Sunday, July 9, 2017

Yokes and Burdens

Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30
July 9, 2017

            There is dominant theme in the pictures of me as a little girl. In many of them, I am sleeping. You would think that this was because I slept a lot, so therefore my parents were forced to get pictures of me sleeping; after all it was all I ever did. Actually, the opposite is true. I did not sleep. There are pictures of me sleeping just to prove that I did it once in a while. I had colic when I was born, so for my first three months sleep – for my parents and for me – was a luxury. But even after that, I just didn’t sleep as much as other children did. In truth, I did what I still do today. I go and go until I drop. So there is a picture of me at the dinner table with a full plate of food in front of me, and my head is back against the chair and I am out. There is a picture of me sitting on the floor playing with toys, and I’m asleep. I’m not lying down next to the toys. I’m still sitting up. My elbows are resting on my knees and my hands are folded under my head and I am out. I would just go until I dropped.
            As I child I think I did this because I was afraid of missing something. As an adult, I know that I am not. Sleep is precious to me these days, and I don’t do well when I don’t have it. I understand more and more what it means to be weary of body. As I get older, I understand more about what it means to be weary of soul as well. But on Friday night I heard from people who gave new meaning to that soul weariness.
            I’ve just returned from our denomination’s Big Tent Conference in St. Louis. Big Tent is a conference where our different mission and policy agencies come together, and we talk and learn about the challenges facing our churches and God’s world. The theme of this year’s conference was “Race, Reconciliation, Reformation.” We had profound worship and were taken to CHURCH with the opening sermon by our stated clerk, J. Herbert Nelson! The Bible study was thought-provoking and challenging and was led by an OBU graduate, Eric Barreto – who is a Baptist pastor and scholar but didn’t hold our Presbyterianism against us. And on Friday night there was an optional time for engagement with local churches. This was something you signed up to do when you registered. One of the churches hosting folks was First Presbyterian in Ferguson. That’s where I went. My longtime best friend, Ellen, signed up to go there as well. We loaded onto school busses and drove to the church. The church members fed us a great meal, then we went into the sanctuary for a time of questions and discussion. We closed with worship and communion.
            I’m not sure what I expected to see when we pulled into Ferguson. Perhaps a broken down community, perhaps there would still be remnants from the protests that happened in 2014. Instead it was a quiet community. The houses were modest but well-tended. Lawns were mowed. Stores were open. The church building itself wasn’t super impressive on the outside, but someone had done a lot of work on the flowers. It could have been Shawnee. It could have been a neighborhood in Oklahoma City or Nashville or Minneapolis. First Pres Ferguson is a predominantly white congregation. The pastor is white. He had invited another pastor and community leader, an African American woman, to be there as well. Because of the protests, the two had become friends. One of the things that he told us was that when the protests were happening, he was overwhelmed. She echoed him on this statement. She said that even those who shared her skin color, who knew that something like what was happening was a real and present possibility in Ferguson, she was also overwhelmed. They were both weary of body and soul. Weary that an 18-year-old young man was killed by a 26-year-old young man. They were weary with the heartache of that, on both sides, on all sides.
            The pastor asked us what we expected to see when we drove into Ferguson. The church was located right in the middle of the two main streets where the protests were happening. What did we expect to see? He told us some of the history of Ferguson. People in Ferguson believed that a lot of work had been done to bridge the racial divide. There were folks who believed that Ferguson didn’t have racial problems, not ones that would cause real trouble anyway. The pastor told us never to take for granted that what happened in Ferguson couldn’t happen where we live. Ferguson, he said, was a mirror of the American soul.  
            What did you expect to see when you came to Ferguson?
            “What then did you go out to see?”
            The last quote was Jesus. And I’m actually quoting from verses that come before our selected verses today; but when it comes to understanding – the Bible, life or both – context counts.
            At the beginning of this chapter, we read that Jesus concluded his instructions to the disciples. Then he continued on with his ministry to the people, teaching and proclaiming the good news to the cities. John was in prison. Whatever assurance John felt about Jesus before, it would seem his assurance had been replaced with doubts and questions. He sent messengers to Jesus, who asked him,
“Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”
Jesus was not offended by this question, but sent them back to John saying,
            “Go and tell John what you hear and see; the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.”
            Jesus was not upset by John’s question. In fact he went on to praise John. He wanted to know what people thought they were getting with John.
            “What did you go out into the wilderness to see?”
            Did you go out to see someone who looks nice and gentle in soft robes? Did you go out to see a prophet? You got a prophet and you got even more than that.
            Then we come to where our passage begins. Jesus compares the people of this generation, perhaps not so much the crowds but the religious authorities, the folks in the know, in the in-crowd, to children wailing and whining.
            They didn’t like John. John was an ascetic. He was too austere. He dressed strangely and ate strange things. He was too severe. He needed to live a little more, lighten up. He was so strange and so strict, surely he had a demon.
            But they didn’t like Jesus either. Jesus was too much the other way. He was not severe. He was not austere. He was about abundance, but it was with all the wrong people! He ate with drunkards and gluttons. He ate and drank! He shared table fellowship with tax collectors and sinners. One commentator wrote that it was like a theological Goldilocks. John was too hard. Jesus was too soft. But if John pointed to the One who was to come in the name of God, and Jesus was the Incarnation of God, revealing God’s presence, proclaiming God’s kingdom, then what does that say about the people? Who did they want God to be? Why could they not recognize God when God was right there in their midst?
            In the verses that the lectionary skips, Jesus made “Woe to you,” statements. “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida!” Jesus pronounced woe on cities where his deeds of power had been done, but still they did not recognize him for who he was. Still they did not recognize God in their midst. You would think from Jesus proclaiming these statements of woe, that these cities must have been horrible and of ill-repute. But according to biblical scholars, these were not cities that were huge and wicked. They were just regular places filled with regular people trying to get on with their lives. Yet Jesus pronounced woe on them because they could not recognize God in their midst. They could not or they would not.
            Getting back to where our verses start again, Jesus gave thanks that God revealed God’s wisdom not to the folks who were supposedly wise and intelligent, but to the infants. I imagine that Jesus included literal children in this, but I also think that he was referring to the ones he spoke of in the Sermon the Mount: the meek, the poor, the mournful. The infants were also the ones he would speak about in Matthew 25, the least of these.
            And then, after all of this, after his frustration with the people for not recognizing God in their midst, for criticizing John for one thing and complaining about him for another; after his pronouncements of woe to the cities where his works of power had been done; after all of this, we come to some of the most beautiful, the most gracious words in Matthew’s gospel, perhaps in all of scripture.
            “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.”
            Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens.
            In a world that persisted in not recognizing God in their midst, Jesus said,
“Come to me.”
            In a world that persists in not recognizing God in our midst, Jesus says,
“Come to me.”
What would it mean to give our burdens to Jesus? To take his kind, unchafing yoke upon us? What would it mean to actually recognize what it is that burdens us? Is it my worries about finances or housework that burdens me God, or is it my pride? Do I carry a hatred or a prejudice inside me that I need to lay down? Do I contribute and silently endorse systems of oppression that I don’t want to believe or acknowledge? Is that a burden I don’t even know I carry?
            In a world that persists in not recognizing God in our midst, Jesus says,
“Come to me.”
How are we weary? What burdens do we carry? What assumptions, like the people of Ferguson, Missouri, do we take for granted? What is wearying our souls? Not just my soul and your soul and your soul, but the soul of communities, our country? Now more than ever, Jesus needs us to proclaim the message of good news, of grace, of our God who says,
“Come to me, all you who are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.”
            Come to me.

            Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia!” Amen.


  1. I enjoy reading your blogs. Thank you for sharing your personal events and scripture with us.

  2. I enjoy reading your blogs. Thank you for sharing your personal events and scripture with us.