Today, we are kicking off our fall stewardship drive – Journey to Generosity: The Way of Jesus. And this is the first in a series of three sermons we’ll be offering centered on this theme of faith as a journey and how we, as fellow travelers on the way of Jesus, take this journey together. And today, we begin with an invitation from Jesus.
For centuries people have been trying to figure out what good religion looks like. What makes for a good life and how does the practice of faith factor into it? In Jesus’ time, as in our own, people have had varied ideas on the subject and often disagreed.
In the opening portion of today’s passage, Jesus compares the people of his generation to children in the marketplace arguing over what game to play. Some people want faith in community to be a party, a wedding banquet perhaps, with music, and dancing, and joy, and laughter, and for everyone to join in the fun. Others, when feeling down, want mourning companions at a funeral, people to cry with, care with, and offer comfort.
To argue over these two extremes might seem silly to us because faith in community actually includes both, as well as a lot of other things too. But we’ll come back to that.
Jesus probably makes this comparison because many people are suspicious, it seems, of both John the Baptist and Jesus. For some, John was too austere and ascetic, depriving himself of regular food and clothes and fun. His behavior was so strange to some folks that they thought he was possessed by a demon. And some thought he was too focused on repentance and judgment.
Jesus, on the other hand, wasn’t what some expected in a Messiah… even John and his own disciples questioned this at the beginning of this eleventh chapter of Matthew’s gospel. They wondered what Jesus was up to and if he was really the One they had awaited.
For some people, Jesus didn’t seem austere and holy enough. He liked to party too much, some thought, and was called a drunkard and a glutton. And not only that, he partied with those people (the outsiders, tax collectors, sinners, and so on).
Lighten up, John or straighten up, Jesus. It seems you can only please some of the people some of the time.
These same thoughts and disagreements pop up in our own culture too, of course. Can faith be fun? Shouldn’t religious observance be a serious thing? Am I being too selfish? Am I giving, and serving, and doing enough? Isn’t religion about following the rules? What are the rules, anyway? Does God judge me? Does God forgive me? What if I have doubts? Who’s in? Who’s out? Anyone? If nobody is out, then what is the point? Don’t I have to do the right things or believe the right things to earn God’s love? Or is God’s grace really a gift? Am I really accepted and loved as I am?
All of this can get exhausting!
And there, in the middle of this struggle to understand and to find our place, Jesus offers these words to all who are spiritually, mentally, and physically exhausted:
“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.”
Yes, please! Thank you, Jesus!
I love that Jesus takes this image of a yoke – that heavy ox’s collar, symbolic of hard, sweaty, dirty, burdensome labor – and transforms it, turning it on its head. The yoke of Jesus is easy and light. Jesus invites the weary not into more backbreaking, burdensome work, but into rest, renewal, and spiritual growth. To put on the yoke of Jesus is to accept this invitation and to follow where he may lead.
We don’t need to worry about debating all of the rules, knowing all the answers, fretting unnecessarily about the judgment of God (or the judgment of other people, for that matter).
Jesus said it himself in this passage. The wisdom of God, the wisdom Jesus embodied, is not revealed to those who study hard enough, work hard enough, and stress out over getting it all right. God’s wisdom and God’s grace is a gift. Those who are “infants” in faith, Jesus said, receive this gift readily. It is, perhaps, those who are as unpretentious and open as babies, who perceive this gift most clearly.
This is not to say that Jesus was anti-intellectual or anti-action. He wasn’t. It is fun, and interesting, and edifying, and important for us to study, learn, serve, and grow in our faith. But I think Jesus is saying that the right religious knowledge or proper pious behavior are not what make the gift of God’s grace take root in our hearts and in our lives. The opposite might be true, actually; we are moved by grace to seek, to deepen, to serve, to practice, and to grow.
And this is not an invitation to a life of ease. Jesus clearly knows that life is not easy sometimes. Instead, it is an invitation to be delivered from religion that feels burdensome in some way. It is an invitation to be freed from the artificial and unnecessary religious restrictions and burdens we put on ourselves and on others… you must do this… you must believe that… It is an invitation to more simply rest in God’s presence and trust in God’s love.
Rest here is, of course, more than just physical rest (although we need that too). It is soul repairing, renewing rest. It is assurance that God is present with us, and with all who are in need, bringing love, and acceptance, and peace that surpasses our human understanding.
And it seems to me that we really need that right now. There are so many anxious and weary people in the world today… worn out by these fires, and hurricanes, and floods, by acts of violence and hate, by illness, by grief… we are a weary world. We are existentially tired and spiritually tired. I know I’m feeling it and I’m sure you are too. Even those of us who are not directly affected by the most recent crises, feel it.
And sure, there is a lot of work to be done. And, of course, we pray fervently. And we, as individuals and as a church, have our roles to play in responding to the deep needs and the deep injustices of the world.
But we also can’t give what we don’t have. This journey of faith is a life-long road trip. And sometimes, when we find ourselves utterly exhausted, we need a rest stop. We need to take a moment to catch our breath (and let the Breath of God breathe on us), to quench our thirst with the Living Water, to give our worn out souls a break, stretch out our tight spirits, and get some nourishment and restored energy before we get back on the road.
We can take a rest stop on our own, of course. It can be as simple as taking a moment to take a few deep breaths, close our eyes, and turn to God in prayer.
But it is also part of what we do together as church. When we come together to worship, and pray, and sing, and read and reflect on scripture, and share in fellowship, and listen to one another, and care for one another, we are hopefully helping to provide a respite for weary souls, those of others and our own.
There is some give and take in this, of course. Sometimes ours may not be the weariest soul in the room and we can help provide rest for another. Other times, we might need to lean on others a little more and receive.
And it is always my sincere hope that something in this hour of Sunday worship we do together each week provides you not only with some inspiration, nourishment, and encouragement, but also with a rest stop, a respite, a time to really just rest in the presence of God and to be reminded that you are God’s beloved.
In addition to understanding real human suffering, Jesus also understood our human tendencies to worry and fret, sometimes unnecessarily, about doing things right and getting things done. We can work ourselves into a tizzy sometimes trying to achieve and accomplish whatever it is we’re trying to achieve and accomplish. And, in the end, neither our work, nor our selves benefit.
And so it is also into the heart of that human tendency that Jesus says, “Come to me. Take my yoke upon you – not your own, not somebody else’s. I will give you rest.”
And this is important not only because we need a respite from worrying about ourselves. But it is important for the church too. It is pretty easy sometimes to get caught up in the short-term, and the to do lists, and the problems that need attention, and the challenges that we face, and whether or not we agree with every decision made, and so on and so forth, and to lose perspective of the long-term and the big picture.
Sure, there are always things to be done. And it’s not that those things are unimportant. But this journey of faith is a long journey… one that began long before our generation, one that will continue through generations to come.
And all of us, in our own time and place, are members of God’s beloved creation, called to co-create with God a more just, peaceful, loving world. And so when we participate in a community of faith, when we invest our time, our talents, and our resources in our church community, we invest in this hopeful vision.
And we hope that the community we create together is a place where God’s love is experienced, a source of hope and help, and a place of respite where those who are weary can find some rest and renewal.
And so here’s your anti-homework for the week: Get some rest! Not only for your bodies, but rest for your soul too.