Based on Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30
The church that does not judge.
I’ve been asking a lot of questions and doing a lot of listening the past month. I’ve been asking you to tell me your stories, both of your faith journey and of your experience with this church. In fact, that’s what we’ll continue to do at the Gaius Sessions that start this afternoon: tell our stories. Stories are powerful, for they convey a depth of meaning that mere facts cannot.
And when I hear your stories, when I hear your answers to my questions or your responses to my comments, when I hear what you have to say about this church, the phrase that keeps coming to mind for me is “the church that does not judge.”
The phrase comes to mind for me for one primary reason: many of you tell stories of feeling judged at other churches. Those stories certainly resonate with me, for that’s my story too: the church I grew up in, the church that raised me, was hugely judgmental. They had many rules to follow, and for a long time, I upheld those rules and was in their favor. But I watched others who slipped up, made some mistakes, and fell out of favor, ostracized by the congregation. That eventually happened to me, too, and it’s a big reason why I was away from the church for the better part of a decade. We who felt judged eventually left, and rightly so, having become socially outcasted.
And I’ve heard from even more of you how much you feel welcomed here, just as you are, how much you feel loved here, no matter who you are and no matter what your past holds. That’s another way of saying “the church that does not judge;” it’s the church that says in its very being, “come as you are.”
The church that does not judge. It’s a nice sentiment. It’s a great tag line. Some of you have noticed that I’ve even used it publicly: in an op-ed I wrote that ran in the local paper.
It’s also a phrase that dovetails nicely with Jesus’s words in our scripture this morning, “come to me, all you who are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.”
So hear now the greater context of those famous words of Jesus as we read together our scripture this morning, Matthew 11:16-19 and 25-30.
Indeed, the words of comfort and peace are very famous indeed, but they don’t seem to fit with the rest of our scripture this morning. All of the scripture that I read prior to those famous verses sounds judgmental, condemnatory, off-putting. To put it in modern terms, Jesus sounds judgy!
Here Jesus is, talking with a group of people, telling them how stupid they were for not recognizing John the Baptist as God’s messenger. How ignorant they are for not having understood Jesus as the one whom John the Baptist proclaimed.
Then, in the verses we skipped, he judges cities in their vicinity, condemning them and their inhabitants to Hades. And then, after all this condemnation and judgment, he turns in prayer and thanks God for hiding from the “wise and intelligent.”
After all this harsh talk, after all this judgment, Jesus issues the famous verses “come to me, my yoke is easy, my burden is light.”
That’s odd. It struck me as odd as I read the scripture. Come to me is famous, often quoted, so often inscribed on Christian knickknacks and greeting cards. In my previous readings of Matthew, I had somehow missed that it comes after all this harsh judgment and condemnation by Jesus. It’s an odd piece of scripture. The judgment and offer of rest don’t seem to go together.
We often want to run to these verses here at the end and treat them as facts. Come to Jesus and you won’t have heavy burdens. Come to Jesus and you’ll find rest. Come to Jesus, and you’ll discover your burdens lifted. These are the facts as Matthew appears to present them.
But life isn’t that way. Many of us, this very day, carry heavy burdens and seek rest. We’re weary from what we have to shoulder, we’re struggling with the yokes of life that drag us down and threaten to undo us.
And so we run to these verses, looking for release. We think that if we are faithful disciples, we do what Jesus wants us to do, if we keep up with the expectations Jesus has for us, we live a moral life, we come to church, that Jesus will give us the rest and peace and release we seek. Basically, we think that if we follow the rules, we’ll discover the peace and rest Jesus promises us here.
Those appear to be the facts, based on what we’ve read in our scripture this morning. Follow the rules of Christianity and reap the rewards; rewards such as peace and rest and an easy yoke.
That’s the story of much of Christianity in our modern lives. Follow the rules to live what it means to be a Christian. That means coming to church every week, that means tithing, that means living a moral life, that means witnessing to others, that means having daily prayers or a quiet time, that means not sinning, not lying, not being prideful, not having doubt, and that’s just a short list. We have many rules to follow, and so we seek to follow them in order to get the benefits Jesus offers, like rest and peace for the weary and heavy laden.
We follow the rules to get the rewards, OR, we give up. That’s what many in my generation have done. They see no purpose in following the rules. In fact, in their best judgment, the rules are their own burden. Keeping up with all the rules of Christianity forms its own heavy burden and hard yoke. There’s not reward enough in carrying the heavy burden and hard yoke of the rules of Christianity, so they reject the rules outright, deciding life is easier without all those rules.
OR, the rules are perceived as their own form of oppression. That’s what many who have left churches all across this country believe. When American adults were asked a few years ago to name their top impressions of Christians, they overwhelmingly gave three responses: judgmental, hypocritical, and anti-gay. Whether empirically true or not, this is the dominant story those outside the church have received: a story of judgment derived from a rule-based religion. Those outside the church see no reward because the rules have created punishment rather than reward.
But aren’t all these rules simply the way of things? The gospels lay down many dos and don’ts, they lay down many ways we are to be and not be. And on top of that, here in this Scripture and in many other places, Jesus is judgy! He’s casting down his judgment, telling them how ignorant they are, how stupid they are, how much wiser he is, thanking God that they don’t get it, that they don’t understand. Jesus appears to be the epitome of a judgmental person here. So isn’t that the example we should follow? An example of following the rules and judging those who don’t.
If so, doesn’t that mean that we’re wrong if we are, indeed, “the church that doesn’t judge?”
As is so often true with scripture, the story happening around the text, what we call the context, matters. That’s true in this moment as well.
The crowd to whom Jesus is speaking is a mix of pharisees and regular, everyday, people. The pharisees, the religious leaders of the Jewish people during Jesus’s day, are full of rules; they have tons of rules! You’ve probably heard some of the more famous ones: how many steps people could take during the day to keep the sabbath holy, for example. The pharisees love their rules and, even more so, they love enforcing the rules. Those everyday folks who break the rules are punished and, usually, made to be an example for others not to break the rules.
And there are a lot of rules, so it’s easy to break them. Very easy.
The everyday people are living under an oppressive regime, for if they don’t follow the rules of the Pharisees, they face severe punishment and even death. The people are carrying the heavy burden of these rules, they bear the hard yoke of needing to follow these rules in order to live in this society. They have no choice: they must follow the rules, but these rules weigh on them heavily and make them weary.
The pharisees enforce these oppressive rules because they believe that’s how they, and the people, will please God. They believe that’s what God requires of them. After all, they read the law contained in Leviticus and Deuteronomy, as we might read the four gospels, like a to-do manual: a list of dos and don’ts, a list of how to be and not to be. And they, as religious leaders, like pastors, are charged with the responsibility of the spiritual care of the people! So they have created rules so that the people can be holy, as God commands them to be, so that they can reap the rewards of God’s blessing because they will know God.
But that’s the chief charge Jesus has against the pharisees: they don’t know God. All their rules, all their enforcement of the rules, in order to know God and yet they missed completely that John the Baptist and Jesus are God’s messengers. In fact, they sought to undo the ministries of these two messengers, to prevent John and Jesus from being the witness they were designed to be for God.
And so Jesus stands in judgment of the pharisees. He’s saying, in words that sound odd to us but in words that would have made much sense to the pharisees, that their rules have failed them for they don’t know God. In fact, he says that the rules are the problem, for they are preventing the people from knowing God. And so he thanks God that the pharisees don’t get it, because it gives the opportunity for the people: the average, ordinary person, to know God personally.
And it’s at that moment that he turns to the people, in a rebuke of the pharisees, and says “come to me, all you who are weary and [burdened by all these rules], and I will give you rest.”
The crux of Jesus’s message, then, is this: knowing God is about relationship, not rules.
The pharisees had made religion about rules, not relationship, and thus they did not know God. They could not recognize God at work in their midst, even to the point of not recognizing that Jesus was God, in human flesh, standing before them!
The rules got in the way of relationship because knowing God is about having a relationship with Jesus, not following the rules.
To know rest, to know peace, to know the lifting of burdens and an easy yoke, is to stop trying to follow the rules, to instead simply seek relationship with Jesus.
Rules, then, are the problem. This may sound strange, for we grow up hearing that we’re supposed to be a moral person, that we’re supposed to do what Jesus tells us to do, that we’re supposed to have our quiet times, that we’re supposed to go to church, that we’re supposed to….I’m sure you can make your own list of all the things we’re supposed to do.
But Jesus’s point is clear: when we turn relationship with God into a rule book to follow, we destroy the relationship and we fail to know God.
Think about human relationships you have. Those that are life giving and fulfilling, those relationships you cherish most, don’t require following rules to maintain the relationship. The relationship simply exists because there’s love, there’s care and concern, there’s trust. But relationships where you’re constantly seeking to fulfill expectations, that require always doing certain things to keep the person happy; those relationships are not life-giving, they’re not relationships at all; rather, they’re chores.
When we decide to follow the rules, trying to do all the things we’re supposed to do as Christians, we make religion a chore, rather than a relationship.
Putting the rules before relationship is like putting the cart before the horse.
Living an exemplary life, doing the things Jesus asked us to do, having our quiet times, doing all the things we’re “supposed” to do as Christians: these are the byproducts of a relationship with God. They’re the things that come to us naturally when we’re first in loving relationship with God. They’re the consequences of being in love with God. They’re the cart.
The horse is relationship with God: simply loving God and experiencing God’s love in return. Jesus’s words here are an invitation: come to me, simply be in relationship with me, get to know me, experience my love and show me love in return; treat me as you would any cherished human relationship. Jesus has no requirement to follow the rules, no expectation that you will do certain things to earn the relationship; no, that’s how the pharisees acted. Jesus simply asks that we be in love with him.
That’s how we find the rest and peace our souls need: we simply seek relationship with Jesus. Religion, knowing God, is about relationship, not rules. We need to do nothing to discover the peace and rest our souls need except to come to Jesus, as we are, seeking loving relationship.
I hear Jesus speaking about relationship with us, and the love that Christ gives us, in the words of our great modern poet, Mumford and Sons:
Love, it will not betray you, dismay, nor enslave you
It will set you free
To be more like the [person] you were made to be.
There is a design, an alignment, a cry,
Of our hearts to see, the beauty of love
As it was made to be.
The design, the alignment, that fulfills the cry of our hearts is a divine-human relationship, accepting Christ’s love for us and giving love back to Christ in return. In that love, when we come to Jesus just as we are, saying we’re in need of him, is a love that will never betray, dismay, nor enslave us to the rules, but will set us free, for Christ’s yoke is easy and his burden is light.
That’s what it means to be the church that doesn’t judge. It means that we’re about fostering relationships between ourselves and God, not worried about whether we or those around us are following the rules. It means that, no matter what someone has done, no matter what someone believes, no matter their past nor their prospects for the future, no matter what, we give to others a love that will not betray, dismay, nor enslave others because that’s the love we’ve received from Christ; the beauty of God’s love as it was made to be.
“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” It’s an invitation from Christ to leave behind the rules, the obligations, the things that we think that we must do, to experience the beauty of love as it was meant to be: a love that sets us free to simply be who God has made us to be. Christ invites us to simply be who we are, for Christ loves us just as we are.
If today, you’re back at church after being gone for some time; if regular doesn’t characterize your church attendance, that’s ok. Hear me clearly, there’s no judgment from me and there never will be. The love of Christ that sets us free from the rules means that coming to church is not an obligation, but an invitation; one to which you are free to respond as often as you like.
And if today, you’ve been living Christianity by following the rules, I invite you to give up your rules. Simply ask Jesus to show you his love for you. Come to the altar rail this morning and tell Jesus you love him and you simply want relationship. You’ll discover an easier burden, a lighter load, and rest for your weary soul.
For what we do here, the practice of religion, is about relationship, not rules. It’s about invitation, not obligation. It’s an offer of love that will not betray, dismay, nor enslave, but will set us free.
When we know that, when that’s the basis of who we are, then we will spread the gospel faster than we could ever possibly imagine. We will tell a fresh story to the world: that we are not here to judge, but to invite, for we who have experienced the beauty of love as it was made to be simply desire that the world know that same love that will not betray, dismay, nor enslave, but will set us free.
For there is no judgment upon us except this: that we choose relationship over rules.
There is no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus. Experience the freedom that comes from knowing that Christ does not judge you, the freedom that comes from giving up your rules, to simply choose relationship with Christ, here, at the church that does not judge.
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.