A sermon preached to the online community of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Kingston, NY on the Fifth Sunday after Pentecost, July 5, 2020. If you’d like to read today’s scripture, click here. If you’d like to listen along, click the play button below.
To say that these past few months have been difficult is a huge understatement. As a matter of fact, the entire first half of this year has felt like one major catastrophe after another. And still, there’s so much we don’t know about this pandemic.
I was talking to a friend of mine who said we’re all dealing with adjustment fatigue and ambiguous grief. For most of us, we’ve lost something we can’t quite put our finger on – the ambiguous grief – and we’re exhausted from the constant adjustments to new forms of community, new ways of being together and getting things done – the adjustment fatigue. And I have to agree. I’m exhausted.
So, Jesus’ invitation really feels personal right now: Come to me all you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.
And yet, we are all being called to show up in very real ways right now. Finally, our society seems to be at a tipping point regarding racial justice. Finally, our society seems to be ready to examine the systems of privilege we perpetuate. Finally, we seem to be hearing Frederick Douglas’ words from 1852 when he indicted a young nation saying, “What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July?” Finally, the larger society is seeing the knee on the necks on so many of our siblings.
This work we are being called into, is the work of love because it’s the work of justice. And to do the work of love, we must immerse ourselves in the practice of love, a spiritual discipline of love. For love is what grants us the ability to see the humanity in one another and in ourselves. Love is what enables us to feel empathy and is what kindles compassion for other people, because we learn to become compassionate with ourselves. And so, Love helps us understand exactly who we are, who we all are – beloved children of God.
We can so easily forget that we are created to be good. That all of Creation was made from the same elements and God called it all good at the beginning of the beginning.
And we forget this because when we struggle, we blame ourselves. Ergo, when someone else struggles, it must be because they are doing something wrong. Judging oneself always leads to judging other people.
But we are good. We are holy. We are the beloved children of God all formed of the same earth, breathing the same breath. Jesus is asking us to remember this and attend to it.
Jesus says, Come to me all you that are weary and 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.
This word yoke, which is translated from the Greek word (d)zugos, refers to the heavy wooden bar that would join a pair of oxen in the field, enabling them to work together to pull a single plough. So, in the minds of those who were listening to Jesus, they picture this wooden bar that they have lain on the necks of their ploughing animals, meant to join a pair together, to work together.
And Jesus tells us that this joining is not designed to be harsh, but it is gentle. But it is a yoke nonetheless, so we are no longer a solo act. Jesus is asking us to accept a discipline, to be joined with this discipline so that the work of being in the world is easier.
Jesus is referring to spiritual discipline of love. And this love is not a discipline of doing, but of releasing. To lay our burden down, the burden of trying to be judge and jury of ourselves and of other people. The burden of trying to be God. And, instead, remember our beloved nature and show ourselves compassion.
People that have no compassion for others, actually do not love themselves. They have mistaken addiction to power and idolization of self for love. For only when we have compassion for ourselves will we be truly able to have compassion for other people. This is why the commandment is Love your neighbor as yourself. You cannot truly love yourself, unless you love your neighbor. And you cannot love your neighbor, unless you truly love yourself.
But loving yourself is not an ideal to achieve. This is not yet another reason to beat yourself up or pass judgement on others. This is just the way we all miss the mark all the time.
The human tendency is to avoid thinking about this lack of love – for ourselves, for others. And when we do this, we forget who we are and whose we are. And in the vacuum, we begin to make excuses. We begin to idolize ourselves and our own thoughts. We become addicted to our emotional state.
This is when we forget that we belong to God and we mistakenly think we belong to ourselves alone. And we probably stop praying. We definitely stop listening. And we surround ourselves with only those voices who agree with us, who reinforce what we already believe to be true.
This is far from discipline. This is indulgence. This is addiction. And this is when substance abuse can kick in. Most people think that addiction is all about the substance itself.
But ask anyone who has dealt with addiction, really dealt with addiction, they are actually dealing with the thoughts, emotions, beliefs, prejudices, and patterns that lead to reaching for the substance itself.
It’s why the 12-steps are not a checklist about removing temptations, but about learning how to respond differently to the world, how to form new habits of thought, new emotional patterns, how to find a sense of rest in the chaos of the world. And it requires confession.
Steps 4-7 get directly to the point: Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves. Admitted to God, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character. Humbly asked God to remove our shortcomings.
Most people don’t think of confession as a way to love ourselves. But it is. Confession is not a part of our worship because the hierarchy of the church thinks we need to spend time feeling badly about ourselves. The purpose of confession is exactly the opposite, actually.
Its purpose is to offer rest. Deep rest.
Confession is the time we pray for ourselves and our own restoration. To acknowledge that we have missed the mark in our efforts to follow Jesus… and to be brave and be as specific as we can in the silent space before we say our corporate confession together.
Did I speak badly about another person? Did I treat people with respect? Did I blame someone else for my reaction? Did I act in anger? Did I do what I could to help other people? Did I respect myself? Did I love myself? Did I take care of myself?
Confession is the time in our worship when we rest deeply in God’s Love for us, knowing that we can renewed and restored. We can be reconciled to God’s love because it’s always there for us to come back to.
Confession is when we recognize that: I’m deserving of my own compassion. I’m deserving of my own hope. And I deserve to act in accord with God’s holy law of love because I am God’s beloved, holy Creation.
Jesus doesn’t give us a set of laws – rules to keep us in line that we just end up using to keep other people in line. Jesus gives us 2 commandments and trusts us to figure it out from there: Love God. Love your neighbor as yourself.
It’s not that we are called to do nothing, my friends. On the contrary, we are called into the world to be Christ in and for the world. So this rest that Jesus offers us is not a perpetual vacation from the world… that’s addiction.
This yoke, this rest that Jesus offers us is found in the discipline of continually laying our burdens down and returning to the Law of Love and then acting in the world from that place.
The place where we stop trying so hard to master the world and just rest in the heart of Christ. Where we are freed from the burdens we’ve been carrying for so long. The place that reminds us of who we are and whose we are. Where we know a sense of peace without the ideas of right and wrong, where Love is the only thing that is real.
Because we are only called to Love. And to spread that Love to others. To strive for justice and respect the dignity of every human being.
It is from this place and this place alone that we humans discover our efforts are not burdensome nor wearisome, but are generative and productive and have the capacity to rejuvenate us, to feed us, to nourish us.
Because we are doing our work in the world, not alone, but yoked with Jesus’ law of Love: Love God. Love your neighbor as yourself.
May Love be our discipline. May Christ be our home. May we find rest.