Of kangaroos and yokes.
I received an invitation on Facebook to become friends with someone I met briefly on my recent trip to Spain, and as I usually do, I accepted his invitation.
It’s always interesting when you begin such a relationship on social media. If your new “friend” is a frequent contributor on Facebook or Twitter or Instagram or Snapchat, you are suddenly privy to their humor, their politics, the things or people they love and hate, their vacation trips, their dining experiences and sometimes even their losses or tragedies. It can be a lot to take in, this very public sharing of the intimacies and personal details of a life with which you have no previous history.
Last week my new Facebook friend posted a picture of a stormy sky with a message that was very vague but worrisome. “This is a very challenging time for me. I appreciate your love and your support.” There were a ton of comments that followed his post—I counted at least 15---written I assume, by some real friends and perhaps lots of Facebook acquaintances. “Sending big hugs.” “Hang in there, my friend.” “Lots of good energy coming your way.” Despite the good intentions, and even though I have written some myself, I sometimes feel that such good wishes feel a little cheap.
I felt badly for him, and wondered what he was facing. Perhaps the death of someone close, a financial collapse, maybe a romantic break-up. Not knowing much about him, I wondered if his faith would be helpful during this time. There was nothing on his Facebook page that revealed his religious sentiments or affiliation. Maybe he didn’t believe in God, or any higher power. I found it interesting that none of the comments that were sent to him mentioned that someone was praying for him.
It reminded me of a person I knew some years ago who worked in the financial district. Barbara took the bus in every day, and she told me that she often tried to avoid sitting with a co-worker who took the same bus. I don’t remember the co-worker’s name, but I think there was an “A” in it, so let’s call her Alice. Alice was annoying, Barbara told me, and always was talking about her passions in life: her love of John Denver; her crazy obsession with and collection of anything kangaroo; and the musical plays of Broadway. In the office, Alice cheerily wished everyone a good morning as she passed them on the way to her cubicle desk, which of course was decorated with multiple stuffed kangaroos, pictures of sunsets on island beaches, a picture of John Denver. Barbara mentioned that she also had a small statue of St Francis, which she discreetly placed next to a few small potted plants. If she worked late in the office, Alice would wear a pair of kangaroo slippers. She was generous to her co-workers, bringing them cookies and cakes that she baked for them at home. And every year she volunteered to organize the Secret Santa exchange in the office.
Barbara thought she was a good person, but she and Alice lived in two different worlds, and Barbara had little interest in any of the things Alice spoke about, and as she admitted to me, she kind of looked down on her. She was never directly condescending to Alice, but she made every effort to distance herself from anything with which Alice was associated.
But Barbara’s life began to become unglued. Her marriage had deteriorated and was heading towards divorce. She threw herself even more deeply into her work, but then she was passed over for promotion and felt her talents and skills were unappreciated. Her grown children blamed her for their problems and she felt alienated from them. She searched for answers and comfort, and even though she had been raised in a traditionally Catholic family, she turned instead to yoga and eastern meditation and self-help books to deal with her problems. They were of some help, but she still had a deep wound in her heart from everything that had been happening to her.
And then one day just as she was about to leave the office to go home, she received a message that her father had died in a nursing home in Florida. A flood of emotions and memories washed over her. She had been daddy’s little girl, and despite years of his senility, years of him not even recognizing her, she still clung to him. Her heart ached—this loss deeper than all the rest--as she mechanically gathered her things and left to catch the bus.
And of course when she got on the bus, there was an empty seat right next to Alice, who smiled and nodded to her as she approached. Barbara was in no mood to speak to anyone, but she couldn’t avoid sitting with Alice. Alice began to talk almost immediately, but Barbara was truly unable to focus on anything that Alice was saying, drifting off to thoughts of her father’s care for her, moments when he gave her his attention and love. At some point, tears started to well up in Barbara’s eyes, and Alice noticed. Her voice trailed off and stopped. Barbara noticed the silence and turned to look at Alice--and immediately read the compassion and tenderness on her face and in her eyes. Alice gently reached for Barbara’s hand, and then held it in her own. For the next half hour or so, they stayed together like that in silence as the bus made its way through tunnels and neighborhoods.
As they approached Barbara’s stop, Alice leaned over and kissed Barbara’s cheek. “I’ll be praying for you,” she said. Now Alice’s eyes were watery, and her smile communicated understanding and kindness. “Thank you,” said Barbara, who told me that for the first time in a very long time she felt the presence of God in that moment.
Everywhere Jesus went he met people who were hurting in their body, heart or soul, people just like us who were carrying burdens that at times seemed ready to break them: a man who had been cast out because of a disease that made him look like a monster; a woman who was condemned to death by stoning for being unfaithful to her husband; a widow who suffered the death of her only son; a man who was despised by all because he was a tax collector for the brutal government; a grieving father whose child had died; a thief, hanging beside him on a cross. To each one he opened his arms with compassion on his face and often tears in his eyes, embracing them and sharing their suffering.
Those gestures of his compassion and love realized and confirmed his consoling words: “Come to me all of you who are weary and burdened, 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.”
As a carpenter, I’m pretty sure that Jesus knew about yokes. He probably made more than a few. They were crafted out of strong wood, and they were designed to allow two oxen to pull a plow side-by-side, so they could share the burden.
Jesus didn’t promise his followers that their burdens would go away. He knew that life always bring hardships and heartaches, and that no one is exempt. But especially for those who suffered most, he promised to assume a place on the other side of the yoke and willingly take the lion’s share of their burden. He would do it out of sheer love. He would do it always.
Buddha proposed an eight-fold path to Enlightenment and peace. To find serenity in their lives, Islam’s Mohammed required that Muslims practice the five pillars of faith. Hinduism suggested regular practice of yoga to deal with the burdens life brings. And in our modern world today there are thousands of books on Amazon that offer self-help tips and self-healing practices for life’s burdens. And then there is just this:
“Come to me all of you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
Jesus doesn’t offer a program or a ritual or a pathway. He only offers himself, sharing the yoke. The audacity of his sacrifice, and the power that lies behind it is what has given hope and peace to the world for 2000 years.
Despite the astonishing progress our world has made, the burdens of life still fall upon each of us. We suffer loss. Our hearts are broken. Our spirits fail. And we can even learn about it all on our cellphones as we check our Facebook feeds.
But it is surprising how many people fail to turn to Jesus in those moments. “Lots of good energy coming your way!” instead of “Come to me all of you who are weary and burdened.” “Sending big hugs”, instead of “I’m praying for you.”.
Sometimes I wonder if the reason why those words fail to speak to many of us today is because they have gotten lost in the burden that we perceive the Church imposes on us. Jesus attempted to free his brothers and sisters from the yoke of the 613 commandments laid upon the Jews in a legalistic all-encompassing rulebook. But as happens in all human structures and institutions, it was Jesus’ followers who transformed his astonishing love into yet another set of man-made rules that often seemed to trump his most important commandment: to love one another.
I wonder if we have forgotten that the only way to be relieved of our burdens, consoled in our losses and our heartbreaks, is to turn to Jesus himself. Arms outstretched, he waits for us with tears in his eyes, to embrace our grieving hearts and relieve us of our lonely desolation, worry and sadness. Maybe what we have missed along the way is Jesus himself.
Which brings me back to my friend Barbara. On that day when Alice told her that she would be praying for her, Barbara felt the presence of God that she had somehow lost along the path of her life. The message of love had been delivered to her by someone who had dared to do what Jesus did. Alice, the annoying one, had assumed a place on the other side of the yoke to help bear the burden that had fallen on Barbara. Alice, who loved kangaroos and John Denver and corny Broadway musicals, it was Alice who realized the hope and peace of Jesus’ love for Barbara.
We are the ones who carry the yoke and make the burden light for one another, in JESUS. Like Alice did for Barbara, we can do the same for our friends, our family members, and even our acquaintances. I’m not sure Facebook offers the best way to do that, but it might be a start.
Perhaps we can begin by taking our own hearts to Jesus, who begs us to allow him to share our burdens. And then, comforted in his loving arms, we can turn to one another and share the love.
I’m praying for you. I’m bearing your burden. I am bringing you Jesus’ love.
(14th Sunday A 7/9/17 Zech 9,Rom8,Mt11:25)