Text: Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30
As many of you know, week before last I was in Puerto Rico for the American Baptist Biennial meeting. I was there to support our own George Reed as he received the distinguished Luke Mowbray Ecumenical Award and to represent Pullen at the Biennial meeting. (I pause here to say that watching George accept his award was a joy and I felt honored to know him.) Puerto Rico is a beautiful place. It’s blue-green ocean waters, the tropical greens, the deep vibrant red and orange hues of the flowers, and the bright happy colors of the buildings reminded me in many ways of my trips to Cuba. The only excursion I took from attending the Biennial was to El Yunque National Forest. El Yunque National Forest is located in northeastern Puerto Rico and is the only tropical rain forest in the United States National Forest System inventory. The rain forest contains hundreds of species of trees, orchids, plants, and a few animals. As you walk along the trails, you can hear the Coqui frogs and see large snails as they enjoy the moisture of the forest. The snails were my favorite. You also hear many birds singing as you walk the trails. And the waterfalls are magnificently breathtaking.
Most of my time in Puerto Rico, though, was spent attending the ABC Biennial. I will refrain this morning from sharing with you personal stories of reconnecting with old and new friends and simply say that within the first two hours of being there and speaking at a Statement of Concerns session, I was evangelized. It seems that at least one ABC pastor doesn’t think LGBT persons are fit to pastor churches. Nevertheless, with that early-on experience under my belt I proceeded. I must say that I thoroughly enjoyed many of the sessions I attended. I listened, I learned, I was inspired (especially by the Morehouse College Glee Club who sang at the Friday evening worship service) and I was challenged.
Like most denominations, the American Baptist Churches, USA is simply trying to survive as a denomination. Denominational loyalty and participation is at an all time low. In the last several years, leaders of the American Baptist Churches, USA have had to make hard decisions about the direction of American Baptists. They have sold denominational property, reduced denominational staff, re-evaluated ministries and programs, and voted on a new structure for the denomination, about which Roy Medley, General Secretary, says: “This new structure is the very best way for us to do mission and ministry together as the American Baptist family with the resources we have available.” It seems today that most churches and denominations are having to re-evaluate and re-structure based on the “resources we have available.”
One of my favorite speakers at the Biennial was Dr. Gary Nelson, President and CEO of Tyndale University College and Seminary in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Prior to 2010, Dr. Nelson served as General Secretary of the Canadian Baptist Ministries and as Vice-President of the Baptist World Alliance. In addition to these positions, after graduating from seminary, he served as pastor of several Baptist churches in Canada. I tell you his credentials simply to say that he knows about being Baptist and about Baptist life. What intrigued me about his speech was his honesty about where the church is today and what the church will need to do to remain relevant in the 21st century. Acknowledging that the churches in Canada sit empty, he asked questions like: “What kind of church do you want to be in this time? Not of some time past.” “Is the church of today a relevant place to have the discussion about God?” “Why do we think people should come to us instead of us going to them?” He made thoughtful statements like: “The church needs to re-introduce itself to the community in which it lives.” “In the church we want people to be like us instead of identifying with where they are.” “Churches must create nimble, flexible structures and keep things from institutionalizing.” And, “God goes before us. We join God along the way.”
Painting a picture of the institutional church as dying, if not already dead, one could have heard discouragement and despair in his questions and statements. But I didn’t. I heard hope and excitement. The question, “What kind of church do we want to be in this time?” implies that we get to decide what kind of church we want to be. “Is the church of today a relevant place to have the discussion about God?” extends to us an opportunity to say yes. The thought of how we might re-introduce ourselves to the community in which we live makes my heart leap. And I feel a tremendous sense of God’s grace when I hear the words, “God goes before us and we join God along the way.” In a time when the church is faced with re-evaluating and re-structuring based on the “resources available to us,” Dr. Nelson’s message was one of good news.
As I read Matthew’s words, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens…” I thought of the church, and specifically our church, and the questions Dr. Nelson asked. I wondered: What burdens are we carrying that we need to lay down in order to be the church God is calling us to be? What burdens do we need to lay down in order to discover the kind of church we want to be in this time? Not of some time past. What burdens do we need to lay down in order to be a place where all kinds of people can bring their most honest and authentic questions about God and faith without judgment? And what burdens do we need to lay down in order to create nimble, flexible structures and to keep things from institutionalizing?
When Matthew wrote the words, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens” he had in mind the burden of religious obligation imposed by the scribes and Pharisees, which he understood as a barrier to communion with God. Did you get that? The burden Matthew was speaking of was that of religious obligation imposed by religious institutions and religious people. Over and over in the gospels Jesus exposes those within the institution, the wise and the intelligent, as the ones who didn’t get it—“it” being his message of justice and peace, love and compassion, grace and forgiveness; his message of radical inclusiveness, of losing one’s life to find one’s life, of praying for one’s enemies. Who did get it? The little one’s—those without religious status, without power—the marginalized, the oppressed, the outcasts. Those who didn’t carry the burden of religious obligation or of power and privilege. Those who didn’t worry about what others would think of them if they ate with sinners or opened their church to undocumented immigrants or blessed the love of two men or two women. At the heart of Matthew 11 is the question, “Who gets it?” And the question for us today is, “Do we, as a church, get it? If we do, then the next question is, “What burdens do we, Pullen Memorial Baptist Church, need to lay down?
I will suggest two. First is the burden of the past. This church has had a profound Christian witness for social justice not only in Raleigh, or in Baptist life, or in North Carolina. Pullen’s witness for social justice reaches far beyond our city, our denomination, or our State. Everywhere I go, in this country and abroad, people of faith have heard of Pullen and the courageous actions we have taken as a church. But those courageous acts of the past will not sustain us if we are not taking risks for the sake of the gospel today, in this time in which we are living. Our past courageous acts of faith become a heavy burden if we are not engaging in courageous acts of faith for social justice today.
Second is the burden of the future. The kind of thinking that says, “When we get our debt paid off, then we can…or if we raise more money at budget time, then maybe…or when the Deacons create a mission statement, then… Living in the future is a heavy yoke that keeps us from seeing the richness and the blessings of today. Today, right now, this time in our history is all we have. Just several chapters earlier, in Matthew 6, Jesus reminds us, “Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own.”
The easy yoke of Jesus is not an invitation to a life of ease, but of deliverance from artificial burdens of human religion and religious obligations, which Matthew reminds us are barriers to God. Are we carrying burdens that are keeping us as a church from being the church today? Would Jesus consider us among those “who get it?” These questions are an invitation to challenge ourselves and trust the words, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.”
On July 3, 1776, John Adams wrote to his wife Abigail:
The second day of July, 1776, will be the most memorable epoch in the history of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival. It ought to be commemorated as the day of deliverance, by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty.
“Come to me, all you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest,” is also a declaration of independence and deliverance. Happy Independence Day!