14th Sunday of Ordinary Time (Year A, 3 July 2011)

Come to Me…

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

Rules may hurt as much as they help. True story: a customer enters a shop near closing time, and wants a special service that would mean working past closing time.

Recently, the manager had sent a memo out requiring the staff not to work overtime. So the assistant told the customer it couldn’t be done. She then complained to the manager, who rebuked the shop assistant in front of her and told him to do whatever the customer wanted, however long it took.

What was happening here? Both the shop manager and the assistant were rule-bound. The manager was trying to exert control by a system of rules. The assistant was content to follow the rules. The customer was caught in the middle.

How could things have worked better? It would have been better if the shop assistant had gone to the manager and ‘asked permission’ to ‘break the rules’. This situation needed a relational approach, not a rule-based approach. In other words, it needed people to work together, to discuss a way through, to treat each other in some sense as partners.

(It might even have helped if the manager had a sign over his door: Come to me, all you shop assistants who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. But, he didn’t.)

Rules are good, rules are fine. But following them slavishly can harm relationships,  whether they be relationships in the workplace, in church or at home.

The Apostle Paul had been bound by rules. We call his set of rules the Jewish Law and we find it in the first five books of the Old Testament.

Paul was in a predicament. The Law was good. It showed him right from wrong. But by obeying the Law, he ended up doing harm in quite a spectacular way.

I’m referring to the way Paul persecuted the Church, back when he was Saul the Pharisee. Saul didn’t persecute Christians because he was a psychopath or a sadist. Saul was a good man who wanted to please God. The only way he knew to please God was by keeping the Law. The Law taught him that the followers of Jesus were blasphemers who deserved death—so he was just obeying God’s Law.

But then he met the risen Lord Jesus Christ. And his eyes were opened. He’d been following the Law, but ‘sin’ had somehow got in there to bring a terrible outcome.

Paul realised it was the same with the death of Jesus. John’s Gospel (19.7) has the guardians of the Law saying these words to Pontius Pilate:

We have a law, and according to that law he ought to die because he has claimed to be the Son of God.

So Paul can declare as a principle that

I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate (Romans 7.15).

Or: Even when I’m trying to do the right thing, it doesn’t always seem to work out right. 

I suppose you could say that it’s the law of unintended circumstances. When Paul says,

I can will what is right, but I cannot do it,

he’s talking of a universal experience and not just his own bitter experience of following God’s Law all the way to hell. We can set off to do the right thing, but if all we do is follow the rules we can’t be sure we’ll achieve the good we set out to do.

What happens when we find that our sincere actions have the wrong consequences? What about the rule-bound shop? A ‘no overtime’ rule is understandable, especially if times are tight. But what happens to a rule like this when it’s put to the test? There are times when it might be best to put it aside for the sake of a customer.

We can understand that the shop assistant might feel he doesn’t have the authority to ‘break’ the rule. But perhaps he wants to get away from work early; maybe the rule annoys him, and he thinks that if he’s going to be put out then the customer can be put out too. Maybe he wants his overtime back, and he thinks he’ll get it that way.

But the answer isn’t in rules and laws. The power of sin is too great. It taints our best efforts.

Yet so often we just try harder, don’t we? In this dilemma, our first instinct is to rescue ourselves. We try the DIY option, a self-improvement course, some self-help therapy, more rules and more techniques. We try anything—anything, but the Saviour we need. Him we avoid. We continue going the wrong way down a one-way street. What we need to do is turn around, which is what the scriptures mean by ‘repentance’. We need to stop striving and trying our little self-help routines. We need to turn to Jesus, our Saviour and Brother whose yoke is easy, whose burden is light.

Because this is what Jesus says to everyone who is bound by rules:

Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. 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. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.

Our message to people who are bowed down by laws and rules—even if the rules are from God—is this: Come to Jesus, he will give you rest.

We can’t always know what to do in a particular situation. We need wisdom from the Spirit of Jesus. We need to talk with him and walk with him day by day by day. We need to practise listening to him.

Jesus’ yoke is ‘easy’, his burden ‘light’. His listeners would be familiar with the sight of oxen carrying their wooden yoke around their necks. It made a huge difference to the beast if the yoke fitted well—because then it was easy to carry. The yoke Jesus has for you and me fits well. It’s made for us.

We baptised little E today. We haven’t inducted her into a club with its own rules and laws. We have given her the Sacrament of Holy Baptism, in which she has been united to Christ. She has received the sign of belonging to him. She is part of the church family.

We were reminded in our baptism service that we don’t find God by striving to obey rules. We said these words to little E:

E, for you Jesus Christ has come,
has lived, has suffered;
for you he endured the agony of Gethsemane
and the darkness of Calvary;
for you he uttered the cry, ‘It is accomplished!’
For you he triumphed over death;
for you he prays at God’s right hand;
for you,
even before you were born.
In baptism, the word of the apostle is confirmed:
‘We love, because God first loved us’.                                    1 John 4.19

E will grow up obeying the rules (and breaking them!). Sometimes, her very obedience itself will have unintended negative consequences. Whatever, God will eternally be nuts about her.

E doesn’t know yet that God is already pleased with her, even crazy about her. E doesn’t have to try to please God; she just does. She’s perfectly relaxed about that right now, and that’s just fine. After all, it’s an easy yoke, a light burden.

But am I relaxed about who I am with God? Does it apply to me? Is God crazy about me?

I confess that I haven’t always been relaxed with God. I’ve been around the block a couple more times than E has, and I’ve picked up ideas about God on the way. But you know, some of those ideas have been less than helpful. I’ve found it hard to really believe that my yoke is easy and my burden light. I’ve ended up burdening myself with things I thought I needed to carry, and rules I needed to obey. I’ve known that God is full of grace and forgiveness and mercy. I’ve wanted to believe it deep down, but like Paul,

I can will what is right, but I cannot do it.

I’ve wanted to carry my own burden, fix it by myself. I know God loves me without any conditions—but still I’ve tried to earn that love. I’ve swapped the easy yoke of grace for an awkward, ill-fitting yoke of rules. That’s how I’ve kept control. But Jesus says,

Come to me…for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.

I’m hearing these precious words of Jesus again. I’m surrendering myself to him. I’m surrendering to the Saviour who saves, to the Deliverer who delivers, to the living Lord Jesus Christ.

Often, people talk about obedience to God. That’s fine and good—but if you’re not fully confident of God, it can feel like you’re being obedient to Someone who is carrying a big stick, and making you obey the rules.

So could it be better to say we surrender to Jesus? Yes it is—but not if by ‘surrender’ we mean surrendering like a prisoner of war. To surrender to Jesus is to surrender to the embrace of One who truly loves you. It is to allow yourself to be held in his arms. Men, this may be especially hard language for us; but I don’t know how to put it any better. When Jesus says ‘Come to me,’ he says it because he loves you and gave himself for you; we love because God first loved us. Listen to these precious words of Jesus one more time:

Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. 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. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.

Come to him. Give up the struggle to do it all by yourself.

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