By Pastor Leo E. Longan
There’s so much high beauty in the lessons this morning I hardly know where to begin.
The first words of the first lesson and the last words of the gospel are both set to glorious music in Handel’s MESSIAH: Rejoice greatly O daughter of Zion; Shout O daughter of Jerusalem; Behold thy king cometh unto thee. And: Come unto him, all ye that labor, Come unto him, ye that are heavy laden and he shall give thee rest. High beauty, as I say.
But perhaps the most beautiful thing on offer this morning is the Prayer of the Day, that little prayer we say as we prepare to hear the scripture every Sunday. It goes by in the whoosh; we hardly notice it. It’s just a ripple in the rhythm of the service.
But today’s prayer is really old and really beautiful. “O God, you have made us for thyself and our hearts are restless until we find our rest in thee.” Doesn’t that ring true to you? O God, it rings true to me. It takes us into the beating heart of today’s gospel.
At the risk of telling you more than you want to know: this prayer was written many hundreds of years ago by one of the greatest of the so-called Fathers of the Church, St. Augustine. Augustine had the honor of being bishop of a place in north Africa called Hippo. (When I die and go to heaven, maybe God will let me be titular bishop of Hippo) Augustine wrote a lot and he wrote beautifully. His writings rang down the centuries and profoundly shaped the inner life of the church. Luther was an Augustinian friar, and if ever there was a restless heart, it was Martin Luther. Luther certainly prayed this prayer.
“Thou has made us for thyself, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in thee.”
It takes us into the heart of today’s gospel. It is a gospel of restlessness.
Today, Jesus is restless about his mission. All through these passages we have read from Matthew’s gospel over these last weeks, Jesus has been commissioning and training his disciples for ministry. He gives them power, he gives them rules of behavior, he tells them what to expect if they fail. His expectations are high. Off they go to preach the gospel of the kingdom of God.
They were in for a rude awakening: they discovered that most people could care less what the preacher has to say. “To what shall I compare this generation” Jesus says, “You are like children sitting in the marketplace calling to one another. We piped for you but you did not dance, we wept and you did not mourn.” Not only do people not care about Jesus and his disciples have to say, but they get personal with the recreational complaining: “Look at him! He hangs out with sinners and he drinks with them. A glutton and a wine-bibber! Ha, ha.” Jesus notices that they complained about exactly the opposite behavior with John the Baptist. He learns what every pastor of every congregation knows well: complaining is a very popular team sport.
The other night I read a hilarious play called THE ACTOR’S NIGHTMARE; this situation in today’s gospel is the preacher’s nightmare. And it hurts. If you care about people, if you want to bless them and lead them to God, if you speak the truth and call them home and they don’t seem to care, it hurts. For myself, after doing this for 27 years I’m still waiting for it not to hurt.
I don’t know, but after burying a great Mother yesterday – Lois H. – it occurs to me that mothers will know what I’m talking about. Mothers are really engaged in the lives of those they love, they give their lives to protect and nurture and teach them, and therefore, eventually, they come to know what disappointment means. No one lives up to their mother’s hopes. (I certainly didn’t.) So it is with Jesus: he really loves the people he preaches to, he opens his heart to them, he proclaims God’s word to them. And today they disappoint him. He discovers that, like a mother, to be a preacher – to be the savior! – is to have a restless heart.
Where does this lead him? To the same place that restless–hearted mothers are led: to humble compassion and love. Compassion and love are the real high beauty of this day: “Come to me, all who labor and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” Jesus opens his arms and calls in, not the scoffers and complainers, but the needy and the suffering: Forget about the sermon; come first and be healed, be comforted, be loved. Bring your restless hearts to me; come and find your rest.
And so if your ears can hear teaching, I teach you this: live close to your need, whatever it is. Bring that need to Jesus. This is where Jesus comes to meet us; this is where God finds us. “Come to me, all who labor and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” We are restless until we find our rest in God. God is restless until we do.
As with our God, so with us: the heart of the church is a restless heart. We cannot be comfortable, as God is not comfortable, until all suffering is lifted and the circle in heaven is unbroken. The best expression I know of this Christian heart-restlessness is the beautiful prayer of my friend the Little Flower, St. Therese of Lisieux. I pray it every day: “O Lord, lead all souls to heaven, and let me be the last.” My happiness cannot be complete as long as anyone is suffering. Like a mother, God is restless until all her children are home.