Sermon for Sunday 9 July 2023
Matthew 11.28. From today’s Gospel, but in the Comfortable Words of the Book of Common Prayer: Come unto me all that travail and are heavy laden, and I will refresh you.
Comfortable Words they were, one of four sentences from Scripture, said by the Priest to the People after the Absolution at the Holy Communion, for nearly five hundred years in the English Church, proclaimed to those of us then and now who find life and faith quite difficult, and assuring us of the forgiveness we find hard to believe. I must have said that sentence hundreds of times at 8 o’clock Communion services and even when half asleep, I would find a catch in my voice, so clear is it that here is the heart of the matter. Come unto me all that travail and are heavy laden, each of us weighed down in life by preoccupations and obsessions, by what has happened to us, waiting for rescue. Come unto me, Jesus says. St Matthew knew the Jewish Wisdom tradition. For him Jesus was Divine Wisdom personified. This is different from what we think of as wisdom or understanding. Divine wisdom is the truth about God hidden from human cleverness. That is the wisdom we would like to have, that is the God we seek. “…learn from me, says Jesus, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”
Rest. Rest for your souls, that is what the practice of Christianity offers us in this life. Rest for our souls. Modern life is terribly restless. Rest is not obvious to us in Christianity either, because so often our religious practice can be a restless business – not sure we’re doing it right, guilty we’re not doing enough, stuck in controversy, wandering off on our own then having to wander back to God again. Sometimes it seems to us that God demands so much, all the time, and we’re not up to it. But – I will refresh you, says Jesus. He offers each of us a new way of looking at what is happening in our lives.
The Christian way is the discovery of truth, the truth about each of us, the truth about a world still being created with divine love. To follow that way to truth, we need to let go of what is false, the person we pretend to be, the person that’s just a bit holier than other people, and if that false persona is the only self we know, then this is can be a humbling process for us. Even our noblest thoughts have to be put down when we enter Jesus’ presence. There we can find our way to truth. The God we find doesn’t take away our trials and our despairing moments, but he will change our attitude towards them. That’s what holiness is, a transformed or transfigured view of life.
Jesus says, Learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart. Two ways to the truth then: humility, and gentleness. Gentleness is the sixth fruit of the Holy Spirit. We discover the truth, day by day, by imitating Christ’s gentleness. This could mean regime change for us. Vanity, jealousy and argument, which have a way of creeping into churches and causing trouble, are to go, thrown out by humility and gentleness.
Now those who are suspicious of religion, say, how can you go along with any of this, aren’t you exchanging one prison for another, letting this Jesus and God control you – yoke suggests servitude – my yoke is easy, sure, but it’s still control – giving up your independence are you? How little they understand. A word about yokes for townspeople like yourselves. Yoke: a wooden contrivance joining together animals to pull a plough, yes, but there’s also the human yoke, which is worn by a single person to distribute the load on his or her shoulders, to make things easier to carry. The work is better with a yoke than without. Easing the burden, that is what Jesus can do. In the Old Testament which Matthew knew backwards, the unlearned were encouraged to put their necks under Wisdom’s yoke. Now Divine Wisdom is a person, Jesus. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me. God’s gift to us is the freedom to live under Divine Wisdom, the burden lifted, the self-inflicted wound healed, free at last to learn who we are and released to serve the needs of those around us.
Do we need proof of this? It’s all in today’s Gospel, where Jesus thanks the lord of heaven and earth that these truths are hidden from the wise, but are revealed to little children. We don’t learn the truth by being clever. But what’s all this about children? Jesus often points to a child as an example of something; what is it? It’s not really innocence, although the simple honesty of a child, uncorrupted by the world’s cunning, is attractive. There’s more to it than that. An infant is one who has no words of his or her own, no say in what happens, no entrenched opinions to defend. The child isn’t just a child. The child is each of us, when we are poor in spirit, not too clever by half, but open to love, as is a child.
It is to such as these, says Jesus, that the truth will be revealed. Learn from me, and you will find rest for your souls. That’s His promise.
Fr. Julian Browning