Very often, the work of faithful people is to notice and attend to our place in the larger salvation story by God of God’s people. We do this in many ways, in whichever ways work for us, as we hear and respond to the invitation of God to discover our authentic selves and set it within the truth of God. This is a life time journey.
One common way to hear this invitation to discover the truth of ourselves is to learn from the scripture, these sacred stories passed down from generation to generation, which reveal the unfolding of the covenant between God and God’s people, which we believe began when God called Abraham, and he said yes. In that response, Abraham began his journey deep within himself to find his true self and to align it with God’s will for him. It took leaving all he knew, his beliefs, his traditions which were bound to the land in which he had “pitched his tent” and venturing out with eagerness and expectation that what God was offering was something worth having. This story of Abraham is a story about Abraham, but also about us. We hear the same call in our own lives to “go into a land unknown to us” in order to find our true selves and to set them within the presence and life of God.
We know from our stories of the past few weeks that Abraham hit a few roadblocks and experienced a failure of faith when he turned to his own devices or ways to ensure God’s continued blessing, until finally, Abraham and God had that silent and profound conversation on the way up the mountain, when perhaps Abraham and God were each testing the other, and they came to a place where Abraham moved from obedience to God to seeing his relationship with God as a two-way street. We see the progression of this turn in the relationship between humankind and the holy in today’s reading from Genesis: the story of Abraham’s servant “going into a land unknown to him” to procure a wife for Isaac. Abraham’s servant prayed as he began his journey, bowed down and prayed again as he approached the well, and offered blessings and thanksgiving for God’s providence that the covenant would continue forward. The tent of Sarah, who had been the mother of Israel, would now be filled with another matriarch of the nation. He sought God at every step of the journey, trusting that God would be there, and trusting that through his prayers, his heart would be open to see where God would show up. This turning to God in prayer, as a way to align ourselves to the larger picture of God’s movement in our life or our world, is a gem worth extracting from the story and holding onto in our hearts, as we hear the good news of Jesus.
Our gospel story begins with Jesus rebuking those who gather in the market place, who refuse to allow anything to please them, who see the wrong in all situations except their own, who cannot see beyond their own thinking, who raise objections before even hearing the other person’s full story, who place full trust in the knowledge they have gained, rather than having wisdom that the revelation of the story of God in our world continues. We know people like this. At times, we may even have been like this—for this heart and mind stance often happens when we are in times of conflict, intense grief, or when we are asked to live with a large amount of uncertainty or lack of control over our life. Sometimes it is hard to be our best self. Sometimes the only control we have over ourselves or others is to shut everyone else down or out of our lives—and that’s a sad place to be. Often this is when negativity seems to consume us, when our first response to anyone who is unlike us is not our best response, for we simply do not have the strength or energy to find the truth of ourselves in that moment, or when our natural response to change or innovation or creativity is to blurt out the list of objections, rather than allowing our imaginations to be opened and free. In one of the church development books, there was a term for people who are consumed by this negativity stance. They show up in church because they show up everywhere – and the term used was “Extra Grace Required” people. That is exactly right. Rather than placing judgment upon these people, who we could call cranky, judgmental, oppressive, even perhaps abusive, “extra grace required” just means they need more grace from us, but most of all from God, because their souls are weary, because they need spiritual rest, because the demands on their being are too great in the moment and whereas they may be doing the best they can, it is not what God desires for them.
Jesus moves from his anger at those who refuse to see the movement of God, the in-breaking of the Kingdom through his own being, and his teachings and his healing of others, and issues an invitation: “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.”
Perhaps Jesus knew that it is a burden to always need to be right, to immediately see others as wrong, to close the door to being changed, to fail to see the beauty and hope inherent in this world, to not have any zest or pleasure in your life, to close your eyes to what God is wanting to share with you. Jesus says, “Come to me and I will give you rest.” The rest Jesus promises is not less work or more sleep. It is Sabbath rest. The rest that restores our souls. The rest that only God can give, for God alone built that rest into our creation.
Those of us who are “extra grace required people”, (who quite frankly are all of us, especially in this time when there is so much uncertainty and angst), may find we often don’t have the mental or spiritual energy to deal with the immense change that is being required of us. This is why Jesus’ words, “Come to me” are hauntingly poignant in this moment. It is only through Jesus that we can find spiritual safety, so we can be open to love, listen, learn, and become our best selves. Because rest happens when our true nature is realized and really only then– when we can trust in the life that has been given to us—realizing all that matters is to be at one with the living God, to be a part of the flow of Love. It is hard and holy work to be faithful, to be open when we are afraid, to step forth in love when the world appears full of hatred, to choose to respect the dignity of all people through all that we think, feel and do.
Jesus invites each one of us—for we all have soul-weariness within us—into the knowledge and loving relationship he has with God the Father. Jesus invites the ones whose labors weigh them down, the ones who struggle to be righteous by conforming to the laws which seem endless, which can be interpreted as living up to everyone else’s expectations at the cost of losing ourselves. Jesus invites those who are oppressed through systems of injustice which weave their way through our world and those whose backs are bent with the burdens of each day. Jesus invites those of us whose work is ill-suited to them, those whose work is motivated by fear, those whose work is performed in the face of futility, and those whose weariness comes from having nothing at all to do that truly matters.
This is hard and holy work.
I found myself using this phrase, “you are doing hard and holy work” often in a conversation I had recently. This conversation was with a person who is passionate about making sure her loved one is in a place where he can thrive, where his dignity will always be respected, where he will be given unconditional love, where his soul could be safe, so he could be his true authentic self—for that is really what matters. She has a fierce passion around justice and being in relationships that move the kingdom of God forward. She may not have used those exact words, but it doesn’t matter. I could tell her authentic self, the true part of her created by God, had been realized; it almost felt like all the parts of her life had now been knit together in this one firm act of love, in this fight that her loved one, and really all ones, (and that’s actually the point, and the passion in her heart, I believe) may be given what they need to be fully themselves. That sounds a lot like the Kingdom of God. This person had set herself within the justice, mercy, and compassion of God; she had yoked herself to Jesus, which is a form of serious discipleship, and doesn’t mean we get a free pass in what is expected of us. It actually means we live the truth in the Sermon on the Mount, the centerpiece of Matthew’s gospel: Blessed are those who are poor in spirit, those who mourn, those who thirst for righteousness, those who are merciful, meek, and pure of heart, those who are the peacemakers.
As we yoke with Jesus, we as faithful people are able to find strength in meekness, courage in humility, and rest in our souls, even though the rest of our lives may be anything but restful. To accept the yoke of Jesus is to embrace the worthy task of moving with passion toward a future in which all of God’s dreams will finally come true.
In one of our Eucharistic Prayers, to invite our soul into the rest of Jesus, we say: “Deliver us from the presumption of coming to this Table for solace only, and not for strength; for pardon only, and not for renewal”. As we come forward to the altar this morning, yes, let us come forward to receive comfort, let us allow Jesus the Good Shepherd to hold us tenderly, to hear our cries, to wipe away our tears – and then let us open our hearts for the strength that we can find in that broken and blessed body of Christ, as we allow the sacrament to change us, to settle our souls, to touch our deepest being with the everlasting love, and to direct us to the purposeful work which God has set before us. Let us receive the grace we need so that we can be the people God calls us to be – the best of ourselves so we can be the best for God.