SERMON A Pentecost L.14 2017 King of Kings, New Windsor 7/8 & 9/2017
Mt 11: 16-19, 25-30
Come unto me, all ye that labor. Come unto me, ye that are heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn of me. For I am meek and lowly of heart, and ye shall find rest. And ye shall find rest unto your souls.
Rest. Jesus said, “Come unto me, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and you will find rest for your souls.” What is this rest that he offers to the crowds in today’s gospel lesson, the rest that he offers to you and to me, today? What is the rest which Jesus gives?
Rest is simple enough to understand. It’s the opposite of agitation, busyness, distress, activity, right? It’s the opposite of work. When you are not busy you are at rest. When you cease acting, you are resting. When you go to a restaurant, you are seeking “rest”; that is, you are looking to be restored or refreshed. Technically, rest is defined as “freedom from activity or labor; a state of motionlessness or inactivity; peace of mind or spirit; freedom from anxiety”.
So is Jesus instructing us to take some time off? Is he chastising us for working too hard or volunteering too much? Is he offering us a free stay at the Ramada Resort on the Dead Sea—or the Crowne Plaza Dead Sea Resort and Spa—or the Dead Sea Premier Beach Resort and Spa? Hurry up, act quickly; offer ends before the end of the service today!
Rest. It’s something we need—daily, weekly, annually. We need daily rest from work, whether housework or child care or work for which we are paid; we need rest in sleep. We need weekly rest, what our Jewish neighbors call Sabbath, a cessation from the busyness of working to earn a living and a regular reminder that the world will go on without our efforts. We need rest from our routines, whether time spent at home or with family or on vacation, in a destination near or far away. We can’t live without rest. Is this what Jesus is advocating, that we do a better job of self-care, that we pay attention to our sleep hygiene or make sure we get a regular day off and book a relaxing vacation once in a while?
The people to whom Jesus originally offered rest needed more than a few days off or a trip across the Jordan River. They were weary, and they were carrying heavy burdens. They were people longing for rest, with no rest in sight. After centuries of enslavement in Egypt, conquest by Assyria, exile in Babylon, and domination by Persia, they were occupied by Rome, and that was burdensome. They had to pay high taxes, and they could be conscripted at any minute to carry a soldier’s pack, and they were always under risk of flogging or worse if they did something that threatened their Roman occupiers. The people who first heard Jesus’ words in today’s gospel lesson were not at rest.
What was it, then, that Jesus was offering them, and what is that he is offering us today? What is this rest which Jesus promises to give? It’s not a promise of a whole night’s sleep without sleeping pills. It’s not about guaranteeing you a day off, either from your seven-day a week job or the care of your children or your elderly parent. Nor is it about that spa vacation at the Dead Sea.
What is it that Jesus offers as rest? A yoke! Ironically, his metaphor for rest is a tool for work—a yoke! A yoke is a heavy bar of wood or iron placed over the shoulders of a pair of animals to bear some sort of burden or to do some sort of work. Its purpose is to get work done. A milkmaid balances a yoke on her shoulders, for example, to carry two pails at a time. A farmer lays a yoke over the necks of two oxen or water buffalo to distribute the weight of a plow or a wagon load. Why on earth does Jesus choose a yoke, a tool for work, as a symbol of rest?
Here’s my interpretation. If it is Jesus who is offering you the yoke, and it’s a double yoke, and you take on one side of the yoke, who is on the other side? Presumably, Jesus himself. Jesus’ promise is not that you will no longer have burdens, but that you will never need to bear them alone, because he will be with you, right by your side. He offers you rest in the presence of God, even in the midst of your work or busyness or distress or anxiety. How? Because, as you bear your burdens, with Jesus at your side, you can rely on his ongoing presence, and he will divide the weight with you.
The rest that Jesus offers is not a cessation of work or an unexpectedly paid stay-cation, but rather an assurance of his presence. If you share a yoke with Jesus, he is with you, and you are with him. You are in relationship with him. You are following him, very closely, side by side. You are learning from him as you work together. You’re intentionally choosing to live with him, to adopt a way of life centered on your relationship with him and his Father, God. You are leaning into a relationship with Jesus, relying on him. And because you can rely on him, you’re free to rest, in his presence.
St. Augustine, a fourth century Christian Bishop in what is now Algeria, found this rest with Jesus after a life of wandering, both morally and religiously. After his conversion, in his autobiographical “Confessions”, he wrote this often-quoted line: “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.” Let me read that again: “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.” Eventually, St. Augustine realized that the restlessness he experienced as he sought life for himself through education and drinking and women was really about his need to rest in God.
Over the centuries, many followers of Jesus have found St. Augustine’s words to be instructive for their own journeys. Brother St. Francis DeSales Wagner, for example, began his career as a journalist in Toledo, Ohio but continued to experience restlessness until he discovered a call to become a monk in Indiana. He writes, “I do not have a specific conversion story or a turning-point moment that brought me to my knees. What I have experienced is a slow, year-by-year growth in my yearning and a year-by-year blessing of the Holy Spirit in finding the rest St. Augustine identifies.” William Angerman, who directs the Army Force Management School, in Fort Belvoir, Virginia, came to this rest gradually. He writes, “My spiritual walk, beginning with childhood, is summed up by the beautifully perceptive prayer of St. Augustine on the human condition: ‘You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts and restless until they find their rest in you.’”
You may have been on many wandering journeys, like St. Augustine, trying to find meaning or hope or stability in your life. You may have started in one occupation and then found another, like Brother St. Francis DeSales. Or you may have been on the journey with Jesus since childhood, like William Angerman. But regardless of the length or the direction of your journey, Jesus is waiting, near you, extending a hand and offering a yoke, ready to shoulder your burden and give you rest. Listen, for he may be whispering to you. Or humming. Or singing:
Come unto me, all ye that labor. Come unto me, ye that are heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn of me. For I am meek and lowly of heart, and ye shall find rest. And ye shall find rest unto your souls. AMEN