Proper 9, 2017: Reversal Wisdom

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“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;
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.”


Burdens and yokes – each of us have them;
and some of us, like old lumbering oxen,
are no longer even aware of the weight we carry
soldiering on as we do through life.

You know, Jesus was downright smart.
I mean really,
Jesus must have had a sky high emotional IQ –
able to read and understand people in depth.

Not only were his stories and parables penetrating,
and insightful,
he also had reversal sayings and parables
that came in the back door
and smacked the listener upside the head.

The Good Samaritan – an oxymoron.
A camel threading the eye of a needle – an absolute impossibility.
Those who love their life will lose it and those who lose their life will gain it – a paradox.
Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth – an absurdity.

He seemed to talk like that all the time,
or at least within the residue of what we have left to us.
I am sure he said plenty of ordinary things too,
like: “Please pass the spuds.”
Surely he put his foot in his mouth more than once, too.

But on the preaching circuit he was pretty phenomenal.
And so it is, with today’s gospel from Matthew.

Imagine what that proverbial image meant to a peasant?

Seriously, a yoke that is easy,
a burden that is light?
A first century Galilean peasant,
burdened by debt and taxes to absentee Roman landlords,
would never have experienced a light burden
or an easy yoke – an oxymoron.
reverse logic,
Zen Koan…
a wisdom-teacher is waiting in the bushes of such ancient reversal-sayings,
ready to jump out and rattle the cage of our logic and open us up to new insights –
or slam our mind shut.
That’s what happens.

We can hear such proverbs and exclaim, “No way!”
But that is the beauty of Jesus’ way of teaching: open up the mind
and something new will drop in;
or if we choose to close the gate,
he will leave us alone.
An easy yoke?
A light burden?

I want to share a difficult storyabout burdens and yokes
and reverse-wisdom.

Before I became a priest, as you may know by now,
I worked in an inpatient Mental Health Unit.
It was a marvelously therapeutic environment –
a Camelot with a miraculous healing milieu
balanced precariously upon the politics of healthcare and psychiatry.
It has long since fallen into the realm of institutional psychotropic drug therapy, I am sure.

But for a time a healer was at the helm, a Gestalt Therapist
with a mere Master’s degree in the land of the MD’s and Ph.D.’s.
She was a wizard of wellness.

Her name was Claire
and she would gather her staff each week,
those with large and small academic degrees
along with aids who may have only had a high school degree.

She gathered us to do our own inner work through dream interpretation
and the exploration of our own angels and demons.

One thing she would frequently do is invite us to name the patient on the unit that week
who was most difficult for us to feel empathy toward.

As it turned out, the patient we had the most personal difficulty with
was also often the one who evoked something in us
that was personally threatening.
In other words, and ironically,
the patient that was the most difficult to empathize with
was usually the one that evoked the deepest sense of personal vulnerable within us.

It was never that obvious of course,
and we had to work hard to figure out the source of our vulnerability because,
let’s be honest, who wants to feel vulnerable?

There was one thirty-something woman
that I just could not warm up to and often could hardly even care about.

The second time she was admitted she was on suicide watch
because she had tried to kill herself several times,
and judging by her efforts
she was growing quite serious about it.
We took away her belt,
her shoelaces,
her sheets,
her razor,
we even made sure she didn’t have
a plastic dinner knife.
Anything she might use to harm herself was kept from her,
or was keenly observed while she had it.

The woman was very quiet and introverted
and she bothered me a lot.
She bothered me because
I could never connect with her,
and I never had any sense
that I knew what she was thinking or feeling.

One day on my shift,
as I walked past her room,
I saw her hanging from the ceiling.

She had tied one sleeve of her nylon parka
to the sprinkler pipe on the ceiling
and the other sleeve around her neck.
She was still alive and adrenaline shot through me.
I yelled for help and ran into her room.

My first instinct was to grab the parka
and desperately try to tear it apart,
as if a string of yarn.
I don’t know how long it took me to come to my senses,
it may have been immediately or a minute
before I grabbed her by the legs and held her up as I called for scissors.

People came running,
the coat was cut, I lifted her down
and off she was taken to the emergency room.
She lived.

Instead of being elated or even thinking about having saved a life, I was angry.
My anger lingered and it confused me.

She made me so angry.
Everything about her aroused my anger and in that anger, I felt guilty,
ashamed and…well, angry.

In our group that week with Claire it became obvious why:
She made me feel powerless.
An otherwise large, strong and competent person,
she reduced me to impotence.
My immediate impulse to try to tear a nylon parka
revealed how much I depended upon my physical strength.
The fact I could never connect with her
diminished faith in my intuitive capacity.
My inability to get her to respond to me
and my growing anger about it, revealed how important it was to me
to have other people respond positively to my efforts.

All my normal abilities and the sense of power they provided me
were thwarted in her presence, and were intensified by the experience
around her attempted suicide.
The way Claire invited me into that exploration was like Jesus inviting peasants
to imagine an easy yoke and a light burden.

She asked me to intensify my anger.

Rather than trying to ignore it or moderate it
or numb it
or intellectualize it,
she encouraged me to intensify it: make it bigger, she encouraged.
When I made that anger bigger
I could suddenly see it.
It was powerlessness I feared
and that which drew me into my fear made me angry.

The invitation to intensify the anger
instead of keeping it at a distance
was an unexpected strategy that led to insight.
Likewise, that was Jesus’ strategy.

What is your burden?
What is your yoke?

Put it on and feel it’s heaviness.
Put it on and feel how it captures and constricts you.
Feel it in your shoulders,
let your knees and hips feel its weight.
What are you carrying – intensify its weight if it helps.
In the encounter and relationship with that which burdens us
our spiritual journey ripens.

Let me repeat that.

In the encounter and relationship
with that which burdens us
our spiritual journey ripens.

But please, do not hear more than is being said.

This is not about courting pain and suffering,
as in some crazy, masochistic medieval spirituality.
It is not about those who are going through
intense sorrow and grief,
or the depths of despair and depression
making themselves feel worse.

This is about those of us who are cozy;
those of us who are within the normal walk we walk;
those of us doing just fine
with a few bumps here and there.
To those with a truly heavy burden
and a cruel yoke,
Jesus stretched out his arms
and invited them to use him
as a comfort station.

To those who lived in the mainstream,
supported by the current of economic comfort
and buoyed by social status
while leaving the multitude in their wake,
Jesus had in mind
an invitation to try on a yoke and burden.

But do not fear,
the invitation is not even for the biggest or heaviest of burdens,
nor the most restrictive or crushing of yokes.
You see, even the little ones
have something to show us.

Even the ordinary and everyday kind of burdens we feel,
or yokes we carry,
can deliver an insight to us:
that job that seems routine,
our home that feels like a money-pit;
relationships that are grinding or pinching,
those simmering conflicts or disagreements,
and the demands or neediness of others;
debt, grief, chronic physical pain, or emotional angst;
decisions we do not want to make;
losses we do not want to incur;
obligations we dread fulfilling;
inordinate needs or desires or fears that plague us…

What is your burden?
What is your yoke?

Whatever it is,
it is likely something you do not want to do,
and likely it evokes a range of emotions
you do not really want to feel.

But you see, when we do not want to feel it
we tend to do whatever we can to manage it
with the least amount of contact.
We distance it,
deny it,
detach from it,
suppress it.
That is our usual go-to response
when it comes to discomfort and pain.

But Claire’s wisdom,
and that of spiritual director’s
and other guides throughout generations,
is to enter into it
and intensify it
in the hopes of getting clear with it.

We are invited to venture into our burdens
and shoulder our yokes
and feel their weight,
so we can name what it is that weighs us down
and makes us leaden.
That is how we lighten our load,
and liberate ourselves from our yokes.

It is a Jesus paradox –
the kind of reversal wisdom
Jesus was famous for.