Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Lay Down Your Burden
Mt. 11:28-30[1]
Children are wonderful and amazing. Especially as they go through the various stages of development. In our household, our granddaughter Avery is at that stage of development where she is discovering her autonomy. She is learning that she can make choices about what she wants to wear or what she wants to play. Of course, at this stage of the game, what that means is that she wants to choose what we do as well. Many of you have been there and done that. So the decision-making process gets complicated because she decides she wants to wear the pink dress, no the blue dress, no the green dress. And she wants to wear the lace-up sneakers, no the pink crocs, no the new Velcro shoes. You get the idea. What she really wants is to be in charge!
I thought of this when I was looking at our Gospel lesson for today. Last week we talked about how making the essence of holiness a matter of following rigid rules leads us to condemn others while letting ourselves off the hook. But the other side of the coin is what we do to ourselves when we take that path of religious perfectionism. On one side we see people who are more conservative than we are and we think that they are being too strict. And we may wonder whether they have some kind of mental illness. On the other side we see people who are more progressive and we think they are being too lax. And we may condemn them for having loose morals.
That’s what’s going on in our Gospel lesson with the strange comment Jesus makes about his contemporaries being like children saying, “We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn” (Matt. 11:17). John the Baptizer lived simply and practiced a fairly rigorous form of self-discipline. He withdrew from the normal interactions of life and lived like a recluse. And because he wouldn’t “dance to the tune” they were playing, they wrote him off as demon-possessed![2] But when Jesus came and lived life and laughed and welcomed all kinds of people—and, perhaps in the eyes of his Jewish contemporaries worst of all, ate with the “unclean” and “impure”—they also condemned him. Because he didn’t mourn with them when they “wailed,” they wrote him off as a glutton and a drunkard.
On the surface of things, it can seem that we’re incredibly ambiguous about spiritual matters, first condemning those who are too conservative, then condemning those who are too liberal. But in reality, we’re like children who can’t make up their minds what they want, because what they really want is just to dictate your actions. When we make religion a matter of following rigid rules, we essentially make ourselves the measure of all things spiritual. That’s an incredible burden to bear. It’s bad enough when we define religion by rigid rules; but when we make ourselves the measure of godliness, that’s a heavy burden indeed.
But in response, Jesus announced that he had come to set people free from their burdens. He came to free the people who, no matter how hard they tried, could never live up to the rigid requirements of the religious perfectionists. The rule-makers went around declaring everybody but themselves impure and unclean for some reason or another. But what gets hidden in all of this is that those who make themselves the arbiters of holiness carry an incredible burden themselves. Beneath the fa├žade of “holier than thou” lurks the nagging doubt as to whether they have carried out the rules perfectly. We might see some of that burden in St. Paul’s anguish over his inability to keep the rules. I think Jesus came to free the perfectionists as well.
We live in a society where this kind of compulsive religion is no longer the norm for many of us. But there are other burdens that keep us from freedom that God intends for us all. Fear is a burden. We fear loss or pain or worse. But fear keeps us locked in a prison cell where our only companion what we fear the most. Anger is a burden that some of us carry. Most of us never learn that anger is normally a response to being hurt. But anger keeps us miserable, in turmoil, stuck in a place where we re-live that hurt—over and over again. Pride is our preferred form of perfectionism. We don’t just want to “keep up with the Joneses”; we have a driving need to be “better than” the Joneses. But that nagging insecurity that it’s never good enough is always around.
When children grow up in a stable environment, they have the chance to learn that they really don’t want to dictate what everybody else does. That need to control not only my life but everybody else’s becomes a burden that will crush anyone who tries to carry it. When we try to live that way, we rob ourselves of joy, and love, and life. The wisdom of the ages has taught us that the burdens that we carry only trap us in prisons of our own making. The only way to live—to truly live—is to let go the illusion of control—whatever it is you’re trying to control. Jesus said come to me, lay down your burdens, and I will give you rest. When we lay down the fear and anger and pride that imprison us, we can open our hearts to receive joy, and love, and life, and rest.

[1] © 2011 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 7/3/11 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.
[2] Douglas Hare, Matthew 123-24.


Barbara J Cairns said...

Thank you for this post your comments resonate with me and I especially like your comments about pride and anger.

Alan Brehm said...

Thank You!

Ron Prebe said...

Thank you ... wonderful insight!

Alan Brehm said...

Thank you!