“Rest and Renewal”
July 13, 2014
We’ve been reading through the middle section of the Gospel of Matthew
in recent weeks. And today, at last,
we come to some welcome and comforting words.
After Jesus instructs his disciples;
after he charges them
to teach and heal and announce that God is drawing near;
after he sends them
out with the word, “Go”
Jesus offers an invitation: “Come
to me…and I will give you rest.”
After speaking woes and denunciations;
after talking about
hating families and taking up the cross;
that he has come to bring not peace, but a sword
Jesus claims “I am gentle and humble of heart.”
These words fall softly on those who have weary hearts and are worn out
by life. They come as a relief to those who want to do the right thing and are burdened
by their conscience. They light up the path ahead like sunshine after days of
rain for those who live in the shadows of guilt and remorse.
That is to say, these are the words that you have been waiting to hear.
“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 have
gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke
is easy, and my burden is light.”
If we could just let those gracious words flood over us, my task this
morning would be as easy as the yoke of Jesus. All I would need to do is speak
these words of comfort and reassurance to you once more and send you out early
into this beautiful July day.
But let’s not sing that final hymn just quite yet!
As is always the case, there is yet more truth and light to break forth
from these words.
Let’s first recognize that those words of Jesus move us to confession.
While Jesus tells us that his yoke is easy and his burden is light, we in the
church have so often been ready to place heavy burdens on others—and even upon
The New Testament tells of early Christians quickly wanting to regulate
what people ate and how they dressed.
Women were apostles and deacons, but soon the church told them, “Those
are not options for you.”
After finding religious freedom in the New World, the faithful quickly
began codifying their religion as law. And, as we have seen, there are
Christians who want to put the yoke of their faith on the shoulders of their
Gays and lesbians have been in Christian churches for two millennia—and
for most of that time they have not been able to be open about that and still
can’t be in many congregations.
And let’s be honest: there is even the danger in liberal, thoughtful
congregations such as this one that we will seek to have everyone thinking the
same thoughts. We can respect questions.
The challenge comes when we have to respect the different answers that people discover.
Our confession helps us understand those who want to throw off the
heavy yoke of religion.
In recent years we have encountered the growing popularity of the
sentiment: “I’m spiritual, but not religious.” Such a feeling grows out of exasperation
with all the burdens placed on thinking and acting by organized religion. (And
as an aside, when someone tells me, “I have no room for organized religion in
my life,” I say, “Neither do I. That’s why I’m a member of the United Church of
Christ. It’s about the most unorganized
religion I know.”)
Those who avoid religion and its perceived strictures are usually
responding to some awful experience with those who would impose their way of
thinking and acting onto others. Maybe you know people like that. Maybe you are someone like that. There are
those in this congregation who kept themselves away from any church for years
because it was specifically in churches
that they were told there are limits on what you could think and what questions
you could ask. It was specifically in
churches that they met with
intolerance, or bigotry, or pathological control, or abuse. It was in churches they found a hard yoke and a
heavy burden. When they finally stumbled
across this place and found the courage to walk through our doors, they were
surprised by what they found: a community of openness, a church that seeks to
live in the freedom of the gospel.
We don’t always get it right, you know that. But we seek to follow the
Jesus whom we see again and again in conflict with the religious leaders of his
day. He speaks out against those who worry about religious details while
ignoring or avoiding the weightier demands of love, compassion and mercy. He
warns against straining out the gnat and swallowing a camel—what a wonderful
Of course we need to be careful here, because Christians have all too
often turned this conflict within first-century Judaism into an attack on
Jewish people, taking upon ourselves the heavy yoke of anti-Semitism.
But Jesus tells those who would follow him that we are cut loose from
the onerous demands of religion at its worst. We can set aside the burdens
others have placed upon us. We can set aside the burdens that we place upon
ourselves. We can take off the yoke that weighs heavily on our souls. We are set free to find our own way.
In that freedom we come closer to understanding what Jesus means when
he says that in him we will find rest for our souls.
Jesus is not speaking here of rest as inactivity.
He offers the rest that is the renewal of strength after vigorous
activity, the rest that restores us for further—even greater—work. If you have done the difficult work of
forgiving someone, you will need rest for your soul before you go out and do
that again. If you have been far more generous than you might ever have
expected, you will need to renew your strength so that your generosity can
continue to grow. If you have fed the hungry or worked to rebuild places of
devastation, well, you need rest because you will most likely be called to
similar acts of compassion in the future.
This is the kind of renewal spoken of not only by Jesus but by the
In those powerful and perhaps familiar words that we heard this morning
the prophet tells us, in no uncertain terms, that we are not God. We are not
the Creator, who is far greater than the creation. For thousands of years human
beings have needed just such a reminder and it we still benefit from hearing it
When the calculations comparing our smallness with God’s greatness are
finished, we can react to our position in the universe in several ways. We can
slink away in despair. We can lash out in denial. Or we can rest in God’s
great, saving love. Isaiah proclaimed—and the birth, death, and resurrection of
Jesus confirmed—that this God who is unequalled and beyond comparison regards
this creation with an equally incomparable love. God has no inconsequential
creatures or untended corners of the universe. God tells us how precious we are
in God’s sight—which is good news—and God also tells us how precious the entire
This God gives power to the faint and strengthens the powerless—people
like you and me.
When we wait for the Lord we act out of a sense of who
we are and who God is—not confusing the two. We recognize our limitations and our abilities.
When we wait for the Lord we continue to work for
peace in a world that prefers for war.
When we wait for the Lord we continue to open our
doors to the homeless, we continue to feed the hungry even as the number of
homeless and hungry people among us seems to increase each week.
When we wait for the Lord we continue to affirm the
value of each person even as the voices of hate get louder.
When we wait for the Lord we continue in our busy
lives to love one another.
And so, when we wait for the Lord we also need to accept
the easy yoke and the rest that is offered to us.
Let me quickly suggest three ways in which we might find rest for our
souls. This list is not exhaustive—and you, no doubt, could add many items to
it—but these are ways that you might want to explore.
I would suggest that we begin
In our Congregational tradition, we are informed by the Reformation
confession that tells us that the chief end of human beings, our ultimate
purpose, is to glorify and enjoy God.
Those things in which we take delight can be wells at which we drink when our
souls are dry and thirsty.
When family life has worn you out, recall those things that you enjoy
about being a parent, a spouse. Pursue them. The same is true for any
relationship that might be draining you. The pleasure that you find in one area
of your life can be a resource for living.
When compassion fatigue sets in, recall the joy that you have found in
Here in this church as well, seek out opportunities to do what you
What gives you pleasure? What do you need to do so that you can
experience that more often?
We might also begin to pray. And
no matter how much we pray, it always seems that we are just beginning to pray, doesn’t it?
Prayer is intimate conversation with God—real, demanding, loving, and
engaged conversation between yourself and the real, loving God.
Saying this, of course, raises many questions and concerns—far more
than can be addressed this morning. So let me suggest that to start we set
aside our questions and simply receive prayer and meditation is a gift. Prayer
itself is a time for receiving. Being still in the presence of God, lifting
your cares to God, pausing to listen as the Spirit of God speaks to your spirit
are all paths to receiving the strength you need.
We don’t need to overthink this. The psalmist knew the value of simply
saying: “God, hear my prayer; let my cry for help come to you.”
So often we regard prayer as a luxury. When the busy world pushes in on
us, demanding our time, luxuries are often the first things to go. Prayer,
however, is more of a necessity if we are to find rest for our souls and
continue to be open to other people and, indeed, to all of life.
Our souls are renewed as well by perspective,
the ability to see the big picture. Perspective is “the capacity to see what is
really important in any given situation.” It is connected to prayer because the
habit of reflection is critical to acquiring a sense of perspective. And
reflection is simply not possible unless some time each day is devoted to silence.
Silence allows us to reflect on the higher purpose, to question our
decisions in the light of that purpose, and to seek strength not to betray it.
It allows us to listen to the inner stirrings of the spirit.
Of course, perspective is also one of the gifts of this congregation.
Here we find and create a civil community in an uncivil world, a place to
explore our beliefs and doubts. Here we discover what it means to forgive and
be forgiven; we try out loving our neighbor in the hope that we might be able
to do this beyond these four walls as well.
We find rest for our souls through pleasure, prayer, and perspective. And,
as I said, you know many other ways to receive the renewal of your spirit that
God desires for each of us. We receive anew those things that fill us so that
we can continue our lives as grateful and generous human beings.
When we start to experience the freedom of the gospel,
when we take up the light yoke and the easy burden of Jesus,
when we know rest for our souls, the renewal of our strength
We are able to find religion that gives life and sustains us.
I’ve long appreciated the Latin roots of our word “religion.” The words
suggest a binding together after being apart. Religion is what binds us
together once more. We can be spiritual on our own, alone. As people who are
not only spiritual but also religious, we are not left to our own devices. We
are brought together for mutual support. We are brought together so that with
each other we might be a sign to the world that the way of Jesus Christ is the
way of life.
We have a special charge as those who follow in the way of Jesus Christ
to take neither ourselves nor our religion too seriously. And that can lead to
wonderful possibilities—after all, it’s said that angels can fly because they
take themselves so lightly. We’re no angels, so let us pray that we might not
impose heavy burdens on others.
Let us keep ourselves close so that we may always hear the One who
speaks those gracious words, not only to us, but to all people, the One whose
yoke is easy, whose burden is light.