The images command attention: Two figures — both African American, one man, one woman. Their portraits, in profile, fill the bottom of the banners. And, atop their heads, are towers of burdens. The things that overwhelm these people have taken physical form and — literally — weigh them down. The towers have been built with remnants reflecting our broken world:
a dilapidated home with a sign reading, “Foreclosed;”
a laborer toiling in the fields;
a needle, like the ones that litter alleyways in neglected neighborhoods;
a woman folded into the fetal position so one can see the word “Sold” scrawled across her back;
a lynching tree that bears the weight of strange fruit.
The artwork sets before us powerful representations of the burdens that weigh on our society — burdens that some of us can set aside more easily than others. But — as striking as the images are — for me, their power lies in their invitation: The invitation to consider what I would place in a tower of burdens if my portrait filled the bottom of the page.
These banners were part of the art installation at the Worship and Music Conference held last week in Montreat, North Carolina. They did not stand alone. Over the course of six days, the installation grew to include other figures, all at different points on their journeys of faith: people turning away, trying to evade the call of Christ; people falling to their knees, overcome by emptiness and need; people with hands open to receive the good news.
And, then — on the final day — a huge quilt appeared. It stretched the width of the chancel and contained squares made by conference participants. Each one told a story … perhaps something reflective of the artist’s life, the artist’s faith. And above it all — holding these stories together — were the outstretched arms of Jesus and the words: Come, unto me.
“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.”
These are some of the most familiar words in all of Scripture. As we say in my Midweek Manna Bible Study, it’s one of the “Bumper Sticker Sayings of Jesus.” Because it’s one of those verses that show up on bumper stickers or t-shirts or inspirational posters. Which is to say that many of us can recite these words from memory. (In this crowd, I imagine many of us could sing these words to a melody from Handel’s Messiah.) But, until today, I expect most of us had completely forgotten their context.
Frankly, I understand the desire to pluck these words from Scripture — to remember Christ’s generous invitation and to forget the rest. Because the rest of the passage is a bit confusing. Even, a bit challenging.
“To what will I compare this generation?” Jesus begins. “It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another:
We played the flute for you, and you did not dance;
we wailed, and you did not mourn.”
Jesus is speaking about the response of “this generation” to his own ministry and to the ministry of John the Baptist. As you might recall, John is a first-century ascetic who wears a coat of camel’s hair and consumes only locusts and wild honey. He has come to prepare the way of the Lord by calling for repentance. He is a “wailer,” as Jesus says. And, yet, the people do not mourn.
Jesus, on the other hand, will not let his community “mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them” (as he says in chapter 9). Jesus comes with compassion and joy, inviting even tax collectors and sinners to the feast. He is a flute player. And, yet, the people do not dance.
Instead, “this generation” — this unfaithful, unrepentant generation — criticizes both, saying John has a demon and Jesus is a glutton and a drunkard. In other words, the critics — presumably the scribes and the pharisees — don’t respond to his ministry or the ministry of John the Baptist because both Jesus and John defy their expectations of God and God’s messengers. But, no matter. Jesus is undeterred. “Just look at the evidence,” he declares. “The lepers are cleansed, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them” (see Matt 11:5). Wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.
After saying these things Jesus pauses to pray. And, in his prayer to the Lord of heaven and earth, he again references the different responses to his ministry. “I thank you … because you have hidden these things from the wise and intelligent and have revealed them to infants.” You have hidden these things from the wise and intelligent and have revealed them to infants.
I won’t ask for a show of hands, but I expect many of us would consider ourselves “wise and intelligent” people. And I bet most of us would say these are qualities to be celebrated. Yet, here, Jesus seems to view them as stumbling blocks — as qualities that interfere with our ability to perceive the kingdom of heaven in our midst. However, Jesus is not speaking in general about those who possess such gifts. More likely, he is speaking specifically of the scribes and pharisees — those who are learned in the law and, thus, consider themselves learned in the ways of God. Self-important and self-sufficient, these religious leaders think they have the holy all figured out. And, so, they miss the new thing God is doing.
It is the “infants” who perceive the kingdom of heaven and receive the good news. These are the people whom the world does not regard as wise and important. They are the poor in spirit, the meek, the merciful, the persecuted — the very ones Jesus calls “blessed” in his Sermon on the Mount. These are the people who are sick or suffering, the ones who need compassion or care. These are the people who have been cast aside, often by a religious establishment more invested in God’s holiness than in God’s mercy. And these are the people whom the Lord of heaven and earth is gathering around Jesus, to hear and receive the good news.
And to these people, Jesus offers an invitation: “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.”
Come unto me. It is an invitation — a generous invitation. But it is also a call. It is a call to trade heavy burdens for … a yoke — the very thing that is used to bind together draft animals so that they might bear (wait for it) a heavy load. At first, this doesn’t sound like a favorable trade. But the yoke of Christ is intended not as a burden, but as a gift.
Matthew’s original audience would have known that the yoke was “a symbol of obedience to the law and wisdom of God.” In that context Jesus’ yoke represents “obedience to the commandments of the kingdom of heaven” — the commandments that Jesus set out in his Sermon on the Mount and the ones that have guided his ministry as he’s healed the sick and fed the hungry and welcomed outcasts into the fold. And these are the commandments that Jesus calls his followers to obey. In taking on the yoke of Christ, his disciples bind themselves to Jesus, as if joined to him by a bar across the shoulders. In taking on the yoke of Christ, his disciples commit to his way of justice and mercy, walking with him step-in-step.
So, not another weight to be carried. Rather, Jesus’ yoke is easy and his burden is light. This does not mean the way is free from challenge or danger. Indeed, today’s text reminds us of the resistance that Jesus faces throughout his ministry. And other parts of Matthew’s Gospel tell us that discipleship requires taking up the cross (16:24) and heading out into the world like sheep among wolves (10:16). But, still, Jesus’ yoke is easy and his burden is light. Because those who take on this yoke are joined to Jesus — the One who is gentle and humble in heart, the One who offers rest for every weary soul.
The rest Christ promises is more satisfying that an uninterrupted night’s sleep; it is more restorative than a week spent beside still waters. The kind of relief Jesus promises his followers is the rest of a world at peace. As one scholar puts it, Jesus is offering an image of salvation — an image “of what will be when the world is finally ordered according to God’s purposes and enjoys its full and complete Sabbath.” This is what Jesus holds out when he says, “Come to me.” He’s promising that those who commit to his way of justice and mercy will know the joy of a world-made-right. Perhaps, he’s promising even more: That, through the ministry of those who take upon Christ’s yoke, the world — the world — will experience Sabbath rest.
Today’s church may be more of a mix than the community of early disciples for which Jesus gives thanks in his prayer. We are the “wise and intelligent,” as well as the “infants.” Like the scribes and pharisees, we sometimes come across as self-important. And — more often than not — we imagine ourselves as independent and self-sufficient. Still, like the lowly — the poor in spirit and the meek — we know what it is to be sick and to suffer. We know what it’s like to need compassion or care. Sometimes we are all of these things at once. And, while our burdens may not look the same as those of the first century day-laborers surrounding Jesus in this story, we too carry heavy loads. They are the vestiges of a broken world — a world that is not at rest, a world that has not yet been ordered according to God’s purposes. And they weigh us down, as if they were stacked right atop our heads.
And — to us — Jesus also says: “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” It is both an invitation and a call: A call to commit to Christ’s way of justice and mercy, and an invitation to join ourselves to the One who is gentle and humble in heart. It is an invitation to rest in the joy of a world-made-right, and it is a call to invite others into Christ’s compassion and joy.
Remember the song we sang following the Scripture Lesson? Come, Bring Your Burdens to God comes to us from the church in South Africa. Unlike most of the hymns in our hymnal, it was not written to be sung inside a sanctuary by people already gathered for worship. Rather, it was written to be sung on the streets.
You see, the congregation that gave us this song was planted in a community with a high rate of HIV/AIDS. When the pastors — a husband and wife team — began their ministry in this neighborhood, very few people were coming to the church. At first, they didn’t understand why. But, then, the pastors uncovered the reason. People in that community didn’t believe they would be welcomed at church — or by God — if they were HIV+. And, so, the pastors wrote a song. And they stood outside the church doors singing, “Come, bring your burdens to God. For Jesus will never say, ‘No.’” They sang to let the community know that — no matter what burdens they carried — there was a place for them inside that church. They sang to let the community know — that no matter what weighed them down — Jesus would receive them with open arms. They sang to proclaim a profound promise, an abiding truth in which we rest: We worship a God of love and welcome.
In singing that song, that South African congregation echoed the call of Christ. But — more than that — they embodied the call of Christ. They took upon themselves the yoke of Jesus and joined themselves to Christ’s ministry of justice and mercy. And, in extending a compassionate welcome to all, they offered their hurting and heavy-laden community the gift of rest. That church became a place where people were defined not by their status as HIV+, but by their status as beloved children of God. The church became a place where the world was ordered according to the purposes of God.
And it is our charge to do the same — each of us in our own way to echo and embody the invitation of Jesus Christ. So come, bring your burdens to God. Bring all that you carry to the One who will give you rest. Come, take his yoke upon you and learn from him. And trust that — as you walk step-in-step with Christ, as we walk step-in-step with Christ — the world will begin to taste the joy of Sabbath rest.
Eternal God, Creator of all there is and the Source of our existence, our first thought as we wake each morning should be to thank you for the blessings of life. We give thanks for friends who bring us joy, family who love us even when we are not especially lovable, health to work and play and explore, the beauty and wonder of the natural world, our church family that provides us opportunities to worship, learn, support, and serve, and the opportunity to live in a country striving to live into its principles of liberty and justice for all. God, these are but a few of the countless blessings we enjoy.
Yet, God, there are episodes in life when we struggle to perceive our blessings – times when the strains of life threaten to overwhelm us. Lord, hear our prayers for those for whom life is harsh:
some grieve the death of one who was an integral part of their lives;
some struggle to care for a loved one who is fading;
some are worn down by the high expectations and constant pressure of their job;
some feel the unrelenting strain of limited finances or heavy debt;
some are bone tired from constant battles with a child or a sibling;
some are fed up with the constant discrimination they are subjected to;
some have grown jaded and exhausted by the constant culture wars;
some wrestle with an addiction;
some are imprisoned by a toxic relationship;
some have been harmed by another and cannot let it go.
Jesus said, “Come to me, all you who are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” Loving God, many yearn for that respite from their struggles – the peace of mind and contentment of soul – that we can find in You. Help us to be still in Your presence, to share our burdens with You, to release our fears, to shed our anxieties, to hear your whispers deep in our soul, to find the strength to endure the things we cannot change, and the hope that the darkness will not last forever, because you are a God of light and life and resurrection.
Now, we join our voices as one and pray the prayer that Christians have spoken for centuries, saying, Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread; and forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors; and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory, forever. Amen.
 To learn about Steve Prince’s art installation at the Presbyterian Association of Musicians Worship and Music Conference, see: https://www.presbyterianmission.org/story/presbyterian-association-of-musicians-worship-music-conference-artist-helps-create-space-for-the-spirit-to-work/
 Thomas G. Long, Matthew (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997), 132.
 Elisabeth Johnson, “Commentary on Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30,” www.workingpreacher.org.
 John Bell, whose arrangement of Come, Bring Your Burdens to God is included in Glory to God (#851) shared the story behind this song at the Bible and Church Music Conference at Massanetta Springs (Summer 2022). A colleague who attended the conference shared this story with me.
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