
But that’s only part of the story. When we are feeling weary and stressed and weighed down with the burdens of our lives and world, there is another message that we need to hear: “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.”
Just this past week, Nora, my daughter, and I were in a conversation about the anxieties that we carry. She and I both were feeling somewhat weary and burdened by our struggles and challenges. At one point in our conversation, I went into parent mode of trying to dispense some advice about how to deal with our weariness and stress when Nora turned to me and said, “But it’s different for you, mom. You’ve got Jesus!” To which I immediately balked and said, “So, what difference does that make?”
At the time, I had no idea that the lectionary text for this Sunday included these words of Jesus: “Come to me, all you who are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” All week, I have wondered, “What does it mean?” What does it mean that Nora said to me “But its different for you. You’ve got Jesus? What does it mean that I reacted the way I did to her words? And most of all, what does Jesus’ words to us about our stress and our weariness and our burdens mean in the context of the world we live in in 2017?
As I get ready to turn now, into this text and what word it has for us this morning, I admit that I find myself facing a familiar dilemma – how political should I be? I reckon some of you think it’s my goal to get up and be political each Sunday, but that’s actually not true. Sometimes I, too, want a sermon that soothes my personal anxieties and absolves me from my sins of omission or as Karla likes to say “a sermon that feels like caramel and tastes like cotton candy.” But as long as we all care an iota about grounding our faith in this text of ours, the Bible, and particularly the New Testament, I’m afraid it would be tantamount to malpractice for me to ignore the social and political history and context of Jesus’ words.
This Sunday, we find ourselves once again with our old friends the Pharisees. In the years leading up to this moment of scripture, the Pharisees have been busy making up laws of all shapes and sizes – laws that are designed to keep the people faithful and clean in the sight of God. At the same time, the Pharisees are doing business with the Roman Empire – governing on behalf of the Empire among the Jews. It is true that the Pharisees were deeply committed to scriptural fidelity, but as soon as they began to act as representatives of the state their own integrity was compromised. There is reason to wonder whether the Pharisees are motivated more by the perpetuation of their personal and institutional power than they are by proximity to God. They have made it, you see. They are at the top of the Jewish food chain. And they are complicit in the suppression of the Jewish people by the Romans. So even though they are religious people by training and by status, they are operating as agents of the state, and their actions are to protect not only their specific role and income, but to protect Rome, because it is the Roman Empire itself that creates and sustains their niche in what Walter Brueggemann has taught us is the economy of extraction. Romans extract from their empire what they need to maintain a higher quality of life than anyone else in the world at the time. And as collaborators with Rome, the Pharisees siphon off some of that wealth that is being extracted from their own people.
It’s important to have this context because when Jesus says I know you are weary and burdened, he is very deliberately talking to those who are laboring under the restrictive and oppressive laws of the Pharisees. These laws are ostensibly about purity and obedience, but they are blind to the realities and needs of the people, and they are hurting the common folk. Jesus speaks directly to their pain and suffering – he lets them know that he sees their situation. And then he tells them that they don’t have to do what the lawmakers have said. He flat out says that they should not buy into the system that has been created by the Pharisees for the Pharisees, and that they should, instead, trust that their own knowledge and experience of God, through Jesus, is real and acceptable.
When Jesus says, “Come to me, all you who are weary and carrying heavy burdens…” he is not offering a stress-free life. He’s not really talking about the traffic on Wade Avenue at 4:45pm on a workday, or the line at the CVS in Cameron Village at any hour of any day, or even the light bill at the end of a month of 100 degree days. He is really talking about the system of oppression that creates crushing burdens on common people. And when he says “my yoke is easy and my burden is light” he is talking about a different kind of economy—one that values all people and takes into account the needs of everyone.
So, how does this relate to us? Well, I have two thoughts on that, and both of them are, in a sense, political. The first is that there are literal parallels going on in our society today. There are laws and regulations that are preventing good, common folks from being paid what they should be paid, from getting the health care they need, from exercising the most American right we have – that of voting. There are millions of people in this country who are living every bit of the oppression Jesus targets in this text. Jesus is speaking very directly to the 26 year-old working minimum wage at a car rental agency while taking classes at night because minimum wage isn’t a living wage. Jesus is speaking to the recently unemployed 46 year-old woman who only has 19 more days of health care coverage because COBRA is too expensive. Jesus is speaking to the 85 year-old daughter of a freed slave who can’t vote because she doesn’t have a birth certificate or driver’s license. It is not hard to see how Jesus’ context fits for those of us who are living on the edges of this economy.
But what of the rest of us? What of the predominantly white, middle class, employed majority? Is Jesus speaking to that America in 2017? I would say yes. At the core of Jesus’ teaching was the message to wake up – to realize that the system operating around you isn’t the same thing as the kingdom. The system is always a lie. Even good systems are not human and they are not divine. They are about power. And as organisms of power they are about the preservation of power. In Jesus’ time it was the Pharisees. Today, I’m not sure who it is, but it’s definitely not the Biblical scholars! Maybe it is the government, but I kind of doubt it. I think we get closer when we start to think of the marketing agencies and the corporations who benefit most from our addictions to technology and fabrics and food and image and, and, and. For many of us today, those of us fortunate enough not to be directly oppressed by bad laws or racist enforcement of laws, our oppression is much more likely to be self-imposed. Yet Jesus’ message is still relevant – you who are weary and burdened by the expectations you set on yourselves to earn more, to spend more, to have more, I will give you rest. You who are oppressed by the false hope of an easy happiness that has always been fiction, I will give you rest. You who are oppressed by the relentless drive to do it right, I will give you rest.
It is always dangerous to try to have it both ways. I do not mean to lessen the realities of oppression. There are those today, as there were in Jesus’ time, who live with undue burdens that most of us can not know. Jesus’ call on this Sunday, and on every Sunday, is to stand on behalf of those people – the oppressed, the marginalized, the other. AND, I believe there is a word here for all of us, for the oppressed within us all. Lay down those heavy burdens placed on our shoulders by systems of power and greed that are keeping us from caring for one another and for ourselves. Lay down those self-imposed expectations of needing more, being more, and doing more. Lay them down and some find rest.
Whatever burdens have you oppressed, Nora is right: it makes a difference when you have Jesus. Because it is Jesus who is saying to us my way is not this world’s way. My economy is not the American economy. My way is gentle and humble. My way is that every person has value and worth because every person is created in the image of God. My way says to you, you are God’s beloved just as you are with no need to be any different. “Come to me, all who are weary and carrying heave burdens, and I will give you rest.” It makes a difference when you have Jesus!!!