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Sermon for Sunday 5 July 2020

First Reading                                 Zechariah 9:9-12

9Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is he, humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. 10I will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall speak peace to the nations; his rule shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth. 11As for you also, because of the blood of my covenant with you, I will set your prisoners free from the waterless pit. 12Return to your stronghold, O prisoners of hope; today I declare that I will restore to you double.

Psalm                                                    Psalm 145:1-15

1I will exalt you, O God my King, and bless your name forever and ever. 2Every day will I bless you and praise your Name forever and ever. 3Great is the Lord and greatly to be praised; there is no end to his greatness. 4One generation shall praise your works to another and shall declare your power. 5I will ponder the glorious splendor of your majesty and all your marvelous works. 6They shall speak of the might of your wondrous acts, and I will tell of your greatness. 7They shall publish the remembrance of your great goodness; they shall sing of your righteous deeds. 8The Lord is gracious and full of compassion, slow to anger and of great kindness. 9The Lord is loving to everyone and his compassion is over all his works. 10All your works praise you, O Lord, and your faithful servants bless you. 11They make known the glory of your kingdom and speak of your power; 12That the peoples may know of your power and the glorious splendor of your kingdom. 13Your kingdom is an everlasting kingdom; your dominion endures throughout all ages. 14The Lord is faithful in all his words and merciful in all his deeds. 15The Lord upholds all those who fall; he lifts up those who are bowed down.

Second Reading                       Philippians 4:4-13

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice. Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you. 10 I rejoiced in the Lord greatly that now at length you have revived your concern for me. You were indeed concerned for me, but you had no opportunity. 11 Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. 12 I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. 13 I can do all things through him who strengthens me.

Gospel                                            Matthew 11:25-30

25Jesus declared, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children; 26yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. 27All things have been handed over to me by my Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him. 28Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. 29Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

What Are You Watching

Someone was once quoted as saying: I try to take life one day at a time; sadly, there are times when several days attack me at once.  Another person, speaking of stress said, “We must have a pie.  Stress cannot exist in the presence of a pie.”  Stress: we all experience it, and to say that stress, and the anxieties that come with it, is an integral part of our lives, may well be the understatement of the millennia.  I can’t speak for you, but as an adult, stress is something I’ve always dealt with.  28 years in the military, 4 deployments to the Middle East including Desert Shield and Desert Storm, going to college at night, then seminary full-time, being in the ministry, and now this crazy Covid-19 pandemic, all have contributed to varying degrees of stress over the years.

Throughout my military career, I attended numerous briefings and classes on stress management, and it was a constant topic in seminary.  All good leaders know that stress management is a must.  When people can’t properly deal with pressure, bad things can happen.  Stress takes a toll on our bodies, both mentally and physically, and left unchecked, stress can drive people to exhibit irrational negative behavior, explosive verbal abuse against those around them, even violent reactions.  And while there are good forms of stress that motivate us to achieve, or drive us to escape a bad situation, stress in general, especially prolonged unrelieved stress, is an emotion that needs to be managed or dealt with.  We all need to find ways to release our pent-up feelings of frustration in healthy manner.  Today, this may mean turning off the TV and choosing instead to fill our minds with something more meaningful.

For me, Paul has the best advice for proper stress relief when he wrote in our epistle reading for today, “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things (Phil. 4:8).  Paul isn’t suggesting escapism, rather he’s telling us to think about the positive, uplifting things around us, in order to add balance and perspective to our lives.

With that in mind, let me ask you this question: what is your go-to technique for relieving stress?  Just about everyone feels overwhelmed by stress from time to time.  A mental health foundation in the United Kingdom ran a poll on the effects of stress.  Respondents to the poll said that overwhelming feelings of stress led them to overeat, drink and smoke.  People reported that stress made them feel depressed, anxious, alone, even suicidal.  Stress can drive people to do some pretty irrational things.  I wonder if part of what’s driving today’s protesters, rioters and cancel culture advocates, is stress over not having something meaningful in their lives and this Corona Virus situation?

Most people understand that unrelieved stress is a serious condition.  We all need healthy techniques and outlets for dealing with it.  Some methods for releasing our pent-up energy can be things like gardening, exercise, or outdoor activities such as fishing; some stress relievers may even seem a bit more unconventional.  I read recently that a large number of people are finding temporary relief from their stress by watching videos on YouTube.  On the surface this might not seem surprising until you hear what they’re watching.  

What these people are watching isn’t what you might expect; they’re watching videos of people cleaning their own home.  You heard right.  There’s a whole industry on the internet built around people who create videos on how to organize and clean your house.  And these videos are hugely popular, with millions of fans.

My first question when I read this was, why would people watch videos of other people cleaning their own home?  Many fans of cleaning videos say that watching someone else organize and clean their house makes them feel less anxious, more in control of their own surroundings.  Hosts for the most popular cleaning shows regularly get emails telling them how their show helped a fan through anxiety, depression and a variety of life crises.

One young woman said she falls asleep each night to cleaning videos because they clear her head of anxiety and fear.  Another young woman says watching the videos “makes my head stop rushing around for a bit.”  Still another fan says, “I think there’s a lot of aspects to our daily life that seem chaotic, so watching something in a state of order is relaxing.”  That seems like a harmless, if somewhat strange way to deal with stress.  Nonetheless, it appears to be a helpful way to relieve tension.  However, unless the source of frustration is an unkept house, this doesn’t tackle the deeper problems in our life that cause us to feel out of control in the first place.  The simple truth is we’re tired of carrying the weight of the world on our shoulders, we’re wearied by the feeling of being out of control, and we desperately want to replace that burden with something much more manageable.  The good news is Jesus has an answer for this desire!

In our Gospel lesson for today, Jesus challenges the people around Him with these words, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, 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” (Matthew 11:28-30).  Jesus is saying to us that weariness is not meant to be our natural way of living.   That’s not what God created us for.  In fact, no matter how unproductive or out-of-control our schedule makes us feel, it’s actually living in opposition to the rhythms of life that contribute to peace, clarity, and purposeful living.

Weariness and burdens blind us to the true purpose of our lives and bind us with a sense of powerlessness: they isolate us.  When we’re weary and burdened, our focus narrows to what’s right in front of us, to what seems urgent, instead of what’s important.  This behavior is the norm in our culture, so we really don’t stop and question it.  That’s just the way life is.   However, Jesus says it isn’t the way things are meant to be.  So, what did Jesus mean by rest for our souls?

I read recently about a business devoted to giving people rest.  In 2005, a store called MinneNAPolis opened in Minnesota’s Mall of America.  Notice that NAP is part of the name.  For 70 cents a minute, tired shoppers can rent a sound-proof room for napping.  The rooms have special themes like Deep Space, Asian Mist, and Tropical Isle.  Or, if you don’t feel like napping, you can relax in the store’s massage chair, gaze at a waterfall, listen to soft music and breathe in the “positive-ionization-filtered air.”  The owners of the store advertise it as “an enjoyable escape from the fast-paced lifestyle.”  Some people find this helpful.

However, rest for our souls isn’t the same thing as a nap, or a vacation, or breathing in positive-ionization-filtered air while gazing at a fake waterfall.  It’s not a temporary respite from our stress.  Rest for our souls is a re-orientation of our values and perceptions of life to match up with the values and wisdom of God, the One who created us—the Source of our soul.  Listen to Jesus’ words again: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, 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.”  Think about those important words for just a few moments.

First, Jesus reminds us, “We have a soul.”  Or to be more accurate, we area soul.  Have you ever stopped to think about that?  We are not a random collection of cells that have somehow arranged themselves in response to the environment.  We are not the sum of our current circumstances.  We are a work of art; we are made in the image of God.  We have the imprint of the eternal, all-powerful God Almighty within us.  Our soul is a mark of God’s abundant love for us.  When God breathed life into us, it wasn’t an act of starting the exchange of oxygen for carbon dioxide, it was the initiation of us as a connected being; the connection of God with us.  This makes us incredibly valuable in God’s eyes.  Which leads me to ask: are we experiencing life the way God meant for us to experience it?  Or do we feel weary and burdened because we’re living in a way that’s disconnected from our soul?

Mike Jaffee was a young, successful businessman working for a Fortune 500 company.  In his mid-thirties, he began to realize that he wasn’t fulfilled in his work.  He was neglecting his family.  He felt disconnected from any greater purpose in his life.  Every morning, Mike’s wife would drive him to the train station for his two-hour commute to New York City.  Their one-year-old daughter slept in the back seat on the way to the station.  Mike worried that he rarely saw his daughter when she was awake, and his wife was practically a single parent.  His success at work wasn’t making a meaningful difference in the world.  His life was so hectic he barely had time to think.  But all of Mike’s colleagues and friends lived like this as well.  Who was he to think that life could be any different?  Then it happened.

One morning, Mike decided that he would stay home and eat breakfast with his wife and daughter and take the late train to work.  To him, this was a huge sacrifice.  All his colleagues came in early and stayed late.  He couldn’t afford to stand out.  But he was just so tired of being controlled by his job and missing out on his family.  That morning, Mike and his wife and daughter had a great time eating breakfast together and chatting about their week.  Mike then took the late train to the office.

Because of this one decision to re-connect with his family, Mike Jaffee was not in his office, which was in the North Tower of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, when the first airplane slammed into that building.  His life was spared by a simple decision one morning to spend some time with his family.  Mike Jaffee has written a book about the tragedy of losing his friends and colleagues on 9-11.  It’s titled Wake Up! Your Life is Calling.  He says his mission now is to be a Human Wake-Up Call®; to convince people to live meaningful lives that don’t revolve around society’s definition of success.  For those who will listen, Jesus is the ultimate wake-up call for our soul.

Listen to other statements Jesus made about our soul: “What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?  Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul?”  (Matthew 16: 26).  Or “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul” (Matthew 10: 28a).  Jesus cares about our souls because He knows that our souls are a reflection of God’s image within us.  So, I’ll ask the question again: Are you weary and burdened because you’re living in a way that’s disconnected from your soul?

First Jesus reminds us that we are a soul.  Second, we need to keep in mind that we need a savior.  In our first lesson for today, God, through Zechariah, is reminding the people that the suffering they are enduring in exile won’t last forever: salvation is coming.  There in verse 9 we read, “Behold your King is coming to you, righteous and humble; He is salvation.”  We have a bridge between our soul and God.  Jesus didn’t say, “Come to me, and I will make all your troubles go away.”  Jesus said, “Come to me, and I will walk with you through life.  With Me, you won’t have to go it alone anymore.”  That’s what He meant when He said, “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me . . .”

Jesus came knowing that there are certain things worth living and dying for, and everything else is just noise.  We have a Savior who understands what we face.  Jesus knows what it’s like to be tired.  He knows what it’s like to be lonely and misunderstood. He knows what it’s like to pour your heart and soul into a mission and in the end be crucified for your efforts.  We have a Savior who chose to live as we live—as a human being—so He could show us that our identity, purpose, strength, and hope are not a culmination of our circumstances.  Our identity, purpose, strength, and hope are based on the reality of a loving God living within us.

Let me tell you about a young boy named Samuel who was diagnosed with a nervous system disease that left him with temporary paralysis.  You can imagine how Sam’s parents ached to see their precious little boy’s slow recovery from his illness.  One day Sam’s dad came to visit him at school.  From a distance, he watched as five-year-old Sam limped across the playground.  Samuel’s father was heartbroken to see the other kids playing games all around his son, games in which Sam couldn’t participate.  But then he saw Sam’s best friend, Michael, come up to Sam.  Michael could have been off with the other kids, running and jumping and playing.  But he chose to walk slowly alongside Sam for the rest of recess.

Michael didn’t take away Sam’s burdens.  He simply walked with him and loved him in his weakness.  Jesus does the same thing for us, and having that love and power freely available to us, makes any burden easier to bear.  “Take my yoke upon you . . .”

We have a soul and we have a Savior.  And finally, Jesus is saying, we have a solution to our weariness and burdens.  “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, 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.”

In the 1970s movie Freaky Friday, a frustrated mother and her rebellious daughter suddenly exchange lives.  The mother wakes up in the daughter’s body and vice versa.  For the next few days, each one must live with the priorities, responsibilities and stresses of the other.  In doing so, mother and daughter learn to respect and empathize with each other because they’ve walked in each other’s shoes.

If Jesus were to live a day in your life, would He have the same priorities as you do?  Would He view your circumstances as you do?  Would He get stressed over the things that stress you out?  The truth is, probably not.  Jesus looks beyond the circumstances of our lives to the greater story that a loving God is writing through us.  What other source of peace or rest do we look to besides Jesus?

The worries and burdens of this life can take so much away from us.  But there is a part of us that cannot be taken away.  It’s not affected by outward circumstances or inward doubts.  It’s that eternal stamp on our personhood that says we were made in the image of God, our soul.  God loves us so much that He sent Jesus to share our life and to die for us.  He is our Savior.  Jesus said, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, 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.”  Jesus also said, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you (John 14:27). 

On this Independence Day weekend, isn’t it time we free ourselves from the burdens of this world that wear us out and deprive us of the peace Jesus gives?  Instead of allowing ourselves to be overwhelmed by the uncontrollable situations around us, follow Paul’s advice, “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”


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