“The Most Important Thing You Can Do This Summer”
Matthew 11: 16-19, 25-30
Rev. G. Scott Turnbrook; Northwood United Church; July 9, 2017
Do you need Jesus Christ? We say “yes” because we are in church, and it’s a Sunday morning, and your minister is watching. But I’d like to test this question out this morning and really ponder: do we truly believe that we need Jesus Christ?
I would like for us to begin by imaging that it is a Monday night and you have gathered in a church basement. It took you a lot of courage to come; yet you knew that you must change something in your life and you summoned the courage, got in your car and have arrived. You walk down a long set of stairs and can smell the moldy, damp basement. You are nervously greeted, you fill in your name tag and stick it to your chest; you help yourself to a cup of bad coffee and sit in one of the uncomfortable folding metal chairs carefully arranged in a circle. You hear the words of introduction from the leader; you hear a bit of her story; people take turns introducing themselves; and your turn arrives…and you say “uhm…Good evening, my name is Scott and I am a ‘life-a-holic’. What has brought me to this place in my life? Life is so hard. The growing burdens of day to day life? ~ they are so many. Living is so challenging: declining health, the demands of family, the demands of work, of community, the growing challenge of making ends meet; the demands just seem to grow and grow and grow. It is hard to keep going sometimes. One by one, people’s stories are told. There is an inner poverty that is heard in each and everyone’s story: stories of anger, loss, pain, fear, avoidance. The list goes on and on. We all know the coping mechanisms: food, drugs, alcohol, cigarettes, or simply throwing up our hands and just ‘giving up’.
Are you feeling a little uncomfortable yet? I know I am feeling a little uncomfortable in this imaginary 12 step meeting. It is imaginary and there isn’t even a group called ‘life-a-holics’! And I don’t like where this is going. The core of our discomfort is that we don’t like to acknowledge that we need help in this life. As most of us know, the first step in the twelve step process is for the person to admit that they are powerless over the addiction and their life has become unmanageable. But that is not how we have been taught is it? We are taught to view ourselves as self-made accomplishments, aren’t we? We are accustomed to excelling at something by concentrating and applying ourselves. If we want to be a good student ~ we spend more time in the library than in the pub. We have been taught how to be a good athlete ~ we spend time training, eating well and resting. We have been taught how to be a good member of our family ~ we spend more time together than apart. Our world teaches us, and values us, according to how we apply ourselves and achieve the goals we desire. Yet when we consider the nurturing of our spiritual lives, we find that it doesn’t work that way at all. One’s knowledge of God; the relationship we cultivate with God cannot be achieved in the same way as our other achievements. Our salvation, our deep connection with God is not just another thing which we can reach out and take hold of with our own power. I think what we discover with this morning’s text is that we are not responsible for our own salvation ~ it does not come through military might, through political power, through intellectual prowess. In fact the more we grasp at the knowledge of God, the less of it we will ever attain.
Turning to this morning’s text, we see Jesus referring to this very challenge. Jesus speaks to how the ways of the world have become so disconnected from the ways of God. He challenges them saying “to what will I compare this generation?” He draws the parallel to children in the marketplace who are not able to resonate with the sounds that are around them. Beautiful music is being played in the city square, yet it fails to move them. When the music reaches a section of joy, they are not able to stand up and let their bodies dance; when the music reaches a section of sadness, they are not able to shed a tear. The people of this generation, Jesus proclaims, have become disconnected from their very soul. Jesus goes further noting that when John the Baptist came preparing a way for the coming of the Lord, they accused him of being filled with demons. And when the Son of Man actually arrived, they called him a drunkard and a glutton, and condemned him for eating with tax collectors and sinners. Jesus explains how the blessings of God are hidden from those who are filled with the ways of the world. It is only the children of the world, the naïve and innocent ~ disconnected from the ways of the world, who are best situated to understand the ways of God. I wonder if we have become so deeply disconnected from our soul as a result of being immersed in the ways of the world, that we have become isolated and removed from the ways of God. In this self-made, self-righteous, self-serving world, we think we can do anything and everything on our own…even achieve our own salvation. We have lost the ability for the most sacred connection ~ our connection with God.
In this text, we find what scholars refer to as ‘Wisdom Christology’ text. As we read throughout the Old Testament scriptures, we see glimpses of the elusive figure of Wisdom or as she is named in Hebrew: ‘Sophia’. Job inquires: “but where shall Wisdom be found” (28:12-28). King Solomon’s Proverbs report on Wisdom’s creation: “The Lord created me at the beginning of his work…then I was beside Him like a master worker” (8:22-36). And Ecclesiasticus reports “my Creator chose the place for my tent. He said, ‘Make your dwelling in Jacob” (24:1-24). And for the early followers of Jesus, they saw in Jesus, to be found the incarnation of God’s eternal wisdom. The invitation in the text is to become connected, to become united, to become ‘yoked’ with God’s peace, strength and guidance through Jesus ~ God’s incarnate presence.
It is interesting, Jesus actually uses that imagery of us being ‘yoked’ to him. “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me”. Akin to the way an animal wears a harness that allows it to be attached to the plow or cart they are intended to pull, we also are invited to wear a yoke and be literally connected to Him. Except in our case, the yoke is very different. Jesus says: “my yoke is easy, and my burden is light”. The word used is ‘chrestos’, which is just one letter different form the word for Christ ‘Christos’. Jesus yoke is one that is designed for a better purpose; Jesus’ yoke is about being useful ~ even benevolent; Jesus’ yoke is about a deep sense of kindness. Indeed Jesus’ yoke is not “easy” in the traditional sense of being a ‘walk in the park’. Even the quickest reads through Matthew’s gospel uncovers a challenging discipleship that we are called to live out in Jesus’ name. Yet, somehow, Jesus’ yoke, while it is not easy, at the same time it is not restrictive. It is the pathway to newness. It is the pathway to abundant life. I love the double meaning of Jesus’ saying “my yoke is easy and my burden is light”. Did you catch the double meaning of His burden being “light”? Certainly, there is the reassurance that the burden will not feel overwhelming. It will not be too heavy or weighty. “My burden is light”. The flip side is that Jesus burden gives light. It is ‘en’-lightening. Jesus’ yoke is light. It will enlighten us; it will give us light in our darkness; it will give us hope in our despair; as Jesus is the “light to the world” ~ his yoke will be light to each of us who choose to come to him, and take his yoke and rest.
And that is what, I would suggest, is the most important thing you can do this summer. We should take up Jesus’ yoke and learn from him, for his yoke is easy and his burden is light. We should engage in summer Sabbath. I know very few people who are able to carve out a Sabbath day each week in their lives. Yet we know that the need for sabbath is built into the fabric of our being for we are ‘created in the image of God’. And we know that we need to rest amidst our work. After God’s work of creation, God rested on the seventh day. The third commandment calls us to keep the Sabbath day holy. Yet do we come to Jesus with our heavy burdens, take on his yoke, and find Sabbath rest? It might sound funny, but I recently got an invitation to a “45 minute retreat”! It becomes even worse when I tell you the source. It was from an electronic gathering of United Church clergy. We are all so busy these days whether we are retired, working professionals, running a household, or in school. We won’t go into the separation of church and state or the rise of the industrial age, or being chained to our smartphones, but the number of people who take a weekly Sabbath are very few and far between. Yet that does not mean that we do not, oh so deeply, need Sabbath rest in our lives. Rabbi Abraham Heschel calls Sabbath “a day of delight, a day to savor the world. A day for being rather than doing”. In the text, Jesus says: “Come to me, all of you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens and I will give you rest”. Placing our yoke upon Jesus; connecting with Jesus is something we so deeply need today…perhaps more than ever. Anglo-Catholic writer Evelyn Underhill who is known for her many works on spiritual practices observed: “we spend our lives conjugating three verbs “to have, to want, to do. But the essential verb is to be”.
I would suggest that this summer season has increasingly become a time of Sabbath opportunity for people. While it may not be possible to hold a weekly Sabbath as it once was, I would suggest that the most important thing we can do this summer is that of Sabbath observance because we have been doing and doing and doing for so long. We need to take time and rest in the Lord; we need to renew our connections with God through Jesus Christ; we need to take on the yoke of Christ and find rest. It seems like the best possible time as I think about it. Everything slows down in the summer? Church meetings and programs slow; people take holidays; sometimes we even walk a little slower; we breathe a little deeper. This is your Sabbath time!
We commenced our conversation with the question about whether ‘we need Jesus’. This is the time when we are charged to unplug from the world and plug into our spiritual lifeline of Christ. We so deeply need Jesus in order that we might continue our journey. And so, returning to that dark, moldy church basement. Where we are sitting on the uncomfortable folding chairs, it is with these needs in my heart that I can stand up and tell you “My name is Scott and I am beaten, bruised and battered from the journey of life. I am a life-a-holic and I need Jesus in my life.