Preached (via Zoom) Sunday, 5 July 2020, at All Saints, King City, ON, the Anglican Diocese of Toronto.
Readings for the Fifth Sunday After Pentecost: Genesis 24:34-38,42-49,58-67; Psalm 145: 8- 14, Romans 7: 15-25, Matthew 11: 16-19
28 “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. 29 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. 30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-29).
As our churches try to find their way and be relevant to an increasingly secular world, we’ve had to think more and more about what it means to be invitational, or to use another word, be attractional. We just can’t expect people to pitch up on a Sunday at the usual time because that’s what we’ve always done as a culture. Those days are gone. Attractional churches need to connect with the deepest needs and hungers of the community.
In last week’s sermon, I said that the gospel is about liberation from sin. Jesus has the power to free us from patterns of oppression and harm, both individually and collectively, that degrade us and rob of us our identities as God’s creations, as loved and cherished people of God, each worthy of respect and dignity. In Jesus we find the grace and freedom to regain these identities as God’s creations, which is the idea conveyed in the “rest” that Jesus speaks of in v 28. What could be more attractional than this?
Some years ago I chose this verse to go on a new sign for the military chapel I was responsible for when I was posted in SW Alberta (CFB Suffield).
Beneath the chapel name – Christ the King – and the service house, this verse appeared in both official languages: “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest” (Mt 11.28).
Verse 28 seemed like a sound choice precisely because it was invitational., I hoped that these words might speak to soldiers engaged in long and arduous training exercises, who were far from home, and often getting ready to go fight in Afghanistan Knowing that most soldiers are very secular and often have little knowledge of church, I wanted to make the chapel invitational. . I hoped that the verse might send a message to these people: “take your pack off, come inside, find your rest in God, and be refreshed”.
You may have wondered by I didn’t also put verses 29-30, “Take my yoke upon you”, also put in my chapel sign. The simple answer is that there was only so much room on the sign, but the more complicated answer is that maybe verses 29-30 aren’t the best place to start a conversation with someone new to Christianity. Really, who wants a yoke on their shoulders? Yokes are for beasts of burden, harnessed to wagons and plows. There’s a Ray Lamontagne song about a young man who wants more out of life than his high school friends, who he sees “already pullin’ the plow So quick to take to grain like some old mule”. Who wants that?
Herein lies the problem with church strategies to be invitational and attractional. We can be clever and calculated in how we dress the shop window and put certain verses forward as embodying our faith, but at some point, we have to talk to people about Jesus, a guy who wants us to take a yoke on our shoulders (or a cross for that matter) and follow him. Jesus can sound decidedly unattractional, and thus we struggle with where to put Jesus in our invitations to others.
Truth be told, Jesus doesn’t seem to have been that interested in marketing and carefully crafted invitations. Notice how in today’s gospel, Jesus uses the imperative tense, meaning that his words are actually commands. His words are clear – COME, TAKE. There is no “you should consider coming to me” or “you might find that my yoke is surprisingly easy, it would do you good”.
The same thing applies to most of Jesus’ most important statements: they are couched in the form of commands.
Follow me and I will make you fish for people” (Mk 1:17, Mt 4:19)
“Be silent and come out of him!” (Lk 4:26)
“Take and eat” (Mt 26:28)
“Do this in remembrance of me” (Lk 22:19)
“Go into all the world and proclaim the good news” (Mk 16:15)
A Saviour who routinely issues commands could seem like a hard product to market to a society that prizes autonomy above all, but maybe, as we think about the attractional church, we need to let go of the idea that we are marketing a product, and think instead about the kind of relationship that Jesus calls us into.
Jesus did not take us captive, he didn’t kidnap us, or brainwash us, but he did call us and for whatever reason it was, each of us heard that call and it changed us. He must have changed us, because why else would you be here, listening or reading to this? We may identify as Anglicans, or even as parishioners of such and such church, but fundamentally we formed a relationship with Jesus, we identify as his, because it feels right to us.
In one of my blog posts last week, my “Friday Theology” feature, I chose some words from an Anglican monk, Brother Geoffrey Tristram, who was speaking about vocation as something that is at the very core of our beings. Brother Geoffrey writes that something or someone touches us and we say “Oh – that’s who I am, or that’s what I want to do or be in life. Sometimes you forget it, or you try to put it out of your kind, if it doesn’t fit in with other plans But it usually comes back, and deep down, you just know that it’s truly who you are meant to be”.
A vocation, in other words, is that moment of freedom that comes when we realize who we really are, a life of grace where we are free to love and be loved, without qualification or limit, as God in Christ loves us.
So back to a yoke. A yoke connects something to someone else, like an ox to a plow and the plow to the plowman. As we discover our vocation to be God’s person, we find hat the yoke Jesus calls us to take up is anything but a burden. The yoke is the rest and peacefulness from discovering who we are meant to be and how we are meant to live.
Since our culture has largely lost the idea of the vocation, it tries to entice us instead into manufactured identities, so that people end up burdening themselves with consumer goods, or the desire for wealthy power or privilege, or political agendas that such as white supremacy that are toxic with anger and fear. A lot of people are yoked to crushing burdens of sin which they mistakenly thought might give them rest.
A truly attraction church, I think, is made up of people who can say something true and compelling about how they answered Jesus call, and how that led them to their true identity and vocation.
I suggest that while the mission of the church must always be expressed in words of gentle invitation, which are also scriptural – “Come and see”, “Taste and see that the Lord is good” – that invitation leads us to a Saviour who speaks with authority and whose commands – “Come”, “Follow”, Rise” – cannot be ignored when they unlock our deepest and truest identities, our vocations, as God’s people.