“Finding Rest for Our Souls in Times Like These” Matthew 11:16-19,25-30
Delivered to Church for the Highlands
Sunday, July 5, 2020
How many of you feel rested this morning? This is a holiday weekend, one when we typically take a break from work and enjoy celebrating our freedom as Americans. I was having a restful day until the fireworks started up in my neighborhood, a barrage of mortars popping one after another until early in the morning hours. I finally went to sleep but woke up feeling weary. Next year, I’m going to get a truckload of fireworks and set them off at the crack of dawn on July 5, just to share a little love with my neighbors. Chances are, you too may not be feeling rested. Our feeling of weariness may be just one kind of weariness we are experiencing, as there are fireworks and noises of other kinds going off in our lives right now. We may be looking for rest on a much deeper level as we gather here today.
The words we have heard from Jesus this morning in Matthew’s Gospel tell us how to find rest for our souls, advice we certainly need in these times. The first step in finding the rest we need is in seeing just what is keeping us from it. Jesus knew the people around him were in need of rest, that their souls were burdened. He could hear it in their voices, see it in their faces, experience it in their responses. The first part of our reading from Matthew today gives some indication of why they were burdened as Jesus addressed the rejection of John the Baptist and what God called him to say to Israel. Jesus also commented on the kingdom of heaven suffering from violence. The leadership and powerful in Israel were out of step with God and were oppressing the most vulnerable in their society. Jesus would use a lot of words pointing out the burdens they had created for themselves and for the people they led. I think he is speaking to them here just as he was to the people who they mistreated. And Jesus was familiar with their burdens, knowing what it was like to be poor, marginalized, and scapegoated. What he couldn’t personally sympathize, he could empathize, listening to the hurt in the voice of someone with leprosy, seeing the torment of demon possession, hearing the anguish of a parent who loses a child, entering into the hunger of a person with nothing to eat, and noting the weight of legalism and the futility of never being able to measure up to the perfection of the laws of their religious leaders. He could see the damage their burdens were doing to their souls.
In this day and time, we are familiar with burdens too, aren’t we? If we haven’t been burdened by much in the past, we as humans certainly are now as we are faced with an existential threat to our species. Even if we don’t get infected with the virus, we are affected by what it has done to our schools, families, businesses, and economic security. The burden of this pandemic is on all of us, but even more so on those who already had enough burdens to carry. This disease has disproportionately affected the BIPOC among us, as they have less access to healthcare and resources than other people. We are also burdened by the turmoil in our nation, as we still haven’t addressed the problems of racism and discrimination. There are also the burdens we carry akin to the ones Jesus addresses here in this text, those religious burdens we carry, the ones that may not have anything to do with God at all. They are not only heavy and serve only to separate us from the real life we can have with God. They also separate us from each other, a truth so many white people of faith are recognizing here in our nation that we aren’t truly free because our Black sisters and brothers aren’t free. As poet and Jewish activist Emma Lazarus wrote many years ago, “Until we are all free, we are none of us free.” I really don’t need to go on about our burdens, do I? This is the first time I’ve preached on this text without having to help people see their burdens. These days, you and I can’t miss them and the weight they impose on our shoulders.
The solution Jesus offers for our burdens is one he can provide. As Jesus looked at his followers and others, he said to them, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” This invitation was much like one his hearers were probably familiar with, especially from various parts of Proverbs, like 9:5-6 which personifies wisdom as a woman calling out to people, “You that are simple, turn in here! To those without sense she says, “Come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed. Lay aside immaturity, and live, and walk in the way of insight.” Here Jesus is the wisdom his followers and all of Israel need to hear and follow. He recognizes that the foolish will not understand him just like they didn’t get John the Baptist and other prophets. They, though, should be like infants, not like older children playing games with the truth. They can come and find rest and relief from misdirected efforts, of the weariness of life and its burdens.
The invitation we have from Jesus to find rest. And we can go to Jesus and find that rest too. Aren’t you in need of rest, real rest from the burdens you’ve been carrying and struggling under in your life? Author and contemplative Cynthia Bourgeault points out what burdens can do to keep us from resting in God, “We spend so much of our adult energies thinking, planning, worrying, trying to get ahead or stay afloat, that we lose touch with that natural intimacy with God deep within us.” There are plenty of offers we receive from things or people who advertise rest but none of them live up to their billing. None of them come even close to providing the real rest Jesus provides. The challenge for us is in being wise enough to say no to the other things, people, places that beckon to us. Taking Jesus up on his invitation happens when we listen to his words, watch his actions, follow his wisdom, abide in his love, and do his assignments. It requires our choice and willingness to trust him and his ability to relieve us of our burdens and refresh our weary souls. Has that been your choice? Have you gone to Jesus?
Going to Jesus is only part of what will give us rest. The other part is what may actually sound like another burden. That may be what people thought when they heard Jesus say, “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me . . .” But Jesus goes on to say, “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.” They were familiar with a yoke for livestock but they also knew that a yoke was a reference to obedience to the Torah. If they were to understand God’s words for them, Jesus said they should listen to him as he would teach them what God’s words meant and how they were to live by them. His teaching of the Torah would free them from unnecessary and oppressive burdens put on them by other teachers. His teaching would give them what their souls needed the most. It would get them in what the Message translates as “the unforced rhythms of grace.”
In order to find true rest for our souls, we must take on the yoke of Jesus. We do this when we allow Jesus to be our Teacher, our guide for God’s words; letting Jesus be the lens by which we see the rest of the Bible. When we do that, we allow Jesus to get us into the proper rhythm of grace and law, understanding how the two fit together in a way that gives us freedom and life. When we get in the yoke with Jesus, we find our true work in life, working for the right things and for the right causes, experiencing the fulfillment of being in sync with God’s work in the world as we walk with Jesus.
On Friday, we watched Hamilton on Disney. We were able to see it in person last year on Broadway and were excited that it can now be watched on TV, especially since we had nose bleed seats at the theater. You are probably familiar with the story, with it being about Alexander Hamilton, one of the founding fathers and his role in declaring independence from England. As I watched again, I picked up on the intensity of emotion Hamilton, Jefferson, and others felt after gaining freedom from a tyrannical king. One thing noted throughout the play about Hamilton is the amount of work he put into it all, but especially after their freedom was won. His wife and others would say often that he wrote and worked as though he was running out of time. The work now was different, though, as it was in building something better. Hamilton was back in a yoke but now one that was no longer harsh but restful, one that was creating a better world
In the same way, we will find rest from our burdens when we enter into the yoke of Jesus, sharing the load with him as we work together to make a better world for all. As we now partake in Communion, may we hear the words of invitation Jesus gives us again, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.”
So let us now go to him.