[This sermon was delivered at First Presbyterian Church, Pittsford, NY, on 7.05.2020, based on Romans 7:15-25 and Matthew 11:28-30. It can he heard on that church’s YouTube channel.]
“I’m exhausted.” Tyler Perry writes in a recent People magazine, anticipating the Fourth of July, “When I was asked to write this essay, I initially said no, and that is so strange for me because I am a man of faith, and I believe greatly in hope.” Thus Tyler Perry, a Black American filmmaker, begins as essay on why he loves America. What was his hesitation? After all, he has tasted what we call the American dream; he is a respected and successful filmmaker and actor. After the untimely death of Rayshard Brooks in Atlanta a few weeks ago, Perry offered to pay for Brooks’s funeral and for the college educations of Brooks’s four children. He answers his question: “I’m exhausted. I’m exhausted from all the hate and division, the vitriol I see…. I’m exhausted from seeing these senseless murders play out over and over again with nothing changing in our society.”
Perry has a five-year-old son. Perry still knows what it is to be stopped by police officers because he is driving a nice car. He knows that he will have to have “the talk” with his son someday, the talk about how to act when police stop you because you are suspicious merely because of your color. Young Black and Brown people, especially men, need to hear the talk because they are far more likely to be stopped for no good reason than Whites. And more likely to be handcuffed and jailed. And more likely to do time for crimes they didn’t commit.
Tyler Perry isn’t the only one among us feeling exhausted these days. And it goes way beyond Zoom exhaustion. We are dealing with two major challenges in our country, two viral plagues. One is literally viral, the Covid-19 pandemic. The second is more insidious: the plague of racism as it takes the lives of Black Americans, indigenous Americans, and all people of color. The first one came quickly, but has now been with us over four months, claiming over 125,000 lives. The second planted its seeds four centuries ago when the slave trade rudely uprooted west Africans against their wills and shipped them to our eastern shores. I feel the exhaustion, even from my privileged life.
The brutal death of George Floyd six weeks ago was caught by video on the phone of a 17 year old named Darnella Frazier. As she was walking in her Minneapolis neighborhood, she saw Floyd on the pavement with a police officer’s knee on Floyd’s neck for at least eight minutes and 46 seconds, until the Black man was dead. If Darnella hadn’t stopped and taken out her phone and held that camera steady for nearly nine minutes, while a veteran police officer looked at her with a “so what” look, and three other police officers looked on silently as Floyd repeatedly said, “I can’t breathe” and called for his mother, would we even know about his death? Why do I repeat these details, which some of us have seen and heard scores of times? Because we need to hear it again and again. I need to hear it, for my life has been marked by white privilege. My father never had to have that talk with me.
It is exhausting to be alive today and aware of the state of our world and our nation. But it not just our time and our place. Exhaustion is pandemic over the centuries. The Apostle Paul writes of it in a different way, in a different time and place. In Romans 7 he writes in the most personal way of the battle within. Reading this passage again, a passage I know so well, is exhausting. With Paul, I know what it is to want to do the right thing and fail to do it. With Paul, I know what it is to know what I ought not to do and still end up doing it. Are you with me? Do you know this inner conflict? If you say no, I don’t think I can believe you. If you say no, I think you must not be listening. Or you must not care anymore. Because the Bible is clear that the best of us regularly fail.
In our Presbyterian/Reformed way of understanding, we have this phrase, “total depravity.” That sounds pretty harsh, but it is a needed understanding. The essence of it for me is that sin has touched every part of my being: body, soul, and spirit. Sin has left no part of me untouched. Even my best actions and highest thoughts and loftiest motivations are not entirely pure. The sin dwelling within me is pervasive. Jesus has come to redeem me and break that sinful bent in me, and he is doing just that. But the struggle within me continues. “I do not understand my own actions.” That was Paul’s experience and it is mine.
To follow Jesus means experiencing struggle. Any time we attempt to bring change in our ways, we so do so with struggle. For Paul, that change was from trying to keep the law perfectly, which no one can do, to living by God’s grace. Listen to Paul speak about the struggle. “Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead. I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 3:12-14) Following Jesus demands pressing on, and that can be exhausting.
My four month old granddaughter Zora is with us as I write this. She is learning to turn herself over, from her tummy down to her tummy up. Each time she tries it is with struggle. She reaches a point where she is midway, on her side, wanting to turn, but struggling to complete the turn. I am tempted to help her, but that would rob her of the struggle of learning a new way. Now each time it is a little easier. It is becoming natural, however slowly. But still there is struggle.
If the struggle to follow Jesus is real—and make no mistake, it is real—the promise of Jesus is just as real. Sometimes it is exhausting. I find it exhausting these days as we deal with these two major struggles: the struggle to mitigate the pandemic and the struggle for the racial justice in our society with deep-seated systemic racism embedded over four centuries. Exhausting? Yes. Then we need to hear this promise, this invitation, from our Lord. “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.”
What good news that is for people experiencing exhaustion. What good news for me. What good news for you. Jesus calls us to the struggle of following, of leading redeemed lives, but he doesn’t leave us to endless exhaustion. He invites us walk with him, yoked with him. “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.”
A yoke works best when two are partnered, sharing the burden side by side. When the partners are unequally yoked, wearing the yoke chafes on the neck and is counter-productive. Jesus comes to us and meets us on level ground. He understands our struggle. He, the Lord of glory, does not lord it over us. He comes and meets us in our struggle. He understands our exhaustion. Both of these aspects of our journey comes together in Hebrews 4: “Let us therefore make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one may fall through such disobedience as theirs.” (Hebrews 4:11) We strive to enter God’s rest. And find it.
The is a story from the Cherokee nation, which parents teach their children. There are two wolves active in us, a good wolf and a bad wolf. We struggle with these two wolves, even as Paul described it in Romans 7. The elder Cherokee teaches the younger that the dominant wolf is the one you feed. For Paul, the struggle is resolved in this bold affirmation: “Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”
If you visit Green Hills Memorial Park in southern California, you will find Jesus’ words on a gravestone. My brother died 28 years ago, at his own hand. He has been struggling with deep depression for years. The last time I saw him, he was in the depths of that depression. Three months before his death, he affiliated with a local church and was baptized. I have a photo of that baptism in my study, which I treasure. In the depths, he knew where God’s rest was found. On my brother’s grave marker are these words: “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.”
In our exhaustion, there is rest for us, in the yoke shared with Jesus.