Tuesday, July 10, 2007

A Sermon: "Irresistible Invitation"

This sermon is based on Matthew 11:28-30, and was preached several years ago around July 4. I've been thinking about it lately, especially in the light of the failure of any meaningful immigration reform in this country.

"This is the best place," says Martha Izaola. She's a native of Hondorus who has just become a citizen of the United States. When she came here, she had to leave most of her family members and friends behind -- and now this is her new home, the place she belongs and wants to take part. "I want to vote," says Khadijo Abdulle of Somalia. In two weeks she'll be taking an examination so that she too can be a citizen. She's been studying English and American history for the past year. It has been difficult, but she knows that her future is here, as an American, and not in Somalia, where her husband and a daughter were killed in the civil war. There's no looking back for her. This is her future. "I want to be buried in my own country." That's what Sigrid Bakke said when people asked her why, at 87 years old, she too was studying for citizenship. Her husband Nels became a citizen back in the 1930s -- but there was only enough money for one of them then. Finally, when she was 87, Sigrid's dream came true. She became an American.

When Sigrid and Nels arrived in the U.S., they probably entered through Ellis Island. Maybe they even saw the poem by Emma Lazarus inscribed at its base:

"Give me your tired, your poor,
your huddled masses yearning to breathe free
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore;
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

Like so many immigrants before and after them, they heard an invitation and they came. Perhaps the invitation came in the form of stories and letters from those who had come before them. Perhaps they had heard about the farmland waiting to be claimed. Perhaps they heard the promise of jobs here, a better wage. Perhaps they heard that here they would be free -- to worship, to work, to raise a family in the way they believed right. Then as now, immigrants have come here because they heard an invitation that was irresistible: "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free." It was irresistible because they knew it was an invitation to them. They knew they were the tired and they were the poor -- they had large families and no land to inherit -- or they couldn't find work -- or the work they could find paid a few cents a week. They were a part of those huddled masses yearning to breathe free -- to have a voice in a poltical system, to speak up and not be persecuted, to worship and not be oppressed. They heard the invitation and knew it was for them. Immigrants have found this invitation irresistible as well because they believed the stories they heard: they believed this was a land of liberty and opportunity. They heard about rich farmland, many jobs, even streets paved with gold. Sometimes reality betrayed their dreams, and still betrays their dreams. The dream of prosperity falls to the reality of unfarmable prairie, of 12 hour a day factory jobs, or flipping hamburgers at Burger King. Sometimes, due to illness or lack of proper papers, people were even turned away at the gate. But for most immigrants, the dream persists, even when reality sets in. They have heard an irresistible invitation, and they believe the dream: Liberty and justice for all.

The promise to immigrants: "Give me your tired, your poor..." sounds strikingly similar to another invitation -- another kind of invitation and irresistible in its own way. "Come to me, all you who are weary and are carrying heavy burdens," Jesus promises in the gospel today, "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." It is similar, first of all, because it is an invitation to the same sorts of people: "those who are tired, those who are poor, those who are carrying heavy burdens." It is an invitation to people who, for whatever reason, are dissatisfied where they are and want to be somewhere else. It is an invitation for immigrants looking for a place... or a person... of freedom. And it is irresistible for the same reasons: because in some way or another, we heard the invitation and believed that somehow it applied to us: "Poor, weary, carrying heavy burdens." That describes us -- and so we can't help but come. Perhaps we're burdened by too many obligations and the reality that there's no way we can do everything we're supposed to do. Perhaps we are burdened by past decisions that make it difficult to imagine future success. We're burdened by poverty or wealth, by the gap between who weare and who we would like to be. LIke immigrants who came here to be free, we have heard an invitation and say: "I'm the weary. That's for me."

During Lent, a Catholic church in Tulsa, Oklahoma ran an advertisement to invite people to "come home, to return to the church." The invitation in February extended a special welcome to "single, twice-divorced, under 30, gay, filthy rich, black and proud, poor as dirt, can't sing, no habla Ingles, married with pets, older than God, more Catholic than the Pope, workaholic, bad speller, screeaming babies, three-times divorced, passive-aggressive, obsessive-compulsive, tourists, seekers, doubters, bleeding hearts... oh, and you." "Come to me, all you who are weary..." and who isn't?, the ad seems to say. Which of us can honestly say that we aren't sometimes bond-tired, that wearen't carrying some kind of burden that we'd like to lose?

Just as the immigrants also heard the stories about the new land and believed them, so too we believed what we have seen and heard about Jesus. Then the invitation becomes truly irresistible. Some have heard the stories since they were babies, stories about the one who invites sinners to eat and drink, whose hands and whose words heal, the one whose arms are open, and in whose embrace there is life. Some have stumbled past churches where they have heard singing. Some have been fortunate to have friends to tell them about the place where burdens roll away, and about the person who bears those burdens. Writer Anne LaMott tells of how she became a Christian: she said that somehow, the people at this church loved her and accepted her, even when she felt messed up and confused. Sometimes she thought that believing in Jesus was the weirdest thing she could do. She was a isngle mother, tired and at the end of her rope, thinking these kinds of things. Then a man showed up from her church, and asked her, "What if a fairy godmother appeared on your doorstep and said that he or she would do any favor for you, anything you were too exhausted to do youself and too ashamed to ask for help with?" At first shedidn't want to tell him, but finally she admitted that it would be to clean the bathroom. So that is what he did. She said she felt guilty, watching him work -- but it made her feel sure of Christ again, of his love.

Yet there is one more similarity between the irresistible invitaiton to America and the irresistible invitaiton to Jesus: both are not without cost. With freedom comes responsibility. Those who are studying to be citizens here know this: they are struggling hard to learn a new language and a new history, which will become their history. And they long for the responsibilities of citizens: they know that to vote and be involved in improving their country is essential to remaining free. When Jesus invites us to himself, and removes our burdens, he also fits us with a new yoke. Notice that he says, "Take my yoke upon you and learn from me..." and he promises, "My yoke is easy, and my burden is light." This might seem odd to us. After all, a yoke is a symbol of slavery. When the Romans captured people, they were yoked as a sign of their subjugation to the powers of Rome. And even though Jesus promises that his burden is light -- how can a burden be light? The two words are a contradiction. With the rest that Jesus promises, there is still a yoke and still a burden -- but it will be a different yoke than we have worn before, and somehow the burden we bear will seem light. In other words, just as there is a responsibility involved in belonging to this country, there is responsibility involved in belonging to Jesus. It's not easy to be a citizen of the kingdom of heaven. It means that we belong to one another, that it's our responsibility to bear with one another, to love one another, even (and especially) when we aren't being so lovable. We can't turn out backs. It also means that we abelong to Jesus, and we go where he goes, and we associate with the kind of people he associates with. As Jesus went out to hurting people, to people in need of healing, we need to be found there too. That's what it means to be yoked with Jesus.

This is the responsibility of our most important citizenship. But Jesus promises that his yoke is easy, and his burden light. It is easy because every promise we have believed, every story we have heard about Jesus, is true. When Jesus invites us to his rest and to his yoke, we will not let us down. When Jesus forgives you, you are forgiven. As a nation we have not always lived up to our high ideals. We have not always been able to welcome all the tiredand the poor who have dreamed of coming here. But when Jesus says to us, "Come to me, all you who are weary and carrying heavy burdens..." he will always be as good as his word. In the embrace of his forgiving love, everything that keeps us down, that oppresses us, will roll away. At his gate, no one is too sick to be let in, and no one will be turned away for the lack of proper papers.

Finally, Jesus' yoke is easy and his burden is light simply because it means traveling with him. Wherever we go, through whatever difficulties, he shares the burdens with us, and he shares his life with us. Once a little girl asked her mother, "Will I have to do dishes in heaven?" Her mother replied: "yes....... but you'll like it." What a great answer! Simply because you are with Jesus, traveling with him, you know that whatever you do, you will share with him. And because you are traveling with Jesus, you know that wherever you go .. .you will share his abundant and eternal life. AMEN


Marsha said...

Some really good recent posts Diane. I find myself waiting for the next adventure in Scout's life and for the next installment of the four biblical Marys.

Just some quick notes on posts that I didn't get to comment on when they were written:

1. I love asparagus!

2. My friend Margaret was born in Japan and returned there two years ago with her mother and younger sister.

3. Your style of writing and your sermons sound very familiar and I am quite comfortable with your writings. Lutherans and Methodists seem to be much alike. Just out of curiosity, what is the distinction between the two denominations?

mompriest said...

Wow. I love how you align immigration, citizenship, responsibility to country with Jesus and this Gospel section with our love for neighbor with the yoke of Christ... Just excellent.

Diane said...

hmm, marsha, I'm not sure I have a pithy way of saying the difference between Methodists and Lutherans. I do think that historically Lutherans have emphasized adhering to a set of teachings "confessions" more, and Methodists have emphasized "piety" or religious practice. However, in practical terms, there are many points of similarity, as there is a range of practice among Lutherans as well as Methodists. I'm not sure this is helpful.

Katherine E. said...

I really like this sermon, Diane. The Mt. 11: 28-30 vs has been a meaningful one for me for a long time; I often use if for lectio divine in small groups and retreats. I loved the way you tied it to immigrants and "give me your tired, your poor." That's perfect. And the Catholic church in Tulsa's advertisement. Wow. If only my church could see the real power in that! (if only we ALL could, me included)


FranIAm said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
FranIAm said...

Diane- great sermon, really good weaving of themes with heart.

God bless you.

Grandmère Mimi said...

Fine sermon, Diane. I know that Jesus will always be faithful in following through on his promise, but I guess the words on the Statue of Liberty are no longer operative. Really, "your tired, your poor, your huddles masses...." is just too much to ask of the richest country in the world. Sad.