Sunday, 6 July 2014

Trinity 3: Heavy burdens

“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest”. There can’t be many people who haven’t needed to hear those words at some point in their lives. I meet people on a daily basis who are weary. They are weary from carrying the burden of chronic pain, weary of waiting for a diagnosis or for treatment, weary with anxiety about a family member,  weary in their search for a job, weary from trying to make ends meet when they just won’t, weary when they look at their lives and wonder how it has come to this, whether this is as good as it gets, what it is all really about.
I meet parents of small children who feel they might never get a whole night’s sleep again, and carers who desperately need a respite. I meet teachers and children weary from the pressurized pace of today’s education system, longing for the end of term. I meet people worn down by office politics, by the daily commute, by the sense that life is slipping away while they are stuck in the office.

Of course, we can remind ourselves that others probably have it worse than we do. I can’t imagine how weary you must feel if you are a refugee, or a political prisoner, or facing starvation as you watch your crops fail, but somehow weariness isn’t a comparative thing, lightened by knowing that others suffer more. We may feel we ought to be able to cope and rise above it, but we are too weary to know where to begin.

In the old Book of Common Prayer Communion service, which we use here every Wednesday morning, this Bible verse is read straight after the confession and absolution. It is part of a set of Bible verses which are known as the “comfortable words” - comfortable not in the sense that they are like a squashy sofa and a mug of hot chocolate, but because they are words that give us strength.  We have just made our confession, owning up to the truth about ourselves, that we aren’t the superhuman creatures we’d like to think. We have “acknowledged and bewailed our manifold sins and weaknesses” – the Book of Common Prayer doesn’t pull its punches. Then we hear the declaration of God’s forgiveness, the absolution, just as we do in this service. And then there are these “comfortable words”, words that wrap around us like the hug of a restored relationship, that promise us the help that perhaps we were too proud to ask for before. “Come unto me, all that travail and are heavy laden, and I will refresh you.” It’s a moment of profound relaxation and reassurance: our sorry, messy, broken up lives are going to be ok, somehow, because God is on the case, on our side, working with us to set things straight.

Sometimes, though, when words are so familiar, we can just let them wash over us, and miss the questions they pose. So today I’d like to dig a bit deeper into these.   What does Jesus actually mean here? How will he give us rest if we come to him? What is it, in fact, that Jesus is promising here? What is this “rest” he talks about?

There’s an old poem –which purports to be the epitaph of an overworked housewife. You’re probably familiar with it.

“Here lies a poor woman who was always tired,
She lived in a house where help wasn't hired:
Her last words on earth were: 'Dear friends, I am going
To where there's no cooking, or washing, or sewing,
For everything there is exact to my wishes,
For where they don't eat there's no washing of dishes.
I'll be where loud anthems will always be ringing,
But having no voice I'll be quit of the singing.
Don't mourn for me now, don't mourn for me never,
I am going to do nothing for ever and ever.'

It’s a popular poem because it encapsulates that sense of sheer exhaustion which comes over us all sometimes. For a moment at least “doing nothing for ever and ever” sounds attractive. In reality though, most of us wouldn’t find that restful at all. We don’t like doing nothing. The things we do, whether they are paid work or not, even if they are difficult and challenging, can give us a sense of purpose. They can be interesting and absorbing. They can make us feel useful. We like to be active, and we are healthier if we are. The problems come when our busyness becomes burdensome, when it is forced on us by others, or is the product of our own need to prove ourselves. And the truth is that our weariness is often nothing to do with work at all. It can be just as wearing to sit at home with nothing to do and the sense that life has no meaning.

So if the rest that Jesus promises isn’t “doing nothing for ever and ever”, what is it? There’s another place in the Gospels where Jesus talks about people carrying burdens, which might help us to understand what he is getting at.
In that passage he criticises the religious experts who “tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them.” (Matt 23.4)
He had experienced this for himself when those same experts condemned him for healing people on the Sabbath. Healing was work, and you weren’t allowed to work on the Sabbath. Never mind the real suffering of the person who was ill. Never mind the very obvious good – to themselves, their families, their society – that would come about if they were made well. It might look right, said these experts, but it must be wrong, because it said in the Bible that you shouldn’t work on the Sabbath. Case closed. And, if they had had their way, those sick people Jesus healed would have stayed sick.

Jesus was indignant about this. You’d pull your donkey out of a well if it fell in on the Sabbath, he said, but you couldn’t heal a human being who was suffering, even if you had the power to do so, because it was the wrong day of the week. How could this reflect the love of God, and his desire for human good? Life is hard. It involves work and struggle. Jesus knew this. But when you pile on the guilt and shame and unrealistic expectations is it any wonder that people crumple under the pressure?

That’s what he means by carrying heavy burdens - that experience not only of having to do the thing you have to do, whatever that is, but having to do it under the weight of other people’s judgements.
You are trying to bring up your family on a low wage? That’s hard enough, but let’s make it harder by telling you you are a scrounger when you need a bit of financial help.
You are living with mental illness? Let’s make it harder by reacting with fear or telling you to pull yourself together.
As many of you will know, I would love to be able to bless gay marriages in church – not everyone will agree with me, I know, but I would love to be able to do so. The main reason is that it seems to me that love is precious, and if people have found it we should celebrate and support them in it, not put obstacles in their way - burdens on their shoulders. Life is hard enough without making it harder by denying people the possibility of a faithful, committed relationship, blessed and recognised, something which straight people take for granted.

Of course, as well as the burdens we place on one another we are also usually pretty good at burdening ourselves. In the second reading today Paul seems to be torturing himself with his own shortcomings. “When I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand.”

He seems to be having a very bad day here, but actually, when we read this passage in context, we discover in fact that he is bringing this sort of thinking into the spotlight in order to tell us that in Christ we can be delivered from this sort of agonizing.
“Who will rescue me from this body of death?” he ends. How can we be saved from continually beating ourselves up?  “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” is his answer to himself. Paul has discovered that God loves him, just as he is, just for himself, despite all he has done, and all he has failed to do. It’s nothing to do with him; it is all to do with God. That is his good news here.

“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest” says Jesus. He doesn’t promise us that our lives won’t have work in them – in fact he calls us to take his yoke – his work – on our shoulders, the work of sharing the love we’ve found. But he does promise that if we come to him we will find the true rest that comes from learning to see ourselves as God sees us, with his infinitely loving eyes.

If we are feeling weary today, Jesus’ words are for us. Amidst the clamour of a world that shouts messages us at us that we ought to do this and we must do that, they tell us that God loves us anyway.
They invite us to look at the burdens we carry, and those we make others carry too. The yoke of Christ , the task he calls us to , is to join with him in creating a world where no one need bear a burden that is not theirs, so that, as our collect put it ,“we and all creation may be brought to the glorious liberty of the children of God.”