July 30, 2017 Matthew 11:16-30
Did anyone else find themselves a bit lost in or confused by that text? To me, it seems all over the place. First there’s an obscure image of children in a marketplace; then Jesus is full of rage, denouncing all these cities that have refused to be transformed by his acts of power and healing; then after his angry rant he stops and prays; and finally, he issues this gorgeous invitation to find rest for our heavy burdens and weary souls. This month you all have been talking about health. Tammy began with an overview, using the story of Daniel in the court of King Nebuchadnezzar to talk about the importance of our connection with God, because that is what helps us love and care for ourselves and make healthy choices. And then the youth group told stories about their trip to the Campbell Farm, which was a practice of spiritual and emotional health through connection with neighbors, serving others and learning about a different culture. And last week Lara discussed caring for our bodies, and learning to see ourselves with loving eyes, just as God sees us. Today’s gospel text is about health too. The message seems simple: Jesus is offering us rest for our weary bodies and souls. And in part, this is true. But, the preacher’s job is to dig deeper, and as I dug, I discovered that this text is about so much more. It goes far beyond the simple message of: Come to Jesus, and all your troubles will melt away. Come to Jesus, and you’ll never worry about anything again. Come to Jesus, because life with him is easy, light and free of burdens. These common interpretations miss the mark. And to reduce the text to the mildmannered Jesus, priest to the status quo who simply offers rest in exchange for repentance of 2 sins is to both spiritualize and depoliticize its message and the One who constantly and courageously spoke truth to power every opportunity he had. So, let’s dig a little deeper together. The historical background is the Roman Empire, and life is not easy for Matthew’s community. Both the political authorities and the religious leaders are completely out of touch with the people. The government and religious institutions are set up to benefit those with wealth and power while oppressing the poor, the sick, the outcast. There are lots of rules imposed by both the government and religious leaders about how one is expected to live and to act, especially on the Sabbath. And, the general milieu is everyone for themselves – no concern for the common good – it’s about surviving and rising up the social ladder at all cost. So, when John the Baptist and Jesus burst onto the scene claiming a new way to live that has less to do with dogma and doctrine and more to do with kindness, peace and compassion – well, they weren’t exactly welcomed with open arms. John the Baptist comes out of the wilderness eating locusts and preaching repentance, and they accuse him of being possessed by a demon. Jesus shares food and wine with others and welcomes ALL to his table and he is called a glutton and drunkard. Jesus is not happy with the state of things. Starting in v. 20, Jesus gives a tongue-lashing to several of the cities where he had been teaching and preaching. I can almost imagine him beat-red in the face with wild, rage-filled eyes, his arms waving in utter disgust, shouting: “Woe to you, Chorazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum!” He has shown these incredible acts of healing and power in multiple cities, and still, the people refuse to leave their lives of privilege to follow him. Jesus promises rest and restoration and freedom from an oppressive regime and demanding religious laws if people will only repent from their selfish ways and instead turn to a 3 life of compassion and hospitality, taking care of the poor and seeking justice for those who need it most. A couple of weeks ago, Rev. Traci Blackmon, Executive Minister of the UCC along with Rev. William Barber and several other clergy marched to Capitol Hill and gathered outside Senator Mitch McConnell’s office to stand against the proposed healthcare reform bill. Blackmon and Barber and their colleagues protested peacefully but their message was clear and filled with righteous anger. Blackmon said, “Any healthcare reform that denies access to healthcare coverage for an additional 22 million of the most vulnerable citizens among us is wickedness. Any healthcare coverage that provides less for the least than it does for the most is wickedness. Any legislation that punishes poverty for the sake of greed is wickedness.” You can almost hear the implicit “Woe to yous,” can’t you? Those clergy poured out their anger; they demanded justice; they prayed. About a month ago in Minnesota, people took to the streets after a police officer was acquitted in the killing of yet another black man, Philando Castille, whom he shot 5 times during a traffic stop last year. Tired, confused and angry protestors held signs and banners depicting Castile’s face, as they chanted, “No justice, no peace” and “Black lives, they matter here.” They poured out their anger; they demanded justice; many of them prayed. And on Wednesday morning I awoke to news of Trump’s terrible tweet banning transgender service members from the military, saying the military cannot be “burdened with the tremendous medical costs and disruption” this would cause. He didn’t even acknowledge the many trans men and women who are already serving the military with courage and deep loyalty. My Facebook community was enraged, posting angry, red-in-the-face emoticons and 4 vowing to stand with transgender people and join them in fighting for their rights. Many posted this powerful message: “Transgender people are the most courageous people I know,” and I agree. I feel irate about this; I want justice; I cry and I pray but mostly and I fall silent, not knowing what to say or do. After Jesus condemns the cities for their shameful and unjust behavior, he stops and he prays. Perhaps Jesus didn’t know what else to do in that moment BUT pray. Perhaps he was so angry he just needed to collect himself and take a deep breath. Perhaps he is re-centering himself, remembering why he’s in this game in the first place. He stops and he prays and he gives thanks for the opportunity to be in partnership with God in the work of healing and reconciliation and redemption. Those of you who meditate or practice centering prayer understand the power of this transition. We can’t sustain the high levels of anger and emotion in this work for peace and justice without mindfulness and prayer, without some silence and rest and connection with God. It’s only then, when Jesus has calmed down, and only after he says thank you to God is he able to invite us to him. v. 28 – “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.” To whom is Jesus speaking here? I think he’s talking to all of us. He’s talking to the oppressed poor and the broken-hearted, the undocumented and the homeless. He’s talking to the black mothers who continue to lose their sons at the hands of police, and he’s talking to those whose very lives are at risk if they lose their healthcare. He’s reminding them that God 5 always stands on the side of the weary and heavily burdened, the powerless and disenfranchised. But, he is also speaking to those of us who have wealth and power and privilege, those of us who have good healthcare and are able to own a home and who have the color of skin that doesn’t cause us to worry that our lives could end during a routine traffic stop. And Jesus is also asking us to join him in the work of restoring tired souls and restoring a weary world. He reminds us that we must get angry, and we must call out the injustice around us. But we also must take a deep breath, and center ourselves, and pray. Jesus says that in him we will ALL find rest, and he offers each one of us the opportunity to make an intentional choice to live differently, to take on the values of inclusiveness and equity and abundance for all. Jesus says that to follow him is to find spiritual health, rest for our souls. So for some of us, this invitation to rest is exactly what we need because life is just so hard all of the time. And for some of us, this “rest” is, as Walter Brueggemann calls it, an “act of resistance.” Life following Jesus will not be easy or free of burdens. Life with Jesus will be full of angry moments, just like we’ve seen in this text. Life following Jesus will ask us to make uncomfortable decisions sometimes. And life with Jesus will not be without sacrifice – it may ask us to let go of some of our privilege so that others may find the seat they deserve at the table. It may ask us to speak out against injustice, even in our own families and even at the risk of burning some of our most beloved bridges. John Pavlovitz is a pastor who writes a popular blog called “Stuff that needs to be said.” He has written seething posts about “so-called Christians” who are doing nothing to speak out against the cruelty and injustice happening in our government – those who choose to turn a 6 blind eye toward the Muslim bans and racist Cabinet appointments, the disregard for the environment and the cruel healthcare proposals. Pavlovitz talks about how hard and frightening it can be to resist the status quo. And he says we all have to make a conscious choice, every day, to live from the core of our faith in a kind and loving God. He says this is not easy, and it’s painful, and he’s lost beloved relationships following this dangerous path. He says, I am committed to “speaking unapologetic truth about the things that matter the most to me. I am enduring the collateral damage of full authenticity. I am clinging tightly to my integrity and my sanity—even if I have to let go of these treasured relationships to do it. I’m holding onto my soul at any cost, because in the end it is worth more to me than even they are. More than appeasing someone else or accommodating their prejudices, I need to be able to look myself in the mirror and to sleep at night…” I know that to some degree we all are tired. Our souls are beat down; we are weary and frustrated and sometimes feel hopeless at that state of the world and by the state of our own country and its leadership. But the good news is that there is freedom in heeding Jesus’ call, “Come to me….” It is only by taking up Jesus yolk – the burden of the poor and oppressed – that we find our burden is finally bearable because we do not carry it alone. One commentator says that to translate v. 30 as “my yoke is easy” is to miss the mark. He says that more accurately Jesus says “my yolk is lovingkindness.” By coming to Jesus we learn to care for all of God’s people and our souls are saved. And I don’t mean that we are saved from eternal hellfire and damnation. Our souls are saved from crippling apathy and inaction; our souls are saved from dominant cultural messages that tell us that white skin is more important than black or brown skin. Our souls are saved from believing that our religion is the only right and true path 7 to God. Our souls are saved from the idea that we need only worry about our own health and wellness rather than fight for access to healthcare for all of our brothers and sisters. So, is finding spiritual health worth the sacrifice? What do we gain in coming to Jesus? Here are just a few things: we find passion for something real and just and true – our lives take on deep meaning and purpose; we gain connections with others who are also willing to sacrifice comfort and privilege for the sake of the common good; and, we gain a more expansive community of faith with a far bigger table. Perhaps, most importantly, we gain freedom and rest for our weary souls. There’s a quote that I love, credited to aboriginal activists in Australia in the 1970s who were trying to raise awareness of racism and colonialism’s impact on the lives of the aboriginal people. They said this to those who came wanting to help: “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” We don’t gain spiritual health by maintaining the status quo or buying into what our culture tells us is most important. We don’t gain spiritual health by only caring for ourselves and rejecting our neighbors. We find spiritual health by following the path of Jesus. So resist! Get angry! Stand for something you believe in. And don’t forget to stop once in a while and take a deep breath. Or pray. These will sustain you, just as they sustained Jesus in his mission. I want to close with the verses from Isaiah that were read earlier, because they hold this beautiful promise. 1 Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. 8 2 When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. Come to me, and I will be with you. Come to me, and the rivers shall not overwhelm you. Come to me, and the flames will not consume you. Come to me and this hard and arduous work for justice will not swallow you. For we carry Jesus’ yolk of lovingkindness together. May we all rest in and find freedom in this.