How good are you at resting? That question was discussed several times while Leroy and I were traveling in California last week. We seem to experience vacation as the ultimate challenge to see how much can be done in one day. Or at least, that’s the way it turns out despite our best intentions otherwise. On our last full day in San Francisco, we woke up extra early, despite being out late the night before. We drove across the Golden Gate bridge to the old growth forest of Muir Woods before most people had started their breakfast. At the conclusion of 10 days of hiking and wine tasting and beach combing and eating and photographing, we were determined to be among the first of the crowds of people who pour into Muir Woods each day. We succeeded and entered the majestic forest. We gazed up with awe at the towering redwoods. Leading from the main path was a small trail winding up a hill. We took it, and for nearly an hour were alone among the delicate green ferns and the thick red-barked trees. Birds sang all around us. We sat down on a bench perched above a deep ravine and took in all of the sights and sounds of the ancient forest. Finally, we looked at each other and asked each other again, “What is wrong with us?!” Why is it so hard for us to just rest when we’re on vacation? I’m not sure we came to any good conclusions, but at least we did consciously relax for the rest of that day.
In Matthew, Jesus looks at the tired crowds and says, “Come to me, all you who are weary, and I will give you rest.” In the Song of Solomon, a young woman enthralled by the arrival of spring, gazes at her lover and speaks, saying “Arise my love, and come away.” Those words of invitation from Jesus and an unnamed woman speak to the deepest need of those whose lives are too complex: the need to stop running and just be at peace.
In thirty-four years of weekly preaching, I don’t think I have ever used a text from the Song of Solomon. It doesn’t show up often in the Lectionary, and when it does it always raises questions about what is too racy for Sunday morning. This little poetic book is chock full of erotic imagery and never manages to mention God. How in the world did it end up in our Bible?! The Hebrew people included it in their canon of Scripture because they understood the intense love between a man and a women to be an analogy of the relationship between God and Israel. Later on, Christians agreed to include it in their canon as well, further stretching the love analogy to say that it describes Jesus’ relationship with the church. An idea is consistent with the church being called the “Bride of Christ” in the epistles. Even later, the Catholic Church at times identified the woman in Song of Solomon as the Virgin Mary, though the woman depicted in this little book does not come across as especially virginal.
It’s not uncommon for Bible commentators today to ask why the erotic language needs to be spiritualized or allegorized to become anything other than a celebration of human love, and feminist writers have happily pointed to the egalitarian relationship that is depicted. Both the man and the woman pursue one another equally and without shame. Both are empowered. No covering up arms and shoulders as was ordered this week in congress. The woman’s neck is like the Tower of David, and best of all her long hair is said to be like “a flock of goats.”
“Come away,” says the woman. Step away from the expectations and responsibility of adulthood to celebrate intimacy and simply rest with another. It’s OK sometimes to just be playful and enjoy the gifts of being alive.
Jesus, also, invites those who hear his words to let go of heavy burdens. The scene in Matthew starts with a fascinating commentary on those who had observed Jesus’ actions and judged him as irresponsible. His cousin John the Baptist is mentioned here as Jesus remarks that people didn’t approve of John because he was so strict with his eating and drinking. He was an ascetic who denied himself the usual pleasures of life like good food and wine. Some people didn’t like that and criticized him by saying that he must have had a demon. People are funny, aren’t they? In the next breath Jesus related that he himself was criticized severely because he did eat and drink. In fact, he was labelled as a glutton and drunk! You just can’t satisfy some people. So why try?
It’s that context that leads to Jesus’ words about weariness and heavy burdens. When you feel weighed down and exhausted, whose burden are you carrying? For sure, there are times when we are overwhelmed by things we can’t really control. But there are also times when we are weighed down by what others have put on us without good reason. Carrying them is optional. I think that’s what Jesus is mostly talking about here.
A story from the Zen tradition talks about the choices we make about carrying burdens and the freedom to pick them up and put them down.
A senior monk and a junior monk were traveling together. At one point, they came to a river with a strong current. As the monks were preparing to cross the river, they saw a very young and beautiful woman also attempting to cross. The young woman asked if they could help her cross to the other side. The two monks glanced at one another because they had taken vows not to touch a woman. Then, without a word, the older monk picked up the woman, carried her across the river, placed her gently on the other side, and continued his journey. The younger monk couldn’t believe what had just happened. After rejoining his companion, he was speechless, and an hour passed without a word between them. Two more hours passed, then three, finally the younger monk couldn’t contain himself any longer, and blurted out “As monks, we are not permitted to touch a woman, how could you then carry that woman on your shoulders?” The older monk looked at him and replied, “Brother, I set her down on the other side of the river, why are you still carrying her?”
Jesus was a vocal critic of those who demanded that people follow very picky rules of behavior. He blasted the Pharisees who he said placed unnecessary burdens on others. Eugene Peterson paraphrases Jesus’ words to them in the translation “The Message”: “Instead of giving you God’s Law as food and drink by which you can feast on God, they package it in bundles of rules, loading you down like pack animals. They seem to take pleasure in watching you stagger under these loads, and wouldn’t think of lifting a finger to help.”
I spent quite a bit of my youth and young adulthood within the historic Christian holiness movement. It is a subset of Wesleyan and Methodist faith, which is a subset of Protestantism, which is a subset of Christianity. Even though a small group, it is particularly inclined toward the certainty that it has God uniquely figured out. And God, apparently, is extremely concerned about people following strict behavioral rules. In my holiness college and seminary, we were not allowed to play cards or dance, or consume alcohol. Going to movies during those years was no longer forbidden, but was still suspect and required a lot of monitoring by self and others. The goal of seeking holiness, in other words being as much like God as possible, was to achieve a form of perfection. Obviously, humans will always fall short of being perfect, but there was still a belief that we could achieve something close to it and should always be striving in that direction. Accountability groups were formed to make sure that everyone was behaving correctly. It was a heavy burden, and I’m glad I eventually chose to put that that burden down, especially when I’ve seen its negative impact on the lives of many I once knew well. When you are so concerned with being holy, you stop being honest with others. Imperfections are hidden, human nature is denied, and all kinds of problems result.
Jesus said, “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, and you will find rest for your souls.” The people in Jesus’ day were used to seeing domesticated beasts yoked together to do hard labor. He said “Don’t be like that.” He told them to stop carrying around someone else’s yoke. Be yoked to Jesus instead. Following him isn’t intended to be a heavy burden.
How do you see people putting burdens on others in the name of God? Do we ever do that ourselves? As a pastor, I am aware of the ways church leaders can hurt people and weigh them down through spiritual manipulation and guilt. Don’t let anyone ever do that to you. Jesus said that he is gentle and humble in heart and that the way of Jesus means that we will find rest for our souls. If we are not receiving spiritual refreshment and rest through our involvement in Jesus’ continuing movement called the church, then we are doing it wrong. I used to think that my job as a pastor was to keep people busy and to use any means necessary to push them toward spiritual growth and as many good works and as many meetings as possible. That seems pretty ridiculous to me now, especially considering how busy most people already are. Jesus didn’t push or cajole or guilt. He gave an invitation instead. “Come to me, all you who are weary and weighted down, and I will give you rest.” In that place of rest, we will find strength to do the work God calls us to do.
May you find rest for your soul today. Amen.