Come to me, all you that are weary . . . . it's not about relaxing!

Sermon for Proper 9A (Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30)

“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.”[1]  Oh, how comforting those words are. And how apt for a long summer day in July --- especially for those of us who are privileged to get a little more rest at this time of the year – perhaps heading out on a long vacation or working “summer hours” or having time off from school.  “Come to me, all you that are weary. . . I will give you rest.”  At first, it seems to be an invitation to settle into some Sabbath rest.  Or maybe it’s just that my mind wants to go to that place of quietness and solitude with God. Earlier in the week, I noted Eugene Peterson’s tweet “Sabbath is the time set aside to do nothing so that we can receive everything” and I thought, yes, Sabbath, yes, rest . . .  and I imagined being in that place of restfulness. [2]  Perhaps I was so quick to latch onto his words because in just two days, Andrea and I will leave for vacation, a time that we both hope will be restful, indeed. 
But, back to our text:  for those who want to connect Jesus’ invitation to “come to me . . . and I will give you rest” with the respite that Sabbath offers, we need to stop now because we are taking those words completely out of context.  It’s like reading in Scripture where it says, “Show no pity” and then basing all of your decisions on those three words pulled out of their larger context in the book of Deuteronomy, let alone their larger context in the entire biblical canon![3]  Because here’s the deal: this passage from the gospel of Matthew is not about Sabbath rest.  Rather it is about how one lives one’s life day to day.  It is about a way of doing, not a way of dawdling.
And our first clue is that this section of Matthew begins with a description of how ridiculously obtuse we humans can be.  Even when the facts are clearly set before us, we manage somehow to completely ignore them or to distort them to suit our present needs.  Jesus describes the ways in which the leaders in first-century Israel were doing just that.  When they heard children are in the town square playing dance music, they just passed on by. [4]   When they saw people wailing in the streets, perhaps crying out for justice, they ignored them.[5]  When they saw John the Baptist they ignored everything he had to say and focused instead on the way he dressed, the foods he ate and every other aspect of his non-traditional life style choices and declared “he has a demon! He’s crazy!” and, in that way, tried to persuade others to ignore him too. [6]  When they saw Jesus and the way in which he openly dined with the tax collectors and sinners, they ignored his invitation to do likewise and instead declared him to be a drunken fool because really, who, if sober, would associate with such social outcasts?[7]
Jesus has a strong word for these folks who failed to see what’s right in front of them.  He tells them that God has hidden these things from them and has, instead, revealed them to infants.[8]  And who are these infants? They are the very tax collectors and sinners with whom Jesus associates and even more – the sick, the lame, the widows, the orphans - these are the infants who are able to see Jesus for who he is.  And it makes sense, doesn’t it? Because who more than those who “have been made weary by a world that fails to comprehend the burden of injustice” are in a better position to hear and respond to one who reaches out to them and says, God wants you to be well or God wants to give you rest.[9]  But it is not rest from doing – it is not Sabbath rest. No, it is a rest that one finds by following the way of Jesus rather than following the ways of the world.  And that is why immediately after Jesus’ invitation to find rest in him, he says, “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me.”  For those of us who are not from rural areas, a yoke may need a bit of explanation.  It is a wooden crosspiece that is fastened over the necks of two animals and attached to a plow or a cart that they are to pull.  In other words it is a tool one puts on animals to help them do work – work that the farmer wants for them to do.  It is not a tool to help the animals rest!  So in this passage, Jesus is telling his followers – especially those who have been cast out by the world - to take off the yoke of the world – a yoke that for some is forced upon us through abuse and injustice and a yoke that for others among us is gladly accepted – even pursued - as we fall for the promises of a quick-fix to happiness, to health, to wealth, to independence, to popularity.
So Jesus says, let that go.  “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens.” Put that all down.  And accept instead the yoke of Jesus:  a yoke that binds us one to another, a yoke that in the hands of Jesus will guide us in the ways of Jesus, a yoke that will give us the strength and the stamina to work alongside God and one another to bring about God’s reign on earth.  Rev. Lance Pape describes this yoke as “a purpose that demands your all and summons forth your best.”[10] Pape goes on to say that putting on the yoke of Jesus means working “to see God’s Kingdom realized . . . toward a certain future in which all of God’s dreams will finally come true.”[11]  Accepting the yoke of Jesus means working from wherever we are to continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers.  Accepting the yoke of Jesus means persevering in resisting evil, and, whenever we fall into sin, repenting and returning to the Lord.   It means proclaiming by word and example the Good News of God in Christ. It means seeking and serving Christ in all persons, loving our neighbors as ourselves.  Putting on the yoke of Jesus means striving for justice and peace among all people, and respecting the dignity of every human being.  In other words, accepting the yoke of Jesus is what each of us has done in our baptism.  And all of this, to be sure, is a far cry from the rest that many of us may have been thinking of when we first heard this familiar passage. 
And so while the temptation to hear this passage as an invitation to enjoy the long days of summer by relaxing at the beach with a good book, the rewards of choosing once again to take on the yoke of Jesus are far greater and will last much longer.  The promise of the yoke of Jesus is a new freedom and a new happiness that is not fleeting.   The promise of walking in the yoke of Jesus is certainty about our purpose in the world because we will be acting out of the very purpose for which God created us.  And we will come to know peace and serenity and rest for our souls.[12] 

[1] Matthew 11:28.
[2] Eugene Peterson (@PetersonDaily), July 5, 2017, 6:16 AM.
[3] Cf. Deuteronomy 19:13a, 19:21a, 25:12b.
[4] Matthew 11:16b.
[5] Matthew 11:17.
[6] Matthew 11:18.
[7] Matthew 11:18-19a.
[8] Matthew 11:25.
[9] William Goettler, “Proper 9 (Sunday between July 3 and July 9 Inclusive): Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30, Pastoral Perspective, Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A, Volume 3: Pentecost and Season after Pentecost (Propers 3-16), Kindle edition, edited by David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), location 7697-7701.
[10] Lance Pape, “Proper 9 (Sunday between July 3 and July 9 Inclusive): Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30, Homiletical Perspective, Feasting on the Word, location 7795-7799.
[11] Pape, location 7800.
[12] Some may find here a similarity between the Promises of Alcoholics Anonymous as found on pp. 83-84 of The Big Book and the promise of putting on the yoke of Jesus. This is intentional on my part.  The chapter “Taking Action” in The Big Book in which The Promises appear outlines steps 5 through 12 which take an Alcoholic through the steps of letting go of the world’s ‘yokes’ (including the yoke of alcohol dependence) and taking on the yoke of God. The easily remembered 12-step phrase “Let Go, and Let God” was never about not doing the legwork.  It was and is about letting go of the world’s yokes (including our dependence on alcohol) and putting on the yoke of God which will guide us to a new way, a new path, “a new freedom and a new happiness” as “we will suddenly realize that God is doing for us what we could not do for ourselves.”


Say Their Names

Proper 7A

Trayvon Martin, Sandra Bland, Kathryn Johnston, Sean Bell, Eric Garner, Rekia Boyd, Amadou Diallo, Mike Brown, Kimani Gray, Kenneth Chamberlain, Travares McGill, Tamir Rice, Aiyana Stanley-Jones, Freddie Gray,  Philando Castile.  We need to say their names.  These lives are linked one to another – each of them a person of color killed by law enforcement.  And in each case, the court said “No conviction.”  We can look at them case by case and try to pick apart the details, to try to explain the outcome – try to justify the killing or to justify the verdict.  But when we take them as a whole, what we have is a picture of injustice, a picture of inequity, and we see the face of systemic racism. But we must say their names.  Because when we say a name, it is harder to look away and pretend we cannot see.  When we have a name, we begin to hear a story.  
This is Tamir, he’s 12, he likes to play with his airsoft toy gun in the park, pretending perhaps to be a police officer or maybe an FBI agent like the ones he sees on TV.  This is Tamir, he was 12.  He was playing in the park with his toy gun when he was shot by Timothy Loehmann, a police officer. 
We need to say their names. We need to look and to see. We need to hear stories.  This morning’s Old Testament reading from Genesis is interesting, isn’t it?  It’s a story of a boy who is cast aside by his father – thrown out of the house along with his mother.  But did you notice anything about the story?  There are two boys in the story but only one of them has a name.  That named boy is Isaac.  We will hear his name again later in the service when we pray to the Lord God of our Fathers and Mothers: God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  But that other boy? The one placed under one of the bushes to die of thirst? That son of an Egyptian slave woman?  He has a name too.  But to find out his name, we have to go back 5 chapters in the story to learn that Abram’s wife, Sarai, who could bear no children, gave her slave-girl Hagar to Abram and said, “You see that the Lord has prevented me from bearing children; go in to my slave-girl; it may be that I shall obtain children by her” and Abram does what Sarai asks and Hagar conceives and bears a son and calls him Ishmael.[1]  It is Ishmael that Abraham, at Sarah’s request, casts out of his home.  It is Ishmael who is cast under the bushes to die.  He has a name. He has a story.  This same Ishmael goes on to become an important prophet and patriarch of Islam.  Muslims believe that Muhammad was the descendant of Ishmael and that he would indeed go on to establish a great nation, as promised by God in our passage from Genesis.  But in our story, he doesn’t even have a name.
When we cannot be bothered to learn and say a person’s name it is too easy to make all kinds of assumptions based on stereotypes.  For example, listen to these words from rapper J. Cole’s song “Neighbors” [Warning: explicit lyrics]:

We must say their names.  Because when we say a name, it is harder to look away and pretend we cannot see.  When we say a name, we begin to hear a story – this is Philando, he’s 32, he enjoys spending time with his sister and with his girlfriend.   
This is Philando, he was 32. He just got a hair cut, ate dinner with his sister, and picked up his girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, and her 4-year old daughter, at his apartment. He was pulled over by an officer because of a problem with his brake light.  He was shot by officer Jeronimo Yanez – in front of his girlfriend her her daughter. Philando died.  That officer’s was acquitted of all charges on Friday, June 16, 2017 and he is a free man. 
Ishmael, Tamir, Philando.  We must say their names.  Because when we say a name, it is harder to look away and pretend you cannot see.  When you have a name, you begin to hear a story and the story you hear again and again and again in this country is that if you are a person with black or brown skin your life matters less than the lives of those with skin like mine. 
But there is another story.  And that story has the power to change our hearts and to transform our broken systems and institutions. And it is the story of God’s justice and God’s love.  A justice that rolls down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.[2]  A love that can create newness out of those that society cast outs - a woman named Hagar, her son Ishmael, and a man named Jesus of Nazareth.  Their lives ended but let the story begin anew with thesenames: Trayvon, Sandra, Kathryn, Sean, Eric, Rekia, Amadou, Mike, Kimani, Kenneth, Travares, Tamir, Aiyana, Freddie, Philando.  May we work alongside God to create a great nation because they are our offspring, they are God’s beloved.

[1] Genesis 16:2-16. Note that in this story there is already another injustice as Sarai casts out a pregnant Hagar who only returns when an angel of the Lord visits her to tell her to “submit” to Sarai.
[2] Amos 5:24.


Ordinary Lives Transformed

Trinity Sunday

Jesus’ expectation couldn’t be clearer than it is in this morning’s reading from Matthew: “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”[1] There is perhaps nothing I enjoy more in my vocation as a priest than baptizing adults, children or infants – the surprised look as cold water is poured onto a person’s head (even adults and older children who are expecting it, get this look as if nothing can really prepare them for the moment when the same ordinary water – now blessed by God – touches the skin.  The same water we bathe in, swim in, wash dishes in – water now blessed but ordinary in every other way.  I love to hear the congregation’s heart-felt “We will with God’s help” in response to the question, “Will you who witness these vows do all in your power to support this person in their life in Christ?”[2] and then at the conclusion of the rite “We receive you into the household of God.”[3]  We receive you.  How different those three words are from Jesus’ command “Go and make disciples” – “we receive you.” The first a command, the second, an invitation – “we receive you” – like we receive a gift from a dear friend. Because, of course, baptism is a gift. God as the gift-giver and the household of God – you and I and now too the newly baptized –the recipients.
I think in our times, we tend to hear the words “Go and make disciples” as at best unenlightened and, at worst, offensive.  There is a certain forcefulness to the words – and perhaps even an implicit suggestion that our way, the Christian Way, is the only right path.  And so in a time such as we live in where Jews and Muslims and Buddhists and Baha'i and Hindu and . . . all live, work, study and play side by side, how do we faithfully respond to this command? But balance this, of course, with the statistics that indicate an estimated 55.8 million Americans have no religious affiliation whatsoever; that’s more than 20% of the population.[4]  We live, work, study and play side by side with them as well.  So, how do we faithfully respond to Jesus’ command?
The answer I believe lies in the stories we tell.  The biblical story – yes, of course; but as importantly, our own stories.  For those who have come to the Christian faith as adults, these are the stories of what life was like before and what it is like now - stories of transformation:
  • A story of being lost in the consequences of poor decisions and being found by a God who forgives and offers another way. 
  • A story of wandering aimlessly until finding a home in Christianity where they were welcomed just as they are. 
  • A story of chaotic living through addiction to a life transformed into serenity and freedom by the grace of God and a loving community.
For those of us who have been Christians all of our lives, finding our story may take a bit more work. There doesn’t always seem to be a clean thread of before and after.  But dig a little and you will find stories to share – after all, even life-long Christians experience times of loss and suffering, grief and despair, doubt and even periods of disbelief.  And, more times than not, we come out of those experiences strengthened and renewed, perhaps even with a clarity of life focus.
My Mom
In my own story there have been a couple of “BIG” moments of transformation.  Some of you may already be familiar with a couple of these:
  • The diagnosis of my mom’s leukemia when I was just 12 years old 
  • The acknowledgement of my addiction to alcohol when I was 31
Those are two turning points in my story – two times in which I am acutely aware of a before and an after – two times in which I can only think of the after in terms of the grace of God and the community of other Christians in my life.  You probably have some of those “big” moments as well.  And then there are the smaller moments – times when the word “transformation” seems a bit too big for the occasion – but a moment nonetheless when we’ve known God.  Again, a couple of examples from my own life: 
  • That time I climbed to the top of Cadillac Mountain in Maine by myself and sat down on a rock overlooking Bar Harbor and knew I was in the presence of God or
  • That time when I watched a teenager elevate the host in a communion service because no one told him “it was the priest’s job” and, in that moment, it was exactly right and God was praised. 
Like the waters of baptism, these smaller moments are really just ordinary places, times, and things – blessed by God – transforming those who are touched by them.
The view from Cadillac Mountain
Jesus says, “Go and make disciples.”  And we can.  Because we have stories.  Jesus knew the power of a good story. His ministry is filled with parables – stories about very ordinary things (a woman sweeping her house to find a lost coin, a man burying his treasure in the ground so he won’t lose it, a rebellious son leaving home to figure things out for himself, a sick man on the side of the road) - ordinary lives, ordinary objects, blessed by God, and transformed into hopefulness, promise, love, healing and reconciliation.  Your story is no different – perhaps a relatively ordinary life filled with ordinary things – lives and things, blessed by God and transformed and renewed. 
I haven’t forgotten the rest of Jesus’ command because, of course, he doesn’t just say, “go and make disciples.”  He tells us how to do it – we are to “baptize them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”  But what is baptism?  It “is the sacrament by which God adopts us as his children and makes us members of Christ’s Body, the Church, and inheritors of the kingdom of God.”[5]  Notice the actor – it’s not you and it’s not me. It is God. Baptism is what God does; it is how God adopts us.  So what about you and me?  What i’ our role?  We tell stories. So perhaps for now, we can just hold onto that first part of Jesus’ command and get about the business of doing it.  Go and tell the story of your life, talk about how God has been and continues to transform your life and, if it is a part of your story, tell how St. Mark’s is a part of that story and invite your co-worker, your classmate, your playmate, your neighbor to come and see how God might be working in their life too.  Invite them to come and see a community where ordinary water, blessed by God, has the power to transform lives.  Go and make disciples.  God will take care of the rest.

[1] Matthew 28:19
[2] BCP, 303.
[3] BCP, 308.
[4] Michael Lipka, “A Closer Look at America’s Rapidly Growing Religious ‘Nones,’” Pew Research Center, May 13, 2015, http://pewrsr.ch/1L1D5KW, accessed June 8, 2017.
[5] BCP, 858.