“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” Matthew 11:28
A Buddhist monk visiting New York was told by his Western host that they could save ten minutes by making a complex transfer in the subway at Grand Central Station. When they emerged from the underground in Central Park, the monk sat down on a bench. His host wanted to know what he was doing. “I thought we should enjoy the ten minutes,” the monk replied.[i]
I’m awed by people like this monk, the ones who are able to find stillness in the midst of chaos, the ones who always seem to keep their priorities in order. When we hear Jesus say today, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest,” I feel a deep and immediate longing for that rest. But I rarely know how to experience it.
I’m not going to stand up here and pretend like I’ve cracked the code to finding the rest that Jesus describes. That would be hypocritical of me. I’m preaching today from the struggle. The struggle of feeling weary and the struggle to find true rest.
Jesus was probably in need of some rest himself. John the Baptist is in prison, and Jesus has been pressed to defend his cousin against accusations of demon possession, among other things. Jesus is clearly fed up with all the people who behave like children, throwing tantrums when they don’t get their own way. He’s taking criticism from all sides for spending time with tax collectors and sinners and all kinds of disreputable people. And because he loves sharing a meal with such people, he’s also being called a glutton and a drunkard. In the verses that are left out in the middle of today’s gospel, Jesus calls out several cities that have rejected his ministry and miracles. He has some harsh words for them.
Any one of those things would have been challenging but together they sound exhausting. It’s enough to make me feel a little foolish. Sure, I’m tired. It’s been a busy few months. But am I tired because I’ve been spending time with folks who have been rejected and judged by society? Am I tired in the pursuit of justice for them? Not really.
Jesus is forever trying to sneak away for some quiet time to pray and rest, but the crowds almost always find him. Whether he tries to hike up a mountain or take a boat to the other side of a lake, the people can’t seem to leave him alone. No wonder he can fall asleep in boats during storms.
As Jews, Jesus and the disciples would know the commandment to remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy. And lest we think that this commandment is designed to make us feel guilty about our struggles to find Sabbath rest in our lives, let’s remember that the commandments were given to the Jewish people after God had led them out of slavery in Egypt. As slaves, they had been forced by Pharaoh to work all day, every day. There was no relief from the back-breaking labor that they endured. It was about producing more, working more, building more.
For people who remembered what slavery was like, the commandment to rest one day out of seven wasn’t a guilt-inducing obligation. It was a celebration that they were no longer held captive by the powers of empire. Sabbath was a gift of freedom, a gift to be cherished and honored.
Come, and I will give you rest, Jesus says. He knows that we’re captives in our own way. We’re held captive by our phones, by the unreasonable expectations of our work, by our kids’ unrelenting activity schedules and social calendars. Sometimes we’re captive to our unrealistic expectations of ourselves. Or to all the things about which we worry even though we can’t control or change them.
In her book titled Sabbath in the Suburbs: A Family’s Experiment with Holy Time, MaryAnn McKibben Dana describes her family’s efforts to keep the Sabbath for one year. They choose Saturday as a day to be intentional about spending time together as a family doing simple things, limiting their time in front of screens, finding rest. For MaryAnn and her husband, it meant a commitment to taking care of errands and work-related tasks on other days.
As you might imagine, their experiment was challenging. They had many stops and starts along the way, but even when they struggled, their ongoing conversations about priorities were useful.
One thing MaryAnn discovered is that she needed to think about Sabbath in terms not just of one day a week, but as a general approach to every day. She invented a word – “Sabbathly.” To do things Sabbathly is to do them with attention and awareness. In her words:
During the week we can do our work Sabbathly: feeling the warm water on our hands as we do the dishes, driving the speed limit, pushing the mower over the lawn, completely there. We can go at the pace required for the work: not too fast, not too slow.
We can be with people Sabbathly: looking them in the eyes, not over their shoulder or down at our smart phones; laughing with them; acting as if we have all the time in the world, even if we don’t.
We can observe the Sabbath Sabbathly: making the decision that even if the work is pulling at us, we are going to focus our attention elsewhere. We can act ourselves into a different way of being.[ii]
I love the idea of approaching daily life Sabbathly. But if we’re not careful, it can begin to sound a bit self-helpy. As we seek to live more Sabbathly, we remember that we are not dependent solely on our own fortitude. Come to me and I will give you rest, Jesus says. It is a gift, there for us to receive. We don’t manufacture rest. We receive it. Why would we routinely squander such a beautiful gift?
Here’s where the image of the yoke is important. Jesus says, ““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.” Jesus invites us to be yoked to him. Yokes have typically been symbols of oppression. In Jesus’ time they were placed on oxen, on slaves, on prisoners of war to subjugate them. But the yoke has also been used in Jewish tradition to represent the difficult but joyous task of obedience to the law.[iii]
Jesus invites us to be yoked – to be joined – to his mission and ministry in the world. He’s not offering an easy life of leisure. But he is offering a life of humble service in which whatever we do is joined to his mercy and compassion. When both our work and our rest flow from his goodness, we do receive rest and renewal for weary bodies, minds, and souls.
Hear again his invitation: “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ
[i] From Sabbath in the Suburbs: A Family’s Experiment with Holy Time by MaryAnn McKibben Dana
[ii] Sabbath in the Suburbs, p. 23.
[iii] Thank you to Elisabeth Johnson for her commentary found here: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=970
Matthew 10:40-42 and The Prodigal Son (from the Spark Bible)
“Whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.” Matthew 10:42
We had a great week of Vacation Bible School at the Barnyard Roundup. All of it was fun – music, crafts, games, snacks, Bible stories – but this year we had the added treat of getting to meet some animal friends. Luther, our wonder dog with keen shepherding instincts, helped us think about how Jesus the Good Shepherd is constantly trying to keep us together as a unified flock.
We also met two four-month old goats – Clover and Finlay – this week. We learned that they can be very snuggly, curling up in the laps of their owners to have their fur rubbed. And they can definitely keep the foliage in your yard trimmed back with their voracious appetites. But they have a tendency to run away, so they require some good strong fencing. And they seem to have a natural instinct for butting heads with each other, which we saw them do several times during their visit.
On Wednesday we were delighted to meet Dick Olsen’s hen named Alicia. We learned quite a bit about chickens, including the fact that when we say a place has a pecking order, we owe that colorful description to the chickens. They establish a clear chain of dominance that determines who has the power – including who gets to eat first. But they also know how to protect their young, gathering their chicks under their wings for safety. It’s an image on which Jesus draws when he says to the people of Jerusalem: “How often I wanted to gather your children together, just as a hen gathers her brood under her wings” (Luke 13:34).
I was struck by the fact that we as humans share many of the same instincts as the barnyard animals. We can be tender and compassionate. We protect those we love. But we also know how to butt heads with each other and how to create power differences that determine who has access to food and other basic needs. And we wander sometimes. Boy, can we wander. Even when we know the path we should take, even when it’s so clearly laid out before us, we can find ourselves heading in an entirely different direction. It’s one of many reasons that we need a shepherd.
We explored several Bible stories throughout the week, usually by acting them out together. I love all the stories, but the highlight for me this week was the story of the Lost Son – also known as the Prodigal Son.
That younger son is the ultimate wanderer. Fed up with a boring, responsible life on the family farm, he persuades his father to let him have his inheritance now. And then he’s off – down the road toward a life of freedom and fun. I always imagine this younger son as smart and charming. I bet he makes friends easily and usually gets his way. What we know for sure is that he eventually runs out of money, and before he has to dedicate himself to a life of feeding pigs, he decides to go back home and face the music. Expecting to be admonished and relegated to a life among the servants, he is surprised to find the open arms of his father. Instead of a father’s fury, this wayward son finds forgiveness.
One of the questions I often ask the kids is “Why did Jesus tell this story? What was he trying to help us understand?” When I asked them what they thought Jesus was telling us in the story of the Lost Son, they had lots of wonderful answers. Maybe Jesus is telling us not to run away. Jesus is telling us that we can have second chances. Jesus is teaching us about forgiveness.
One of my favorite answers was this: “He’s telling us that we’re all part of the family.”
We are all part of the family. Indeed we are. We are part of the family of God even – perhaps especially – when we don’t deserve it, when we try to wander away from the flock and go our own way, when we find ourselves in desperation turning back toward home, when we are surprised by the welcome we receive.
The families into which we are born are not perfect. Neither are church families. But in their better versions, these families are places where we learn to give and to receive care. They teach us something about forgiveness and mercy and coming home.
Our brief gospel for today is yet another part of those long-winded instructions that Jesus is giving the disciples as he prepares them to be missionaries who will go out into the world in his name. Remember that up until this point he has described in gruesome detail the persecutions they will face and the conflicts they will endure – including conflicts within their own families.
Now he gives them a glimmer of hope. What may save them is hospitality. Even though they will face rejection along the way, they will also be welcomed. And when people welcome them, it will be like welcoming Jesus himself. That welcome doesn’t even have to be all that elaborate: “Whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.” A cup of water given to a child. That’s as basic as it gets.
It sounds simple on the surface, but in order both to offer and to receive this kind of welcome, God must help us act against our instincts. We’d prefer to run away, but God says, “Try this path instead. It may not be an easy one, but I’ll provide for you in surprising ways as you follow it.” We’d like to keep our pecking order, with status differences clearly delineated so that we know who has power over whom. But God says, “I actually have the power, and I love all of you, so quit pretending that some of you are more special than the others. You are all part of the family.”
It can be hard to relinquish our instincts to that kind of extravagant love, but it helps to remember this:
When we welcome another person, we are welcoming Jesus.
When we ourselves are welcomed, we carry Jesus with us.
Later in the service you’re going to hear two more songs that capture this good news beautifully. You’ll hear that “you can’t keep Jesus’ love in a box…’cause his love will come a-bubbling through.” And isn’t that the truth? The love of Jesus cannot be contained. It begs to be shared, whether in a cup of cold water or in a meal celebrated around a table.
Just like those first disciples, we’ll also be challenged to head out into the world. The kids will tell us to “Hit the trail! Tell the world about Jesus!” So that’s what we’ll do – we’ll go out there and share the good news of what Jesus has done for us. We’ll share hospitality with those we meet and accept hospitality when it is offered to us.
Above all, we’ll let people know that they are all part of the family. Amen.