If ever you are in search of comfort, you can always go to the appropriately named “Comfortable Words” in the Book of Common Prayer. The Comfortable Words are the four verses from scripture found right after the confession and absolution in the Rite I version of Communion. They are called Comfortable Words because they are distillations of the gospel, and the gospel always delivers comfort. That is what the gospel does.
The Bible contains 66 books and a total of 31,102 verses. The architects of the Prayer Book chose 4 of those verses to be administered as gospel comfort. One is the well known John 3:16: “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten so, to the end that all that believe in him should not perish, but have eternal life.” Another is from one of John’s epistles: “If anyone sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and his is the perfect offering for our sins, and not for ours only, but for the sins of the whole world. A third verse comes from St. Paul: “This is a true saying and worthy of all to be received, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.” Notice that they all contain a message of comfort.
The 4th Comfortable Word, like a dose of medicine for those who are ill, is a verse found in today’s reading from Matthew. Jesus says, “Come unto me, all ye that travail and are heavy laden, and I will refresh you.” Or in a different translation, “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.”
I was first introduced to this verse as a teenager attending Young Life, a ministry designed for high school students. We sang a version of the verse: “Come unto me all who are weak, weary, and heavy laden. Gentle am I, humble in heart, and you shall find rest for your souls.”
As a 16 -year old boy, the last thing I wanted to be identified with was weak, weary, and heavy laden. 16-year old boys who are vying for popularity have a vested interest in being strong, confident, and light-hearted. And yet, sitting on the floor of someone’s living room, singing these lyrics next to some girl I had a crush on, but who probably did not have a crush on me, and some guy who I thought had it more together than I did, I found that I deeply resonated with the comfort administered by Jesus’ words. My guess is that you do too. Because everybody hurts, everybody is in need of comfort.
Too often the church adds to people’s burdens, rather than relieving them. That is the context of Jesus’ comfortable word this morning. The religious people are never satisfied. John the Baptist came on the scene as a kind of prophetic ascetic, and they churchy people accused him of demon possession. Lighten up, they said. Then Jesus arrived, eating barbequed ribs and drinking Heineken with party crowd, the same people denounced him too. Get serious, they said. Elsewhere Jesus says of the church leaders: “they tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders.”
Why would anyone want to walk through the doors of a church, already weighed down by the burdens of life, to have more burdens piled on? If someone is brave enough to come to church, only to be told to pray more, give more, do more justice, act better, be better, then why come to church at all? You can hear that same message on PBS: “Be More”, or Lowe’s: “Never Stop Improving”, or the Army: “Be All That You Can Be.” Now, I watch PBS – check out Grantchester -, occasionally buy something for the house at Lowe’s, and have respect for the men and women who serve in the military, but when I come to church I need a different message.
I hope that the message of the church would be what I experience at Blue Ribbon Flies. Blue Ribbon Flies is a fly-fishing shop in West Yellowstone, Montana. I go there on vacation every year; it’s my kind of vacation spot – no churches that I’m aware of and about 12 Fly Shops! We’ve been going to Blue Ribbon Flies for 10 years now, nearly each year. West Yellowstone is the mecca of trout fishing, and the people at Blue Ribbon flies love to help people catch fish.
Like the people at the Cheers Bar, they know my name now and seem happy to see me when I show up each June. I brought my 15-year old son with me for the first time this year and they were excited to meet him. The people who work at the shop always take as much time as you need to help you figure out where to fish, how to fish, what flies to fish with. They listen delightedly as you tell them about yesterday’s catch. Even though they are experts and the majority of people who come in the shop are like me – once a year hackers, they treat everyone as equals. They make you feel, well, comfortable.
It is the guides, though, who really impress me. We are fortunate to go on a float trip down the Madison River with a guide. Each boat has 2 fishermen – 1 in the front, 1 in the back, with the guide in the middle. The guide rigs up your rod, ties on your flies, helps you with your cast, shows you where to fish, nets the fish once you’ve caught it, and takes your picture with your fish so you can post it on social media and pretend that you are an experienced trout angler.
But that’s not all. Inevitably, the two fishermen will cross their rods, tangling their lines. Over and over and over again. Or lose a fly in a willow tree on the bank. The guide will kindly say, “Need some help with that?” and pull over to the side of the river to re-rig the rods. The guide will never say anything about fish you’ve missed due to a bad cast or a poor hook set. The guide will praise you when you land even the smallest fish. This goes on for 8 hours. And the guide brings your lunch for you. Inevitably, you leave a float feeling really, really good.
Even if you hate fishing and the thought of being on a boat for 8 hours makes you queasy, you know what I’m talking about. And I hope you have places in your life that operate in the same way. It would be wonderful if people had that kind of experience each time they came to church, but even the best churches will sometimes fail you. That is because churches are made up of people, and people, well, are…people.
That is why Jesus doesn’t say, “Come unto church, all who are weary and heavy laden.” He says, “Come unto me…and I will give you rest.” Jesus doesn’t give people an 8 fold path to master if we are to find rest and enlightenment. He doesn’t give us 5 pillars to rest through submission. He doesn’t give us a pithy pamphlet called “10 ways to maximize your rest and minimize your weariness.” He doesn’t give us a platitude like “cheer up and look on the bright side!”
Come unto me, He says. That’s all. There is a reason He is called the friend of Sinners. Like the old hymn says, “What a friend we have in Jesus, all our sins and grief to bear…Are you weak and heavy laden, cumbered with a load of prayer/ Precious savior still our refuge/ Take it to the Lord in prayer.”
I heard a striking illustration of Jesus’ comfort and rest the other day. A friend made a visit to the emergency room to get some stitches. She was at the river and was putting huge blue crab into her pot to cook. The big Jimmy took issue with being boiled alive and grabbed hold her on the finger. After exacting revenge on the crab with some beer and Old Bay, she went to the E.R.
She encountered a scene. A young woman had been beaten up so badly that her face was swollen nearly beyond recognition. Family members started pouring in the ER with stories of how it happened and who did it. The noise level and tension level escalated. Threats and promises of revenge ensued – an eye for an eye and maybe even worse.
At the peak of the fever pitch, an uncle stood up and called for everyone’s attention. He said revenge is not God’s way and it will only make things worse. He said that he was grateful that his niece wasn’t killed and that the doctors and nurses were working to heal her. He said they needed to take this situation to the Lord. So he gathered the family together and prayed. He prayed for his niece, for the doctors and nurses, for his angry family members. He prayed for the people who had committed this terrible crime. He prayed for forgiveness. He prayed for peace. He prayed for rest. After his prayer, the family settled down, resting in God’s comfort.
Come unto me, all you who are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. And the gospel comfort is this: even if you can’t come to Him, He will come to you. For, remember, God so loved the world that He gave His only Son.