Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.
In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
In the story that our country tells about itself, you could say that what makes the United States stand out is that it aspires to make the words of Christ that we hear in today’s Gospel its own. Not necessarily in a literal sense, but since its founding, America has perceived itself as sitting at the summit of human longing, where all the hopes and dreams of humanity can finally converge and find their fulfillment. You can hear the echoes of this aspiration in one of our most famous national poems, The New Colossus, which is engraved at the base of the Statue of Liberty. Every American has heard it before: Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Or, if we were to put it like Christ, Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.
Now, as I said, this is the story that we tell ourselves; it’s almost like our founding myth, the myth of the idea of America. And it has inspired much of what has sustained our nation and brought so many countless individuals from across the world. Not to mention the countless individuals who have served our country and sacrificed for it; those who, as the Collect for the Nation in the Prayer Book puts it, have possessed “a zeal for justice and the strength of forbearance.” But as an idea, a story we tell ourselves about ourselves, it can remain somewhat detached from the many complexities of our history. After all, many of those “huddled masses” that were brought to our shores came on slave ships, no doubt “yearning to breathe free” with every fiber of their being, as their descendants valiantly do to this day. And there were many, of course, who didn’t come here at all, but were here already. So our story is a complicated one. The height of our aspiration has often been as much the measure of the depth of our depravity as the measure of our virtues. Nevertheless, what we can say is at least that the idea of our story does get at something of what all human beings desire in their hearts: the desire for rest; the desire to be relieved of the burdens that inhibit human flourishing.
The complications of our national story that this weekend calls us to remember -- its triumphs along with its sins -- ultimately come from the complexities of this basic human desire to flourish, to rest. Because the difference between rest and burdens is not always easy to detect. In order to fulfill this desire to rest, we have to first determine what rest actually is -- and what a burden actually is -- before we can tell them apart. And that’s the catch. Every parent knows that, sometimes, what children resist as an undue burden is actually a necessary responsibility of maturity, perhaps even one that leads to real satisfaction. A clean room can be a better environment for one’s imagination and creativity than a messy one, for instance, or at the very least can make it easier to find your shoes. And of course, that’s not to say that we adults don’t do plenty of this ourselves. How often do our dysfunctional burdens seem lighter and easier to bear than the “rest” that would come with authentic healing? Patterns of addiction can develop from precisely this line of thinking. We become habituated to what initially appears like an easier, quicker way to rest -- quite literally a “fix” to whatever the pain or stress or trauma is that feels to heavy to bear. All the mercy and compassion to that kind of suffering. The point is that many of our all-too-human problems -- at both an individual and social level -- are related to our failure to properly identify the source of our flourishing vs. the source of our weariness; our rest vs. our burdens.
But this only gets harder when things get Christian. Or, at least it gets harder before it gets easier. Today, our Lord speaks in a comforting tone, the tone that goes with all the images of Jesus that we grow up seeing in children’s bibles. For I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. But these words come from the same Lord who says elsewhere in this same Gospel that unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven; that it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell; or, put simply, to be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. A high challenge, indeed. After all, if this is what counts as “rest” and an “easy” yoke, maybe I’ll take the weariness and the heavy burdens!
But then again, Jesus himself never said that the true rest that he offers would make sense compared to the burdens of the world. Today, he plainly thanks God because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants. It’s not always clear where our rest and our flourishing is to be found -- sometimes, it might even be hiding behind something that initially appears burdensome or even threatening. The path to our rest is counter-intuitive, according to Jesus, maybe even absurd. Remember what Jesus says: those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. If our true life is found in its loss -- and it is a real loss -- then it should be no surprise that we might instinctively retreat from the offer of this true life in fear.
Nevertheless, in Matthew’s Gospel in particular, perfection is the “rest” that Christ both offers to us and expects from us; the yoke that is easy and the burden that is light. Because only the person who has been freed from all the burdens that obstruct the love of God and neighbor can be at perfect rest. This is the ultimate test of what counts as rest vs what counts as a burden: “rest” is the activity that imitates Christ’s sacrificial offering of himself for the sake of the world; a “burden,” by contrast, is anything that holds us back from that kind of sacrifice -- all the self-protective fences we build around ourselves and what we think belongs to us at the expense of the lives of others . In other words, it’s the complete reversal of what we tend to think will give us rest vs what will burden us. The Gospel says that rest is not found by securing ourselves against the imaginary threats posed by other people -- in fact, that’s actually the most effective way to burden yourself -- but rather, as our Collect this morning puts it, by being “devoted to [God] with our whole heart and united to one another with pure affection.” We rest “to the extent that we give life to each other,”  in other words, both materially and spiritually.
In the meantime, however, we’re still in the process of being freed from these burdens that inhibit our love of God and neighbor. We are not yet at perfect rest because we are not yet perfect. Which is why we need the discipline and guidance of the yoke of Christ -- the yoke that we must take upon ourselves if we are to be his disciples. We have to learn from Christ, as he tells us; and as we learn from him, his yoke upon us grows ever lighter and easier through our repentance and conversion. To that end, make a point to meditate on God’s commandments; to examine how your life compares to them. And then pray to God for the grace to submit yourself to the yoke of Christ. All you have to lose are your burdens.
 Herbert McCabe. “Poverty and God” in God, Christ and Us, 56.