Rest from Religion
Matthew 11:28-12:14, Steve Hollaway, Harbor Church, September 3, 2017
Maybe it’s just me, but I think a lot of people are tired of religion. Not tired of Jesus, who is offering us rest, but tired of religious rules and religious conflicts. At first glance—especially on Labor Day—Jesus’ invitation (in the King James) to “all you who labor and are heavy laden” sounds like weariness from physical work. But the two stories that immediately follow this saying tie it to weariness due to religion and people who are heavy laden with overly strict rules.
The prolific counseling professor Wayne Oates told a story about a woman who brought her fifteen-year-old son in for pastoral counseling because he said he was tired of church. “I just don’t know what to do with him anymore,” she said. “I can’t get him to go.”
The boy complained, “Church, church, church! That’s all I ever hear.”
Dr. Oates turned to the mother and said, “If you’ve never been tired of church, you haven’t been to church very much.”
A year ago, I went to a workshop for pastors who were nearing retirement. We were asked what we wanted to do in the next chapter of our ministry lives. I was shocked when half the pastors in our circle said, “I want to take a year off from church. I’m worn out.”
Something is wrong with this picture when what is supposed to be a life-giving Spirit-filled walk with Jesus becomes itself a heavy burden. That’s not the easy yoke he called us to take on, the one that rests easy on our necks, unlike the ill-fitted religion of rules that chafes. Of course church can be exhausting if there are not enough people to help with the work, and if the work does not fit with our natural and spiritual gifts. And church can be even more exhausting if it means pretending to believe things you don’t and acting like someone you aren’t. But what Jesus is addressing primarily is religion that is made up of rules to follow and checklists of duties.
That was the kind of religion he found in his own culture. That’s not a knock on Jews, because that is the same kind of religion humans make up for themselves everywhere. Muslims and Buddhists do the same thing. Relatively modern religions like Mormonism and Scientology do the same thing. Given the choice between something as vague as a personal encounter with God and something specific like not working on the Sabbath, humans choose specific rules most of the time.
The two stories that follow Jesus’ invitation have to do with the rule about keeping the Sabbath different from other days by keeping it a day of rest. Yahweh gave that law to Moses so that his people would not work themselves to death due to greed, so that his people would flourish, but his people had turned it into a rule with dozens of sub-clauses and details. Any rule like that can become an occasion for “Gotcha,” a way to criticize your neighbor in the name of holiness.
In the first story the disciples are doing something that was allowed—picking some of the wheat or barley they were walking through and snacking on it. But the rule—understood to be God’s law—was “no harvesting crops on the Sabbath.” Jesus gave these nitpickers two examples of exceptions to that rule in the temple, and claims that he is more important in mediating God to humans than the temple. He is the one who has the right to interpret was Sabbath means. And he quotes to the Pharisees for the second time Hosea 6:6, which must have been one of his favorite verses, in which God says, “I desire mercy and not sacrifice.” What God wants is compassion, not ritual and rule-following. In Mark’s version of this story, Jesus says, “The Sabbath was made for people—for your good—not people for the Sabbath.” In other words, God had no interest in setting up rules just to see if people would obey him, as if the main function of humans was to give evidence that God can control us. God gave the law for the good of humanity, to show us how to live the best life possible as fully human. If you make life about following rules you completely distort God’s intentions.
Right after that dispute, Jesus goes into a synagogue and is met by a man with a withered hand. Jesus has a reputation as a healer, so his opponents see an opportunity. “You do remember that it’s illegal in God’s eyes to heal someone on the Sabbath, don’t you? That’s work.”
Jesus must have rolled his eyes. “Come on, guys. If you had a sheep that fell into a trap you dug to catch a wolf and it was the Sabbath, don’t tell me you wouldn’t go down and rescue it. This human being is more valuable than a sheep!” Then Jesus didn’t do anything that could be construed as work. He just told the man to stretch out his bad hand, and without a touch from Jesus it miraculously became normal. But the response of the Pharisees was to plot to kill Jesus because he was a rule-breaker and an enemy of their religion.
That’s what Jesus is offering to rescue us from when he says, “Come to me, you who are tired of religion, carrying burdens the institution has placed on you.” Later in Matthew (23:4), Jesus says these religious teachers tie up heavy burdens that are hard to bear and lay them on the shoulders of others, but they don’t lift a finger to help those people bear them. The yoke I offer you is not a burden but a shared life. I am not an authoritarian but a gentle and humble teacher, and my goal is not to work you to death but to give you rest.
I grew up Southern Baptist, in churches where everybody knew that we are saved by God’s grace and not by our works, and that the important thing is a personal relationship with Jesus rather than trying to make yourself right with God by following the rules. We knew that, and yet people criticized others mercilessly for breaking rules. In my grandparents’ generation, they had Sabbath rules about what you could do on Sunday that were as strict as the Pharisees; my grandmother had to fry the chicken on Saturday for Sunday dinner. Even during my youth, many Baptists believed that no Christian could ever drink alcohol, or go to a dance, or gamble, or play cards. At Princeton Seminary, they used to call Baptists “Dunkin’ Do-nots.” It was once common for Baptists to believe that one of God’s rules was that the races should not mix—and that if the slaves had remained submissive we wouldn’t have these problems today.
We celebrated our personal relationship with Jesus and wanted everybody to have one, but we couldn’t leave it at that. Being human, we had to have a set of rules so we could criticize rule-breakers, a set of boundary-markers so we could say who was in and who was out. Jesus is calling us to leave all that behind and focus on the relationship with him. “Come to me, you who are burned out on religion, and I will give you rest.”
This past week a group of virtually all the leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention and a collection of other evangelical leaders and celebrities issued what they called The Nashville Statement. Unless you saw the Op Ed in yesterday’s Times or have friends on Facebook who follow religion news, you probably haven’t heard about it. While the rest of us were reeling from Harvey and still getting over Charlottesville, these guys (and they were men) decided the most important thing to do was to draw a clear circle around the group of true Christians. They said not only that all gays and lesbians and transgender persons are sinful because of their sexuality, but that anyone who doesn’t agree with that is also a sinner and not a true Christian. Of all the issues the world is facing—nuclear war, inequality, racism, religious violence, extreme weather tied to climate change—the one issue most clearly defining Christians is clear gender roles for male and female, they said.
That’s the kind of religion I’m so tired of that it makes me want to say, as Jesus may say someday, “I never knew you.” They tie up heavy burdens and lay them on the shoulders of young people who are already being bullied and dealing with rejection, and say to them, “Maybe you are born with this, but to be who you are is just bad.” I want to ask, “Have you ever even met a transgender 8-year-old? Have you never had a suicide call—as I have—from Christian students who feel hopeless because they are an abomination to God?” Half the gays and lesbians in America still identify as Christians. Are some Christians simply telling them “Get out”?
Jesus is saying, “Come unto me, you who are falling down under the burden of religion, and I will give you rest.” Come to my table and remember who God really is, the merciful and compassionate one, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. Remember what I did for you—all of you—and that I called you not to follow a set of rules but to enter into a relationship with me, yoked to me, walking with me, following the lead of the gentle and lowly one. Come to the table of the one who did not crack the whip but bore the lashes. Come fellowship with the one who forgives even those who kill him. Be reminded what love is, and how the love of Jesus knows no limits. Taste and see that the Lord is good.