Sermon on Song of Solomon 2:8-13 and Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30 for Pentecost +5, July 9, 2017

Song of Solomon 2:8-13

The voice of my beloved!
 Look, he comes,
leaping upon the mountains,
 bounding over the hills.
My beloved is like a gazelle
or a young stag.
Look, there he stands
behind our wall,
gazing in at the windows,
looking through the lattice.
My beloved speaks and says to me:
“Arise, my love, my fair one,
and come away;
for now the winter is past,
the rain is over and gone.
The flowers appear on the earth;
 the time of singing has come,
and the voice of the turtle-dove
 is heard in our land.
The fig tree puts forth its figs,
and the vines are in blossom;
 they give forth fragrance.
Arise, my love, my fair one,
 and come away.”

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.”

There is a love story in the Hebrew bible which does not get much attention.  It is called the Song of Solomon, or the Song of Songs, or Canticles.  It is about a Hebrew boy and girl who are desperately in love with each other.  They go back and forth singing each others’ praises in poetry.  If it were read on the radio today, it would come with a disclaimer that the language may not be appropriate for “younger or more sensitive audiences.”   

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Many people, through the years, have turned it into an allegory of how God or Christ loves the church.  I suppose you can read it that way if you want to, but I believe it was a real love story originally.   

The people who put together the set of biblical readings for each Sunday, called the Lectionary, probably included the part of the poem we just read because it has includes a beautiful invitation.  The boy says to the maiden,

“Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.”

It is not so simple.  At one point in the story, she goes out at night in the city to find him, and nearly gets molested, but he shows up in time to rescue her.  But another time she has an encounter with the security forces who treat her terribly.  The author notes that they are Solomon’s men, who are supposed to be providing protection. 

Solomon himself gets involved in the story.  According to some readings, he tries to get the maiden to join his vast harem.  She spurns his lavish offer, so strong is her love for the boy.  So, the love story, instead of being light and free, is set in conditions that are complicated.  The couple is burdened by oppressive forces that nearly subvert their relationship. 

So, in that context, the invitation the boy makes contains a sense of urgency,

“Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.”

Come away” before anything else happens.  Come away while there is still time.  Come away while we still have a chance.”

So, it is a fitting text to read along side Jesus’ most personal, intimate invitation, the one we often recall at the Lord’s Supper table, when Jesus says,

“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.”

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I think when we explore this text we will see what a powerful invitation this is to all of us.  There is no question that all of us are “weary and carrying heavy burdens.”  They are not the same ones that weighed down the people Jesus was addressing, but there are parallels.  Besides, it really does not matter what the nature of the burden is – Jesus does not specify.  All burdens that make us weary are included. 

I do not know what burdens you are weary of carrying today, but you do.  I am quite sure that everyone here is longing for rest.  So let us look into this text. 

Jesus’ Opposition

We begin with the scene in which Jesus takes a moment to acknowledge that not everyone is happy with his ministry.  He has his critics.  There are people who do not want what he is offering. 

This is completely understandable.  The invitation was never simply,

The Kingdom of God is at hand. 

It was always,

Repent, the kingdom of God is at hand. 

Some people do not want the “repent” first step.  Repent, or literally, “change your thinking, and therefore, the direction you are heading” only seems like a good invitation to people willing to change their thinking because they recognize the disastrous direction they are heading. 

Dr. Phil, the TV psychologist always used to say, “How is that working out for you?  As long as it is working, no change will happen.  But when we recognize that it is not working, change becomes necessary.  When the burdens get too heavy to bear, and we are just too weary of them, then we are open to the invitation to make a change; to put them down and try something different. 

Many people are carrying around huge burdens that they need not be carrying.  Maybe you are.  The invitation is to put them down.  Think differently about them.  Who told you you had to carry that burden?  Is it even  yours to carry?  We will come back to those questions.

So Jesus is aware of the people who are not responding to him, and he knows their issues.  They did not like John the baptist who lived rough, kept to a minimalist diet, and told people with two coats to give one to the people who had none.  His way seemed to demanding. 

And now they do not like Jesus either, who has a reputation for going to dinner parties.  Jesus quotes their criticism of him.  They say,

“’Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax-collectors and sinners!”

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What they objected to was not the fact that Jesus attended party itself, I do not believe, but  they had big problems with the guest list.  They did not like the people who were there – the bad guys. 

But that was Jesus’ whole point.  Open table fellowship was one of his massive innovations.  You eat precisely with the tax collectors and sinners, because the act of eating with them, in other words, your inclusion, your non-judgmental welcome of them, will be the means of their redemption. 

It is after Jesus shares a meal with him that the tax collector decides to redistribute his wealth to the people he has defrauded and start living justly.  It is at a meal in which the woman with the reputation sheds tears and hears that she is forgiven.  The non-judgmental invitation to the table sets in motion the healing process.

Jesus and God

So next, in this text, is an insight into Jesus’ self identity, and his understanding of God, and his insight into why people are so put off by him.  We do not have time for the details, but the gist is this.  Jesus has an amazingly intimate relationship with God, whom he calls his Father, his “Abba.” 

The late New Testament scholar Marcus Borg called Jesus a “spirit man.” 

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One who had frequent and intense experience of the divine.  One in whose presence other people experienced the divine.  And one through whom the divine brought healing and liberation to people.  Jesus speaks in terms of the unique way he knows the Father and the Father knows him.  We could say that Jesus felt completely “grasped” by the infinite; by God.

Being so completely grasped by God, Jesus is able to be a conduit, bringing God’s presence to others.  He is able, on behalf of God, to offer the invitation to weary and burdened people, to come to him, and find rest. 

But, not everyone comes. Jesus, acknowledges, that the “wise and intelligent” often to not want any part of it.  Jesus’ message is welcomed, he says, by “infants.”  In other words, by people who have not yet learned to be cynical and ego-driven. 

To people who are willing to “enter the kingdom as children,” as he says similarly elsewhere, people who are willing to receive his invitation, here is the offer he makes on behalf of God:

“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.”

The Control Burden

The first burden is the control burden.  The message of the kingdom’s presence means, if anything, that somebody else is king, and I am not. 

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I am not in control of much.  I can hardly control myself.  I certainly cannot control anyone else.  I am not in control of politics or the economy, or even the weather. 

So why is it so often such an affront to my ego when I do not get to have it my way?  Why do I want so badly to look “wise and intelligent” and fear so much looking vulnerable and fallible like an infant?  The control burden is the ego burden. 

Jesus does not say that his alternative is not to have anything to carry.  He does have a yoke, but it is light.  It is manageable.   

So what is his yoke? He has described it in the Sermon on the Mount, in the beatitudes. 

Blessed,” he said, “are the poor in spirit, the meek, the merciful, the pure in heart, the ones hungry for justice, the peacemakers.

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In other words, the ones who have learned to put down the burdens of ego, and to pick up the yoke of humble goodness, compassion, and a passion for justice. 

The Oppression and Violence Burdens

Now, scholars tell us that a huge part of the burden Jesus’ audience would have identified was the yoke of political oppression they were under.  And it was awful.  They were getting squeezed by an economic system that favored the rich.  They were being squeezed by the local elites of their own people and by the oppressive demands of the Roman empire. 

In Jesus’ day, and before and after him, armed revolution was an option many people wanted, and eventually took, with disastrous consequences.  Most scholars believe that Matthew’s gospel was written after one of these revolutions was brutally suppressed, leaving the temple and most of Jerusalem in ruins, and thousands upon thousands dead. 

So, another burden Jesus is inviting people to put down is the burden of violence as a solution.  Jesus was non-violent and taught his people to turn the other cheek because those who live by the sword only die by the sword.  Jesus’ commitment to non-violence took him to the cross where he died without even the violence of hatred in his heart, saying, “Father, forgive them.” 

Ultimate Concern

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We could go on listing a huge number of burdens that we carry for no good reason.  But we could sum up most of them this way.  We all have plenty of concerns. 

But we also have an understanding of our ultimate concern.  Our ultimate concern is what we live for; it is what gets us out of bed in the morning.  It is what our actions show is most important to us. 

The nature of our ultimate concern, according to theologian Paul Tillich, is twofold.  Our ultimate concern promises fulfillment to us, and makes demands on us.  Because it promises fulfillment to us, we have faith that we will be fulfilled by it.  Because it is an ultimate concern, it demands surrender. 

The obvious problem is that if we are ultimately concerned with something that is not truly ultimate, then we will surrender to its demands, often at great cost, and in the end, be left simply weary of the burden, but unfulfilled.

The most obviously mis-identified ultimate concern is success.  You have observed plenty of people who have sacrificed their time, their families, even their health for success.  Even the ones who achieve success without destroying their families or their health report that the fulfillment they thought they would experience was hollow.  Success is not ultimate, so it cannot be an ultimate concern. 

And there are many other concerns that people sacrifice for that are similarly penultimate: nation, family, status to name a few.

The alternative is to be grasped by the truly ultimate, by God, by Abba, as Jesus was.  To be grasped is to respond to the invitation:  Come to me.  Put the burden down and pick up the light and easy yoke of compassion and justice, under the loving care of God.  This is the path to true rest. 

It is the deep sigh of those who are willing to trust that they are being upheld at a depth dimension; that it is going to be okay, that the kingdom of God is within us and near us, and at hand, if we will just respond to the invitation.

Come to me” Jesus says, “all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.”

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