One night I had a dream that an old woman came to me holding a great treasure wrapped in fine cloth. She offered it to me. I felt afraid, knowing that receiving this gift would change me. Without words she unwrapped the offering. As the cloth fell away I saw she was holding the sacred heart of Jesus, without sentimentality, without gilding, without sap. It was raw, wounded, vulnerable. She offered to put it into my chest. I knew that if I accepted the invitation, I would be profoundly changed; I would have to give up my life as I ran it with my own agendas, my favorite rationalizations and excuses and open myself to the certain wounding of love. I understood the promise and also the cost. With great shame, I took a step backward—and woke up.
“I do not understand my own actions,” writes Paul, “For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” Who here can’t relate to that? Ever since that dream I have wrestled with these words, remembering the dream where I spurned the gift of God which was also my heart’s desire. I find it is more that I don’t do what I yearn to do rather than do what I despise. I want to be a person of prayer—but—at the moment it feels more urgent to slide into another game of Spider Solitaire.
I find the words to be true of communities also. We hear the words of the Gospel, we respond “Thanks be to God,” we nod assent to even the hardest sayings of Jesus, we watch the bread broken open at the altar and suspect we are offering our own lives to that brokenness—and then we get stuck in the stupid stuff; the imagined slights we received in community, the wrong assumptions made on our behalf, the myriad ways we get our feelings hurt. Things don’t go the way we want them to. We sulk. We offer something we believe is valuable. It is received shabbily. We become anxious. When we get anxious we try to control more. How easily we forget who we are actually following.
We are all driven by things we do not understand. For some that compulsion is born out of experiences which mark us forever. For some—most, I’d say, it is fear. Fear of not being loved or appreciated, or understood, fear of abandonment, or of being without, fear of pain, fear of death, fear of loneliness. You can fill in your own “fear du jour.” Becoming conscious of what drives us is a major part of the spiritual journey; becoming conscious and allowing God to heal that fear. It is not easy, and none of us can do it alone. We need each other, we need the sacraments, we need prayer and most of all, and we need God’s grace to keep working on us, calling us to be broken open to healing love.
Today’s Gospel follows a silent story not told anywhere, of Jesus’ mission to Galilee which had apparently been a total failure. We glean that he had been received with a giant yawn from the intelligent, self-sufficient people of the area who felt they had no need of either John the Baptist’s call to repentance nor Jesus’ invitation to the wedding feast. Theirs was the sin of indifference. In our omitted verses today Jesus reproaches the cities of Chorazin and Bethsaida for of their apathy. The Greek word we translate “Woe” is not an angry, vengeful word threatening fire and brimstone. The word is “ouai” which is more about sorrowful pity. Jesus is responding not with the outrage of a humiliated ego but with a broken heart. It is the sadness of anyone who offers a treasured gift which is treated shabbily. It was the look in the eyes of the old woman in my dream when I stepped back from the proffered sacred heart of Jesus.
And then we get some lines which sound more like they come from John’s Gospel than Matthew’s about how if you want to know God you need only look at the Son. Only through Christ can we see God. Again the Greek invites us into a deeper understanding. The word “know” here is not an intellectual grasping, but a word which also includes choice and intimacy. In the Hebrew Bible the word is synonymous with sexual intimacy. To know God through Christ is to enter the realm of lovers.
And then Jesus drives his point home. "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." We have heard these words over and over for so long, they have lost their punch. By the time Matthew’s Gospel was written, Judaism had disintegrated into a network of harsh laws and regulations regulating normal life making it almost impossible for the poor to survive under the strict code of sacrifice. The big question was “what are the requirements of faith for a Jew?” The answer was more rules.
We don’t groan under those burdens, but we have plenty of our own. The greatest burden of all is that of perfectionism. I speak as a “one” on the Enneagram. No matter what I do, how well it comes off, there is that inner voice which picks it apart. “Well,” begins the litany of critique. “You forgot to do this, and you missed that part, and you could have been more articulate there, and what were you thinking when you made that stupid joke….” and on it goes. My idolatry is that of perfectionism which I neatly disguise as my self-sacrificing service to God. Only—it is an entirely self-imposed burden which has nothing to do with God. It has everything to do with my own pride. It is what made me step back from receiving God’s heart in my dream. Perfectionism in individuals and in communities is the anti-Gospel. It is the devil itself disguised as Goodness and Light. God does not require perfection. God requires humility and vulnerability. It is why Jesus keeps using the image of children and here infants as the paradigm of approach to God. Children are open to learning. Children are hungry for connection, the willingness to be taught (until they get to be about six, of course. Our daughter’s favorite line was “I do it self!”) But perfectionists like me want to “do it self “ all the time. So we heap more and more burdens on ourselves and become exhausted. The poet David Whyte quotes David Stendahl Rast as saying that “The antidote to exhaustion is not rest; it is singleness of heart.” [repeat quote]
That is why the yoke is easy and the burden light. A yoke is a wooden frame fitted to a beast of burden to pull the work. Yokes in ancient Palestine were made by carpenters, so it was likely that Jesus himself had made them. The oxen were measured carefully, and each yoke was made to fit perfectly so the oxen were not chafed or bruised by the yoke. In fact, the Greek word translated “easy” here also means “well-fitting.” A custom-built yoke! In other words, the work God has for us will be suited to our needs and our abilities. God does not ask us to do what is impossible for us. True “call” is tailored to who we are so when we engage the work we can do so with joy. Joy is never burdensome! When the work is given and received with love, it is life-giving, not draining. In the immortal words of the Hollies, “He ain’t heavy—he’s my brother.”
Where I grew up in Indonesia our village was surrounded by rice paddies, I spent long hours watching the water buffalo pull the plows. Those yokes were double yokes—fitting two buffalo at once so they could share the strain, and take turns resting a bit. They pulled together to ease the work. What a wonderful image for the body of Christ! I think it is a double image. We are yoked together, to be sure. But we are also yoked with God who pulls with us. After the Examination in the Diaconal ordination liturgy, the Bishop says these wonderful words: “May the Lord by his grace uphold you in the service he lays upon you.” God partners with us. The stole I wear is a symbolic yoke, a reminder that I am yoked to you and we are all yoked to Christ. I like Eugene Peterson’s transliteration of this passage:
“Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.”
We will not do it perfectly. We need to forgive each other and ourselves over and over again, as God forgives each of us. And—surprise! It is exactly our failures which become occasions of grace. Leonard Cohen writes, “Everything is cracked. That’s how the light gets in.” Christ’s yoke is not one of “anything goes,” not one of permissiveness. It is very hard to be a Christian, but not because God makes it hard. We make it hard ourselves. The good we want to do we don’t. The bad that we don’t want to do we do. We are caught in our various compulsions and fear and addictions and often don’t quite believe any of this. Who will rescue us? Paul in his despair about his long string of failures throws off the despair and casts himself into the ocean of God’s mercy. Thanks be to God who gives us victory through Christ Jesus!
Leonard Cohen (my fifth evangelist) wrote a song years ago which cries that praise rising out of the fiasco of human failure:
I did my best, it wasn't much
I couldn't feel, so I tried to touch
I've told the truth, I didn't come to fool you
And even though it all went wrong
I'll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah
Hallelujah, hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah,
Hallelujah, hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah.