Lay Your Burdens Down – Caroline Dean (7/9/17)

“Lay Your Burdens Down: If the Yoke Fits”
Rev. Caroline Lawson Dean
July 9th 2017

A reading from the extra-canonical book of Sirach Chapter 6: about being “yoked” – bound together with wisdom & not letting her go.
“Come to wisdom with all your soul and keep her ways with all your might. Search out and seek, and she will become known to you; and when you get hold of her, do not let her go. For at last you will find the rest she gives, and she will be changed into joy for you.
Then her fetters will become for you a strong defense, her collar a glorious robe. Her yoke a golden ornament, and her bonds a purple cord.”
And a re-cap from Matthew Chapter 11: Jesus says, “Come unto me, all you who are weary and carrying heavy burdens and I will give you rest. Take my yoke, and learn from me; I am gentle and humble in heart, & you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy & my burden is light.”
Let us pray: God of love, draw us near, especially when we are weary. Give us wisdom, inspiration, & connection – that we might go out renewed in hope & joy we pray – Amen.
What is Jesus’ job description? How does the Son of God measure success? After Jesus rose from death and ascended into eternal connection – I had this funny image this week of Jesus, in a suit and tie at a round table, reviewing with the Triune God all of the accomplishments from his earthly mission – think of it as Jesus’ C.V. of sorts – “baptized, tempted, thousands healed, walked a lot, (including on water), multiplied bread & fish, water into wine, gifted in teaching, changed the course of history (including how we account for time), calmed storms, challenged powers, lifted the powerless, crucified, rose from the dead, and perhaps my most favorite, learned to fish from the best local fishermen, & gained mediocre skills in carpentry.”
When we transport Jesus into our land of resumes, to do lists, successes & failures, this is of course laughable. Isn’t Jesus supposed to be so spiritually “zen” that he doesn’t get caught up in games of success – all the ways that we define ourselves by what we do – our output - what level of success we achieve…
This summer we are talking about vocation, our work, our soul’s calling. What was Jesus’ soul work? And on the flip side what does he mean when he says “come to me & I will give you rest for your soul?” Is “soul rest” the same thing as getting enough sleep / down time? As someone who is about to embark on a season of sleep deprivation in a few months - I hope not!
In both the book of Sirach, a Wisdom text from the Catholic tradition, and in the Gospel of Matthew, we find these paradoxical images of bondage & freedom, heavy work & rest, servitude & joy. Both passages use the image of a “yoke.” Jesus says, “Come all you who are weary and I will give you rest, take my yoke, for it is easy, good and light.” Jesus must have read the text from Sirach, which reads “when you find wisdom & come to her with your whole soul” without letting go, you will find the rest that she gives, she will be changed into joy for you. Wisdom’s yoke will become a golden ornament.
And so here’s my question. If I am carrying a heavy burden a long distance, imagine an oxen plowing or pulling a cart, and I come to Jesus, weary and exhausted – mostly what I want is for Jesus, or someone else to carry my yoke for a while. I want to be “yokeless,” to take a break and a probably nap. But this isn’t what Jesus offers. He says, “come unto me if you are weary and I will give you my yoke, which is light, and good and easy. He says lay your burdens down and pick up this kind of work.
So my question is what’s wrong with the yoke that I was carrying? Why is Jesus’ yoke so much “lighter?” And to top it off – how can pulling any load be restful? Jesus says just a few chapters earlier that we should “take up our cross and follow him” – that doesn’t sound like a light or easy task. Jesus says that the path he walks will be narrow and difficult (7:14). So which is it, Jesus? Easy or difficult?
What is soulful rest? What might Jesus’ yoke look like?
Jan Richardson writes on her blog Painted Prayerbook, that she always imagined a “single-yoke” user when she read this passage. But that when she googled images of “a yoke” it was actually more true that most images of portray a tandem yoke – a curved wooden bar that connects two oxen enabling them to pull together. (http://paintedprayerbook.com/2008/07/02/if-the-yoke-fits/).
So Jesus is saying “Hey, are you tired & weary? Come pull with me!” Richardson writes that Jesus’ “yoke (is) not for servitude, or bondage, but a tool of connection, a way of being in relationship with Christ (and with each other) that makes our work easier, not more difficult.” And isn’t it true that no matter the task, it is draining when we believe the lie that we are all alone? That no one has our back. We feel unseen, that this boulder must be pushed uphill and it is on our shoulders alone.
I love this image of the tandem yoke, because it also means that you get to take a break - letting your partner or your community pull for you! The best preachers, prophets & activists I know avoid burn out by pulling together in community. The other power in a tandem yoke is that you have a wider set of gifts and perspectives, to guide you.
And so what is soulful rest? It is doing our “soul work” in community, in tandem – so that we divide up the load. Jesus’ load is light because when we pull with Jesus we are not alone.
Secondly, the Matthew 11 passage opens with Jesus’ frustration. He calls out folks who are judgmental of John the Baptist’s ministry because he ate locusts, lived in the wilderness, was a bit of a hermit. His critics explained his counter cultural lifestyle saying that he had a “demon.” Jesus on the other hand lived among the people. All kinds of people. He ate and drank with the outcasts. And those same critics said of Jesus’ ministry ‘Look a glutton, a drunkard a friend of tax collectors & sinners!” Jesus & John the Baptist are both held to some arbitrary standard of external behavior or output. This is what people often hate about Christianity – being held accountable to a list of codes or behaviors that really don’t actually determine our worth or how we impact the world for the better.
What if we have gotten used to the critics whispering in our ear – demanding that our worth is connected to external behaviors and arbitrary standards of “success?” What if Jesus’ life and ministry actually proposes an alternative way? What if soulful rest is the opposite of the mantra that we internalize: “Our worth is dependent upon what we accomplish, or how much money we make.” We so often believe the lie: “I am what I do”
And what if Jesus, Buddha, and the prophet, all of our modern spiritual leaders are trying to teach us instead that soulful rest is in the art of BEING. This is again why Jesus bragging about his “CV” is so ridiculous, he didn’t heal people as some sort of mandate to prove his ministry, he healed outcasts and sought relationships with misfit disciples because he was so brilliant at staying present in the moment, able to stop and see the unseen.
So what if our yoke is indeed lighter and our rest more soulful when we are able to be in the present, here and now – not working towards an expected end or producing some sort of symbol of our worth. When we are able to be present, the doing and the undone simply doesn’t rule us as much. When we are still with God, we remember that our worth is already set, we do not have to hustle to prove it. God whispers to us – “You are a child of God – called by name.” “You are mine, your worth is already set.”
The third image of soulful work & rest comes from Baltimore last weekend, at our national meeting of our denomination, the United Church of Christ. One of the keynote speakers was Aaron Mair, the former & first black president of the Sierra Club.
Mair led a decade-long battle to shut down a solid waste incinerator in his community in inner-city Albany, New York. In the early days, Mair appeared before the Sierra Club Board to advocate for them to support his community’s activism. After his presentation one person on the board paused & asked if Mair had appealed for help from the NAACP. As if white environmentalists were charged with caring for their land & black communities would have to organize on their own. Or worse, as if communities of color are responsible for the environmental degradation in their neighborhoods (which ignores decades of data proving that poor communities & communities of color have unfair exposure to environmental hazards). In fact racism is more important than class in this case in that “middle income African Americans are more likely to live in more polluted neighborhoods” than white middle income folks (Dr. Robert Bullard, Dean of Texas Southern University).
Needless to say, the board declined Mair’s request for help. But the next day, one of the members of the board, showed up at his house, to apologize, and to offer his time, and skills in environmental activism. Aaron told this ally & new friend that he would receive his support. And in return Mair would one day offer help to the Sierra club transform their culture, and help them gain sensitivity towards communities of color.
After a decade of hard work, Aaron Mair personally won a settlement of 1.6 million dollars. He describes this as a moment of decision, a choice between success & impact. He could have used the funds to further his career – to shore up his family & his future. Or he could use the funds to maximize the impact in his community – who lent him their stories of suffering. Anchored in the transformative justice work of Jesus & Dr. King, Mair decided to donate the entire settlement back to his community.
So what is the difference between success & impact? How is impactful work actually restful? You know those people who seem to be at rest in their souls & the rest of us who waver, we search endlessly it seems for an arbitrary feeling that we have “made it.” When you are transforming the world, your soul has a sense of integrity. Mair is one of the people who has the courage (at least every now and again) to listen when Jesus whispers “Come here! Take up this kind of yoke!” Change the world.
So this is the hard part, Jesus comes to us and says, “put down your yoke and find rest!” And the truth is that Jesus is right! This is simultaneously hard work, – and at the same time it makes our way lighter, more meaningful. And the other truth is that we inevitably flow in and out of “being” and “doing,” dreaming of impact and hustling for success, hyper individualism & healthy interdependence. Still God beckons us, saying “beloved, your worth is already set, don’t do more, don’t pull alone. Pull with me. Pull together. Be present. Make an impact. Try on this new yoke! See how it fits! Come and rest with me.” Amen.

And as our closing prayer, I’d like to offer us some silence and a few moments to meditate on a prayer from the New Zealand Prayerbook:
As we journey
The Spirit of God be our guard,

To lead us to peace,
It is but lost labor that we haste to rise up early, and so late take rest, and eat the bread of anxiety.
For those beloved of God are given gifts even while they sleep.

Living God, in whom we live and breath and have our being,
all that we are, have been, and shall be is known to you,
to the very secret of our hearts and all that rises to trouble us.

Into your hands, O God, we commend our spirit,
(or fill in the blank - with the thing that you need to commend to God).
For your have redeemed us,
Keep us, O God, as the apple of your eye;
Hide us under the shadow of your wings.
Preserve us, O God, while waking, and give us rest
That awake we may keep watch with Christ, and asleep we may rest in your peace.

Let us be still in the presence of God.
Even after the long day.
What has been done has been done;
And what has not been done had not been done;

Let it be.

Let the quietness of your peace enfold us,
All dear to us, and all who have no peace.
Let us look expectantly to a new day,
God of love and mercy, grant us, with all your people, rest and peace, we pray
Amen.

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Once, when Jesus was in one of the cities, there was a man covered with leprosy. When he saw Jesus, he bowed with his face to the ground and begged him, “Lord if you choose, you can make me clean.” Immediately the leprosy left him. And he ordered him to tell no one. “Go,” he said, “and show yourself to the priest, and as Moses commanded, make an offering for your cleansing as a testimony to them.” But now more than ever the word about Jesus spread abroad; many crowds would gather to hear him and to be cured of their diseases. But he would withdraw to deserted places to pray.

Barbara Brown Taylor in her book, An Altar in the World, tells a story about a time when she was guest preaching at an Episcopal church in the south. She arrives early to check out the sanctuary & get settled in. She immediately noticed that behind the altar there was a striking mural of the resurrected Jesus, stepping out of the tomb. After greeting a member of the altar guild, a manicured and proper southern lady, Barbara walks up behind the altar to get a closer look at the mural. She says that Jesus looked “as limber as a ballet dancer with his arms raised in blessing…except for the white cloth swaddling his waist, Jesus was naked. His skin was the color of a pink rose. His limbs were flooded with light.”
Barbara felt protective over Jesus with so much skin showing, he is all exposed in such a public place. She recognized the beauty in this painting that in Jesus' moment of transcendence, he remained human, he came back wearing skin. But then she also quickly noticed that something was missing, the wounds in his hands and feet were apparent – though not grotesque. His arms were thin but strong, but then staring at his underarms, she noticed - that Jesus had no body hair! “Beautiful, isn't it?” asked the woman who was polishing the silver. “It surely is that,” Barbara said, “ but did you ever notice that he has no body hair? He has the underarms of a six-year-old and his chest is a smooth as a peach.” And the woman shrank in awkwardness. “Uh, no, um, wow…” she said.

This may or may not have sent me on a Google hunt to find a picture of a hairy Jesus, but alas, in the collective Christian imagination, Jesus is really into hygiene. Seriously though in a majority of these portraits, Jesus skin is silky and “rosey” and white and “hair free.”

And this perfectly manicured Jesus is problematic especially when I imagine Jesus in our gospel reading today. First of all - let's get something straight up front, Jesus was not fair-skinned, which is another sermon for another day. Second of all Jesus most certainly did not have access to spa treatments, sunscreen, or a personal trainer. I mean seriously though it looks like he baths in milk and does mint julep masks every day! And yes, Jesus was crucified, but he looked damn good doing it! The reality is that Jesus was a poor drifter teacher who trudged around in dirt and grim and touched lepers. And who knows, Jesus may have even been uglier or fatter or shorter or grey-haired or balding than our perfect-bodied Jesus! Why would that be such a scandal?

It would be a scandal - because we are generally uncomfortable with our own bodies – we decided to manicure Jesus' body and make it perfect to make us feel a little more at ease about the imperfections and struggles in our own bodies.

So Jesus' messy body – with smelly feet and bad breath and hunger and pain and a couple grey hairs – one day in his travels encounters a man who's body is covered in leprosy. And the man's frail and weak body covered with open wounds throws himself on the dirt ground at Jesus' feet in desperation. And Jesus heals him and restores him to his community. And I need Jesus to have a messy, real body in this scene. Because imagining the rosy pink flesh that is unblemished and perfect touching the broken body of the leper with open wounds just doesn't do it for me. “Rosey-skinned”

And perfect bodied Jesus doesn't fit in this story for two reasons:

1) Jesus' body certainly stands in contrast to our leper friend. The leper's flesh is rotting and open to infection, while Jesus' skin is shiny and new. If Jesus' body in our cultural imagination is perfect, unblemished, without warts or bad breath or hangnails, then we can hold his body at a bit of a distance. And the reverse is also true, Jesus can hold our bodies at a bit of a distance – and he would hold the body of a man with leprosy at a distance.

2) Leprosy is contagious, physically and socially – by touching this man, Jesus risks, pain, brokenness, loss of feeling, loss of limb, being socially ostracized. So when Jesus' body touches this leper – he risks being contaminated with this curse – this social and physical death. He puts his body on the line. And to top it off Jesus risks his own religious authority – if he contracts leprosy, everyone will think that it is his fault- that he deserves this suffering because he has sinned.

And so rosey-skinned-unblemished-no-body-hair-Jesus just doesn't do it for me in this scene. He is too ethereal, too perfect to risk touching a leper. The rosey-skinned Jesus has a special body and he can stand apart from us – he doesn't really get what it's like to be human. The Jesus with body hair, he is on our team, he is vulnerable, he touches lepers. He has skin in the game. He is moved with pity to touch a man who is untouchable.

But here is where the rubber hits the road, (START SLIDESHOW) just like the portrait of Jesus' perfect body we idealize the perfect human body now more than ever, and our relationships with our bodies are so complicated and loaded that we often cope by ignoring our bodies until they scream at us for attention.

Think about the struggles that land in our bodies: Struggles in our sex lives, with body image, with our relationship to food, our ability to balance rest and work, our relationship with other people's bodies, bodies that don't fit quite so easily into nice categories. We have an insidious cultural habit of demeaning and objectifying bodies in order to sell perfume. And don't get me wrong the Christian church has been the worst, trying to control our sexuality, and creating negative images of our bodies to suppress and oppress certain people with shame.

All of these complications and struggles divorce us from our bodies. Like the leper our bodies are fraught with illness – we are the most addicted, overweight, prescribed adult cohort in human history. These sacred vessels created in God's image are at risk of being subsumed by the quest for the “perfect body.” This dichotomy between our own body and the perfect body - divorce us from our bodies – suppress the beauty that we already are for some ideal or we ignore our bodies because they are loaded with shame

So here's the deal – This leper story is a story about isolation. This man is divorced from his own body, and kicked out of his religious, social and familial support system to battle this disease alone. And to top it off he is isolated from God, in their cultural context, this disease is proof that he has sinned before God and is therefore paying penance for his sins in suffering. So this man is left utterly isolated.

Jesus' miracle here is that he restores this man to his own body. When you have leprosy you lose sensation – you lose your connection to your nerves, which can eventually cause loss of limb. And so when Jesus heals him – he now is restored to his own body. This man is also restored unto his community, and they can now begin tending to the wounds of his soul from the pain of social isolation.

Like the leper we need Jesus to restore us to our own bodies and to restore us to authentic communities that can help us heal.

Why are people cast out in our society because of their bodies? Maybe they are too fat, too thin, too old or too young. Maybe they happen to love the “wrong body.” People are isolated because they are differently-abled, or their bodies carry the weight of illness or chronic struggles. We carry shame around in our bodies, not just eating disorders and a distorted idea of what “healthy” bodies look like but the general feeling that we are unaware of our bodies and our connection to God through them.

When we affirm Jesus' imperfect skin, we also need to affirm our own sacred skin. How does our culture try to divorce us from our own bodies? How do we lose touch with the sacred goodness of each unique body that is created in God's image, with one uniform and oppressive definition of “healthy” and “beautiful?”

Here me now when I say, “you are a person of beauty and worth, created in God's image.” How does that mantra change us? How can we develop rituals to remind ourselves of the sacred connection of our bodies and souls and minds? What does cherishing and affirming your body look like for you? Is it a yoga practice or a sport? A good bath, a long walk? Is it a nap or a morning routine?

Jesus says, “This is my body – broken for you”

Jesus body was broken

Our bodies are broken

And yet we celebrate them today as a place of sacredness – that God calls “GOOD.”

A beautiful miraculous gift – these things that we walk around in

These bodies that heal and breathe and walk and sing and dance

These bodies are our spiritual homes

May we gather in communion today with this mantra

“I am a person of beauty and worth – created in God's image”

And may that mantra heal us and draw us into communion with God and each other.

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