(this is a very personal sermon but I hope it offers some ideas and thoughts on this Gospel reading)
In our family we called it “feeling ho-ish”. That feeling you get when you don’t know what to do and nothing anyone suggests is any good and you can’t go outside ‘cos it’s raining and you end up kicking the table, or your younger brother or the dog. It leaves you feeling frustrated, sulky and generally unpleasant – or it did me and my brother anyway.
Jesus seems to be addressing a crowd of people who feel ho-ish about life. They don’t know what they believe and nothing can satisfy them. They don’t like the rigid rules the Pharisees impose on them, they didn’t like John’s Spartan way of life and now they don’t like Jesus taking pleasure in good food and wine, not to mention dubious friendships.
Maybe Jesus is also talking to some Pharisees who are so sure they’ve got it right and that they do things the right way. So sure that they reject what Jesus has been saying and deny the validity of the miraculous signs happening in front of them.
Feeling very unsure about the meaning of life and what we believe or feeling very sure that we’re the ones who’ve got it right and everyone else is wrong – they’re not uncommon experiences and I suspect that if we’re honest with ourselves most of us would admit to both at some time in their life- I certainly would.
But when we do feel very unsure of ourselves or believe that we’re the ones who’ve got it right we run the risk of feeling very threatened by someone who speaks with conviction about his or her beliefs or who does things differently from us. And the more threatened we feel the more deeply entrenched we become behind our defences which keep us from them.
Jesus says “Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.”
He says that whatever people think of John the Baptist and of him, there are things happening in front of their very eyes which cannot be denied: blind people can now see, deaf people can now hear, lepers are healed and the dead are being raised to life. Sometimes things happen in front of our eyes which force us to think again about what we believe.
Jesus then praises and thanks God for the way his message is revealed in signs which anyone can see and understand if they choose to – God does not require us to have great intelligence and scholarship just open minds and hearts.
Jesus recognises that he has a unique relationship with God – that of a Son with a loving Father and he is willing to share that with those who can hear his message. In that loving parent and child relationship there is no imposition of a belief system or rigid rules just a safe, secure place from which we can explore the world around us.
Then Jesus gives the great invitation to all who are weary:
“Are tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion?
Come to me … and you’ll recover your life.
I’ll show you how to take a real rest.
Walk with me and work with me.
Watch how I do it.
Learn the unforced rhythms of grace.
I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you.
Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.”
That’s from “The Message”, a form of the New Testament in contemporary language by Eugene Peterson. This version struck me particularly because it seemed to resonate with Melvyn Matthews’ (then Chancellor of Wells Cathedral) at J’s (curate’s) ordination last Sunday.
Melvyn told us of ancient manuscripts held in Wells Cathedral Library. Many are hard to read because the original handwriting has faded or been over-written by more modern hands. However, with an infra-red light it is possible to see through the distortions and read the original handwriting. Melvyn invited us to think of our soul as God’s original handwriting and the modern over-writing as our illusions about ourselves which give us a distorted picture of who we are. He suggested the Holy Spirit is like the infra-red light which can cut through those illusions of the false self and draw out the true self underneath, the self and the soul as they were meant to be.
Hold that picture of our soul being God’s original creation as he intended it to be. Then think of our burdens as being those things which have damaged our soul, stunted its growth and worn us out with the effort of living a life we were not designed to live.
Most of us carry those burdens. We get hurt and disappointed so it’s not so easy to trust or see the good in people. We develop prejudices and fears which make us judgmental and intolerant. Perhaps we struggle to earn God’s love because in a state of low self esteem we can’t believe that God’s love, freely given to everyone else, is also given to us.
Or maybe it’s not the burden of the past that wearies us but the stress of just having too much work to do, not enough time to do it in and certainly not enough time just to be, to enjoy ourselves, relax and rest. All this baggage wears us out, exhausts us and takes away any chance of joy in faith and in living.
It’s this that can make us defensive and entrenched so that we are unable to recognise, accept and rejoice in good news when it unfolds in front of our eyes.
Jesus is saying “This is not how it’s meant to be”. God doesn’t want his children so worn out they can’t enjoy the fullness of life. Jesus wants us to be free to be who we were created to be – he wants us to find again God’s original handwriting on our soul. He offers to be our teacher and to guide us along the way. And it’s not an easy option with all our troubles sorted. We still have to work for ourselves. Love and guidance is freely given as grace to us and the prayerful love and support of our friends may also be freely given, but it will cost us to accept that gift of grace, it will cost us to sacrifice a way of life that has become familiar to us even if it is crushing us under its weight.
In the freedom of being our true selves we are called to follow Jesus and to learn to be more like him. That’s a journey to last a lifetime but Jesus will be there and be a bit like a sports coach! Perhaps our training in the Christian journey is a bit like that of a football or tennis player, a cyclist or a long distance walker!
If an athlete is fit and healthy then when he trains and practices he can strive to better his own performance, pushing at the boundaries of his own strength and ability and his coach will encourage him in that.
But if an athlete has been injured or unwell then he has to train and practice within the limits set by the injury or sickness. It would do him harm to attempt the same feats when weakened as he can when he’s fit. His coach will see that he doesn’t do more than is healthy for him.
I think that’s what Jesus is saying in his invitation to learn from him. He knows just how much we can do and how far we can stretch and he knows our limitations caused by injury or sickness in our bodies, minds or souls. He says that life is not about wearing ourselves to the bones and being totally stressed out. It’s about living to the full with the adventure of moving forward at the pace that’s right for us.
In our church life at least we can look out for each other. If we do become aware of the churchwardens (vicar or curate) or anyone else becoming worn out with their responsibilities in the church then I think Jesus will want us to remember that isn’t how life is meant to be for any of us. We are meant to be supporting each other as well as looking after ourselves. Maybe this would be a good morning to ask ourselves “am I coping with all this or do I need help?”, or “is there some small task I can do to lighten somebody else’s load” or “are we doing enough to look after those who are feeling under pressure in their ministry and service in our parish?”
Jesus wants all of us to have life in all its abundance. “Come to me” he says “and you’ll recover your life. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.”