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Rest For Weary Souls

Sermon 9/04/05
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Matthew 11:28-30

These are familiar words, I think, to most of us, of Jesus, recorded only in the gospel of Matthew.  And I think appropriate for this Labor Day Sunday.  Jesus says: 

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, my burden is light.

Now this may strike you as a bit odd, coming from someone who has just returned from vacation.  But I can tell you that I'm feeling a bit weary this morning.  

And it's not because of the way the Bryant family takes vacations.  We drive for three or four hundred miles, get to our chosen destination (if we chose it before we left, half the time we don't), but we get there and we unpack the car and the trailer, pitch our tents, cook our meals, wash our dishes, and then because we're in bear country we have to pack it all up again and put it back in the car where it's secure, sleep, wake up in the morning, unpack it again, cook breakfast, wash dishes, break camp, pack it all back up into the car and drive another 300 miles and do it all over again!  And when you do that day in and day out for the better part of 2 weeks, by the time you get home, you're ready for a vacation!  But then you have to go back to work.

But that's not why I'm weary this morning.  And it's not all that work that builds up, either, when you go away.  You know, when you're gone for three weeks and the lawn hasn't been mowed (or in our case the dandelions haven't been mowed!), and all that mail that piles up--mostly credit card offers.  I think I've found a solution to the federal deficit -- if we would just tax all those credit card offers at 1 cent apiece, we'd wipe out the deficit overnight, at least based on what we get in our household.  

And then there are all the phone calls you have to return, fall programming to get ready for, meetings to schedule.  E-mail!  I don't know how, I haven't figured out a good way to do this yet, but when you're gone for several weeks and all that E-mail builds up.  Fortunately, through the grace of my Internet service provider, my E-mail InBox was full and they stopped receiving any more E-mail, otherwise I would still be processing that E-mail, most of which is also credit card offers.  

That's not the reason why I'm weary this morning either.  

Labor Day weekend, of course, is about honoring those who, through the sweat of their toil, put food on our tables, serve our meals in restaurants, build our roads and our cars and houses and make our lumber and deliver our mail (all those credit card offers), remove our trash (all those credit card offers, recycled of course).  So we honor all those who through their labor make life a little bit better for all.

A ministry is not exactly a labor intensive profession, although it does have its share of burdens, although that's not why I'm weary this morning.  I'm not talking about that weariness that comes from hard work or too much exercise (of which I could use some).  But I'm talking about the deeper weariness.  The weariness of the soul.

And I suppose for me it began on September 11, 2001, as it did for so many people in this country.  You know that kind of weariness that gnaws at your hope, that squeezes your goodwill, that puts a hole in your heart and a veil over your mind?  I'm feeling that weariness again, maybe it's because of the anniversary coming up.

And then there was the war in Afghanistan, a necessary evil I am sure, followed by the war in Iraq, a most unnecessary evil, I'm even more sure.  And now the thousand deaths on the bridge in Baghdad, people trampled to death because of their fear, a direct outcome of that war that overshadows any good we thought we might have accomplished.

If the folly of human arrogance were not enough, now nature has unleashed its merciless destruction from the waves of the December tsunami to the winds of hurricane Katrina.  As if to show us that no hemisphere, no nation is above the powers of this earth.  And that terror is not just the work of misguided human beings, it is simply part of the fabric of our frail human existence.

That is why I'm weary this morning.

My heart cries out -- how long, o Lord, how long?  How long must we watch so helplessly as the winds of war and the wars of wind tear apart nations and communities?  How long must the weak and infirm, the poor and the crippled be the ones that bear the heaviest burdens of every disaster, natural or human-made?  How long before we fill the SuperDome and the AstroDome not with the poorest of the poor, who have no place to go, but with the compassion of the rich, who would rather give to empty those stadiums than to build them?  How long before we'll see a real decrease in the poverty of this country and an increase in funding for education?  How long before the outpouring of charity to provide the needed food and shelter becomes an outpouring of justice to provide jobs and dignity?  How long before the sacrifices of our sons and daughters on foreign soil will become ancient history rather than daily reality?  How long will the doers of evil pretend to be the doers of God's will?  How long will the followers of God pretend to be makers of peace?  How long, o Lord, how long?

And in the midst of all the death and destruction, the chaos and the looting, I hear those great words of Martin Luther King Jr. ring out again, from the steps of the capital building in Montgomery Alabama, from that march to Selma, when he said:  "How long?  Not long, because no lie can live forever.  How long?  Not long, because you still reap what you sow.  How long?  Not long, because the arm of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice.  How long?  Not long, because mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord."

And I hear Simon and Garfunkel sing again:  

When you're weary, feeling small, 
When tears are in your eyes, I will dry them all
I'm on your side, when times get rough, 
And friends just can't be found
Like a bridge over troubled waters, I will lay me down

And you see that's not just the idealism of the 60s and 70s and fiery civil rights speeches and melodic songs played on our radio -- that is the message of the gospel.  Come to me, Jesus says, all that are weary and heavy burdened and I will give you rest.  This is a message I need to hear.  We all need to hear, when our souls are weary.

But how do we get this needed rest?  The answer is provided in the very next verse, and it comes as somewhat of a surprise.  Jesus says:  'Take my yoke upon you, for it is easy, it is a light burden'.

The last time I preached on this particular text was 10 or 11 years ago and I titled the sermon "The Yoke is on You".  It's good to know your pastor has matured a little J.  But to call a yoke 'easy' is kind of like calling a grizzly bear 'cute'.

We spent our vacation in the Canadian Rockies.  First night at Banff National Park the rangers gave us a little flyer on how to protect yourself from bears, you know, it's bad for tourism when campers get eaten.  So to do their part to prevent that, they give you a little flyer.  With helpful little advice like "Stay away from the bears".  Thank you very much!  And then it gives you things to do in case you are attacked by a bear.  Two strategies, I've learned.  The first was to play dead.  The second strategy is don't play dead.  I'm sure they spent a lot of money researching this!  I was glad they were sharing this information with me.  I learned from this brochure of how to know to apply which strategy -- you might want to write this down as it's very helpful in case you're ever attacked by a bear -- that it depends on the motive of the bear J.  If the bear is defending his territory, then playing dead works, because he'll only attack you for 60 to 90 seconds, after which if you're dead, he'll leave you alone.  So play dead.  If, on the other hand, the bear is hungry and is looking for a meal, playing dead does not work.  So, I figured in about the second and a half you have when you observe this 600-800 pound grizzly (by the way, in case you didn't know, a grizzly can travel 35-40 miles an hour up or down hill), you need to make your decision.  Which will it be?  Will you be eaten head-first or foot-first?!  That's what it comes down to -- I appreciated learning this about bears.

Well, we didn't see any grizzlies while we were there in the Canadian Rockies, but we did see a black bear, about 100 yards away scampering across the road from the safety of our car (thank you very much) and it was very cute.  

Think of 'yoke'.  Not as something that is light, but think of a team of oxen pulling a wagon train across the Oregon trail.  Or a team of horses plowing a field.  Is that a 'light' image?  An easy burden?  Is that why, along the Oregon trail, you found all those family heirlooms discarded, when the weight of the wagon became too much?

In Hebrew scripture, yokes are symbols of slavery and oppression.  Speaking of rest, I was struck by that passage of the Sabbath day.  Why do we remember the Sabbath?  What is it associated with, what event?  Creation -- remember, God worked for 6 days and rested on the 7th, therefore keep the Sabbath.  Were you listening to the scripture that John read [earlier in the service]?  That's not what it said.  There was no mention of creation in that scripture, go back and look it up -- you're remembering the Exodus version.  The Deuteronomy version says 'you keep the Sabbath because you were once slaves in Egypt, and God freed you from that slavery, now you can rest'.  That's the purpose of Sabbath, you see, it's freedom from slavery.  That's what we celebrate.

Yoke is a symbol of slavery.  The prophet Jeremiah carried a yoke on his neck as a way to illustrate to the people what was going to happen to them when they were taken into captivity -- they would become slaves.  The priests became unhappy with Jeremiah, we don't like this bad news, broke the yoke, so what did Jeremiah do?  He went to the village blacksmith and got one made out of iron.  He said 'break this'!  Starts carrying that around, had to be 2 to 3 times heavier.  Now the yoke's on Jeremiah J.  OK, so much for maturity J.

And so Paul speaks of being yoke to the law in the most negative of ways in Galatians 5, he says 'For freedom Christ has set us free, stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery'.  Just as the cross, once a symbol of death and state-sponsored terrorism is transformed by Christ into symbol of new life, so too the yoke becomes its opposite.  A symbol of freedom.  To take the yoke of Jesus is to cast off all other forms of slavery and oppression -- spiritual and physical.

It's like the call of Jesus to take up the cross.  The call to take on the yoke of Christ is a call to reject the ways of the world and to live by the way of Christ.

Now I'm not sure that's always easy.  Let's be honest.  But I can say to you it is not a burden.  Why?  Because in the community of Christ we never bear those burdens alone. 

My favorite Week of Compassion story comes from another natural disaster closer to home.  The earthquake in San Francisco about 20 years ago, you may recall we lived in Fresno at the time, Judy was actually in San Francisco on a business trip during that earthquake.  The way Week of Compassion works is that they find local partners in each community -- people on the ground who know what the needs are and give the money to that agency.  And by the way, if you read your insert, know that 100% of the money given to Week of Compassion goes directly to people in need.  They do not take a percentage off the top in these kinds of offerings.  The costs of Week of Compassion for staff and administration and all of that is paid through our February offering and that's when they take the percentage off the top.  In emergencies, 100% goes to people in need.  And so the way that's done, they find a local partner and ask 'what is the need in your community'?  And typically it's a church agency, regional office, etc.  In this case in the San Francisco earthquake a church close to where the earthquake was was responding to the need, helping out families in crises.  And they went to the Red Cross and said 'what it is that you cannot provide that we can'?  And the Red Cross said 'well, the most immediate need is for flashlights'.  No electricity, people need light.  And so with that Week of Compassion grant they were able to go out and buy flashlights and batteries for people in that community and pass those out.  Well, they discovered they were going to have to put a limit of 1 flashlight and 2 batteries per household.  A woman came in and said 'I need 6 batteries'.  A volunteer from the church kindly, and as compassionately as she could, explained "I'm sorry, but we have to ration these, we can only provide you two".  My children, it's dark, they're scared, I really need 6 batteries.  The volunteer said "I'm sorry, we really can't do that", unless, she said, "you have a relative, another member of your family, staying with you".  Whereupon, the Chinese woman behind her said:  "I'm her sister".  And the black man behind her said "I'm her brother"!

And the woman went away with her 6 batteries.

You see, the one thing that makes difficulties in life bearable is to know that you aren't alone.  As the old song says "He ain't heavy, he's my brother".  

And because those oxen pulling that wagon, or those horses pulling that plow often were yoked in teams, to be yoked has come to mean not a heavy burden, but it has come to mean to be joined together.  And so we are yoked with Christ and this is what makes that yoke easy, the burden of Christ light.  That we do no carry it alone.  

When you are weary, feeling small, come to me, says Jesus.  Come to the table of my fellowship, where all burdens are shared.  Here, you will find rest for your weary soul.

It's good to be back among you.


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