Romans 7:15-25a Matthew 11:16-19; 25-end
I am unashamedly going to duck out of the complicated bits from today’s readings and focus on the last 2 verses from the Gospel which are familiar ones to us all. “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.” (Matthew 11:28-30)
However, I do not think there is anything easy in these 2 verses either. Yes, they sound very comforting and yes, they are the verses that adorn the arch on the chancel of our church building. They contain verses I have often repeated as a mantra when stressed or tired, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” But I do not believe this is an easy instruction from Jesus.
Back in February I acknowledged how I needed to take some time out to reconnect with my saltiness, that which brings zest to my life, that is my own personal relationship with Jesus, which I couldn’t do whilst running a busy church. In a conversation with a one member of the congregation after the service we reflected on the importance of sabbath and taking time out to rest.
So, I had 4 weeks off, but did I rest? I went on holiday, but a Welsh cabin in storm Dennis was not really restful. I went to Spain to volunteer at a retreat house so spent the week working and avoiding rest. I went on retreat in Devon and finally crashed when someone pointed out I was on the verge of burnout. Diagnosing the problem was helpful but it does not fix it. My spiritual guide suggested I needed a further 3 months off and I started to sweat about coming back. I arrived back in the parish still in turmoil and was launched into the confusion of mixed messages about Covid 19 – no peace; no wine; no coffee; and eventually no church, and do you know what - I breathed a sigh of relief. Finally, I could stop.
But I did not stop. Suddenly there were new technologies to learn, new channels of communication to establish, new ways of meeting to master, what is Zoom - certainly, its name is not restful? Most activities all continued just online, so where was this rest that Jesus talks about? Perhaps like me you also saw a massive increase in stuff demanding your attention. Daily briefings from the Government and Diocese, a bombardment of electronic resources. I have done online training and webinars on a variety of topics from Facebook Groups to safeguarding, leadership in crisis and theological reflection. I have watched theatre performances, done online wine tasting, baked, gardened, and tidied like the rest of you and yet still feel like I am missing something.
I find myself craving REST. Paradoxically ‘rest’ is a verb or doing word. Referring to how one ceases work or movement in order to relax, sleep, or recover strength. However, rest is also something to be based on; depend on. So perhaps it is the later to which Jesus is referring, “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.”
I will give you rest. In the midst of all the busyness of life here is Jesus offering an alternative way. Yet it is not easy. I am not good at stopping. I like to have things to do or plan for. One of the things I struggled with most at the beginning of lockdown was the absence of things to look forward to. I then tried to overcompensate by creating lists of things to do that I never normally have the time for and most of which remain incomplete. I find it difficult to relax and I rarely sleep well. So, this rest has to be something else.
Lockdown has been a wake-up call for many things. A wake-up call in terms of the environment - we have seen it flourish as we have given traffic and travel a break. A wake-up call in terms of what is the church about as we have shifted from a less building orientated organisation to one based on discipleship, mission and pastoral care. A wake-up call in terms of priorities as we have identified who or what is most important to us. In these Bible verses today, Jesus is inviting us to put him at the top of that priority list. Come to me. Jesus is suggesting that if we put him first all the other stuff will follow. It is a standard joke that the answer to all Sunday school questions is Jesus but its true, the answer to everything we are craving is simply, Jesus.
When life throws you a curve ball like an illness or redundancy, bereavement or even a global pandemic there is an opportunity to reflect and re assess and maybe this is what Jesus is inviting us to do today. When Jesus says, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” He is offering us a personal invitation, to turn to him and be in his presence especially if we feel weary and heavily burdened in life, to come to lay those burdens on him.
I have shed a lot of tears recently and spent a lot of time talking to others about bereavement. I have found that the overwhelming sadness and confusion I have encountered in my own personal life has been parallel to the challenges and complexities of Lockdown. The time out that I took in early Spring was not enough to process everything so during Lockdown God has given me a further gift of time and space. I have been more intentional about creating sacred space and taken advantage of retreats offered online. So, when Jesus continues saying, “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me.” I have been reminded of his time in the wilderness when he needed to take time out to focus on his calling and the mission that God was preparing him for. So, despite the busyness of the last 3 months they have also been immensely creative and stimulating as I discovered a God who was willing to sit with me in my pain when no one else can. Sometimes I use the Sacred Space app and one of the prayer activities is to imagine Jesus sitting at the end of the bed and chat with him. Often, I do not have the words but that is ok. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light. The yoke of an Ox is simply about submitting to the will of the farmer. Just spending time in God’s presence without conversation has been enough. Sometimes we strive too much. Sometimes we fill ourselves up with words or activity. The phrase ‘less is more’ is also true. Lockdown has been a breathing space for me to rest with God and I know I need to do it more. One piece of advice I read recently was, “Through the vale of burnout, find out who you are. Surrender. Because when you do, you will discover your best days wait your arrival.” Through these two familiar yet difficult verses Jesus is calling us to surrender to him. Surrendering is a very difficult thing to do, The phrase ‘let go and let God’ is one I still find it difficult even after weeks of trying but I know that when I do give in and allow God to minister to me, I find the comfort that these two verses promise.
There is also an echo of this within our Romans passage. St Paul was acutely aware of the inner conflict that surrendering or yielding to the will of God provides rather than the temptations of the world, ‘For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.’
Come unto me, give way to me, give it all over to me, stop. This is not just a personal invitation to us all but a call to our church, our community and world. When we offer the whole of life to God in prayer then we find rest for our souls. That’s what drinking from the living water feels like. A never-ending resource that is humble and gentle. Jesus does not insist or cajole, he stands arms open, waiting. For my yoke is easy Its not a heavy request Come to me, it is light. For it is where our true selves reside, at home with God.
I should like to finish with a poem that we gave everyone as an invitation at my Dad’s funeral written by his friend Dennis Wrigley part of The Maranatha Community.
He says Come
with your heavy load.
with your tiredness.
with all your guilt.
with your regrets.
with your hearts,
and your pain.
close to me.
upon your life.
as you are,
Allow my heart
my outstretched arms.
end my waiting.