When Freedom Becomes a Burden

"Come unto me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest."

Rest. It's not something we Americans do very well. Studies show that Americans are overworked and overstressed. Even during this three-day Fourth of July weekend, people will be checking their smart phones for work emails, social media updates, and breaking industry news.

Rest--true rest--is elusive.

Each year on the first weekend in March, I participate in the National Day of Unplugging, an initiative of the Reboot network, a Jewish organization, which works to help people reclaim the practice of Sabbath and re-appropriate, as they say, "our ancestors' ritual of carving out one day per week to unwind, unplug, relax, reflect, get outdoors, and connect with loved ones." Participants in the National Day of Unplugging turn off all electronic devices at sundown Friday evening and turn them back on at sundown on Saturday. It sounds easy enough--just twenty-four hours with no texting, email, social media, or working on the computer--and a third of those hours are spent sleeping. And yet, it is surprisingly difficult. I'm usually fine for the first few hours, but then I keep wanting to check my email, Facebook, and Twitter. By Saturday afternoon, I'm downright jittery. And its not that I actually want to do work, exactly. It's more like I just want to know what is going on in the world. I want to know if I am needed. I feel the need to be productive in some way.

For me, the challenge of unplugging is not so much about unplugging from the technology, but about unplugging from work. This annual experience, which I try to reclaim with mini-technology Sabbaths during the year, helps me step outside my daily routine, recalibrate my rhythm of life, and gain a renewed perspective. And it's in these moments that I recognize that the things that promise to set us free can also have their own sort of tyranny over us; they can also become burdens. For instance, the great freedom of being able to be reached at any time and of being able to work from anywhere on our mobile devices can also weigh on us as we are continually on call. The thing that promises to set us free is that which ultimately burdens us.

I think this is what Jesus is getting at in our Gospel reading from Matthew. Here Jesus issues one of the most beloved and welcome invitations in all of Scripture, saying, "Come to me all you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens and I will give you rest," inviting us, as Eugene Peterson translates it in The Message, to "learn the unforced rhythms of grace." Rest and grace: free gifts of God's love. They sound so good, and yet, paradoxically, they are so hard to accept. The reasons are different for all of us. Perhaps it's because we find our self worth in doing, or we justify ourselves by the hours we work, or we locate our identity in our talents and abilities. Or maybe the promise of free grace and blessed rest just seem too good to be true. After all, not much else in life works that way. Or perhaps we feel we have little choice but to work so much and so tirelessly at a time when the job market is still so fragile and companies are trying to do more with fewer employees--employees who are working harder and longer just to keep their jobs.

So whatever the reason, it is a heavy yoke that we carry. But Jesus offers a different kind of yoke--one that is easy and light.

In the context of this passage, Jesus is contrasting his yoke with the yoke of the religious law, which promised freedom from sin and ritual impurity, and yet, had become a heavy burden for many. Jesus wasn't rejecting the law per se, but he recognized that even religious systems that promise us freedom can come to weigh heavily on us.

Indeed, they can and they do. We often apply our experience in the workplace to our spiritual lives as well. And thus, being a "good Christian" can mean overextending ourselves in the service of our faith communities, so that the very church that promises us grace and rest becomes yet another place we feel squeezed for time and energy.

It seems like no accident, then, that Matthew follows this invitation from Jesus with two stories about keeping the Sabbath. In the first story, Jesus and the disciples are walking through a wheat field and they are hungry, so they pluck heads of grain to eat, which as some religious-types point out, is forbidden on the Sabbath. Later that day, Jesus encounters a man with a withered hand and heals him, which, again, he is not allowed to do. The rules of Sabbath keeping, as they had come to be interpreted, prevented nourishment and healing, the very things that God intended for the day of rest.

In another controversy over the Sabbath in Mark, Jesus says, "The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath." That is, the Sabbath should be a time of rest and indeed healing and nourishment and not just another burden and requirement to be fulfilled. Jesus understood how the weight of obligation had created a heavy burden for Sabbath keepers.

At first this invitation of Jesus, "Come to me and I will give you rest," sounds like something from a memory-foam or scented oils commercial or maybe the latest and greatest smartphone app, but what Jesus offers here is something different.

One of my favorite books about spiritual rest is a guide to Christian contemplative spirituality by Martin Laird called Into the Silent Land. And in it Laird writes this: "When the mind is brought to stillness, and all our strategies of acquisition have dropped, a deeper truth presents itself: we are and have always been one with God and we are all one in God."

When we finally slow down, if only for a day or an hour, and let go of our striving and reaching, our "strategies of acquisition," of accomplishment or recognition, status, acclaim, or more stuff--none of which are bad in their own right, though they can insidiously drive us to exhaustion--when we let go and enter into the rest that Jesus offers, what we find is that we are already God's beloved people. Loved, not for what we do, but for who we are, or better yet, for who God is, because God is a God who loves us just as we are. We are known completely and we are loved completely. Nothing to earn, nothing to prove, no need to, as if we could, justify ourselves to God.

Laird says that this rest is not "like a piece of software we can install in the computer of our spiritual lives," and not something we have to do; but rather, it is the discovery of what we already are, what we already possess. In Sabbath moments we see our true reality--a life already and always lived in God.

The rest that Jesus offers is not somewhere we have to get to, not something we have to earn. It is already ours. We just have to slow down long enough to see it.

Today, Jesus, who is gentle and humble in heart, invites us to lay every manner of burden, especially those disguised as freedoms, down at his feet and to be with him and know his peace, grace, and love.

Breathe deep, dear friends, and know that they are already yours. Amen.

Let us pray. Good and gracious God, we look for meaning and worth in so many other things in our lives and it runs us ragged. We pray that you give us the grace to slow down, to enter into Sabbath, and that we might know we are your beloved children now and always. In Jesus' name, amen.