Sunday, July 3, 2011
Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
We give you thanks, O God of compassion, for the salvation you have revealed to the little ones through Christ Jesus, our wisdom and strength. Teach us to take up his gentle yoke and find rest from our burdens and cares. Amen.
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."
All readings for the Week
Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67 with Psalm 45:10-17 or
Song of Solomon 2:8-13 or
Zechariah 9:9-12 with Psalm 145:8-14
Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30
1. What burdens do you carry?
2. Who are the "infants," the "little, insignificant ones" today who "get" the message of Jesus and the reign of God?
3. What makes people unwilling to open their hearts and minds to the gospel?
4. What blocks you from opening your heart to the good news?
5. When have you experienced those blocks being removed by grace, and your life transformed?
by Kate Huey
Last week, Jesus closed his instructions to his disciples, before sending them out on mission, with words of blessing for anyone who welcomed them with even the simplest of gestures, a cold cup of water. As we move into Chapter 11, our reading today omits important parts of the story that might help us to understand it a little better. By this time in the story, Jesus has tasted the bitter cup of rejection rather than welcome. After sending out his disciples, he himself went out on a mission to "their cities," teaching and proclaiming his message by healing the sick, raising the dead, and bringing good news to the poor. And those cities, we know from the edited verses (11:20-24), closed their hearts and minds to him. That kind of discouragement--and the experience of inhospitality and rejection--must have set the tone for what Jesus is saying here.
In any case, the approach of Jesus to mission is still the model for us today as we seek to bring the good news, which, according to Jesus, has to do with healing and new life and justice. That's how you'll know it when you see it: Jesus points this out to the disciples of John the Baptist who come to check him out for their teacher. Today we might ask if our own lives and ministry would identify us in the same way. Can people "hear and see" the good news in the way we live as much as in the words we say or the identity we claim as followers of Jesus? It's discouraging to read surveys of young people who write off Christians as judgmental and unkind. Their view is often shared by those who have also experienced rejection and closed hearts and minds in their encounters with some "good" Christians, "good," church-going Christians.
Just before today's passage, Jesus speaks of signs and prophets and the coming of the reign of God and our seeming inability to recognize or accept it. Perhaps, in our own turn, we are "this generation," too. We're like children who can't make up our minds about what we want or need, or even how we feel, whether to mourn or to dance. Holly Hearon's words apply to our generation just as much as to that ancient one: "In neither case is 'this generation' satisfied with what they are hearing and seeing. Perhaps they want something in between." But Jesus isn't ever "something in between," is he? Many people found it hard to accept him, even in person, even after witnessing his "deeds of power." Hearon observes that "we can become so locked into this kind of negative response that we miss the real thing...." Jesus: not something-in-between, but "the real thing." And the cities he visited, where he had worked "most of his deeds of power," were among those locked in a negative response. They missed "the real thing."
There are plenty of people in the Gospels who probably considered themselves learned and even wise. Jesus' view of that kind of wisdom as an impediment to faith is no anti-intellectual defense of ignorance, but an impatience with closed hearts and minds. Thomas Long's beautiful commentary on the Gospel of Matthew describes a world "shifted on its axis. Everything before Jesus is the old era; now, in him, all things have become new. The dawn has begun to break; the light of the kingdom of heaven, which will in time bathe the whole creation in its glow, has begun to shine...." Even in that bright light of a new day, it's hard to recognize "the real thing," however. The categories and things that people were used to ("the way we've always done it"?), the customs and traditions and even the expectations had hardened and grown heavy, and had become a burden to the people of God. And yet they had to live in hope: "Every generation," Long writes, "wants something good for itself. The problem is the packaging: John and Jesus do not look like saviors....the wrong diet, the wrong music, the wrong companions, the wrong words. 'This generation,' like all generations, is scanning the screen of history, looking for hope, searching for salvation. But they cannot commit to either John or Jesus....It would not be wise, they think...." Long's words of warning apply to us just as much as they are addressed to Jesus' audience long ago: "sit out the dance in your pseudo-wisdom if you want to, but the blind are seeing, the deaf are hearing, the lepers are made new, the dead are raised, and the poor have finally heard some music they can kick up their heels to--and that is the essence of wisdom..." (Long's commentary is one volume in the excellent Westminster Bible Companion Series). While we calculate and compare and weigh our options, the hearts of "infants," of little ones, of insignificant ones, are open to the Good News that will change their lives (and ours).
Sacred rest: a good thing
Once again, however, even this shortened passage is almost too much for us to take in. We are drawn most powerfully to just one part of it, the ending, when Jesus invites all of us who are weary and bearing heavy burdens to find rest in him. This is one of the most familiar and loved passages from Scripture, undoubtedly one of the most frequently quoted, painted, etched, and printed reassurances in the Bible, right up there with "Do not be afraid." After four Sundays in a row of hearing about the challenges and costs of discipleship, a little talk of "Sacred Rest," is, as Martha Stewart would say, "a good thing."
Jesus uses the "yoke" as a metaphor for discipleship, but today, most of us have never seen, let alone felt, a yoke. Still, we get the idea, that it's something hard and heavy and burdensome, and Jesus is once again up-ending our perception by calling his yoke "easy," and his burden "light." Maybe it's more helpful to think of this yoke as something that, in David Holwerda's words, "both restrains and enables. It is simultaneously a burden and a possibility. The question confronting humanity is, whose yoke or what yoke does one put on? No one lives without a yoke." It reminds me of the speaker who once said (and I'll never forget how heartfelt her exhortation was), "Everyone gives their heart to something; be sure that what you give your heart to is worthy of it."
Love is freedom
Ironically, compared to the difficulty of fulfilling the demands of many laws and rules, this "work" of Jesus is something that Paul calls "freedom," Holwerda writes. He explains the beauty of this offer: "the demands of this yoke are to love God above all and one's neighbor as oneself. Love is a gentle yoke, not burdensome or wearying, but light, easy, pleasant....one thing more is necessary: to learn from Jesus himself how to walk the ancient paths that lead to the peace and rest of the kingdom of God and to inheriting the earth." Does love of God, and love of neighbor, feel like a "gentle yoke" to you?
We make things more complicated than they need to be, instead of accepting, like "infants" (or small ones, or insignificant ones), the great gifts of God. Charles Cousar speaks of our difficulty in trying to figure God out, but "God simply eludes the human grasp...." However, "infants," he says, "make no pretense of knowledge. Whatever they have is given them...[and they] let God be God on God's own terms." Unfortunately, that's often not our way. Barbara Brown Taylor, in her sermon on this text, admits that she's tried to figure out how to accomplish her own salvation on her own: "I may believe that I live by God's grace, but I act like a scout collecting merit badges. I have a list of things to do that is a mile long, and....the majority of them are things I think I ought to do...that I had better do or God will not love me anymore....I thought that the way to find rest for my soul was to finish my list of things to do and present it to God like a full book of savings stamps, but as it turned out that was not the ticket at all." How many of us are busy filling up that book of stamps and collecting those merit badges until even they grow into a heavy burden? But Jesus offers us, Taylor says, "a comforting promise to which many of us turn when our burdens seem impossible to bear...a lighter yoke, lighter because it yokes us with one who is greater than we are, and with whose strong help we can bear any burden....[these words] assure us that those who please God are not those who can carry the heaviest loads alone but those who are willing to share their loads, who are willing to share their yokes by entering into relationship with the one whose invitation is a standing one...("The Open Yoke" is the sermon in the book, The Seeds of Heaven).
Love makes things easier
Love and commitment have the power to make a difficult task seem more bearable, perhaps even a joy. (Being in love, raising children, having a passion for our work remind us that this is true.) What are the deepest satisfactions and most profound comforts that you experience? How might the "yoke" of which Jesus speaks be so satisfying to the human soul that it is experienced as light rather than heavy? What kind of "rest" does Jesus promise, if we are disciples on a long journey, if we are carrying a cross? How do those two messages fit together?
Ironically, a lot of learning and study can perhaps lead us to have a cynical edge, if education leads us down paths of disbelief or limited imagination. Have you ever had that experience? What do you think makes human beings get "set in our ways"--what is that about? What are the characteristics and behavior that most folks expect in a religious leader? Would that leader resemble Jesus the guest at the feast more or less than John the Baptist, the ascetic? Why do you think people evaluate prophets and teachers by outward appearance and personal practices ("glutton and drunkard" and "has a demon") more than by the heart of the message they preach? What does it feel like for your soul to be truly at rest? When are those moments and times when God gives you a quiet space, a time of relief and rest?
For Further Reflection
Michael Novak, 20th century
Besides, it is my experience that more people today are led to God by the emptiness they find in success than through being broken by hard experiences--although, of course, the ways to God are infinite, and there is no shortage of the latter. Just when they attain what they always dreamed of, when they get to the position they have long worked for, they find themselves restless and unsatisfied. They ask themselves--tell themselves--"There must be more than this!"
Helen Keller, 20th century
Unless we form the habit of going to the Bible in bright moments as well as in trouble, we cannot fully respond to its consolations because we lack equilibrium between light and darkness.
John O'Donohue, 20th century
The hunger to belong is not merely a desire to be attached to something. It is rather sensing that great transformation and discovery become possible when belonging is sheltered and true.
Wonderfully secured by a mighty power, we await with confidence whatever may come. God is with us--in the evening, in the morning, and entirely certain on each new day.
Ovid, 1st century BCE
The burden which is well borne becomes light.
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