Albuquerque, New Mexico
Sunday July 3, 2011 Proper 9A
Matthew 11: 16-19, 25-30
Preacher: Christopher McLaren
Sermon: The Great Invitation: Come find rest for your souls
In the night prayers of Compline, one of the most beautiful services in our Book of Common Prayer there is a place to choose from among four different readings. One of them, a real crowd pleaser, comes from today’s reading.
Come to me, all who labor and are heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light. - Matthew 11:28-30.
In contrast one of the other readings is this show stopper:
Be sober, be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him firm in the faith. I Peter 5:8-9a.
For some reason one of these readings is chosen over and over again to the almost total neglect and exclusion of the other. Is it because we don’t want to think about the world and ourselves being contested ground in a cosmic battle? Or is it that beautiful invitations are much preferred to dire warnings? Certainly for Compline’s tuck-you-into-bed moment, one is more helpful in the sweet dreams and slumber department.
The Gospel writer in today’s lesson is struggling to capture the spiritual struggle of his generation. Human nature is described as children in a market place. “Come on lets play weddings today.” But the other group says, “No we don’t feel like celebrating.”
“Ok then lets play funeral, you can be the priest and you the undertaker” only to hear “No we don’t feel like being sad either.” No matter what is offered the children cannot seem to engage and enjoy the game.
Jesus likens all of this to his ministry and that of his cousin Johnny B. Johnny B. retreated to the desert, fasted, exposed the hypocrisy of governors and clergy alike, ate from the wild and prophesied from the margins and they called him a madman. Jesus came, telling stories, mixing with all sorts of people, showing up to parties, forgiving people, including outsiders, rubbing shoulders with all manner of dangerous and disreputable people, and touching people who were unclean and they called him a glutton and drunkard and a man with not enough sense to avoid questionable sorts. So, John’s asceticism was madness and Jesus’ sociability was moral bankruptcy.
It is as if God gave people two wildly different but beautiful ways to embrace and respond to the divine longing, but we can be like spoiled children who refuse to play no matter what the game. We are masters of the spiritual stiff-arm and the unholy nay-saying, living and breathing a hermeneutic of suspicion and punch drunk on criticism. Recently The Rev. Tom Brackett who visited St. Michael’s invited us into a hermeneutic of curiosity, an embracing of God through deep listening to one another, to the action of the Spirit in our midst and to the God-breathed happenings in our community.
Jesus says at the end of his parable of the children, “Wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.” The proof is in the pudding as we say. John may have been an isolated and wild-man-prophet with a gift for offending people but he also was amazing when it came to moving men and women’s hearts toward God through intense truth-telling and rigorous self-examination that both amazed and healed people. Jesus may have been a socialite unafraid of mixing with riff-raff but in him people found new courage to embrace life, new goodness to share, and a new freedom to be who God was calling them to be.
The lesson of the parable seems to be that responsiveness to God is everything. God can move us into a deeper spiritual life in a myriad of ways, through madmen or party-animals. The most important thing is to resist our almost automatic critical posture while fostering our willingness to trust that God is at work in us. All of a sudden the warning to be watchful of the evil one prowling around like a hungry lion seeking someone to devour is not so silly. We are surrounded by a culture that would convince us that God is not at work, that spiritual intimacy is a waste of time, that things are more important than people, and that drifting off into a place of isolation or learned powerlessness is inevitable. Who needs a community of faith and the spiritual journey?
Jesus was deeply concerned about the spiritual well-being of ordinary people. He knew that even the beauty of his own Jewish tradition, the way of Torah, could became spiritually oppressive. Some of us understand religion becoming oppressive. I remember growing up in the warmth and energy of the Pentecostal Charismatic tradition and being sent off to church summer camp. One of the tenants of this tradition was that the gift of speaking tongues was considered evidence of salvation so there was a great deal of pressure to actually have this experience. I remember attending endless church camp worship services that seemed to have as their primary goal helping children to “get saved” or to have this validating experience of the Spirit. No pressure right? Kids struggled, ached, yearned, despaired and tried like hell to have this experience and in the end it was a terrible spiritual burden that many simply relieved by inventing the movement of the Spirit. It was of course disastrous to any sort of authentic spiritual life and withering to one’s trust in the faith experience. If faith meant being a fake, a fraud, who really needed it? And then there was the expectation that when you came back from camp you would get up in front of the congregation and testify of your experience. Talk about heavy-laden. This was the kind of burden Jesus was teaching about in our passage today. The religious elites of his day had taken the beautiful way of Torah and over time, without I think intending to, made it into an oppressive and joyless system. There was so little room to succeed in one’s faith, there were far too many rules to get it all right, and there was a certain cynicism that set in quite naturally when the bar is just too high. Rather like you or I trying to learn cello from YoYo Ma or play one-on-one with Dwyane Wade.
We all know someone, perhaps ourselves, who is in spiritual recovery from one form of spiritual trauma or another. Not to put too fine a point on it but the church that is supposed to be dedicated to bringing people closer to God seems at times to be incredibly creative at inventing ways to hinder people in the spiritual journey. There is something incredibly dark about any institution, turning its back on its primary purpose. Oh, I’m sure you’ve experienced it more than once. One cannot be nourished at the communion table for this reason or that. Your marriage cannot be blessed under those circumstances. We can’t baptize your child because of your lifestyle. Or the subtle ways we communicate, “Well you’re simply really not like us and I’m not sure you belong in our cozy monoculture we call the country club, oh, I mean the church. Or shh..shhh, you really should keep your children absolutely still and quiet in church as it is ruining my worship experience. What are children doing in church anyway? There are of course various lions prowling about seeking to devour one’s spiritual life and more.
That I believe is where “The Great Invitation” of this passage makes sense.
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. - Matthew 11: 28-30<
The invitation Jesus speaks is deeply attractive to us. We may hear it as a welcome relief from the struggle and demands of modern life. There is so much to do, our tasks are so many, our expectations always expanding. And while it may in fact be an invitation that will relieve some of our day-to-day struggles it is not an invitation to inactivity. This is an invitation into spiritual intimacy with Christ. It is issued not to the work-burdened or the sin-burdened so much as it is to the spiritually-burdened. It is an invitation that is saying something like this in the words of Eugene Peterson’s The Message (Matthew 11: 28-30)
<em>Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me – watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn the live freely and lightly.</em>
Jesus is inviting each of us into a relationship that is meant to be life-giving, life-affirming, freeing and joyful. I wonder if that is how people would describe their life in Christ or the Christians they meet? My sponsoring priest was fond of saying, “have enough Christianity to make you joyful and not just enough to make you miserable.” I do not believe that Jesus is saying anything goes, just be yourself and exercise your freedom and you will find the kingdom. Rather I believe that Jesus is saying something more like don’t try to make everything so hard on yourself, don’t keep making up reasons you can’t be joyful, start trying to forgive yourself, hear the allure of my beautiful invitation to you. I love you and I want to walk with you through life: the tough things, the losses, the joys, the victories, the tensions, the challenges, the ambiguities, the passionate actions, the cold anger of injustice. I want to be your partner in it all and so does God. You are invited to follow me, to work with me, to be yoked to me, like two oxen working the field together.
The rest that is possible in life is found in the quality of the yoke one accepts. Jesus’ yoke is called easy which is another way of saying kind. A good yoke or harness is something that is carefully shaped so that there will be a minimum of chafing and discomfort in the work. I believe that in saying “learn form me” Jesus means not only listen to my teaching but also join me, become yoked to me and learn how to pull your load differently by working beside me and watching how I do it. The heavy labor of your life will seem lighter, more possible when you allow me to help you with it.
For us Jesus is wisdom, the one who shows us the good way, where the restless can find rest for their souls. This good way is not devoid of hard work or obedience for that would not be life at all. John the Baptist crying out in the wilderness demonstrated the life to be had in honesty about one’s need of God and in exposing the powers that be in this world that work against justice and freedom. Jesus demonstrated in his teaching and life the joyful obedience to God rather than a slavish devotion to rules and the exclusion of others. It is the quality of the relationship with Christ that makes our life and work good, the rest for our souls possible, and a sense that one is alive and participating in the emerging way of God. “Come to me,” is an invitation by a humble and gentle Jesus to follow him into the kingdom of God.
In following Jesus we become part of a people who know that it is not we ourselves who are in control but rather it is this gentle and humble Jesus who holds the future. Knowing that Christ holds the future we can be patient in the midst of struggle and with ourselves. In the practice of knowing Christ we are drawn into a relationship that teaches us where true freedom lies, not in a nation or an economy or a career but in learning how to live and love, how to forgive and heal, how to give and nurture and how to grow and serve like Jesus who is with us in it all. It is not that the struggles of life, the dangers of the world or the roaring lions cease to exist or affect us, it is rather that we are not alone in the struggle, for we are yoked to the source of life itself in our acceptance of the Great Invitation.
Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.