Sermon for July 5, 2020, Pentecost 5A
Video is here
Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30
[Jesus said:] “But to what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the market-places and calling to one another,
‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance;
we wailed, and you did not mourn.’
“For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon’; the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax-collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is indicated by her deeds.”
At that time Jesus said, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.
“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.”
I’m sorry, but I have to start with the bad news: our nation is not at rest. On this Independence Day weekend, we are tense for all kinds of reasons.
We are in a relentless pandemic; putting on our own masks puts us on edge. People not putting on masks puts us edge even more. We are fearful about our own health and the health of our loved ones.
Daycares, businesses, and churches around us open up, then someone gets sick and they have to close down again. Our concerns about the Covid-19 virus come on top of our already-existing health issues that make us all the more vulnerable.
We are also tense about the economy — how long can this last, and how many more businesses will suffer, or even close? How much unemployment can we stand? How many stimulus checks can our nation afford? And what will happen if we do nothing?
Plus, our nation is upset about other, huge issues: policing, brutality, and the underlying racism that has been a part of our systems since the beginning, when black people were enslaved, and counted as ⅗ of a person.
For people who are not bigots, which is most of us, for people who want justice to prevail and who want our systems to be fair, it causes great pain to see all the video evidence and to read the official statistics which show that it has not been any of those things for people of color.
These days we keep getting reminded of the Elaine, Arkansas massacre of 1919 and of the Tulsa massacre of 1921. I have recently learned of the lynching here in Fort Smith of Sanford Lewis in 1912. We hate learning about these things, just as much as we hated to see the video of George Floyd’s murder.
And we are disturbed about our leaders. Some people are writing tell-all books; other people are trying to squelch them. We are hearing intelligence reports that may — we are not yet sure — indicate Russian bounty money paid to kill American troops in Afghanistan.
Climate change is still happening, poverty, homelessness, mental health issues, and addictions continue. And, this is a presidential election year — we have more reasons not to be at rest than we can count.
Upset and Motivation
So, what do we do? The worst possible thing we could do is look for some quick-fix, feel-good, pseudo-solution for all of this unrest.
Nevertheless, simply being upset does not help anything, unless it produces some kind of motivation to act in a purposeful, productive way.
I guess that is what I want most of all for myself, and, I’m hoping is what we all want, is not a way to make the bad feelings magically vanish, but rather a way to let those feelings, that are upset with reason, become the motivation to do things that lead to change.
It is right to be upset about injustice and climate change, but being upset does not produce justice nor a cooler planet. If being upset, however, becomes motivation to thoughtful, constructive action, then it has played its part.
I have read that anger is not helpful in a physical fight. They say, for example, in martial arts, the cooler your own head is, the more able you will be to overcome your opponent. I don’t have any personal experience with this, but it makes sense.
I believe the same thing is true for us, when it comes to engagement in issues that matter. Being upset about injustice and climate change is right, but only as an initial reaction. If our anger does not give way to positive motivation, then it is simply a useless emotion. But how can you go from upset to constructively and positively engaged?
Learning from Change Agent Jesus
That, I believe, is the challenge before us. And that is, I believe, what change agents, like Jesus, were able to do. I believe that Jesus, and some noteworthy change agents who said they studied him and learned from him, like Gandhi and Martin Luther King jr. were effective because they did not work from motives of anger, resentment, or vengeance, but from a deep, inner equanimity, a sense of peaceful courage, that enabled them to work toward their objectives.
Today we too will try to learn from Jesus. We will look briefly at this text from our wisdom tradition, the Gospel of Matthew, for some insight. It begins with Jesus’ honest assessment about his moment in time. Jesus acknowledged that were people who just didn’t get what was happening.
He quotes a little rhyme: we played the flute (like for a wedding) but they didn’t dance. We wailed, as they did at funerals, but the people didn’t morn.
Then he draws the lesson: John the Baptist, came calling people to repent – to change their thinking – but they mocked his ascetic lifestyle as insane — they used the term “demonic” back then. Jesus came, eating at open, inclusive tables with notorious “sinners” as they were called, and they criticized him for drinking.
But, he said, “wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.” Talk is cheap. You can shout “conspiracy” and demand your personal rights not to wear a mask, but the virus will get you anyway, ask Herbert Cain.
You can turn off the TV news, but eventually, the anger of brutalized people will show up by the thousands in the streets.
The global temperature keeps rising no matter how much you talk down solutions as job-killers. Denial is not wisdom. Wisdom’s currency is reality.
Moving Beyond Denial and Anger
So, yes, there are people who don’t get it; who refuse to get it. But others want to get it. Some people feel the anger, but want to move beyond it to positive action for change. It is to those people, like Gandhi and Martin to whom Jesus addresses this next teaching.
“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.”
“Come to me,” Jesus says, in other words, all of you who are upset, who are angry, who are frustrated by what is going on, and by what has been going on for so long, and by the denial that so many live in.
Come to me with all the burdens on your back that this life, this culture, this moment in our nation’s history, and your personal history have laid on you.
There is another way to handle it than merely collapsing under its weight. Jesus is suggesting that he knows a way to live, even with everything that is going on, which he describes as “rest” and as “rest for your souls” or “psyches” or we might say, inner calm. It is what Buddhists call equanimity; peace.
This is not denial nor escape. So where does this equanimity come from? The key is the line that follows.
“Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me.”
The yoke is about learning. In other words, take on the weight of an educational program, instead of the weight of the world.
There was a saying, from a book of wisdom instruction back then called Sirach, that had said, “Put your neck under the yoke, and let your souls receive instruction…see…that I have labored little and found for myself much rest.” The keywords “yoke, labor and rest” appear both in Sirach’s saying and here in Matthew. (Sir 51:26-27). It may be a coincidence, but it sounds almost as if Jesus is paraphrasing it. The yoke of learning, the yoke of instruction is taken on willingly by someone who is teachable and willing to learn.
But what good is there in exchanging one burden for another; the weight of the world for the yoke of instruction? The yoke of instruction is different from the weight of the world. Jesus says,
“For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
How so? In another place he said,
“you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”(John 8:32)
The Lightness of Truth
The rest that Jesus is offering for our souls, our inner being, is found in engaging a program of learning to face the truth as it is, and then following the path Jesus laid out for us.
Jesus was constantly showing us a life lived without pretense or denial. He walked up to lepers and touched them. He saw that people were hungry and it moved him to action. He encountered blind people, lame people, suffering women, and foreigner’s slaves with compassion. He welcomed outcasts and “sinners” to his table to illustrate the welcome God extends to all of us.
Clearly, this lifestyle was not motivated by anger or resentment, but by compassion. Compassion comes from a heart that is not under the domination of ego, of self-interest, or tribal loyalty.
But no one can simply will themselves into freedom from ego’s selfishness. It does not work that way. It takes days and days of “doing the work.”
When Jesus says, “Come to me…learn from me” he is inviting us to learn, not just by reading about his compassion, but by regular spiritual practices that produce that result.
When Jesus says, “Come to me…learn from me” he is inviting us to imitate his practice of meditation.
When Jesus says, “Come to me…learn from me” he is inviting us to pray the prayer he taught — about forgiveness of debts and about God’s will being done for its own sake, regardless of whether it increases our personal wealth or comfort.
And if we embrace the yoke of this kind of learning, we realize how light it is. We become aware of how freeing it feels to forgive someone instead of holding on to the ball and chain of bitterness. We find out how freeing it is not to have to defend ourselves, but to admit our own failings.
We experience the freedom of not needing to be right all the time, or having the last word, or getting our own way, or being from the best family, nation, or race. All of those anchors can fall away, setting us free to enjoy each other, in all our differences, like the mosaic’s many different tiles create a beautiful scene.
That is equanimity. That is rest for our souls. That could be the hope for our country, but it may turn out to be the narrow way that few choose.
Some people, maybe even most people, will not get it. They will neither join the dance nor sing the dirge when it is called for. They may never come, take up the yoke and start learning the Jesus way. Nevertheless, it is the right way. Therein lies rest.