When I was invited to preach here, I was so surprised that I said “yes”. As the date became rather closer, the tricky question of WHAT to preach became more urgent. I’ve been ill over the winter – I had a virus that became bronchitis, and I just didn’t get better properly. Doctors started mentioning words like “post viral fatigue” and using phrases such as “keep resting and beware of ME”. As someone who is generally active the last few months have been a time of uncharacteristic proximity to my sofa, although Gareth the Cat has approved very much of the available lap.
Rest has therefore been much on my mind, and so the choice of Bible verses seemed obvious.
“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.”
It’s so very calming and reassuring, that first sentence. “Come to me all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens and I will give you rest”.
Oh thank God. I’m allowed to stop and sit down. I’m allowed to sit quietly and do nothing. Doing nothing is not only ok, it is to be encouraged. Oh, thank God.
And when I was at my most ill through December, that’s all I could do. There were very few choices open to me about what to do and what not to – keeping myself hydrated, warm and fed was the limit of what I could achieve. Here was the Scriptural permission – invitation, even instruction to rest, to relax. Thank God.
Things began to get complicated as my health and energy levels improved. To go for a short walk or to phone a friend? To do some necessary work? (I’m the only priest in my patch, so some things of necessity fall to me). To do a bit of cleaning the house? To do this or to do that or to go there or to stay here….those choices became more complex. I had some days with energy, and became much more downcast when they were followed by double the number of days with very little energy for anything. I needed to make decisions about how to use my limited energy and making those decisions often took nearly as much energy as acting on them once they’d been made. And I had to learn to live with resting much more regularly, with ‘being’ as well as ‘doing’. Different questions appeared – What does being “well” look like? Where is God in that?
Having to preach this sermon was useful, because it made me look at the next couple of verses closely too.
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.
That’s about what happens next, isn’t it? It doesn’t sound very good to me. I imagine a yoke as the heavy wooden thing a dairy maid uses to carry buckets of milk. They look brutally uncomfortable. And these verses are about what happens as we start to pick up again after the enforced rest. And notice – getting better is sometimes referred to as “picking up”. We pick up the things we have laid down, or dropped. But there are decisions to be made there. What are the things we will pick up? What will our Yoke be? For the Jews, the Yoke was the difficult but rewarding task of keeping the Law. I am no Greek scholar, but yoke, whether of dairymaids using for buckets, or oxen using for ploughing, also can be translated as “balance scales”. I saw a set of Roman balance scales recently – quite small, about 6 inches across, probably used for weighing cooking ingredients or spices or such. They were tiny and delicate, beautiful to see, and much less daunting to carry about than that heavy wooden yoke. And the idea of carrying a set of scales, which will help to keep what we choose to carry in balance, fits rather well with trying to live a life of faith, in which we balance the things we must do with the things we want to do and the things which keep help us energised and refreshed. Scales might help us to be as well as to do, or not do. Jesus’ offer of a light yoke was radical. And the word used for light can also be translated as “easy to bear”; “slight”; or even “insignificant”. Suddenly the yoke offered to us by Jesus Christ begins to sound like a thing of joy, something which fits us, however broken we are, whatever season we are in.
So what are we to learn from Jesus? He describes himself as “gentle and humble in heart”. I felt on a roll with the Greek now, so looked up those descriptors…”humble” or “gentle” for the first word; the second is more complex. My dictionary offered “lowly, humble, meek, poor, downcast, downhearted, lacking confidence”. Good grief. Jesus Christ lacking confidence or downhearted? Well, I don’t want to get heretical, and I wouldn’t want to think of Jesus as having those feelings as his normal state. But if we take seriously the incarnation, that Jesus was fully human and fully divine, then he must have experienced those human feelings, he must have experienced lack of confidence and feeling downcast, as well as feeling confident. If we are to truly learn from him, perhaps we learn to accept those feelings which we may normally try to change “I wish I were more confident, I wish I wasn’t downhearted”. And what will we gain if we learn these lessons? Rest and relaxation for our inner beings, for our minds, for our souls. Accepting who I am and how I feel in body mind and spirit means instead of fighting that, I can relax into being me. When I have energy, I can direct it where it needs to be, for God and for me.
It seems to me that these verses point out how healing might work, for body, mind or spirit. We have to be prepared to put everything down in order to be rested and refreshed. Doing that is not easy. I’ve had some years of people telling me to slow down, but it took a nasty illness to stop me. And that’s just physically. We all carry burdens of mind, and of spirit, and we need to arrive at a point where we are willing to put those down.
And just because we put them down doesn’t mean we won’t have to pick them up again. Jesus doesn’t promise a different set of burdens. But he does promise to make our burdens a little easier to bear, and he promises us rest and refreshment whenever we need it. All we have to do is accept his invitation. May we do so in the name of the one God: Creator, Redeemer and Comforter. Amen.