A time of rest and reflection

Sermon for July 5, Fifth Sunday after Pentecost

Romans 7.15-25a – Matthew 11.16-19, 25-30

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The Very Rev’d Bertrand Oliver, Dean and Rector of Christ Church Cathedral, Montreal

Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.

The days are long, the sun is out, the temperature has soared, and we feel mellow. Summer is upon us.

But in recent months, it will have been easy to feel overwhelmed with weariness at the weight of all that is currently wrong in the world and in our lives.

– COVID-19 of course, world, national and provincial politics surrounding health, and for ourselves, isolation and confinement or being forced to go out to work in unsafe environment
– the continuing divisive discourse of many politicians in countries around the globe, from the US to Brasil, from Hungary to Britain
– the ongoing pressure on the environment, with temporary respite for the planet giving us hope that – post Covid, humanity might curb its ways, and we could reverse damage which more and more looks like it will be irreversible and will change life as we know it even more than a pandemic.
– the unspeakable death of George Floyd on camera, and the many other deaths caused by racism, and the surge of support for opposition to systems that have supported overt or covert racism for far too long.
– these, and the many more issues which may have confronted us in our news media, can but create in us a feeling of such weariness and doom that it is difficult to know where we might turn for help.
– Add to that the pressures to curate public social media lives that make us outwardly look good even when we don’t feel good, that make us look like we know what we are doing when we are clueless, and the circle is complete.

Perhaps the slowdown of summer months may provide us with some individual respite, but could it provide us with the solutions.

For concerned Christians, especially those with an activist streak like many of us, the urge is of course to want to engage with all that seems wrong in the world, the sin, corporate and personal, that surrounds us. But the sheer amount of what needs to be done and what to engage with is also overwhelming. Where does our task start and when is it done? And the things we do, are they the right priorities for us, or is there yet more soul searching to be done. Right discernment is everything.

The readings provided to us today may help up in our reflection as summer starts.

Our Gospel reading begins with Jesus trying to find words to describe his generation – though it could be any. And he comes up with what sounds like one of those schoolyard child song – “We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.”

But it quickly transpires in the story that, like the opposite personalities of Mary the worshipful and Martha the busy, he is talking of John the Baptist the Killjoy and the Son of Man enjoying a little too-much the living.

Our primary instinct in front of those who would call us back to a life lived well under God is to find the obvious chink and use it, in a caricature, to deride the bearer of truths that could save us: John has a demon, the Son of Man is a glutton and a drunkard.

And that is of course a challenging conundrum for God. What is God to do to make God’s message obvious? Too much holiness, not enough holiness –is there a happy medium that will allow for the message to transcend the messenger? Even if someone comes back from the dead, will they, will we, even listen?

In his meditations on the Gospel according to St Matthew, the trappist monk and theologian Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis writes that both John’s fasting and Jesus’s feasting disturb the “soul-numbing apathy” of those who have made themselves at home in a world that is alienated from its Creator.

For him, the “purifying sorrow” of repentance and the “transfiguring joy” of communion with God lead us away from a complacent embrace of the world as it is, and call us towards the new creation which has dawned in Jesus Christ.

This is life-changing news, if only we would listen. But of course, we are more fickle than that, thinking that we ourselves – through our learning, intellect, and general brilliance, have managed to understand more than what a scary prophet might say, or what even the model the Son of God might ask us to follow.

And yet, we also know and believe that ‘God is known only as a gift of incredible grace’. Jesus reminds us that no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him. So that our own attempts to know the Son often end in images fashioned after ourselves – we make Jesus to look like us, because we cannot truly know Jesus..

At this point, Jesus stuns his audience and stuns us too: ‘Thank you God for hiding these truths to the wise and intelligent, but only revealing them to infants’.

I wonder what you make of that? None of us wants to think of ourselves as infants again, but is the essence of our lives in God not to let go of our self-importance and cynicism, recover our innocence and acknowledge our utter dependence on Divine Grace, rather than God’s utter dependence on us?

Could that be transformational for your relationship with God?

Of course, here Jesus chooses infants as a descriptor for all those who turn to God with no pretense of knowledge except their need for God, those who are ready to receive the knowledge that is given to us in Jesus. They know that we are not self-sufficient but instead reliant on divine Grace. They do not find the crucified Christ a stumbling block or foolishness, as Paul says, but instead we let God be God.

And the Good News today is that Jesus is not asking for a pile of additional arduous tasks, increased workloads or further sacrifices, but instead Jesus asks the weary and those carrying heavy burdens for a discipleship that is easy and a burden that is light.

We are offered a way that should be suitable, appropriate and life-giving for us instead of an unbearable weight that drags us down.

And today, we are invited to a kind of divine Sabbath, a place where we can let go of the stresses and strain of the human condition, where we can be refreshed – refreshed not to become utterly passive, but from which instead we are invited to learn from our gentle leader who is humble in heart, and to model our lives on his. Not to highlight our shortcomings, but instead to celebrate all that God is able to achieve in and through our lives.

Of course, we know that following Jesus might sometimes lead to the cross. But the point is that the cross lies at the intersection of good and evil in the world, and certainly should not be of our own making.

In our passage from Paul’s letter to the Romans, we are confronted with similar ideas: using the unhelpful comparison to slavery which Deborah highlighted last week, the Romans are invited to recognise that they can’t free themselves from sin by their own strivings – it is only the work of Christ that can free them from all that is holding them back from true communion with God. The evil that surrounds them is simply too great a force to be fought alone.

So, what of us today, who are weary and heavy laden too? In these weeks of summer where abundance surrounds us, God invites us to a time of rest and reflection and regrowth, time to identify the evils around us that are grinding us down, to hold them in the light of God and pray.

Pray that God may deliver us from all that holds us back, especially the binds that we make ourselves, that we may be freed to follow in the footsteps of God’s son, and enjoy life into its fulness as we also help that to be a reality for others around us.

In the words of St Ambrose: “We have a physician — let us follow his remedy! Our remedy is the grace of Christ”.


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