Lectionary Musings (Year A, Proper 9)

I’ve been remiss in posting lectionary reflections for a few weeks, and I’m not going to apologize.  Life got full, and while I love the discipline of writing these weekly posts, the discipline is here for me and not me for it.  There is some neat stuff in this week’s readings,  and I think it’s a little sad that my parish had its annual renewal of wedding vow’s last Sunday rather than this.  This Sunday we’ll get such wonderful words on marriage and love and unity, much more fitting than the almost-sacrifice of Isaac.  Ah well.

The gospel this week ends with one of my most bestest favoritest passages ever:

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.

It’s so beautiful, so lovely.  I remember the language in which I first heard these words of Jesus, who said, I will refresh you.  And the image that always came to my mind when I heard those words was that of a spring.  I could feel myself traveling through the desert, carrying packs of supplies and clothes, dusty and dirty and hot and tired and sweaty and sore.  I could see the cool spring up ahead, with green things around it, and even the very promise of that fresh water and soft grass began to refresh me, even before I reached it.  Finally I would reach the oasis, the spring, the water in the midst of the dry land, and I would lay down my heavy burdens and rest.  I would find refreshment in the water, in the shade of the palm trees, in the softness of the grass beneath me.

As beautiful as this feels, though, it is only the first part of what Jesus says here.  Yes, Jesus gives us this spring in the desert and invites us to lay down our burdens for rest and refreshment.  But guess what – we’re still in the middle of the desert, and we can’t live at this little spring forever.  The rest of our journey still lies before us.  The nice thing is, Jesus gives us an opportunity here, while we are resting and being refreshed.  We have lain down our burdens, and now we have a choice: we can pick the same burden back up, or we can take on the yoke Jesus offers us.  This is not to say that by taking on the yoke of Jesus, all those other burdens will simply fade into nothingness.  What it means is that when we focus on what Jesus calls us to do, somehow those other burdens become easier.

So what does Jesus call us to do?  Love God.  Love each other, as we love ourselves.  Love our enemies.  Forgive those who harm us.  Give food to the hungry, water to the thirsty, clothes to the naked, and shelter to those who have none.  Visit those in prison, and tend those who are sick.  You know, little easy things like that – of course Jesus says that this burden is easy and light to bear!  But the thing is, Jesus promises us something about this yoke; he says it will give rest to your soul.  If we do these simple-but-hard things, our souls will find rest.

There are some exceptions, but in general, most people find me fairly easy to get along with.  One exception is a man I’ll never forget.  I worked on a project with him about ten years ago.  The consensus among the folks on our team was that he was impossible (though we frequently used much more colorful words to describe him), and he had me in his sights in particular.  Nothing I did or said was ever correct, in his eyes, and he would blow up at me when I had no idea what could have provoked his anger.  It got to the point where I’d turn into the parking lot, see his truck, and feel physically ill.  So in the prayers I said each day during my morning commute, I started to ask, God, please help me to like this man, because I just can’t do it on my own.  After a couple days, I realized that this wasn’t quite the right prayer.  Jesus never said we had to like anybody – what he said we had to do was to love them.  Liking someone is a feeling, and we don’t have a whole lot of control over it.  But loving someone – that’s a choice, a commitment, a way of life.  So I changed my prayer: God, please help me to love this man, because I’m really having a hard time loving him on my own.  And God answered my prayer, Yes, my precious child, a thousand times yes! I think this may be one of God’s most bestest favoritest prayers, because the answer was so quick and so thorough.  I never did come to like the man, but I did come to understand him more, to listen to him more, to care what happened to and with and around him.  I stopped feeling ill when I saw his truck in the parking lot.  And though he may have been my enemy, I found myself able to love and forgive him.  What’s more, I learned a whole lot about loving and forgiving myself.

That prayer – that simple prayer asking God to help me love another person – that was the spring in the desert.  That was the heavy burden that I’d been carrying, that had been wearying me.  At the invitation of Jesus, I lay that burden down by the spring, and I drank from the living water.  In that moment, I chose to take up Jesus’s yoke, the burden of loving my enemy.  And I was amazed at how easy that yoke was, how light that burden was, compared to the anger and frustration and helplessness I’d felt before.  I had exchanged tears of frustrated rage for a heart filled with love and joy.  I did find rest for my soul.

I pray that you will also be able to find that same rest for your soul.  Despite this story, we do not find that rest once and for all time – at least, not until we reach God’s kingdom – but we do pick it up here and there along the way.  There are springs in the desert, where we can lay down our burdens and find rest and refreshment.  There are places where Jesus invites us to lay down the things that weigh on us and to pick up things that will lift us up.  My prayer for you as you read these words is that you will find those springs.

In the words of our Collect for this week…

O God, you have taught us to keep all your commandments
by loving you and our neighbor:
Grant us the grace of your Holy Spirit,
that we may be devoted to you with our whole heart,
and united to one another with pure affection;
through Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.