This is certainly the time of year when many of us think about vacations – getting ready to go away, or at least taking day trips and getting things done around the house that we may have wanted to do for a long time. Summer in our culture seems to be a time for rest and relaxation, perhaps because school schedules, longer days, warm weather all make travel easier. And goodness knows, we all need rest and relaxation at some point.
In the last three weeks, our Gospel readings having have come from Matthew 10. We have been hearing Jesus, the rabbi, instructing the disciples about the way they are to carry out his mission. And now we’ve jumped ahead a bit into the middle of chapter 11, skipping over John the Baptist’s reactions and questions to hearing about Jesus’ ministry while he himself is in prison. They are worth reading, so go back and look at them later: Matthew 11:1-15. But we now hear Jesus addressing the crowds – not the disciples exclusively; but people who were curious, wanting to know what all the fuss was about. And Jesus is clearly responding to the buzz he knew was on the street: that people were criticizing John the Baptist for being too austere and hard-edged, and yet also taking Jesus to task for being too lax and hanging out with the riff-raff. The crowds are never satisfied in their desire for the religious leader who will suit them.
And then there are five verses the lectionary leaves out – where Jesus proclaims curses and judgment on several towns that have turned their backs on some very significant ministry and powerful acts he has done in their midst. Who is too lax now? And yet so often those portions of the Gospels where Jesus pronounces curses and judgment make us modern readers uncomfortable, ill-at-ease, because that doesn’t sound like the image of the kind and friendly Jesus we have in our heads. We need to remember that when we say that Jesus is the Son of God, the Incarnate Lord, we are saying that the Creator, Sustainer, and Judge of the universe has come into human life. Would the One who is the source of the Big Bang, the energy of the sun and all other stars, the power of volcanos, the force of gravity be only kind and friendly? Of course not, and so we should not be surprised at the range and depth and sometimes edginess of Jesus’ speech.
And so, in the text we hear this morning, Jesus turns to prayer, thanking God that the truths of the spiritual life and the realities of the Kingdom of God have been hidden from those who are impressed with their own sophistication and know-it-all attitudes. Instead, God has revealed his will and purpose to those who can receive Jesus with open and child-like hearts, a willingness to learn. For this, he gives praise to God.
It’s at this point Jesus says to the crowds: 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. It’s an invitation to his listeners: Are you having a real struggle? Come to me. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly. And, of course, these are the words stitched onto the kneelers at our altar rail: Come unto me all ye that travail and are heavy laden and I will refresh you.
A wonderful generous invitation, which I know many of yearn for – rest, a lifting of burdens, an easing of our travail. And yet these images are paradoxical: an easy yoke, a light burden. A yoke is a harness used for farm animals; the word burden seems heavy and troublesome. What is Jesus getting at?
It has to do with the nature of discipleship. When we follow Jesus as Lord and Savior, we make him our model as well as our Redeemer. We remember that he often took time for prayer and rest and connection with God. And (with a few important exceptions) he kept the Sabbath, which didn’t just mean worshiping in the synagogue on Saturday morning, but meant giving the whole day to God; stopping the rest of life, and trusting God that the sun would still rise and set as it should, the earth would still rotate on its axis, the plants would still take in our CO2 and turn it into oxygen – all without any human by-your-leave or effort. The whole practice of Sabbath is an acknowledgment of the fact that God is God and we are not; that our bodies and minds and hearts and relationships are not endlessly energized and indestructible, but are limited, fallible, and in need of God and’s provision.
So, Jesus’ invitation to discipleship is both a set of marching orders and an injunction to know our own limits; it is an invitation to action and sometimes self-sacrificial giving of our time and energy and a requirement to stop and rest. Because at the end of the day, in the Kingdom of God, all our action, and speech, and effort, and prayer is only part of what is asked of us, and only part of what transforms the world in a God-ward direction. There is so much in life that we can’t know or understand or handle. There is so much in life that causes us to struggle in such a way that we end up getting lost in the struggle – like the drowning person who fights his rescuer, blinded by his fear and panic. There is so much in our world, and even in the Church, that has changed and is changing and it can be overwhelming - particularly if we think we have to fix it all or make it better on our own strength or after our own image.
Instead, Jesus calls us his followers to Let Go and Let God; to let go even of our good intentions and holy desires; to let God take care of the outcomes. Jesus asks us to trust that – even in the midst of things we cannot understand, or change, or recognize, or even like – at the end of the day, in God’s Kingdom and household, God will still be God. We will still be God’s beloved children, redeemed by grace and saved by Christ’s death and resurrection, and empowered by the Holy Spirit.
That is what it means to rest in God, to take on Jesus’ yoke and burden. And we know that every time we come to God in prayer, every time we trust God enough to put our head on the pillow for the night and sleep, every time we come to the altar for the Eucharist, we are giving to God our struggle, our worry, our fear, our anger, our need for control, our weariness. And in exchange for all of that, we receive the Bread of Heaven and the Cup of Salvation, the very life of Christ given for us – something we neither earned nor deserved. When we come to the altar those words of Jesus remind us: Come unto me all ye that travail and are heavy laden and I will refresh you. And we know that the power and energy and vitality of the Lord and Creator of the Universe is keeping us in the palm of his hand, and sheltering us in the shadow of his wings, and we will find rest and refreshment. And for that, we give great thanks.
Let us pray.
Lord Jesus, you bid us take up your yoke and burden. Help us to know your rest, your peace, your lightness. Amen.
Victoria Geer McGrath
All Saints’ Church, Millington, NJ
Fifth Sunday after Pentecost
July 9, 2017