I’ve been doing something in our Sunday services these past few weeks that professors of preaching and liturgical scholars tell preachers not to do. The rule is, always preach the gospel. Well, rules are meant to be broken and there are very good reasons for breaking them. Those of you who have been around here a while know that I usually do preach on the appointed gospel text although some of you will remember many times when I’ve done otherwise. For example, three years ago, when we last had these lectionary readings, I spent most of the summer focusing on Paul’s letter to the Romans. Curiously, I’ve never had anyone ask me for more of that.
There are two reasons I’ve emphasized the readings from the Hebrew Bible these past few weeks. One reason is probably obvious—they are wonderful and problematic stories, even a casual reading of them, or half-paying attention as they are being read will bring questions to mind. The other reason is less obvious but perhaps more important. Most of us aren’t very familiar with these stories. We don’t know the bible very well anymore, and we aren’t inclined to engage with the biblical texts and to be frank, we aren’t sure how to approach the texts when we read them. So one of my goals for preaching is to help read them with you, to ask questions and often validate the questions you might have as you hear the texts being read or reading them for yourself. I hope that the curiosity of some of you is piqued enough that you go back and read some of the stories that the lectionary skips—for example read all of the Abraham cycle from Genesis 12 to 24, or beginning next week, the Jacob cycle from Genesis 25-38.
That lengthy introduction is something of a self-justification of why I’ve not been focusing on the gospel, as well as an attempt to help us refocus, for today at least, on the Gospel of Matthew. The last three Sundays we’ve read from chapter which contains what scholars refer to as the second of Jesus’ five discourses in that gospel—lengthy compilations of Jesus’ teaching uninterrupted by questions or narrative episodes. The first discourse is the sermon on the mount. One of the key themes in Matthew is the presentation of Jesus as the new Moses and scholars see a parallel between Matthew’s five discourses and the five books of Moses.
The second discourse is called the missionary discourse. Jesus sends his disciples out to extend his ministry—to preach the Good News of the coming of God’s reign, and to heal the sick, cleanse lepers, and cast out demons. He gives them instructions on what to wear and what to take with them, what to do if they are rejected, and the like.
Now in chapter 11, the emphasis shifts. The chapter begins with John the Baptist in prison, and sending some of his disciples to Jesus to ask him if Jesus is the one for whom they were waiting. That’s the background for the first section of today’s gospel reading. In it, Jesus criticizes the crowd for the way they responded to both John and himself. John was something of a dropout—he preached in the wilderness, dressed strangely and had an odd diet. Onlookers thought he might have been possessed by a demon. In the twenty-first century, he would probably be diagnosed as mentally ill. In the case of Jesus, because he spent time with tax collectors and sinners, he was regarded as a drunkard and glutton.
Jesus’ question, “What did you come out into the wilderness to see?” is as pertinent today as it was in the first century. We have our expectations, assumptions about how God acts in the world, and what God’s will is. Those expectations can lead us to ignore or overlook the ways God is working in the world and in our lives, and who God is using as God’s messengers. And in our polarized society, in all the noise of that polarization, we need to be reminded that God may be speaking and working in ways that we don’t immediately recognize or want to acknowledge.
Among the assumptions that burden us is the assumption that following Jesus is difficult. There are good reasons for such an assumption, sayings like, “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me.”
But today we hear something very different. The last verses we heard are words of invitation and consolation. I repeat them almost every Sunday at the early service. They are among the so-called “comfortable words” sentences of scripture read or recited after the confession of sin and before moving into the Eucharist. In the liturgical context, they are intended to remind us of God’s love, mercy, and grace. And that’s a lovely use of them.
In their scriptural context, they show another dimension of discipleship. Yes, following Jesus can be difficult. It has consequences. But at its heart, discipleship is about relationship. The word we translate as discipleship has at its root the Greek word for to learn. In the gospels as in other religious traditions, to learn from a religious teacher, to follow a religious teacher, is first and foremost about relationship, about being together. When Jesus called his disciples, he told them, “Come, I will make you fishers of people.” Now he tells them, “Come, all you that are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”
That’s an invitation we need, a reminder we desperately need in our busy lives and noisy world. We are overwhelmed by so many things. We may be anxious, fearful, angry. Jesus invites us to come to him with all of that, with our worries and concerns, our burdens. He invites us to find rest in him.
Let’s not immediately think about the “rest” Jesus offers as a day off from work or a vacation. Rather, “rest” is a loaded theological term, it draws us back to creation, to God’s final act of creation, when God rested, created the Sabbath day and blessed it.
Above all, in this context, there is a connection between “rest” and the relationship of disciple and teacher—disciple and Jesus. At the very end of Matthew, Jesus promises his continued presence with his disciples, “And lo, I will be with you always.” Here, Jesus explicates the meaning of that presence. It’s not just “being with” him. It is opening ourselves to the transformative power of that presence, to find in Jesus’ ongoing presence with us rest for our souls.
It is also to make that same invitation to others. In Matthew 9, Jesus looked on the crowd and “he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” The world we live in, the city we live in is full of people in desperate need. Can we speak Jesus’ words to them, “Come unto him, all you that are weary and heavy-laden, and he will give you rest?”