By Rev. Heather Blais
Who amongst us is not prone to doubt and worry? In this strange and uncertain time, who amongst us does not long to know when life will resume in all its fullness? We each find ourselves facing an exhaustive list of questions, and there is not a single concrete answer to be found. The agonizing and grief-filled truth is we simply cannot know.
We cannot know how long this will last...how long until we can travel to see our loved ones...how long until we can sing together safely... or how long until we can come together in large gatherings. Particularly for those sacramental moments that keep getting postponed or minimized--from confirmations, to graduations, weddings, funerals, concerts, fairs, and annual trips to crowded beaches. We simply cannot know, and there is no amount of overthinking or wondering that will provide us with any real sense of clarity.
Yet we are not alone in our grief-filled experience with powerlessness. Our siblings who are black and brown, LGBTQIA, and undocumented are well versed in living in a society that tries to strip them of their power. As does anyone who has lived with the doubt, worry, and uncertainty that accompanies the daily struggle of poverty, homelessness, illness, and domestic violence. The human experience at its core is one of unknowing, even as we stand in a posture of curiosity and yearning.
It is this same sense of powerlessness, doubt, and worry which Jesus encounters in the verses immediately prior to today’s gospel lesson. Jesus has been teaching as he traveled from city to city when messengers from John the Baptist approached him to ask, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” (Mt. 11:3)
In the gospels, John the Baptist is one of the most faithful servants we witness, whose role as a prophet quite literally helps pave a path in the wilderness for the coming Messiah. Yet even John is unsure if Jesus is THE ONE. Which is a helpful reminder that our yearning to know is not in and of itself wrong. It always comes back to our intentions. Is it about our own need to better understand a situation, and acquire a bit of power in having the answers? Or is it about leaning into God? As Presiding Bishop Michael Curry so often says, “If it’s not about Love, it’s not about God.”
In this case, John is trying to live into his calling as faithfully as possible, and his question is asked from a position of discernment. John is basically asking God--am I on the right track here? Jesus responds to John’s messengers in loving affirmation, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me” (Mt 11:4-6).
Today’s gospel lesson picks up immediately after this encounter. Jesus begins teaching the crowd about what it means to follow by lifting up John the Baptist as a model for all of us. Here is a faithful servant. Someone who is more concerned with glorifying God than having all the answers.
Jesus knows that the response to his message, then and now, varies. Even those who had the privilege of witnessing Jesus teaching and healing experienced doubt and wonder. Some will reject Christ altogether. Yet as Rev. Hillary T. West writes in A Journey with Matthew: “Jesus wants us, even with our uncertainty. He hails John as an example for faithful following, despite his doubt. Praising his devotion, Jesus compliments John, saying there has never been anyone "greater than John the Baptist." Innocence, doubt, and bewilderment all seem to qualify as criteria for turning to Christ. Thanks be to God!”
We do not get to know all the answers. Yet if in our heart of hearts our doubt and wonder comes from a place of innocence, and love, we will find some peace and affirmation along the way. Jesus actually gives thanks for our innocence, doubt, and wonder, when he stops to pray: “I thank you...Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants…” (Mt. 11:25).
This prayer is followed by an invitation from Jesus: “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” (Mt. 11:28-30).
Just like two oxen yoked together, Jesus is offering to help carry our heavy loads. As frustrating as it may be for us to have no real sense of what it is yet to come, I find it of deep comfort that our God walks beside us and yearns to help us carry the load. As we walk with God, our burdens will be eased and we will find ourselves learning and growing.
I wonder, what leaves you feeling powerless right now? What are your worries and doubts? What heavy burdens consume you? I invite you to find a way to offer them to God--maybe it’s through prayer, music, painting, a walk in the woods, gardening, or journal writing.
One way that I frequently find myself handing God my burdens is in the form of a God box. Which is simply a container, with some scraps of paper and a pen nearby. On a scrap put down that all consuming burden, and place it in the box. Say a prayer asking for God to help carry this load. Leave the scrap of paper in there as long as needed. Eventually, when moved, one can go through their God box, and give thanks for the scraps that are resolved, and return to the ones that are still ongoing. A few years ago I started with a single God box. Now I have them scattered throughout our home and another at my desk. A gentle reminder that God is always beside us. As tempting as it is to carry things on our own, each time we truly offer a burden to God we will experience some relief. For me it comes in the form of my chest physically feeling lighter.
There are a thousand different ways to accept the invitation to be yoked to Christ. All that matters is that we understand Christ has offered to be yoked to us and is yearning to help carry our burdens. Amen.
By Kathryn Aubry-McAvoy
In today’s Gospel lesson from Matthew, we hear from Jesus at his most demanding. Jesus says “To follow me in the true way of love, to go all the way with me, you will be uncomfortable, confused, and even sometimes frightened. Jesus says: If you wish to walk the way of love with me, expect to be upset and confused, even cut off in a way from those you love. And through thick and thin you have to forget about yourself. This forgetting is freeing and it opens you up to find God.
There are times of life when I appreciate expert, no-nonsense advice. For me, this is one of those times. In the midst of a devastating pandemic and a crisis of injustice in our country, some straight from the hip advice gives me comfort. As a member of the leadership team here at James and Andrew I have been reassured by the expert advice from the CDC, the World Health Organization, state and local public health experts and our clergy and church leaders. Our data is not perfect, but it’s the best we have.
Jesus gives pretty straight forward advice about justice, he says that everything eventually will be out in the open, everyone will understand how things really are, so don’t hesitate to go public about God’s love…even if you are uncomfortable or confused. Don’t let anyone (even you), bully you into silence. Nothing can hurt you, the real you of body and soul, if you are motivated by God’s way of love. This love belongs to everyone: student/teacher, laborer/boss, those who are strong and healthy and those with weak immune systems, those who have, and those who have not.
We are instructed to stand up for love against world opinion, or anyone’s opinion, in spite of our discomfort. In the midst of a devastating pandemic and an uprising for justice, can we set aside our comforts? Can we remember the “greater good” and set our hearts on the hope that another, better world is possible?
The expert advice we hear from Jesus is that living out this love might cut like a sword.
Jesus did not come to make life cozy. Being comfortable is nice, but I recognize that it doesn’t always help us to get anywhere. If we stay inside a cozy domestic relationship with the world, or with a church institution, there’s no forward movement, no growth, no life.
My boys suffered from what we called growing pains in their preteen years, those years of rapid physical and emotional growth; they complained frequently of achy legs that bothered them mostly at night. Scientists will say that there’s no evidence that growth hurts, but I believe there’s much about the body/mind connection we do not understand. A broken heart surely hurts, and we now know that it can lead to changes in the heart muscle similar to a heart attack. We also know that the damage can heal.
The pain of lost comfort is real, but maybe that pain is a sign that we’re on the threshold of something new. Our EFM book group is reading Esther de Waal’s book “To Pause at the Threshold” She has wonderful things to say about how a threshold can be a sacred place, a place of openness and receptivity. The threshold leads to something new, something of greater fullness. It is good to remember that God is always with us, at our center and our comfort and also (as Heather says), at our raw and growing edges. Rachel Held Evans, in her book about Loving the Bible (for which Dan Carew will lead us in a Zoom discussion today at 11:30), Rachel says that scripture should comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.
So, even if we are dwelling in a place of discomfort or confusion, I hope we are dwelling in a threshold place, and that we can equip ourselves for change and growth. Jesus says it plainly: don’t be intimidated, don’t be bluffed into silence, stand up for me, forget about yourself and look to me, learn from me. So here is my plan: I will accept my discomfort, I will accept my growing pains, I will read and seek the truth, I will listen and talk it over, I will walk forward and I will try not to be afraid.
And I will pray for your plan too. Amen
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