Peaceful Easy Feeling

Scripture:  Matthew 11:25-30

I have a bad habit of saying “yes”, and that can sometimes get me committed to doing all kinds of things.  For instance all the way back in 2015 I was asked to be on the District Committee on Ministries for the Southeast district and I said yes. The DCoM is the committee in the United Methodist Church structure responsible for licensing local pastors as well as recommending candidates for ordination to the board of ordained ministry. Even though I have since switched districts I am still on the DCoM Then  in 2017 I was asked to be on the board of ordained ministry, and I said yes.   This is the committee in the church that is responsible for recommending candidates for ordination as well as provide some level of professional administration for all clergy in the United Methodist church.    Then in 2020 I was asked to be the secretary for the board.  Of course I said yes, and it is a job I still currently do.  In all of this work I have really come to appreciate the process we have.  I know there are still flaws in the process, mistakes are still made, and various teams do not get it right 100% of the time but there is a lot of work and effort that goes to ensuring that United Methodist churches have competent, qualified, and passionate clergy who are held to a high standard.   While I appreciate that we have a process to try and ensure the churches get the best pastors they can get, I also have to admit our process is a lot.

If someone feels called to ministry then there is a process to respond to that call.  In the United Methodist Church, the first part of that process is 22 steps long.  These are not steps that can be completed in a day either.  It requires meeting with local church leadership, filling out paperwork, taking psychological evaluations, going through a several month long mentoring process, and eventually interviewing with the district committee on ministries.  That is all just to become a certified candidate which then allows a person to purse a track to serving in ministry such as being local pastor or ordination.   These various tracks also have their own multiple step checklists and take years to complete.   In Indiana, if a high school graduate felt a call to ministry and wanted to be ordained clergy in the United Methodist Church the fastest they could finish all of the requirements and be fully ordained is ten years.   Like I said, it is a lot.  While I believe the process is important and worthwhile, it does not kind of stand in sharp contrast to this morning’s scripture.  The process to pursue ordination in the United Methodist Church cannot really be described as easy or light.

To ensure that churches have the best possible pastors there is an intentional and (dare I say) methodical process that can be somewhat arduous.  While such a process may be needed for those who wish to serve in vocational ministry, this morning’s scripture is a firm reminder that no such process is needed to follow Christ in the first place.  It is a reminder to ensure that we are not intentionally or unintentionally serving as gate keepers that keep people from following Jesus.

This morning’s scripture is from the lectionary reading.  The lectionary is an agreed upon selection of scriptures used by multiple denominations that has weekly scripture readings on a three year cycle.  So in this particular year this is the gospel reading for sixth Sunday after Pentecost.  If your bible uses subheadings, there is also a good chance that this morning’s scripture has its own heading.  However, despite both of those things this morning’s scripture is not really meant to stand on its own.  It is very much a concluding thought to something else.   We can find clues to that within the scripture reading itself.  For instance it begins with “at that time” and in Jesus’ first sentence he states “I praise you Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things.”  Both of these statements indicate something else is going on here, and so to get the full context of this morning’s scripture we need to look back to what motivated Jesus to say these words.   We can find these motivations in the earlier parts of Matthew 11.

I do not want to accuse Jesus of complaining, but in Matthew 11 Jesus is complaining.  However, he has good reason to do so.  He starts in Matthew 11:1-19 with a focus on John the Baptist.   John came before Jesus to prepare the way.  He preached repentance and pointed to one who is greater that is coming.   While John’s message did find an audience he also managed to make the wrong people made, and as Matthew 11:2 points out John was in prison.   Despite being imprisoned, Jesus celebrates and praises John.  His biggest complaint here though comes in verse 18, where Jesus states: “For John came neither eating nor drinking and they say ‘He has a demon’.  The Son of Man came eating and drinking and they say ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’ “

John lived a very minimalist life that was outside of the norms of the established religious culture.   He did not do things or approach things the way they were typically done, and so he was heavily criticized by the religious leaders and ultimately arrested and executed by the political leaders.  Jesus on the other hand, spent time with the people that good religious people were not supposed to spend time with.  He intentionally met people where they were at.  This led him to engage in a very different lifestyle than John the Baptist, but it was still outside the approach and the way things were typically done, and so Jesus was also heavily criticized by the religious leaders.   Jesus and John were very different in their style and approach to ministry, but they shared the common thread of doing things different than how they had always been done and there will always be a segment of people who get really bent out of shape by that.

Perhaps it is this complaint that led Jesus to make his statement in verses 28-30 “Come to me, who are weary and burdened and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you and learn from me 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.”   Now I can distinctly remember being at Milan UMC in elementary school and hearing this verse read in children’s church.  Instead of yoke, Y-o-k-e I heard yolk y-o-l-k, and I was left really confused trying to figure out what eggs had to do with following Jesus.  Even without misunderstanding the word, this can be a somewhat confusing scripture to get initially.  A yoke refers to the wooden piece that attaches beast of burden like ox to a cart or plow.  In the first century Jewish tradition, the teaching of a Rabbi were referred to as the Rabbi’s yoke.  The Rabbi’s yoke was their understanding of the Jewish law and the idea is that by taking on a rabbi’s yoke it was what connected a person to the law and thus to God.

The Jewish religious leaders had an understanding of the law that had a fairly narrow understanding of what it meant to be a good, God following person.  Their understanding required a lot of rules about what was the “right” way to talk, the right way to act, and the right way to live.  Both John and Jesus, fell outside these parameters in different ways.  Jesus’ words imploring people to come to him and find rest by taking up his yoke, seems to imply that a lot of people struggled to live inside the religious lines that had been drawn for them.  In order to protect God’s command, the religious leaders had built a hedge around it, they made up a set of extra rules to ensure the rules never got broken.   A lot of people must have found it exhausting to follow these rules.   What was supposed to exist to help them live righteous lives as God’s people and help them find an identity as God’s people had instead become a yoke of rules upon rules.  It required fitting an exacting model and not deviating from it.   This was different from the yoke that Jesus offered.  Jesus did not have rules upon rules, in fact he lifted up two and said they fulfill all the others:  Love God and love neighbors.  Compared to the rule heavy yoke of the Pharisees that sounds easy and light indeed.

Unfortunately, trying to replace the light and easy yoke of Jesus has been something of a hobby for religious institutions.   There is a good chance that some of you grew up with the saying “Don’t smoke, drink, or chew or run with people that do.”  We have a bad habit of adding extra rules to what it takes to be a follower of Jesus.  There seems to be a strong tendency to define what acceptable behavior is and then insist on uniformity.  In Jesus’ time this led to people on the margins, the tax collectors and sinners feeling like they were ever shut out from God’s people while leaving everyone else feeling exhausted, weary, and in need of rest for their souls.  Today this attitude has left the witness of the church, of Christ body on earth greatly diminished.  This is because increasingly, people outside the church only know us by what we are against not what we are for.   Too many people understand Christians to be people who champion specific political causes instead of Jesus.  To be a Christian does not require a person to believe in certain ways on key issues, it does not require a person to meet a set of purity standards, and being a Christian does not require voting a specific way.  To be a Christian requires loving Jesus and believing in him.  That is it, easy and light.     All of the other stuff that has been added just seeks to replace the yoke of Christ.  They are all added burdens that tire out souls.  Being a follower of Christ should not be about what we were are for or against, it should be about loving God and loving neighbor.  The yoke of Christ, the teaching of Christ that fully connects us to God is love. It is that simple, it is that easy and light.

So the burden of the yoke that the religious leaders were placing on people is one of the things that Jesus was complaining about, but it is not the only thing.  We also find a complaint in Matthew 11:20-25.  In those verses Jesus denounces some of the towns that Jesus had been performing miracles in. They had seen the very power of God displayed in their midst and it did not impress them much.  This is what Jesus is referring to in the opening verses of this morning’s scripture the things hidden from the wise and learned and revealed to little children mentioned in verse 25 is that the miracles that Jesus was doing point to God.  God the Father is revealed through Jesus the son, this was happening in the midst of the people of the villages mentioned in chapter 11 and the people largely missed it.

Perhaps this is also a relevant issue today.   Because today there are faithful followers of Jesus who seek to share God’s love, through their actions they seek to make God’s love know in the world, and often this is completely missed.  Worse, their actions are often opposed and often the opposition comes from the same people who should be supportive.  Catholic Bishop Helder Camara, who focused on loving and caring for the poor pointed this out when he once said, “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint.  When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist.”   The yoke of Jesus is love and when we seek to love others, there will be voices that critique.  When we seek to provide with those who are without, when we seek to include those who have been excluded, and when we seek to offer grace those to those that others judge then there will always be those who miss that this is the work of God being done by the disciples of Jesus for the transformation of the world. If our motivation for loving others is to follow Jesus, then let others say what they want while we have a peaceful, easy feeling that we are following our savior.

In this morning’s scripture, it may be the case that Jesus (for good reason) complained a little bit.  We are not Jesus, so it may be more beneficial for us to resist the temptation to complain.  When we seek to follow the way of Jesus, seek to love others, and seek to join with God in making the love of God known there will be people who miss it completely, and I get the temptation to complain about that.  Yet, we do not need too, because that is their problem not ours.   Our focus should be on following the way of Jesus, and Jesus himself told us his way is rest for our souls.  Is way is easy, and his burden is light.   Friends, the way of Christ is a way of love, so may that be the way that we live as well.  May we indeed have a peaceful, easy feeling as we seek to love God with all of being and love our neighbors as ourselves.


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