Matthew 11: 28
“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.”
I wonder how many preachers’ hearts sink as they look at the lectionary readings and wonder what on earth to make them! Not too many, I hope. Today is definitely not one of those occasions. If ever there was a time when so many are weary and carrying heavy burdens, the time we are living through just now is surely one of them. All those who have been working on the ‘front line’ throughout the pandemic are surely weary; all those who have lost loved ones or are recovering from the virus or are simply fearful of catching it are surely carrying heavy burdens.
And, at a time when all this weighs heavily on people and communities around the world, the places where people often seek solace – the church, the synagogue, the mosque, the temple – have been shut. There was no choice, of course, about this. Not only was it a government instruction, it was also a moral imperative. For Christians who proclaim a message of abundant life, to engage in activity which risks bringing about painful death would be unthinkable. Not that all churches seem to be aware of that… This very Sunday was the day many had hoped that church services would resume just like the old days (all of three months ago) although the pressure seems to have come more from politicians than from church folk ourselves. Many of us are exercising real caution when it comes to gathering in large groups.
“But the church is not a building,” I hear you cry. And, of course, that is true (although to many who do not belong, it is actually the bricks and mortar – and the locked doors – that make the greatest impression). We know, though, that while the buildings may be inaccessible, the life of the church continues in myriad ways. It is through this life (which extends way beyond people of any one faith) that comfort and real compassion have been experienced by those whose burdens have been heavy indeed; the ones whose food supplies and vital medication have been delivered by volunteers; the ones who have received a comforting ‘phone call or a socially-distanced visit.
The practice of the people who aspire to walk the Way of Jesus does not depend on buildings (indeed many are finding that not being consumed by property concerns is itself a liberation). It is a good time, therefore, to be asking ourselves how closely our practice of religion offers something resembling Jesus’s promise: ““Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me and recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a 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.”
This is a key passage in the gospels. Perhaps more than any other verse, it reminds us that Christianity is not so much a religion as a relationship. Certainly there is mystery. Turning to Christ with our greatest burdens is often seen as more than just applied psychology because some who have been driven to despair by tragedy and overwhelming grief later attest to their feeling that in the midst of their despair they did indeed find their load to be lifted.
The present difficulties have dominated our lives for months now but modern burdens are diverse indeed and are persistent. Some are burdened by poverty – and depression is a condition which is surprisingly common across all socioeconomic groups. The burden of domestic abuse has been magnified by the need to stay at home but, sadly, it is always there. The burden of alienation takes many forms and the nature of the help we offer reflects the nature of our community.
Of course, there are some who follow Christ whose identification is such that they feel they can, as it were, approach Jesus without an intermediary. But for many, maybe most of us, I suspect, we turn first to people whose manner suggests they will be open and sympathetic. This is surely what Theresa of Avila had in mind when she wrote: “Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world. Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are his body. Christ has no body now on earth but yours.”
If the Christ whose name we claim could claim that his yoke is easy and his burden is light, then presumably it follows that, as his representatives in his church, we are called to offer the same to those who turn to us with their problems and burdens. True to that calling, for the last few months, many church folk have been stepping up to the mark despite the doors of our buildings being locked.
If we have found relationship in faith, we can only hope that others will encounter this same relationship in us.
And if they do, thanks be to God.
Rev’d Iain McDonald