My father could put chickens to sleep. That may not mean much to you, but it delighted us children even though we'd seen it before. He'd catch a hen, cradle her in his arms, put her head under her wing and in seconds she'd be asleep. Then he'd lift her high up in the air or set her on the ground and she wouldn't move. We were impressed every time, though we were too afraid of those hens to ever try it ourselves.
We really didn't have what you call a "chicken farm". Our chickens roamed around a penned in yard and laid their eggs in wooden boxes filled with straw. A real "chicken farm" had thousands of chickens - we call them egg "factories". The chickens lived in cages, ate their food in cages, and slept in cages. When a hen laid an egg it dropped gently onto a conveyor belt that took it to a collection point where the egg was washed, put it into a crate and taken to the market. As I was growing up, more and more egg factories popped up on a flat landscape of our Iowa country: long narrow aluminum buildings with rows of windows and ventilators on the roof and not a chicken in sight unless you went inside. My dad told me those buildings had timers which made the lights come on very early every morning, long before the sun was up. The lights fooled the chickens into believing it was morning - time to start laying eggs, they thought. More daylight meant more eggs; more eggs meant more profit; more profit meant more egg factories. My sister and I thought chickens on our farm had a much better life, running around in the open air, getting up at a reasonable hour and going to bed when the sun went down (or when my father put their heads under their wings.) We imagined those caged chickens to be down right miserable, getting far too little sleep and wearing themselves out laying eggs.
Now I see that I have become one of those chickens. Maybe you have, too. There was a time when farmers worked from sunrise to sundown. Now it's possible for farmers to work long after sunset, their tractor lights beaming out across the dark fields. I look up at office buildings in New York City their lights aglow long after quitting time. Don't get me wrong: I don't want to go back to the days of wringer washing machines or milking cows by hand. But I also know that something strange has happened in our lifetime. The technology which has freed our time has also filled our time. Now we can send an e-mail message at one in the morning or receive a FAX at midnight. New Yorkers used to walk to lunch, looking around at the crowds or the sky; now people walk to lunch talking on their cell phones. What does a lunch break mean if you're doing business while you're walking? Perhaps all these advances mean more time with friends and family, more time stopping to smell the roses. Or perhaps we can spend even more time doing even more work, like the chickens in their cages.
"Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens", said Jesus," and I will give you rest". Your burdens may be no heavier than a cell phone, your physical labor no more demanding than pushing the buttons on your washing machine, but you know what it is to long for rest. Or you may have no work at all, laid off after twenty-five years with the some company or trying to find your first job after high school. Your days are not filled with work, but neither are they graced with rest. What Jesus means by rest is more than sleep. It is more than a break activity. This is the rest St. Augustine meant when she said, "O God, our hearts are restless until they find rest in thee". But our days are often filled with frantic seeking; we remain restless even when we manage to take time off. These past few years have been marked by expansive economic growth in our country, but I can feel the restlessness under the soaring market reports. Not long ago I was walking upper Manhattan. I was waiting at the red light and noticed a sign on the scaffolding across the street: "Luxury co-ops now renting. $1.1 million and up." Who can afford such housing? I asked to no one but myself. Maybe such prices seem far-fetched to you, but such extravagant excess affects all of us. People who feel they've made it when their salaries reach six figures begin to meet more and more people who have far more than they do. $100,000 begins to seem small - compared with a quarter of a million. There's no end to this search for satisfaction: the more you earn the more you imagine you could earn. I suppose that economist would tell us that our restlessness keeps the economy going. But it doesn't give rest to our souls. Some people dare to admit their own longing for a different kind of life. Dorothy Bass and Craig Dykstra introduce us to someone with this longing in the introduction to the book Practicing Our Faith:
"I never thought I'd be living this way," she says. "Somehow I imagined that life would be simpler." She has reached forty, and she thinks she should have her life together by now, but things just are not right. Too few evenings include nourishing suppers shared with loved ones; too many are given over to the demands of paid work or housework, or lost to worry and exhaustion. Her closest friends are spread across several time zones. The old neighbors she entrusted with the house key are gone, and she barely knows the new ones. She finds community here and there, and volunteers to help out when she can, but she is wary about getting too involved. Showing up at a PTA meeting, she has learned, probably means getting stuck with a fund-raising assignment, so increasingly she stays away.... "This is not how I intended to live my life," she sighs, as she turns to another task.
The answer is not just more time off (though that might be a beginning!) There is more to Jesus' promise of rest than taking a break: "Take my yoke upon you." This image doesn't fit with rest. We seldom use the word yoke anymore but our memories bring to mind teams of oxen or horses, joined together under heavy wooden yokes, pulling plows or wagons. Or you might see wooden yoke on a person's shoulders, loaded with heavy buckets of water balancing on each pole. How can we find rest by taking up yoke?
Jesus borrows this image from the wisdom writings, writings we probably know best from the book of Proverbs, but also found in less familiar books such as the Wisdom of Solomon and Sirach. In these writings wisdom is often pictured as a woman, calling people in the streets, teaching them, inviting people to take her yoke upon them and learn. The yoke she offers is not a burden but a source of life and joy. Listen to one of these readings. "Wisdom teaches her children and gives help to those who seek her. Whoever loves her loves life, and those who seek her from early morning are filled with joy." (Sirach 4:11-12)
Those who seek her from early morning are filled with joy. We might say, they have found genuine rest - rest which is something rather than nothing.