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“Lay Your Burdens Down” (Matthew 11:28-30), 7/14/24

            So before Jenny and I left for Spain, we were told to bring a stone with us. The stone could be small. It should be from somewhere around our home and it would be used for a ritual. That’s all we knew. So faithfully we carried our stones with us across the ocean and through most of our days walking on the trail…  Look at the front of your bulletin. That’s a Camino marker. They are found everywhere on the trail. They tell you which way to go and they mark the kilometers you’ve walked. They’re also a good places for stones. Most of the markers on the trail have stones on them because people have put them there to symbolize letting go of a burden.

            I wonder how many people were thinking about these verses from Matthew 11 when they left their stones on those markers? Matthew 11:28-  “Come to me, all you who are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” There are of course different reasons that people have for carrying a stone while they walk. For some people, the stone represents a burden of some kind. What might that burden be? In the movie The Way, by Martin Sheen and Emilio Estevez, a man carries his son’s ashes with him. For him, grief is his burden. The movie isn’t based entirely on a true story, but the inspiration for it came from several people’s true stories of walking the Way of St James. In the movie, Dr Tom Avery’s son had been estranged from him for a while, when he gets word that his son has died in a storm in the mountains at the beginning of the Camino. So he goes to Spain planning to take his son’s body back to the states with him. But instead, he has his son cremated and begins walking the Camino, carrying his son’s ashes and meaning to scatter them along the path.

            It takes a long time though, before he is willing to let go of the ashes. He stops several times along the route, planning to scatter the ashes, but then he picks them back up again and keeps walking. How many of us do the same thing with our burdens? I think of a woman named Vera who was a member of the church I served in Pennsylvania. She would always say, every night I give my burdens to God in prayer, but then every morning I take them back again. She’d always say this with a little smile on her face. She knew exactly what she was doing, but she couldn’t stop doing it. I think most of us can relate to that. I know I can.

            How about Psalm 55? Can those words help us not to take our burdens back in the morning? “Listen to my prayer, O God, do not ignore my plea; hear me and answer me. Fear and trembling have beset me; horror has overwhelmed me… Oh that I had the wings of a dove! I would fly away and be at rest.” That’s what we do hopefully when we go to sleep. We fly away and rest. And then we call on God again in the morning and God hears our voice. Are we still carrying the same burdens? Most likely. But one day, hopefully, we’ll lay them down for good.

            It isn’t until Dr. Tom gets to the farthest ends of the earth, a town called Finisterre, on the Atlantic Ocean, 50 miles past the end of the Camino, that he finally scatters the rest of his son’s ashes. There is something very healing about being near the ocean. I grew up with the ocean close by. In New York it was Jones Beach on Long Island. Our church youth group would go there every summer. And then I had the beaches of New England close by in the summertime. Think about how vast and deep the ocean is. Back in Bible times people feared the ocean because it was unknown. You couldn’t see all the way to the bottom and so the psalms talk about sea monsters living there. And yet the ocean can inspire us to let go of our burdens, to give them back to that mysterious and holy place inside where God’s spirit can touch us most deeply.

            Another reason people carry stones while they walk the Camino is that they have a question and they are searching for an answer. This little boy may not have walked the Camino, but he did ask his father a question. They were walking along a road when they came across a large boulder. The boy looked at the boulder and thought about it a little. Then he asked his father, "Do you think if I use all my strength, I can move that rock?" The father thought for a moment and said, "I think that if you use all your strength, you can definitely do it." So the little boy ran over to the boulder and began to push on it. He pushed and he pushed, so hard that little beads of sweat appeared on his forehead. But the rock didn't move — not an inch, not half an inch.

After a while, the little boy sat down on the ground. His face had fallen. His whole body seemed to be just a lump sitting there on the ground. "You were wrong," he told his dad. "I can't do it." His father walked over to him, knelt beside him, and put his arm around the boy's shoulder. "You can do it," he said. "You just didn't use all of your strength.  You didn't ask me to help." 

            It’s hard to ask other people for help, especially when we’re just starting out in life. There’s a book called Women of the Way, by Jane Blanchard who walked the whole 500 miles of the Camino and interviewed the women she met along the way. They were all ages, but many of them were young adults trying to make big decisions about their lives. Where would they live? What kind of job did they want? Who did they want to be part of their lives? What habits did they need to let go of? There were also two younger people in the movie The Way. They both want to change something about themselves. Joost wants to lose weight in order to feel accepted, and Sarah wants to quit smoking. Well guess what? Neither of them succeeds, at least not while they are walking the path. Why not? I think if they had succeeded, it would have come across as too easy a fix. Yes, they were on the path, physically doing the walking. But were they really ready to let go of their habits?

            It’s hard to come to Jesus with our burdens, even when he tells us specifically that we should do that. It’s hard to let them go. Maybe we wonder, if we take him up on his offer, if we let go of our burdens, what’s going to fill the space they leave behind? That’s a question a lot of people don’t think about. Here’s a traditional story with a twist. It was originally about two monks walking in the countryside, but we’ll say there were two pilgrims walking El Camino.  They were on their way to the Cathedral of St James to pay their respects to this beloved saint. As they walked, they saw an older woman sitting at the edge of a river. She was upset because there was no bridge, and she couldn’t get across on her own. The first pilgrim kindly offered, "We will carry you across if you would like." "Thank you," she said gratefully, accepting their help. So the two men joined hands, lifted her between them and carried her across the river. When they got to the other side, they put her down, and she went on her way.

            After they had walked another mile or so, the second pilgrim began to complain. "Look at my clothes," he said. "They are filthy from carrying that woman across the river. And my back still hurts from lifting her. The pain is awful!" The first pilgrim just smiled and nodded his head. A few more miles up the road, the second pilgrim complained again, "My back is hurting me so badly, and it is all because we had to carry that silly woman across the river! I cannot go any farther because of the pain." The first pilgrim looked down at his friend, now lying on the ground, moaning. "Have you wondered why I am not complaining?" he asked. "Your back hurts because you are still carrying the woman. But I set her down five miles ago."

            What are our burdens that we can’t set down? Can we feel their weight in our pockets? Maybe it’s something someone said or did to us years ago, but we’re still holding it over their heads ready to clobber them given the right opportunity. It takes a whole lot of energy to hold something that long. Or maybe it’s something about ourselves that we have to deal with every day. It’s not easy. And so, because we’re all pilgrims, no matter if we’re heading towards the Cathedral of St James, or if we’re driving to a doctor’s appointment or to the grocery store; as we journey, we might be looking for an answer to a question, like why me God? Or why now? Why does this have to be the way things are? When pilgrims find the answer to their question, they put down their stone and continue on their journey.

            Or like Dr Tom in the movie, we may carry a stone for a loved one who has died, because it helps us to feel that person nearby. But then when we’re ready to continue walking on our own, or at least feel at peace, we leave our stone somewhere along the path. Whatever the reason is that we are carrying our burdens, Jesus’ words to us are, “come to me all who are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” On your way out today, I’ll have a basket of stones. I invite you to take one and think about what it represents. Carry it with you for a while and I’ll do the same. Then when you are ready, put it down somewhere. Anywhere. In the garden, on your bookshelf or bedside table, or sneak it into the dairy case at Kroger in exchange for a gallon of milk! Just be secretive.

            A yoke is used to join two animals together, like oxen or big work horses, so they work as a team to pull a heavy load. When we are yoked with Jesus, hopefully it’s easier to find rest for our souls. Even though you and I aren’t going to walk El Camino any time soon, we can still take Jesus up on his offer to lay down our burdens, again and again and again.

Amen.

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