Date: July 5, 2020
Bible Text: Matthew 11:16-30 | Bailey Pickens
You know it turns out, ostriches don’t actually bury their heads in the sand to avoid danger? Sometimes when they can’t outrun a predator they flop to the ground and their heads are hard to see; and they tend the eggs in their sand pit nests by arranging and rotating the eggs with their beaks; so maybe it seemed that way to people casually observing. Anyway Pliny the Elder wrote it in his Natural History circa 77 (that’s the whole year date), and it’s been repeated for like two thousand years now, in the way that things get repeated, which makes sense because unconscious projection is really powerful and you know who does like to bury their heads in the sand to avoid danger? Humans.
I am sure we can all come up with a short list of really spectacular cowards, you know, who went to monumental lengths to deny what was really obvious so they wouldn’t have to deal with it, but really they are remarkable not in kind, but in degree: That’s something everyone does, though most people to a lesser extent. It’s very natural. We seek to protect ourselves from danger, whether it’s physical or psychic, and so all of us will, at some point, avoid facing head-on something somehow dangerous: The truth of difficult circumstances, the intractability of a problem, the severity of consequences, the bad behavior of someone we trust or admire. It is natural and often not deliberate. It’s an instinct.
The thing of it is though that one of Jesus’ strongest insistences in the gospels is that we are responsible for taking into account what we have been clearly shown. This is maybe the biggest challenge he issues to people, regular folks and leaders alike, just in terms of its repetition: Why aren’t you trusting what you have seen, and acting accordingly? I made the first move, why won’t you make the second? I have healed before your eyes, why won’t you believe me? From Jesus there is both an invitation and an expectation that, him having extended his hand, as it were, people will take it: That they would see and believe what is before their eyes. That having been shown the work of God in the flesh, in the land of the living, people would respond.
I suppose the problem is that the response to God’s work in the flesh requires something, which I don’t say casually: For the very pious, the suggestion that God works in a way you don’t understand or anticipate is deeply destabilizing; for anyone living in a culture, which is everyone, the suggestion that how you have been accustomed to act, believe, value, is not a true guiding light and all of it must change is deeply destabilizing as well. It is perhaps simple but not easy to accept what is before our eyes. That, given something as clear as the person of Jesus Christ, people would refuse to respond is, in the strict dramatic sense, tragic: Absolutely understandable, almost inevitable, but technically avoidable and bitterly sad. Then, as now, few of us greet destabilization with open arms. We don’t always want to make the second move, either.
Which brings us to the gospel we heard read this morning. Jesus is observing exactly this: That the first move is given, he’s put his hand out, and been left hanging. When there’s a flute, you join in the dance; when you hear wailing, you join in the mourning; and yet this generation, says Jesus, will not respond to the clear signs, the clear invitations, they’ve been given. Given John the Baptist, a holy man, an ascetic, one who fasted, people rejected the example, called him possessed for fasting; Jesus, then, did not fast, and this didn’t please them either, and they called him a glutton and morally loose. Both John the forerunner and Jesus the Christ offered not only calls to repentance and amendment of life—and that’s challenging enough—they demonstrated a very radical break with the customary and accepted, demonstrated it by living and embodying it. People don’t love that. We don’t always love that. Easier to change a street name or take down a statue or block a mural than to recognize that society itself has to be reconsidered and remade, for instance.
So when Jesus says Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the deeds of power done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes, he is observing what he sees: When he “played the flute” for Chorazin and Bethsaida and Capernaum, teaching and healing and raising the dead in their streets, they did not dance. And even Tyre, Sidon, and Sodom, those ancient examples of wealth, greed, and citywide Godlessness, had they seen what the cities Jesus visited have seen, even they would have repented and joined the dance. And even yet they might—this is crucial: There are no blocked doors, here. The flute is still playing. Repentance, recognizing what was before them, taking the second step, taking Jesus’ outstretched hand, all these options are still available to Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum. And us.
Because, perhaps some of us know something about an unrepentant city. Perhaps some of us know about refusal at every level, from individual to national, to recognize what has been made clear. Perhaps some of us know about a playing flute but seeing no dancing. Perhaps some of us know about wailing but hearing no mourning from anyone else. Perhaps some of us know what it is to be left hanging.
It’s hard, isn’t it? It’s hard to recognize the ways in which we must change, to trust what we are seeing even when it means a break in what is familiar to us. It’s hard, also, and differently, to live in a city, or a nation, to which woes might be rightly addressed, one that will not believe the deeds of power done in it. We are carrying so much: Our better lights, our fears, our own errors, our struggle with the new or the frightening, our struggle with the past, our anger at a government that acts oppressively and celebrates itself, our grief at the suffering that causes at home and abroad, our personal griefs. How heavy that load is, bound up on our shoulders.
So when Jesus finishes this sermon with the offer of rest, he knows exactly what he is offering. He knows what we are carrying, how hard is the yoke, how heavy the burden, when he offers us a yoke that is easy, and a burden that is light. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, he says, because you will find rest for your souls.
Learn from me. With Jesus, the healing is always twofold: The truth, and the body’s need. The truth, and a meal for thousands from nothing. The truth, and a sound body. We are not sustained only by the care of our bodies and we are not sustained only by the training of our minds; but when Jesus offers us both learning, and rest, he is offering what really does sustain. A truth that frees; a burden that is light.
We have to know something is heavy in order to put it down. We have to acknowledge our burdens in order to relinquish them. This itself is no small task, though we practice each Sunday we join our voices in confession. If we acknowledge what we’ve been carrying this whole time, will we feel we have been silly not to have put it down sooner? If we acknowledge that it was a burden, and not simply normal, will we have to remember our pasts as heavier than we would like to? Maybe. Maybe. Yet this morning I urge you, you who live with me in a city, in a nation, not unlike Capernaum and Bethsaida and Chorazin, not unlike Tyre, not unlike Sidon, not unlike Sodom: Put that burden down, and carry only Jesus’ yoke. Hear the flute and dance with strangers. Hear the wails and mourn with family you do not know. Learn from him the truth and be free. In the Kingdom of God, the Kingdom in which only Love reigns, the Kingdom that is here if we want it, there is work to do, but it is work that builds up flourishing, not work that drags down with worry and grief. Jesus’ yoke is easy, and his burden is light. Let us find rest for our souls.