Rest is Best
The Fourth Sunday after Pentecost

A sermon by Rev. Ralph L. Starling, Associate Pastor
Richmond’s First Baptist Church
Richmond, Virginia
July 6, 2014

Matthew 11:28-30 [link]


Have you been watching the World Cup? Yes? What excitement! What enthusiasm! Finally the USA got the fever I think. It was just an awesome experience. That’s the word I’ve heard described over and over again, and it’s really awesome when you see somebody score, particular in these long soccer games. I noticed over here this morning Fahad, from Egypt, I mean India, Khalid from Egypt, and Katarina from Germany, they know how to play soccer. They are VCU students here visiting with us this morning. Welcome! Glad you are here today. Well, I’ve been thinking about the word awesome, ‘cause I’ve heard it a lot in the last couple of weeks and I started asking people, well what makes you feel awesome? What makes you feel awesome? Have you answered that question for yourself? Well, you know most of us are not going to be able to score  goal in the World Cup, but a lot of people still have experiences that make them feel awesome. Here are some of the responses I got: I feel awesome when I see my kids do well. I feel awesome when I feel loved. I feel awesome when someone makes me feel welcomed. I feel awesome when I feel valued and useful. I feel awesome when I feel rested and refreshed. Well, my sermon title today is “Real Rest is the Best,” and this passage that Steve Booth just read, I’d like to read for you again because this passage that Jesus is speaking to us today is just the opposite of feeling awesome. In fact he’s speaking to people who don’t feel awesome. Listen to these words again. “Come to me, all ye who are weary and burdened and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I m gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest in your souls,. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” What a beautiful passage of scripture. So I want us to break it down a little bit, and I’ll go through the phrases and just comment on them. And you just think about these and kind of like ruminate, and chew on then a little bit, ok? The first one, “Come to me.” Right there, that tells me this is an invitation to a relationship with Jesus. That he is inviting us to be with him. And that says that Jesus is approachable. Don’t you love to be around people who are approachable? Jesus makes it easy to do that. Now, sometimes ministers, when they invite you to a lunch or a meeting, it’s a little bit of the opposite of the way Jesus does it, because when you get invited to see a minister, usually they want you to something. So you know there’s a hidden agenda there. What’s it gonna be? Is he going to ask me to head up a committee, to do this, to go on a mission project, but uh, sometimes we get surprised. Anthony De Mello, who is a Catholic priest, tells this story about a man who made an appointment with his priest. He made the appointment to see the priest. He says, “Father, I want you to do something for me. I want you to say Mass for my dog.” Well, the priest was shocked. He was indignant. “What do you mean say Mass for your dog?” He said, “Well, that’s my pet dog. I love that dog very much. And I want you to offer a Mass for him.” And the priest says, “We do not offer Masses for dogs here. You might try another denomination down the street, like the Baptist church. They might give you a service for a dog.” Well, the man turned and walked out, feeling sad, and as he was leaving he turned back and said to the priest, “It’s too bad, you know, I really love that dog so much. You know I was planning to offer a million dollar stipend for the Mass.” And the priest said, “Wait a minute, wait a minute! You didn’t tell me your dog was Catholic.” Well, you know, Jesus is approachable. And there is no agenda from Jesus, except to love you and help you be your best and make you feel valued. The next phrase, “all of you who are weary and burdened.” So come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and who hasn’t been heavy in their life at some time or another? Jesus is inviting those who are suffering, or fatigued from the challenges of life to come to him. Now this invitation was especially inviting to those who were first century Jews, because they experienced in their religion a burden of endless laws and rules that sucked the life and energy right out of them. Rules that start like “Thou shalt not do this,” and “Thou shalt not do that,” “Thou shalt not do this.”  It was all rules. You couldn’t turn around in your house without violating a rule. Later in Matthew Jesus says that the Pharisees and scribes, they bind heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people's shoulders. Who can breathe in that kind of environment? Something that was designed to give you life, sucks the life out of you. We call that toxic religion. And then he says in the next phrase, “I will give you rest.” What a beautiful line, I will give you rest. Jesus is offering help, which has to be good news to anybody who is weary. I mean you know the feeling of having worked hard all week, it gets to Friday, and you’re supposed to go to a party Friday night. You’re exhausted, you tell your family, You know, if we could just stay in and rest, that would mean so much to me, because you’re weary. Jesus then says, “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me.” Now, rabbis use the word yoke as kind of a metaphor for school. Students, even university students, find school to be like a yoke. It kind of guides them. It kind of gives them structure. It kind of helps them to get through. What Jesus may be saying here is, Listen, come to my school, the school, the Jesus School of Living. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light, and I will help you. My mentor in seminary, was Dr. Lynn Elder, out at San Francisco Golden Gates Seminary, and one of the amazing things about Dr. Elder was just the way students loved him. They would line up outside his office, waiting to get a word with him, because he always seemed to give them grace and make their load lighter. And seminary can be a difficult experience for people sometimes. But he had this wonderful way of valuing people and kind of sharing their burden, and they came out of that feeling much more energized. Jesus says, “For I am gentle and humble in heart.” He’s saying my spirit is easygoing, I’m gentle, listen you’re safe, you’re safe with me. You can trust me because you are loved. In Philippians, Paul reminds us to immigrate, imitate this humility that Christ gives us by counting the other better than ourselves, to count others better than ourselves. The next phrase that Jesus gives us, “And you will find rest for your souls.” And what Jesus is doing here is he’s promising a deeper kind of rest. A deeper kind of rest, a rest for your souls. This is the kind of rest that’s more than just a good night’s sleep at the Holiday Inn. This is a deep kind of rest. A.T. Robertson, a Bible scholar, says what Jesus is offering is far more than rest, it is rejuvenation, it is the ability to be able to come back alive again. So the question is what kind of rest do you need today? A good night’s sleep, or rejuvenation in your life? Jesus says, “for my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” The word christos, a little Greek word, which means yoke, means well-fitting. And William Barclay says in Palestine the yokes were taylor-made to fit the ox. That the oxen were brought in to be measured, sized up, fitted, the rough places in the wood were smoothed out, and they were adjusted to fit each ox uniquely. What Jesus is saying is that the yoke of Christ will be a perfect fit for you. It’s not gonna hurt you, it’s not gonna rub you the wrong way. It’s gonna help you to face the challenges of life and experience them in a much lighter way. Actually, there’s a legend that says that Jesus made the best ox yokes in all of Galilee, and that people came to him from all over the country to buy the best yokes that could still be made, cause you know he ran this carpenter shop. It was suggested that above his carpenter shop was a sign that read “My Yokes Fit Well.” And what Jesus means is that the life I give you is not a burden, because I’m going to help you with it, and my burden is light. One rabbi suggested that our burdens can become our song. It’s not the burden, it’s not that the burden is easy to carry, but that love makes even the heaviest burden a lot lighter. And we, when we remember that we’re loved by God, then our burden can become our song, and our challenge, and our burdens, and even our enemies, can become in a sense our song. There’s a great story about a man that came upon a little boy who was carrying on his back an even smaller little boy who was crippled. And the man said, “Well that’s a mighty heavy burden for you to be carrying son.” And the little boy looked up to him and said, “That’s no burden, that’s my little brother.” The burden given in love and carried in love is always light. Dr. Ed Humphrey who was a theology professor at the seminary I attended, a former missionary in Africa, had to come back from Africa and teach at the Baptist Seminary cause his wife had come down with Parkinson’s disease. she was confined to a wheelchair, couldn’t move very much. And I remember during those days that every morning, Dr. Humphrey would get up, fix his wife up, make her breakfast, get her ready for the day. Then he would go to class, eight o’clock class, teach theology class, come back at noon, prepare her lunch, go back, teach class, go back and fix dinner, and he did that for years and years. Well, word got out about that, and one day the San Francisco Chronicle learned of that story and they wanted to do an interview with him so they sent a reporter out to his house to meet him, and the reporter began by saying, Dr. Humphrey, your wife’s situation, it must be a terrible, terrible burden for you, with all the demands you have of teaching, being a faculty member. He said, wait a minute, he said wait a minute. He says my wife, Rachel, is no burden. She’s my joy, she’s my love, she’s my gift from God. Dr. Humphrey modeled the yoke of Jesus. The yoke of Jesus, or the Jesus school, offers something that will help lighten your load. It’s the kind of school that focuses on, not the love of law, but the law of love. So I want you to listen to this passage now, the same passage, but written by Eugene Peterson, from the Message, and see if this doesn’t just grab you. “Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on region? Come to me. Get away with me and you will recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me and watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythm of grace. I won’t let anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lively.” Aren’t those great words? I can just feel it. Anthony De Mello tells this wonderful little story about a gentleman who knocks on his door. Janie, he says, Wake up! Wake up! Time to get up! Jamie answers, I don’t want to get up papa. Well the father shouts out then, Jamie! Get up! You gotta go to school. Jamie says, I don’t wanna go to school. The father asks, Well why not? Why don’t you want to go to school? Three reasons, said Jamie. First, because it’s dull. School is dull. Secondly, the kids tease me. And third, I hate school. I hate school. Well the father paused a minute and he says, Well, I’m going to give you three reasons why you should go to school. First, because it’s your duty. Secondly, because you’re forty-five years old. And third, because you’re the headmaster, so go to school! Now I don’t know what’s going on with this headmaster, he’s not feeling so energized. Maybe he feels depressed, maybe he feels stuck. But you know what? Sleeping late is not going to solve this guy’s problem. I don’t know what his story is. Something’s robbing him of his joy. But I know this, he’s not feeling awesome, and he’s not really getting real rest. Well most of us have experienced some kind of weariness that comes from a heavy heart. It could be divorce, it could be loss of a loved one, it could be a job loss, it could be just the stress of life, it could be broken relationships, it could be illness, it could be homesickness, it could be personal failures. And these challenges are not always relieved by a good night’s sleep. Actually, some of our challenges, some of our heavy feelings, originate from feelings of not feeling like we’re enough, that we’re good enough, or that we’re unworthy. And if you live with those kind of feelings of not being enough, then it’s going to make you tired and weary for a long time. This past spring I had a group in my home of about twenty people, and we did this little book study by a popular writer by the name of Dr. Brene Brown, and she wrote this book called “The Gifts of Imperfection.” I recommend that book. She says this: owning our story and loving ourselves through that process is the bravest thing we’ll ever do. Wow. So when Jesus invites us to come to him, you gotta own your story, you gotta be able to tell your story. Dr. Brown says owning our story can be hard, but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky, but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love, and belonging, and joy, the experiences that make us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we experience the infinite power of our light. So, you can relax, Jesus knows about your imperfections and mine. He knows about our shame, he knows about our guilt. He knows about all the things that make us weary. He knows we don’t feel enough some times, but he still says, Come to me. It doesn’t matter how imperfect we are, and we are. Jesus believes that we’re worthy, and if we never get that, we’ll never get the gospel, the good news. It’s not because we’re good, but because God is good, and he loves us. So he says to us, I’ll show you real love. Take my yoke, join my school, I’ll come alongside of you, I’ll help you. My yoke is going to be a perfect fit for you, and you can still be you. You can live free and live and feel lighter. So what makes you feel awesome and what gives you real rest? Well, I was trying to imagine, if Jesus had a school today at the university, what kind of classes would he offer? This school of Jesus, the school of the way of life, the way of living the Jesus way. So I suggested five classes he might offer. The first one is the class on the art of letting go. That means letting go of things we can’t change. So what are some of those things? Well we know we can’t change the weather, and right now we don’t want to, right? We love this weather. We know we can’t change time. We know we can’t change other people. Some of us are tired, we’ve been trying to do that. You cannot change other people. And, often, the harder we try, even to change ourselves, it’s even difficult to do that, the worse it gets. Have you noticed that the more you resist something the more power you give it? So when Jesus says, when someone strikes you on the right cheek, offer him your left as well, what he’s saying is, you always empower the demons you fight, but if you flow with the enemy you can overcome the enemy. So you cope with evil by understanding it. So how do you cope with darkness? Not with your fist. You don’t chase darkness out of a room with a broom. You turn on the light of awareness. Jesus might have taught us the serenity prayer that says, God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. The second one, a class on practicing the presence, the present moment. Learning to live in the moment. Writer Tim Hansel says that we live in a  future culture, the culture of tomorrow. Tomorrow I’m going to be happy, tomorrow I’m going to live. And so, when we get to high school, then I’m going to live. And then when I get to the university, then I’m going to live. And then when you get to the university you say, when I get married, then I’m going to live. Then after marriage you say, the children and grown up, then I’m going to live. And then when you retire you say, then after I retire, then I’m going to live. But you know what? After you, after the children are grown up and after you retire, you’re not going to know what it means to live because you’re likely to have died without really living because life slips away so fast. So Jesus, I think, would want us to learn to live in the moment, right this moment, right here. He might say, when you’re inhaling, be aware that you’re inhaling. And when you’re exhaling, be aware that you’re exhaling. That God isn’t tomorrow, God is now. Life isn’t tomorrow, life is right now. Love isn’t tomorrow, love is right now. So what does it mean to be alive? Here’s one man’s response: He says I’m going to tell you what it means to me. When I eat, I eat, and when I look, I look. And when I listen, I listen. And Christian spirituality is ultimately about waking up, about waking up, to practice the present, that life is lived in this moment, that God is here right now in this moment, so we’ve got to show up and be present. That God has given us everything right this moment to be happy, right here in the here and now. The miracle is happening right now. Live here and now and no matter who you are, whether you’re wealthy or poor, life will not allow you to live more than one minute at a time. So that’s the art of practicing the present. A third class he might offer is the art of slowing and being still. Richard Foster says that one of the greatest sins in our culture today is that our works is in such a hurry, that our world is intoxicated by hurry. And often in our impatience to make things happen, to force things to happen, we often overlook what is really important. One of my baseball heroes was Satchell Page. He had this great quote that says, it’s not how fast you are, it’s knowing when to go and where to go. I love that quote. My dear mother knew how to practice that. She knew how to practice slowing. My father would often criticize her with it cause she was moving too slow, you know? But she got more accomplished in one day than our whole family would accomplish in one week. She had magic somehow, but she knew how to practice being present with people and slowing. The fourth class Jesus might offer is a class on not taking oneself too seriously. Maybe he would call it Lighten Up. And that it requires letting go of perfectionism, and requires a little bit of laughter, a little bit of play, a little bit of rest. I suspect the Pharisees had a hard time with that too. You know we often hustle for our own worthiness, we try to prove how good we are. We want to be able to control what other people think about us so that we can feel good enough, you know? Jesus says in Luke everyone who makes himself important is going to become insignificant, while the man who makes himself insignificant will find himself important. So we might as well realize, there’s no such thing as perfect, not here at church, not anywhere. Perfectionism is not about healthy achievement and growth. Perfectionism is an unattainable goal, it’s like a shield we carry around with us thinking that it’s going to protect us when in fact it’s the very thing that takes us and prevents us from taking flight. When we become more loving and compassionate with ourselves, we can start to embrace our imperfections, and we’ll discover that it’s ok. The problem of taking ourselves too serious are numerous. If we’re afraid to fail, we no longer risk. If we’re afraid that someone will see behind our image, we’re not going to share anymore. If we’re afraid that we appear to be in need of help, we can no longer be vulnerable. If we are afraid to, that we don’t appear religious enough, we’re not going to be able to confess. When we don’t give ourselves permission to be free, we rarely tolerate it in other people. We put them down, we make fun of them, we ridicule their behaviors, and sometimes, sadly, we even shame them. Paul says in 2 Corinthians, that I have cheerfully made up my own mind to do this, to be proud of the fact that I am imperfect, that I am weak, because they mean deeper experiences of the power of Christ. That I can even enjoy my weakness, my imperfection, my suffering, even my persecutions, for Christ’s sake, because my very weakness makes me strong in him. And then Mark Twain says, dance like nobody’s watching, sing like none’s listening, love like you’ve never been hurt, and live like it’s heaven on earth. Class number five, you’re about to graduate. Practicing gratitude. Thou shalt be grateful. Have you noticed how Jesus was always giving thanks, everywhere he went, breaking bread, doing this, getting away and praying. Always giving thanks to God. Maybe we should be reminded of what we have going for us instead of what’s going against us. We have a scarcity mindset often that we never have enough, and so it immobilizes us and it makes us fearful. We spend a lot of time complaining and worrying about not having enough. We don’t exercise enough. We don’t have enough work. We don’t have enough profits. We don’t have enough power. We don’t have enough weekends. We never have enough money. Someone said we are a nation hungry for more joy because we’re starving from a lack of gratitude. We don’t even realize the good stuff we have going. And all we have to do is take a little trip somewhere to another country and you can see that real clear. Gratitude without practice may be a little like faith without works. It’s not alive anymore. So the question is what makes you feel awesome? I think feeling awesome ultimately comes from experiencing real, deep rest with God. And in spite of our imperfections and failures, Jesus says it’s ok, come to me. I’m going to help you carry that, whatever they may be. I’m going to give you rest. Do you believe that? Do you believe that? Fred Crodic told a story one time about a little kid down home who’d believe anything. He’d believe anything you tell him. You could say The schoolhouse burned down, we’re not going to have school tomorrow, he’d say Oh wow, great! He’d believe it. Or you could say they’re giving away free watermelons away down at the town hall, go get you one. He’d say, Really? Free watermelons? He’d believe it, so he’d run off. Somebody one time said, Do you know the president of the United States is coming to our town tomorrow? Is he really? Wow! Whoopee! This little boy would believe anything. Once there was a preacher who came to their town and he said to that little kid, God loves you just like you are. He cares for you, and he comes to you in Jesus the Christ, and whatever heavy load or burden you may have, he’s going to help you with that. And do you know, that kid believed it? He actually believed it. Now that’s awesome.

Ralph Starling 2014
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