Come to Me, All Who Labor

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Preached at St. Anne’s Episcopal Church – Tifton, Georgia

Mark 2:23-3:6

Summer is undeniably here.
You know it not only because of the heat,
the pop-up thunderstorms,
and the length of these glorious days,
but also because our buildings here at St. Anne’s
have been magically transformed for Vacation Bible School.

VBS is one of the most important ministries
we offer for children at St. Anne’s.

It’s more than just stories, crafts, and a fun theme.
It’s a full and indispensible week
of Christian learning, formation in the faith,
and the building of church friendships for a lifetime.

And it all begins again tomorrow afternoon.

I just want to say thank you to everyone
who is about to embark on this adventure.
And special thanks to the small crew of volunteers
who worked and decorated all weekend
to set the stage in the Parish Hall and Ministry Center
for our “Rolling River Rampage.”

I beg all of you to visit both buildings today
to see what love has been poured
into making this an amazing week
for our children and their friends.

*     *     *

Today Jesus talks about the Sabbath,
that one day of the week
when God rested from all his work, [1]
and then commanded his people to do the same. [2]

One day a week when
we are free from our labors.

One day a week when
we have the gift of saying “no.”

One day a week when God—
the One running the universe!
looks at us and says, “Listen . . .
if I can take a break from my job,
you can take a break from your job, too.”

What a gift.
Oh how we squander it
misunderstand it,
and abuse it,
but what a pure gift
the Sabbath is to us.

I think my first understanding of God’s sabbath rest
came when I was a child,
not at Vacation Bible School,
but at that other most important week
in an Episcopal child’s life:
summer camp.

As a ten-year-old
I remember running around with all my friends
on those hot summer days at Honey Creek,
our Episcopal camp and conference center
over on the Georgia coast.

At the end of every long, humid summer day,
our faces would be beet red
and streaks of sweat would plow clean lines
down the dirt on our cheeks.
Our bodies would stink to high heaven
with sun screen, bug spray,
and the general stench of childhood.
Our legs would ache with the satisfaction and exhaustion
of having walked, run, and swum
for what must have been miles.

But we always knew we’d finish every day
by crashing into the air conditioned chapel.

We’d lie down on that cold floor,
and as the sky turned purple over the marsh,
and the cicadas groaned in the oak trees,
and the candles flickered on the altar,
someone would pick up the prayer book
and lead us in Compline (the old nighttime prayers),
and we’d hear for the thousandth time
those unfailing words of Jesus:

“Come to me,
all who labor and are heavy-laden,
and I will give you rest.
Take my yoke upon you,
and learn from me;
for I am gentle and lowly in heart,
and you will find rest for your souls.
For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” [3]

Hearing these words year in and year out
is how I came to realize
that despite all the things God wants
of us, and for us, and from us,
the thing God wants most
is to hold us,
and to love us,
and to welcome us home.

That, my friends, is the gift of Sabbath.
Yes, it’s meant to come and to be kept one day a week.
But it also comes in moments like that.
And when it does,
it’s always, always a gift . . .
a gift from the God who says,
“Come to me, and I will give you rest.
Let me be in charge for once.”

*     *     *

The problem, of course,
is that for every good gift God gives us,
you and I always have a penchant
for taking it and turning it
into something it was never meant to be.
That’s exactly what happens to Jesus
in the Gospel today.

Jesus and his disciples are walking on the Sabbath,
making their way through a field.
As they’re going along,
some of the disciples pluck a few heads of grain,
likely rubbing them together in their palms
and eating the kernels from their hands.
Think of it as Galilean trail mix,
a little snack for the journey.

But the Pharisees catch wind of this and say,
“No, no, no, no, no! That’s work!
You’re not allowed to work on the Sabbath!”

Then, to make matters worse,
Jesus goes and heals a man on the Sabbath, too.

“No, no, no!” they say. “How dare you?!”
In Mark’s Gospel—right here in chapter 3,
just a measly seventy-five-or-so verses into the book—
the go ahead and decide
that they’ve got to kill Jesus.

They’ve taken the gift of the Sabbath
and turned it into a weapon.

*     *     *

But before you give the Pharisees
too hard at time,
here’s the thing:

This is what we do
all the time.

I don’t just mean about the Sabbath.
I mean how we take God’s gifts
and turn them into weapons.

If you think about it,
we’re always taking the grace of God
and turning it back into law.
And when we do,
nobody wins.

We do it
when we hold others
to impossible standards.

We do it
when we demand apologies
at every turn,
even if just in our heads.

We do it
every time we say,
“Aha! I caught you!
You’re stupid;
you’re bad;
you’re inconsiderate,
you’re doing it wrong;
you don’t care about things like I do;
and now you have to pay.”

You may not think you do that,
but you do . . . because you’re human.
And if you’re anything like me,
the one to whom you do it most
is yourself.

This is what it means
to live according to the law.

The law is perfect, yes,
but you’ll break yourself on it
every single time.

Grace, on the other hand,
makes room,
invites,
forgives.

The law is a command,
but grace is a gift.

The law controls,
but grace sets you free.

Some might look at what Jesus does today
and say, “He’s too flippant!
He doesn’t care about the rules!”
But that’s not exactly true.
Jesus came not to abolish the law
but to fulfill it on our behalf. [4]
From now on,
thanks to him,
all is grace.

*     *     *

I’ve shared with many of you
my experience during sabbatical two years ago
when I went to live in silence for three months . . .
just me, Jesus, and my Labrador retriever.

One of the most important things that happened
took place on the very second day
when I was sitting outside
bedraggled with the weight of the world,
concerned about things at St. Anne’s
and wondering whether or not
we were getting it right,
doing all that God wanted,
and living up to the standards
I had so firmly planted in mind.

And right there on that second day
came a message from God
as clear as I’ve ever heard:

“Stop trying to make it all perfect.
Stop trying to make it all.
Stop trying to make it.
Stop trying.
Stop.”

It was like hearing those old words of Jesus
on that childhood chapel floor
all over again . . . for the very first time.

You see, the grace of the Sabbath—
the grace of God for me on that day,
and for you on this day,
and, really, for all of us every day—
is that we are not actually in charge,
and we are not the center of the universe.

Despite all the ways
we beat ourselves and others up
with the standards of the law
that we set in our heads,
Jesus is simply waiting
to feed us,
and to heal us,
and to say those words
we deep-down long to hear:
“Come to me,
all who labor and are heavy-laden,
and I will give you rest.”

In other words . . .

“Stop trying to make it all perfect,
and let me be in charge for once.”

Amen.

[1] Genesis 2:2-3
[2] Deuteronomy 5:12-15
[3]Book of Common Prayer. 131. (From Matthew 11:28-30)
[4] Matthew 5:17