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Choosing Our Burdens

Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

© The Rev. C. Joshua Villines

St. John's Lutheran Church (ELCA), Atlanta, Georgia

July 6, 2008 (14th Sunday in Ordinary Time (A) )

I read in the news yesterday that people are already lining up at the Apple store in New York to buy the new iPhone 2.0 – which doesn’t come out for another six days. They are willing to camp on a city sidewalk for a week rather than risk not getting one as soon as it comes out. They are persuaded that they absolutely have to have the latest gadget, and nothing will persuade them otherwise.

Now here’s the embarrassing thing about that story. My first thought when I read it was, “Hmmmm, I wonder if they would let me set my tent up in Lenox Square Mall.” You see, I’d already decided I wanted the gadget pretty badly, so the rational part of my brain immediately shut down when I thought there was a chance I wasn’t going to be able to get one.

When I realized how irrational I was being, I started to wonder if all of the reasons I had come up with to get my new toy really justified the purchase, or if I had first made the decision to get it, and then started looking for ways to rationalize what I already wanted to do.

I suspect most of us do this more often than we’d like to admit, and in lots of areas of our lives. We decide we want to buy something, then the only “facts” we will listen to are from the advertisers trying to convince us we can’t live without it. We decide we don’t like someone, and the only behaviors we will pay attention to will be the ones that annoy us. We choose a particular political party or a favorite candidate then the people who disagree with us can’t just have different priorities – they must be mean-spirited or evil.

No matter what the area of our lives, human nature is such that we tend to make up our minds based on our instincts; and then we use our brains to find ways to justify what we’ve decided. Surprisingly, the more important the subject – career choices, marriage, religious belief – it seems the less likely we are to listen and think and the faster we are to jump to the defense of our beliefs.

Our gospel reading from Matthew today shows us how Jesus’ own ministry had to fight against just that sort of problem. People who didn’t want to follow Jesus used every excuse they could think of to explain why He couldn’t be the Messiah, even if those excuses contradicted each other.

Today’s text begins after Jesus has given a response to the followers of John the Baptist. Apparently, even John – who eight chapters earlier had seen the Holy Spirit descend on Jesus and proclaim Him the Son of God – had started to doubt whether or not Jesus was the actual Messiah. Personally, I think that miraculous event that would have been pretty convincing; but this just goes to show you how stubborn human beings can be. John had very specific expectations for the kind of reform and revolution the Messiah would bring; and proclaiming a gospel of grace rather than one of fiery judgment apparently wasn’t what John expected.

Having explained to John’s disciples that He is indeed the Messiah, Jesus turns to the crowd. He compares them, and – to be honest – us as well, to a group of children playing in the park. The children want to pretend to throw a party, so they start playing happy wedding music; but no one will dance. Then they start wailing and sobbing as if they are at a funeral, but no one will look sad. Jesus says that we want a Messiah who dances to our tune, not one who marches to the beat of his own drummer.

Jesus goes on to point out that when John the Baptist came on the scene, everyone mocked him for not even being human. John was stern and serious. He fasted. He drank no alcohol. John warned that the end was near, and that a fiery doom awaited those who would not repent. In other words, he made Pat Robertson look like a raging liberal. And so, people ignored what John had to say about the Son of God because they couldn’t take him seriously as a real person. John the Baptist’s standard, they said, is too high. He’s too far above us. No one can be like him.

Then Jesus arrived, and he spent all of his time with normal, everyday people. He ate with them. He drank with them. No matter how badly they had behaved, no matter what mistakes they had made, Jesus listened to their stories and healed their wounds. You would think that, after what folks had said about John the Baptist, this is exactly what they would have wanted. But no, Jesus points out that people called him a “drunkard” and a “glutton;” and that they wouldn’t listen to him because he hung out with sinners…people just like them.

There is an old southern expression that seems to apply here: “You can’t win for losin’.” The people didn’t decide that Jesus was not the Messiah because of what John said or didn’t say, or because of what Jesus did or didn’t do; they decided not to follow Jesus because they didn’t want a Savior at all. Having decided that, they looked for any excuse to ignore or reject him.

Following Jesus, recognizing that he is the Son of God, means change. It means changing the way we see ourselves, it means changing the way we see other people, and it means changing the way we live our lives. That’s takes a lot of effort, and Jesus reminds us that – if it seems like too much work – we’ll find any excuse to justify avoiding it.

That takes us to the final three verses of this chapter, one of the most beautiful passages in the gospel of Matthew and one of my favorite texts in the whole Bible. Jesus says, “Come to me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take on my yoke, be my disciple, 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.”

This is the part that seemed disconnected to me at first. What’s the link between realizing that it is in our nature to reject Jesus no matter how he is presented to us, and the reminder that Jesus wants to replace our heavy burdens with a much lighter load? These almost seem like two totally different topics.

Then I thought about what happens any time I’m at a party and someone asks me what I do for a living. Apparently, there is a universal law that when someone tells you they are a pastor you have to immediately tell them how long it has been since you have been to church, what you liked or didn’t like about that church, and why you’ve stopped going to church altogether.

I confess, my first response is often, “Why didn’t I tell them I’m a truck driver?” but I admit it really is informative to listen to the reasons people give. Generally speaking, their responses fall into two categories that are almost identical to the ones Jesus mentioned earlier. Some people tell me that they stopped going to church because of all of the hypocrisy. They couldn’t stand people standing up in the pulpit and shouting at them about not doing things that most likely everyone did anyway.

Other folks explain to me that they feel like churches have gotten too “soft.” They think that too much emphasis on grace and tolerance has taken all of the character and backbone out of the church; and they just can’t see any reason to go any more.

In other words, they’ve constructed an image in their minds of what they think all churches, and Christianity as a whole, is about; and so they aren’t going to bother with either. Like the people of Jesus’ time, they say, “The people in church are either too good to be true or too accepting to be trusted, so we’re staying away from them all.”

The reality is those excuses are meaningless, because they have nothing to do with what Jesus says following him is really about. Sure, there are plenty of examples of what Christianity shouldn’t be, but that can’t keep us from hearing the actual words of Jesus about what Christianity can be.

Think about those two complaints: Christians are too high-and-mighty and Christians are too loose and forgiving and listen to what Jesus actually says. Jesus says, “Following me means neither of those things…and both of them!” Whatever burden you’re carrying that keeps you outside my family, let me take it from you.

“What’s your burden?” he asks. “Is it this fear that religion is about a standard you can’t reach? Let me take it from you. All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. Come, find rest for your soul.”

“On the other hand, are you weighed down by the concern that Christianity is just about feeling good about yourself? Let me take that from you too, for I am here to make you the salt of the world. When I take your burdens, I will give you a yoke to carry.”

Jesus has a way of taking away all of our excuses, no matter how much they seem to justify what we want to do – whether we avoid Him because we pretend He’s too strict or because we pretend He’s too merciful. And still so many of us are hesitant to really trust that Jesus will do what He promises. Is it that we just don’t want to make the effort, regardless of what Jesus says? I don’t think so.

I think that deep down many of us, inside and outside the Church, just think it’s too good to be true. We can’t fathom the idea that God, Almighty God in human form, really sees our struggles and wants to help with them. …that God knows the things that keep us awake at night and want to keep us safe. …that God sees the fears that keep us from wanting to get out of bed in the morning and wants to offer us comfort.

Or maybe we think church can’t or shouldn’t be about those things. Maybe real-world problems like grief, addiction, debt, mistrust, depression, anger, family arguments, you name it… maybe we’ve convinced ourselves that those things are too real to have any place in religion or in church. We excuse ourselves by saying, “Well, I don’t go to church because they don’t deal with real problems there, I live in the real world.”

And so for many folks it’s easier just to pretend that the promises of Jesus aren’t there, to pretend that Christianity is about something that holds no relevance for them. To pretend that, if there even is a God, he or she isn’t interested in them.

Not only is God interested, you can hear the compassion and the desire in Jesus’ words as He invites everyone, everyone , to come bring our heaviest concerns to Him so that we can find rest and breathe easy.

This is the kind of church that makes that an easy message to preach, because this is a place that not only welcomes everyone, this is a community that takes seriously our responsibility to bear one another’s burdens. I hope, though, that we will never allow ourselves to become complacent or self-satisfied.

Remember that Jesus does not say, “Take off your burdens, for those who follow me will have nothing to carry.” Instead, He says, “Take that enormous load off your back, AND put my yoke on you.” Remember, Jesus is answering those who think he asks too much and those who think he asks too little.

In reality, I suspect that releasing our own burdens and taking on Jesus’ are actually the same thing. This fellowship and all the members of the Church, are the Body of Christ. In letting go of the things that weigh us down, we also take on a small part of each others’ pain, each others’ fears, each others’ grief, and each others’ hope; and when we bear them all together we find that, shared, the yoke of Christ is light indeed.

This passage is not just about churches. It is about the nature of a gracious and merciful God who, having created us, would never turn away from us. Whatever images or assumptions we might have about who God is or what God’s expectations are, we cannot let them interfere with what God wants to offer us: rest for our very souls.

Come to this table all you who are weary and heavy laden. Set down your pain and your fears, for Almighty God will bear them. If they seem so heavy that you can’t be free of them, your neighbors will share the load with you. Take on instead the light weight of the body and blood of Christ, and carry it with you into the world. As it becomes a part of you, so do we all become a part of each other; and as we become a part of each other, the weight of our burdens is replaced with the gentle touch of the mercy of God.