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.”