john davies
notes from a small vicar
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK

    Come to me all you weary and burdened

    Bratton Clovelly, Germansweek Communion services,
    Bridestowe Methodist Cafe Church,

    Matthew 11.16-19, 25-30

    'Come to me, all you who are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.' Such gracious words tell us so much about the nature of the God we trust, and the condition in which he wants us to be.

    This is not a God who makes hard demands on people - contrary to what we may have been told; this is a God who wants us to be free from burdens.

    This is not a God who controls us by keeping us busy - contrary to what we might have been led to believe; this is a God who wants us to find rest for our souls.

    This is not a God who imposes on us - this is a God who is gentle and humble in heart. His yoke is easy; his burden is light.

    So if we are carrying heavy burdens, those burdens are coming from somewhere else; God invites us to come to him to find rest.

    So, what burdens us? And what ways can we find to come to God for rest?

    [At Bridestowe, revisit details from our earlier conversations.]
    [At Bratton and Germansweek:
    If I asked you to share what burdens you at the moment, or what burdens others you know or have observed in our community and in the world today, I am sure we would quickly compile a long, sobering list.]

    Burdened maybe by the constraints of failing health, which limits what you can do for yourself and with others - and worries about what the future might hold; burdened perhaps by financial concerns, trying to make dwindling resources stretch further than they are able to go - worried about not being able to provide for yourself and your dependants; burdened by fears, maybe of loss or loneliness; burdened maybe by aspects of yourself which you don't like because others in the past have told you they dislike, habits you can't break, maybe, other obsessions.

    We carry all sorts of heavy burdens, and there are all sorts of reasons for those burdens. But I suggest to you today, that often we are burdened because of the weight of other people's expectations on us. Our burdens are caused by our relationships with others. To illustrate this let us go to scripture, because human beings now are essentially no different than human beings were when these texts were written. The readings which the churches have set for today, to be read in our places of worship, offer plenty of examples.

    In Genesis 24 we have the story of Abraham's head servant, his chief of staff, looking for a bride for Isaac; the burden he carried was to fulfil Abraham's expectations: he was under pressure to ensure that Isaac married someone from among his father's people, not someone from the land in which they were at that time living. he was burdened by Abraham's obsession.

    Psalm 45 is a song for a royal wedding, and to the princess the Psalmist sings, 'Hear, O daughter; consider, and listen closely; forget your people and your family's house. The king ... is your master; therefore do him honour.' In the middle of a celebration of marriage comes this reminder of the expectations that people put on us in relationships which often cause us to feel torn: this bride is burdened by being pulled in two different directions - one way towards her beloved family, and the other way towards her beloved husband. Most of us know something of this sort of burden.

    Then there is the burden of keeping up appearances. In the Song of Solomon (2.9) the female lover sings out, 'My beloved is like a gazelle'. Her view of him as an athletic, vigourous, man, is wonderful, and must have been flattering to him at the time but (I speak here as one who is now entering the early stages of middle age) such words of praise would also put pressure on the man: how long can I keep up that physique? - he must be thinking. I'm not going to be a gazelle forever, and what will she think of me when I'm more like an old goat? She's not intending it, surely, but her words of praise are simultaneously burdening him.

    In Romans 7 we find Paul at war with himself. 'I do not understand my own actions,' he writes. 'For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.' Paul is torn between obeying the law of God as he sees it, and the body's law, ie, his sinful thoughts, desires, and actions towards others. Again, we find someone greatly burdened by the conflict between pleasing one (God), and pleasing others (which causes him to sin).

    We are always listening to what others say about us: that is what shapes and forms us into the people we are. And we are burdened when others' expectations of us are impossible to fulfil.

    Which brings us back to our gospel reading, Matthew 11, which perfectly illustrates the sort of bind we are in... but then goes on to offer us a way out.
    'But to what will I compare this generation?' [Asks Jesus.] 'It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another,
    "We played the flute for you, and you did not dance;
    we wailed, and you did not mourn."
    For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, "He has a demon"; the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, "Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax-collectors and sinners!"'
    John the non-drinker, and Jesus the drinker - the crowd condemned them both: they couldn't fulfil the people's expectations because the people's expectations shifted according to their mood and to suit their interests at the time.

    Our present generation also sounds like children in the marketplace calling to one another. They will say to us - you shouldn't be going to church, we know the way that church people really live, church is for hypocrites; and then in the next breath they will say - you can't close down that old church, it's a vital part of our village community, it holds our history, you've got to keep it open. We are torn, and in being torn, we are burdened.

    And we too, may be like children in the marketplace calling to one another. We say - let the young people come, we long for more youngsters, we welcome them; and when they come we say, keep the noise down, don't play ball games, break that window and we will close your club down.

    We are all victims of the expectations of others and burdened by them; and we are all guilty of burdening others at times too. The good news is that Jesus wants to lift those burdens from us, and in so doing to give us the wisdom to live in such a way that we stop burdening others too.

    The key to understanding what burdens us lies in our understanding of the relationships we are in, that we are influenced deeply by what we see in others and by what others see in us. To allow Christ to relieve us of those burdens and to take his light load instead, we must be willing to make our priority another set of relationships altogether: the completely loving, gracious, self-giving relationships between God the Father, Son and Spirit, which he wants us to share in. As Jesus says in today's reading, 'No one knows the Son except the Father and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.' Jesus wants to reveal God to us, so that we can enjoy receiving and giving out our share of his gentle, humble, liberating love.

    Now please understand that I'm not saying that we should sideline or neglect our other, human relationships for the sake of our relationship with God, that we should be so heavenly-minded that we're no earthly use; far from it. I'm suggesting that if we place the greatest importance on how God thinks of us, and in living in response to his love for us, then we will become so liberated in our hearts that all our other relationships will experience a liberation too. Which will benefit them all.

    Come to me... take my yoke.... learn from me... Jesus says.

    We can do that, quite simply, in prayer. However we choose to pray. Whether you pray by pouring out in great detail the concerns you have, unburdening yourself to him; whether you pray by removing yourself from the business of the day to be quiet, and in that silence to allow God to speak to you his words of comfort, healing, peace; whether you pray by contemplating scripture, asking God to direct you to help you see your life in God through the stories or words of guidance that you read; or whether you pray by taking comfort, strength, inspiration from the prayers of others which you can read, digest, and use for yourself.

    In our prayer life let us practice meeting God in Jesus, where we are. Let us unburden ourselves to him there. And let us learn from the humble, gentle, teacher how to be less of a burden to others, how to help and encourage them to find rest for their souls in God.

    [at Bratton and Germansweek, finish with the Leunig prayer, God help us to find our confession [1]]

    [at Bridestowe, finish with the Leunig prayer, Let us pray for wisdom [2]]

    [1] From Michael Leunig, The Prayer Tree, Collins Dove 1991, and here.
    [2] From Michael Leunig, A Common Prayer, Collins Dove 1990, 1997, and here.