St. Francis Day
Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30
October 9, 2021
The Rev’d Charles Everson
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church
This passage from the gospel of Matthew ends with one of the most beautiful statements our Lord ever made: “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”.
Just a few chapters before, in the very same discourse, Matthew recounts Jesus saying things like “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” And “I have come to set a man against his father, and daughter against her mother.” Sounds like two different people talking, but in both of these passages, Jesus is inviting us to a life of discipleship.
Discipleship means “to learn”, and thus disciples of Jesus are called to learn from Jesus how to live. As part of discipleship, we are called to be obedient to our Lord, but not in the way we typically think of obedience in which one person submits to another person because they have power over them and are afraid of them and are thus obedient. Rather, Christian obedience is to listen intently, and to respond, not only to those who have formal authority over us, but also to the voices of our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ. The call to discipleship is a call to radical obedience – a call to listen to the voice of God, wherever it may be found, and to respond. Unhesitating obedience to Christ often costs us dearly and can cause division in our families, in our friendships, and even in our parish.
To understand the sweet promise of “rest” we heard this morning, we have to start from the understanding that discipleship is hard work and can ultimately lead to division and strife that we don’t expect.
When Jesus says “Take my yoke and learn from me”, he’s using a word that has the same root as “disciple”, which means “learner.” This isn’t about learning new academic knowledge; Jesus is asking us to take up a way of life. A disciple loves the Lord with all of their heart, soul and body. Living this life of discipleship means we have to give up some things that we want, and instead put love of God and neighbor ahead of our own desires. But in doing so, we are given rest.
Throughout the New Testament, the Greek word “rest” can refer to Sabbath rest, the rest of death, or rest from war when Israel’s enemies have been subdued. More importantly, the idea of “rest” functions as an image of salvation, of what will be when the world is finally ordered according to God’s purposes and enjoys its full and complete Sabbath. In promising us “rest,” Jesus promises life under God’s reign in the new world that he is bringing. This is the “rest” we pray for when we pray “thy kingdom come” in the Lord’s Prayer – it’s not just a “rest” that will come when we get to heaven, but “rest” here and now. It’s the holy city, the New Jerusalem, coming down from heaven to earth. When God’s kingdom comes, we receive this “rest” from Jesus, and God’s space and ours are finally married and integrated at last.
What are we given rest from? Jesus says he will give rest to those who are weary and are carrying heavy burdens. The original crowds who heard this were suffering under religious oppression from the Pharisees on the one hand, and from the Roman imperial system in which the ruling elite secure wealth, status, and power at the expense of the everyday Joe on the other hand. He promises them rest from those things. But for all of us here today – what is it in our lives that makes us weary?
What heaven burdens are you bearing in your life?
Jesus is calling you to come to him. To take up his yoke upon you and learn from him. To be his disciple. But this call to be Jesus’s disciple isn’t a call to try to merely imitate some man who lived on earth 2,000 years ago and has left us. We are called to be his disciple by relying on the ongoing presence of Jesus in the world today. This ongoing presence is also included in what Jesus means by “rest.” This ongoing presence of Jesus manifests itself in the world through prayer, in silence and contemplation, through community and fellowship with fellow Christians, in recreational activities. More poignantly yet mysteriously, we receive this rest at the altar rail. In a moment, I will ask the Holy Spirit to set aside bread and wine to be for us the Body and Blood of Christ, the holy food and drink of new and unending life in him. And then we will come forward and receive the refreshing nourishment that he offers us in the bread of heaven and the cup of salvation. We will receive a rest more profound and more complete than we possibly could by putting up our feet after a long, exhausting day, or drinking a cold beer on a warm, summer afternoon. In the Eucharist, God’s heavenly kingdom breaks into our earthly world and nourishes us with the rest and refreshment that only Jesus can offer. Put another way, in the Eucharist, heaven kisses earth. And it is only after we are fed with this heavenly food and drink that we are sent out into the world so that we may “continue in that holy fellowship, and do all such good works as he has prepared for us to walk in.”
St. Francis, whose feast we celebrate today, is best known for his love for animals and nature, but the very foundation of his faith was the Holy Eucharist. At the end of his life, St. Francis (ordained deacon but not priest) dictated a document that has remained a primary expression of his understanding of the Gospel. He says:
“…the Lord gave me, and gives me still, such faith in priests who live according to the rite of the holy Church because of their orders that, were they to persecute me, I would still want to have recourse to them…..And I act in this way because, in this world, I see nothing physically of the most high Son of God except His most holy Body and Blood which they receive and they alone administer to others. I want to have these most holy mysteries honored and venerated above all things and I want to reserve them in precious places.” (emphasis mine)
For Francis, the Eucharist is the primary way in which we see the ongoing presence of Jesus in the world today. His life was plagued by trial, illness, and great physical pain, and it was in the Body and Blood of Christ that he found rest.
Friends, I invite you this morning to bring your weariness and burdens to Jesus at this altar. To take up his yoke and learn from him. To live the life of a disciple, following our Lord throughout the ups and downs of life. Thankfully, we are not left to do this alone. Week after week, even day after day, we are invited to the altar to receive our Lord in the bread and wine of Holy Communion, receiving rest for our souls, and the grace we need to love and serve God and our neighbor. Amen.
 N. T. Wright, The Lord and His Prayer (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2014), 24.
The sermons preached at St. Mary's Episcopal Church, Kansas City, are posted here!