St. John's Uniting Church Wahroonga

A weedy, yeasty, precious thing

1 Kings 3:5-12 | Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
Ben Myers, author of the deservedly popular blog “Faith and Theology” wrote recently that preaching on parables is like trying to explain a joke: no matter how well you do it, it’s not the same as getting it. He went on to give ten rules for preachers tackling the parables. A few of them seemed particularly relevant as we continue to explore the parables in Matthew’s gospel today:

If you feel perfectly confident and untroubled while expounding the parable, you’re probably doing it wrong.

If Jesus seems more like a headmaster giving orders than like a comedian cracking jokes, you’re probably doing it wrong.

Finally, if you’ve preached a lousy sermon, just remember: as long as the parable was read aloud before you started, it won’t be a total loss.

So with those rules in mind, we come to a whole set of mini bite-sized parables; sort of parablettes, really; clustered together, speaking of the kingdom of God.

But before we look at them, we jump back a thousand years, to the story of King Solomon. Solomon, of course, was famous for his great wisdom; less famous for the fact that he is reported as having seven hundred wives, which, honestly, doesn’t sound all that wise to me.

But then again, Solomon only asked God for wisdom “to govern God’s people” – perhaps he didn’t get the sort of wisdom that tells you that if one wife is good, seven hundred wives is not seven hundred times better.
But I digress…

Solomon asked for wisdom to rule well. Now he was a man already well versed in the law of Moses; he knew the rules – wasn’t, perhaps, always good at keeping them, but he knew them. His request therefore reveals his recognition, his understanding, that just knowing the rules wasn’t enough: that there was more to living well, ruling well, than a list of instructions, a set of propositions.

And so in Hebrew culture, the wisdom tradition emerges. And it is – as Ben Myers hinted at – a tradition heavily couched in humour. From the cutting sarcasm of the book of proverbs, to the modern day – Jewish wisdom has been wrapped in humour, to the extent that an estimated 80% of professional comedians in the united states are Jewish.

And the nature of wisdom literature, like the nature of truth wrapped in humour, is not to tell you the answer, not to tell you what to think, but to poke you, disturb you, put you off balance, so that the truth, as the poet Alice Osborn puts it, sneaks up on you sideways.

Rules give you the answer, tell you what to do. Which is great, when that’s what you need. But rules are not wisdom. At best, they are wisdom distilled for a particular situation.

Wisdom is heuristic, poetic, humourous, fuzzy.

Which is why, when we read the parables told by the rabbi Jesus we would do well not to get hung up on working them out and nailing them down.

It’s the vibe of the thing….

So I’m not going to try to tell you what the parables mean. That would pretty fundamentally miss the point. All I can do is try to add some thoughts to the mix, throw in the odd reflection, and trust that you were listening when the words were read to us.
First, then, two parables about the growth, spread, impact, if you will, of the Kingdom. Both the mustard seed and the yeast speak of something which starts small – as, clearly, the kingdom of God that Jesus proclaimed did – but which, in the case of the yeast, spreads out to have an effect on the flour far beyond it’s original size. And of course yeast works its magic by growing, multiplying – making more yeast – but at the same time, the flour remains flour. Yeast in flour doesn’t turn the flour into yeast – it turns unleavened flour into leavened flour. It changes the environment around it not by changing everything to be like itself, but by a much more subtle influence that takes the plain flour and enhances it, makes it into something better.

And the mustard seed – well, this is a bit strange,. Why a mustard seed? It isn’t the smallest of seeds – though it is small – and it doesn’t grow into the biggest tree. And worse than that – in first century Palestine, no-one in their right mind would plant a mustard seed in their field. The mustard shrub was a weed, something a farmer would rip up given the chance, but which spread into a chaotic mess and resisted efforts to remove it. It’s not something you planted; but it was something that grew, unruly, unpredictably, and stayed around however hard you tried to get rid of it.

And yes, it provided shelter for all the birds of the air: perhaps even those pesky birds that stole away the seed in the parable of the sower.

But see the image, and wonder about it: not for Jesus’ kingdom, the image of the tall, straight oak tree. Instead, the invasive, messy, scraggly weed…

And then, two parables about value. Actually, it’s very nearly the same parable twice: the treasure so valuable that one would give everything – all their riches – just to possess it. The only difference between the stories is that in one case someone just stumbles across the treasure unexpectedly; and in the other the merchant searches all his life to find this one thing.
I wonder which of those – if either – is your experience of the kingdom? Found by accident? Searched out? Or perhaps neither.
And I wonder too, as I read the story of the great pearl, what happens next? What does the merchant do when he has sold everything to possess this one pearl? What does he eat? Where does he live? The story is ludicrous; deliberately ludicrous. Surely there was a smile on Jesus’ face, as he described the ridiculous extravagance of those who discovered the kingdom.
And yet at the same time, how much was this kingdom worth, that almost all of the original twelve disciples – and many others – would die because of their passionate commitment to sharing it, spreading this yeasty, weedy, treasure?

And then, the last parable, the fish in the net, which, like the wheat and the weeds from last week, comes with a sting in its tail. The kingdom catches both the good fish and the bad, the wanted and the rejected; and in the end, there is a judgement.
It’s a theme most strongly found in Matthew’s gospel, the idea that there is a time of reckoning. And it’s a theme we prefer to avoid, leaving talk of judgement to those of more fundamentalist expressions of the faith.

But, as I’ve said from this place before, as we look around our world, at the conflict and mindless acts of terror; or at the abuses of power and position emerging each week in the royal commission on child abuse; or at the systematic injustices which leave so many in our world in abject poverty; or at the simple acts of mindless harm we see in the news – or in our lives; when we truly look at the world, we cannot deny the reality of evil. And indeed, even when we look honestly at ourselves, we are forced to the same conclusion.

And so we should not be afraid to speak of God as judge: not, perhaps, in the sense of the one who will punish, but in the sense of the one who will, finally, judge rightly, declare what is good and pure and worthy, and cast out what is not.
And Jesus asked “Have you understood all this?”. And they answered “yes”.

Perhaps they were comedians too.


Wondabyne Station to Kariong Brook waterfall Saturday 23rd August, 2014

Sadly, we have to cancel this walk in May because track work prevented us getting to the start point at Wondabyne railway station, the only railway station in Australia which has no road access. This time for sure!

The tranquil and beautiful Kariong Brook falls and waterhole are a wonderful surprise for walkers along the Great North Walk in  the Brisbane Waters National Park.  This 8.1km walk is rated hard and should take 3-3½ hrs. The initial climb out of Wondabyne Station is quite steep as is the descent to the falls, and there is the occasional short steep hill along the rest of the route. However, it’s suitable for novice walkers of reasonable fitness.

For more details see 2014 Walk 7 (Wondabyne to Kariong Brook Falls) flyer.

To register for the walk, or to get more information, contact Kit Craig at or on 0411 507 422.

Kalkari & Birrawanna Loop Track, Saturday 16th August, 2014

The very first Cartophiles’ bushwalk was along the 5.1 km Kalkari and Birrawanna Loop Tracks circuit in the Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park in April, 2010.  It’s been far too long, so we’ll repeat it as the Cartophiles’ next day walk.

This is an easy walk although there is a short but steep climb up from Bobbin Head.   However,  we’ve allowed time for lots of stops as well as lunch at the picnic area at Bobbin Head.   This walk is suitable for novices and children.

For more details see 2014 Walk 6 (Kalkari & Birrawanna Loop flyer).

To register for the walk, or to get more information, contact Kit Craig at or on 0411 507 422.

The Old Great North Road, 19/20 June, 2014

This was our second overnight walk for the year, and the cold weather clearly frightened a number of people off.

Regular day walk Cartophile Tim took on his first overnighter with Adam and Kit, an all boys jaunt along the historic Great North Road, built using convict labour between 1826 and 1836. It was a terrific walk along well-defined track all the way, although calling some stretches ‘road’ required a lot of imagination.  The only other walkers we saw were day trippers doing one of the many circuits, but we did encounter LOTS of cyclists.

Tim (with his back to us) and Adam (obscured) look over the impressive retaining wall on Devine's Hill

Tim (with his back to us) and Adam (obscured) look over the impressive retaining wall on Devine’s Hill

We drove together to Wisemans Ferry and over the river drove the 500m or so to the start of the walk, a well signposted gate.  After loading ourselves up we headed up the long slow two-kilometre climb of Devine’s Hill.  This route was originally selected by surveyor general Sir Thomas Mitchell instead of the original, much steeper, Finch’s Line.  The road is in wonderful condition through here and the 12-metre-high buttressed retaining walls and elaborate drainage systems were very impressive pieces of engineering.  Over 500 convicts, many in irons, constructed this part of the road which was completed in 1832, and after nearly two centuries it is solid enough for cars to drive on.

We passed the old quarry site and the eerily-named Hangman’s Cave, which the accompanying sign said was probably actually a blasting powder storage facility.  As we were looking at this a cyclist stopped to chat with us.  One of his ancestors had worked on the road, which he said was, at the time of its construction, the largest engineering project in the world.  We all felt that was probably a bit of hyperbole, but had enough cache to be worth considering.

At the top of the hill we walked along a flat, easy trail, past the turn off to Finch’s Line and out into the wilds.  The road soon deteriorated into a single line track, although the original edges were still visible and we saw some large and solid retaining walls.  The NPWS has surfaced over the original cobblestone surface with gravel on a layer of anti-erosion fabric to preserve the old surface.  In a couple of places the original cobblestone is exposed so tourists can see what it was like.

The weather had been delightful; cool, but sunny with just a gentle breeze.  We joyfully scoffed at those who had held for fear of bad weather.  We stopped for afternoon tea after about 10km where the old road intersects with a service road (the Western Commission Track).  As we were brewing up an enormous bank of dark cloud rolled over us and light rain began to fall.  The temperature plummeted and we thought we were in for a drenching.  We quickly packed up and headed off ata pace to cover the last 3km to our campsite.  As easy downhill slope on a firm surface took us past an old pine plantation and the buildings of the Wat Budda Darma bush retreat.  When we reached the Ten Mile Hollow camping area the wind was blowing strongly but there had been no more rain and the clouds had mostly passed.

Tim enjoys a glass of wine and some salami by the fire, Kit in the background

Tim enjoys a glass of wine and some salami by the fire, Kit in the background

We pitched camp, lit a fire and broke out some refreshments to celebrate a great day’s walk.  Although the wind was cold we were comfortable in our tents and had a good sleep.  We had stayed at the Ten Mile Hollow camping area at the end of November last year when the Cartophiles walked in from the other direction.  It’s a great little campsite with a new composting toilet, water tank and a really well set up fire circle.

We woke the next day and realised the wind had kept our tents dry of condensation.  Fantastic!  It made packing up so much easier.  It was, however, very cold, so we lit the fire again to have breakfast.

We were retracing our steps today and we knew the route was easy going with good footing most of the way, so we had a very leisurely breakfast as we struck camp.  We hit the track at about 9.00am and made terrific time all the way.  Tim had been very nervous about how he’d cope with the second day, especially in the pack he’d borrowed from James, but he sailed through.  We had morning tea at one of the sections of exposed cobblestones and without trying hard were at the top of Devine’s Hill again just before lunch time.  It was such an easy finish from there that we agreed that we’d be far better off experiencing the historic ambiance of the Wisemans Ferry Inn for lunch that sitting by the side of the road.  So we did.

This is a generally easy walk with some moderate sections.  We’ll repeat it sometime as it would also made a great overnight walk for beginners.

The Cartophiles next walk is an easy half day on Saturday, 16th August when we’ll walk the 5.1 km Kalkari & Birrawanna Loop Track in the Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park.  That will be followed on Saturday, 23rd August when to do the rescheduled 8.1 km Wondabyne Station to Kariong Brook waterfall walk in the Brisbane Waters National Park.

Adam helping Tim adjust his pack

Adam helping Tim adjust his pack


Kit and Tim stride out on the way back

Kit and Tim stride out on the way back

Tim and Kit at the end of the hike, looking forward to a pub lunch

Tim and Kit at the end of the hike, looking forward to a pub lunch


Wheat and/or Weed…

Genesis 28:10-19a | Matthew 13:24-30
A few months ago I was walking back to my cark in the car park at the Westfield shops in Hornsby when I saw a driver cut the wrong way through a junction, and a drive against the one way system to take a short cut to a vacant space. I wasn’t close enough to be in danger, and there weren’t any other cars involved, but I fumed all the way back to my car – “what sort of idiot drives like that? what, he doesn’t think the rules apply to him?”. It was only as I loaded the groceries into the back of my car that I realised the truth: that just an hour earlier, when I had arrived at the shops, I had made exactly the same manoeuvre.

Of course, the difference was, when I did it, I checked and double checked that it was safe. I was a careful driver, finding a creative solution to the problem of traffic flow within a constrained space – he was a careless idiot thinking only of his own selfish hurry.

It’s such a common mode of thought that psychologists have a name for it “fundamental attribution error”. The term describes the way that when we see others behaving badly, we attribute it to a flaw in their character – to internal factors; but when reflecting on our own faults, we tend to explain them in terms the circumstances we found ourselves in – external factors. Or, to put it another way: we read the faults or failings of others as ethical failings, but ours as circumstancial, excusable, unintended.

So we would be wise to hear Jane West’s advice in The Loyalists: “Let us not attribute to malice and cruelty what may be referred to less criminal motives. Do we not often afflict others undesignedly, and, from mere carelessness, neglect to relieve distress?

Or more concisely, Hanlon’s razor “Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity

How often do we look at the parables of Jesus and see ourselves (in the good bits) and others (in the bad). In the parable of sower, last week, it’s so hard to hear that story and not immediately identify ourselves with the good soil: the ones who have heard Jesus’ words, received them, live them. Or at least, we try to live them – of course we fail, but unlike others, at least we try… our faults are errors, mistakes, weakness, even: others fail because they don’t really try.

And again in today’s reading; we hear the story of the wheat and the weeds, and assume that we are the wheat. We focus on what we assume is the good characteristic and apply it to ourselves.

And I think it’s this tendency that leads to leads to the most common misreading – or perhaps, rather, incomplete reading – of this parable. Any half decent commentary will tell you that the word Jesus used to describe the weeds in this parable is a very particular type of weed: a weed that looks very much like wheat as it grows.

So, since we know that we are wheat, we hear these words, and they say to us: don’t be in too much of a hurry to try to judge those around you. It’s too hard to tell if someone else is good or bad; you need to leave it to God.

And sure, that’s good advice, as far as it goes.

But in the parable, the workers in the field clearly did know the difference between the wheat and the weeds – they were the ones who told the owner that the weeds were there!

We have to go further than that.

Jesus has, as we’ve heard again and again as we’ve read through Matthew’s gospel, been preaching the good news of the Kingdom of Heaven. And this parable, like many of those to come, begins “the kingdom of heaven is like….”. The parables are there to tell us something about the kingdom, to teach us something about the kingdom.

And in the case of this parable, it seems as if the fundamental point is: in the kingdom of heaven, there is both good and evil. Wheat and weeds.

And to get that, we have to first of all get past the idea that when Jesus speaks of the Kingdom, he’s talking about some future beyond death. Of course, he does speak our future beyond death, of the many rooms in his Father’s home: but that isn’t the Kingdom of Heaven – or rather, the kingdom of heaven is much more than that.

The Kingdom of Heaven is “at hand”. “The time is coming, and has now come”. And we are its messengers, its ambassadors, its citizens. But that kingdom, that present reality here on earth, is a mixture of good and bad, of beauty and ugliness, of welcoming and rejection, of justice and selfishness: just as the world itself is. We’d like to think that the Kingdom is better than the world as a whole, and it might well be so – but, as any honest assessment would admit, it is far from perfect.

And so the parable raises the question: why is this so? If this Kingdom is the Kingdom of God, the Kingdom of heaven, why does God allow evil to remain?

Why not pull out the weeds? Because, the master says, in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat as well. Not might uproot: would uproot.

And why? Because, as Alexander Solzhenitsyn famously observed (I seem to be in a quoty sort of mood this morning):
the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either — but right through every human heart — and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of all hearts, there remains … an unuprooted small corner of evil.

Even when we are under the thrall of Fundamental Attribution Error, I guess most of us will admit to this: that the line separating good from evil passes through us, not beside us. And perhaps, with only a little more thought, we would also admit that the same is true for all others.

And so you cannot take out the evildoers and leave the wheat: for we are all divided, we are all wheat and weed, saint and sinner, made in God’s image and fallen from that image. And the wheat and weeds in us, grow together, as the master in the parable says; the line through our hearts moves, oscillates with the years. And God is patient, would rather wait, giving us chance after chance, opportunity after opportunity, fresh start after fresh start, in the hope that over the years that line will move in the right direction; that we will become more and more Christlike, that there will be more wheat, and less weed within us.

And of course, if God offers that patience to us; how can we not offer it to others? Grant them the same generosity God give us, and we give ourselves?

For it is our prayer, our hope, and the work of God’s Holy Spirit, that as we live as God’s people and as citizens of God’s Kingdom, we will come closer to the character of God – even if we start a long way off – and today’s parable challenges us to give that same space, that same time, that same grace, to others, too.


A chance to hear John Lennox

Professor John Lennox, of Oxford University, is a leading speaker and thinker in the area of science and religion. He’s engaged in public debates with Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins (look on youtube…), and is coming to “Cosmic Chemistry” as Sydney Town Hall on Monday August 25th (7pm – 9pm). Find out more, or book online at

Cold Playjays Morning…

As we were chatting just before Playjays this morning, we agreed that the bitterly cold wind would probably keep numbers down. We could not possibly have been more wrong. The biggest Playjays ever saw 47 children and their parents and carers – around 80 people in all – squeezing into the lower hall (it really was too cold to play outside!), including 11 children for whom it was their first time! A great time was had by newcomers and old timers alike, and we look forward to having some warmer weather so we can spread out into the courtyard next week!

Seeds of confusion

Genesis 25:19-34 | Matthew 13:1-9
Following through Matthew’s gospel, chapters 12 and 13 mark a key moment in the story. In the opening chapters we have the birth of Jesus, his baptism and temptation; the calling of the first disciples and the start of his ministry, proclaiming the good news that the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.
Then we had the sermon on the mount; a block of teaching, describing the life of the kingdom, the upside down rules, loving your enemy, going the extra mile, doing to other as you would have them do to you. By this point, Jesus is speaking to crowds – word of his teaching has spread, and many come to hear.

After the sermon on the mount, chapters 8 and 9 describe a number of healings, which serve to further increase Jesus’ fame and popularity, to increase further the number of people wanting to hear him speak, and so in Chapter 10 we have the 12 disciples sent out to spread the word more widely.
To this point, the story of Jesus’ ministry is basically forwards all the way, growing spreading, reaching more and more people, welcomed by those who heard.

But in Chapter 12, we start to get the first hint of opposition – as I mentioned last week, stories of the Pharisees starting to be critical of Jesus and his disciples; challenging them for picking and eating corn on the Sabbath, and then attacking Jesus for healing a man on the Sabbath. And Jesus’ answer “the son of man is the Lord of the Sabbath” isn’t exactly one designed to calm them down. The whole chapter is about opposition, argument. And then at the end of Chapter 12, Jesus family show up, trying to take him home.

You get the sense that Jesus’ ministry which, up to this point, had been popular but generally uncontroversial, has suddenly reached some sort of tipping point; attracted the attention of those who have influence; and that attention is not all favourable.

And so Chapter 13 begins “Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the lake”. Perhaps he needed a break. Perhaps he needed to think. For the first time, his message was being met with concerted, organised, opposition. But if he wanted time to himself, it didn’t happen. Such a crowd gathered that he had to take a boat out on the lake to speak. And when he spoke, he spoke, for the first time in Matthew’s gospel, in parables.

I guess we’re so used to hearing the parables of Jesus that it’s easy to miss the change: up until this point in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus’ teaching has been plain: difficult, for sure, controversial, perhaps, but plain language. But now he changes style, and teaches in parables.

Now if someone were to ask my “why did Jesus use parables in his teaching?”, I guess two main reasons would come to my mind. Firstly, as any good teacher knows well, when we discover something for ourselves, it is far more significant and memorable than when we are just told the answer – so the wrapping of eternal truth in a parable, by making it a little harder to see and understand, makes it more likely that those willing to make the effort to seek will internalise what they find.

And secondly, stories can speak truths about the human nature in a way that simple propositions cannot: as has been very truly said, if you want to learn about people, a good novel will teach far more than a psychology text…

But when the disciples ask Jesus why he teaches in parables, as they do in the very next verse, he doesn’t give either of these answers. His answer, instead, is both cryptic and disturbing. Let me read the next few verses of Matthew 13:

Then the disciples came and asked him, ‘Why do you speak to them in parables?’ He answered, ‘To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. For to those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. The reason I speak to them in parables is that “seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand.”

It’s a strange reply, more cryptic in itself than the parable was. But the message seems to be that part of the purpose of parables is that some who hear will not understand: seeing they will not perceive, hearing they do not listen, nor understand… And Jesus continues by quoting the prophet Isaiah:

“You will indeed listen, but never understand,
and you will indeed look, but never perceive.
For this people’s heart has grown dull,
and their ears are hard of hearing,
and they have shut their eyes;
so that they might not look with their eyes,
and listen with their ears,
and understand with their heart and turn—
and I would heal them.”

By speaking in parables, Jesus tells his followers, the prophecy is fulfilled: the truth will be hidden.

But not from all; not from them. The truth is hidden from those who have shut their eyes, chosen not to hear, those who have chosen not to receive the secrets of the kingdom, who will listen but not hear, look but not see.

Now think back to the parable itself, and something else emerges: The parable, as Jesus will go on to explain it, is all about the way that people respond to hearing the word of God, the good news of the Kingdom of Heaven. The meaning of the parable is exactly the same as the reason Jesus gives for using parables: that different people, hearing the same words, can end up with very different outcomes.

In other words, in this, Jesus’ first parable in Matthew’s gospel, he’s actually describing the effect that parables have. It is a parable about hearing parables.

So as, over the next few weeks, we hear more of Jesus’ parables of the Kingdom, we need to keep the sower and the seed – and the soil – in mind.

For some will always be the path – they won’t even notice the seed, won’t take the trouble to listen, to hear what Jesus has to say.

And others will respond with enthusiasm but no depth, and no perseverance; they’ll hear, and they’ll get it, but it won’t last. Come hardship, they’ll decide the words of Jesus are too hard to live by.

Others will also initially respond to Jesus’ teaching, but for them the words will be driven out by other alternatives; by temptation, by opportunity; Jesus’ way will be rejected simply because it is inconvenient, it gets in the way.

And of course, this is exactly what happened in the ministry of Jesus – many heard him speak, some walked away, some followed for a while, some left when the going got tough.

But some – perhaps not many – but enough – heard, took it in, and chose to stick with the way of the kingdom.

And those were the ones who made a difference.

All of which is to say: be good soil. As we explore the parables of Jesus and the teaching of the kingdom, don’t just listen: hear. And I don’t mean “hear me” – I wouldn’t dare to so presume. I mean hear the voice of God, the creative, empowering, challenging, correcting, living word of God as we read the scriptures and reflect upon them. Take the time, the trouble, to listen for God. And act upon what you hear: don’t be the man who, as James described it, looks in the mirror and then forgets what he looks like – take what you hear, what you learn, and do something with it. Put it into practice.

And then stick with it. Even if it gets hard, even if newer and shinier alternatives present themselves.

Be bountiful. You will grow a great harvest for the kingdom of God.


Heavy burdens

Psalm 145:8-14 | Matthew 11:25-30
Our gospel reading today brings us another of those well known, often quoted texts; the sort of thing that gets printed in greeting cards and on religious posters and calendars. And for good reason, too; “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest” is a great promise, a word of reassurance, of comfort, that we so need to hear in a world full of burdens, full of weary people.

And yet I wonder if we sometimes manage to read both too much and too little into these words; if we take away a message which is only superficially comforting, and miss the real offer that Jesus is holding out to us.

Because as anyone who has striven to live the Christian life; committed themselves to living as part of the kingdom of God; and persevered for any length of time knows all too well, it isn’t all easy, all comfort, all rest. The truth is that, though there are times when God’s spirit in our lives and God’s people around us do lift our heavy loads for us, times when we do find rest in the comfort of our faith and our community; there are other times when it just aint so.

And there is plenty in the gospels which tells us that it won’t be so: “foxes have holes and birds have nests, but the son of man has nowhere to lay his head” “if anyone would follow me, he must take up his cross daily” “if they persecuted me, they will also persecute you”. And we know that for those who chose to become followers of the way, life was anything but easy – persecution, discrimination, rejection, and even martyrdom were the daily fare of the early Church.

So if Jesus told his followers clearly enough that being his people would not be easy, not be safe, and not be comfortable, what is it that he is offering here, promising here, in words which seem to say exactly the opposite?

What are the heavy burdens that Jesus is talking about?

There’s actually only one other place in the gospels where Jesus uses that phrase, the image of someone carrying a heavy burden. And that is when he speaks of the scribes and the pharisees: “They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others”. And from all we know of Jesus’ words about the pharisees, what he’s talking about is the proliferation of religious laws; details of tithing, of sacrifices, of food laws and sabbath laws. The heavy burdens placed on people’s shoulders by the pharisees were not the natural hardships of life, of making ends meet, of dealing with health and work, drought and flood: no-one could blame the pharisees for those things! The burdens that the pharisees added to all that life already threw at the people were the burdens of religious duty.

And if we read on, the very next story, in Matthew chapter 12, gives us a beautiful illustration of just this:

At that time Jesus went through the cornfields on the sabbath; his disciples were hungry, and they began to pluck heads of grain and to eat. When the Pharisees saw it, they said to him, ‘Look, your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the sabbath.’

The sabbath law was an important part of first century Jewish culture; but in this attitude, the pharisees took a gift – a day of rest – and turned it into a burden. Did they really believe that the commandment “on that day you shall do no work” was intended to rule out plucking corn to eat as you walked through the fields?

If you hear Jesus’ words again, but with that image now in your mind, they take on a rather different – and rather more pointed – aspect. You who have had so many religious rules and laws and requirements laid upon you that you can no longer carry the load: come to me, take my yoke, for it is light. I will not weigh you down with such rules.

What the pharisees had done was, sadly, simple human nature. The whole of the law, the Torah, the way of life to which God’s people had been called, was meant to be life giving, blessing, freeing; it was meant to describe a quality of relationships, a sense of justice, a holy reverence, a culture of reconciliation; and yes, there were laws, rules, to govern that society, to give shape and description to what it meant to be God’s, but they were never the point, the laws were a means to an end; the sabbath, as Jesus said, was made for people, not people for the sabbath.

But it’s always easier to look at the rules, the black-and-white: easier, because it allows us to draw lines, to decide who is in and who is out. Rules enable us to include and exclude, to say who we are, and by implication, who is not us.

But even when we are not using rules to decide who is in or out, we still like them, still find security in them; rules give us a sense of control, a way of measuring how we are doing.

And so we too make rules for our faith. That you’ll come to Church, at least most Sundays. That you’ll put something suitable in the offering plate (or make sure it’s covered by direct giving). That you’ll read the Bible and pray each day – or each week. That you’ll come along and support things the Church is doing. That you’ll put your name down on the rosters.

And none of those are bad things! It’s not that these rules in our faith are harmful. God gave the law to the people of Israel, because they needed it.

The problem is not with rules per-se, but with two dangers that seem to be always there alongside the rules.

The first is the temptation to impose our rules on others. When we feel we have the right to tell others (either directly, or more likely, in our approval or dissaproval, acceptance or rejection, of the choices they make) – when we tell other that if they are ‘true’ Christians, this is how they must worship, this is how they must organise their families, this is who they may or may not fall in love with, this is what they should think, or say, or vote. This is not to advocate anarchy, every community needs to have its rules, its limits; but whenever we do impose a rule on our community of faith, we must know that we place a burden upon others, and that there is the risk it will be too heavy to bear.

But the greater danger, I believe, is the second: that we mistake the rules for the reality. That we think or feel that as long as we are keeping the rules of “Good christian living”, we are living the lives Jesus called us to.

The pharisees were very good at keeping the rules – later on in the gospel, Jesus will berate them: “woe to you, you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness”.

What we do is make things that should be easy, hard, and things that should be hard, too easy. We take rules which were supposed to be there to help us, and we make of them heavy burdens for ourselves and others; and then we have no energy left to lift the real heavy loads of our faith: to fight for justice, to love stranger and enemy, to forgive those who do us wrong, to protect creation, to speak for the voiceless, to feed the hungry, care for the sick, visit the prisoner, protect those who cannot protect themselves.

We don’t need the heavy burdens of religious rules. Living the radical, world changing lives that Jesus calls us to is hard enough, and will take all the energy we have, and all the help we can get from one another and the grace of God.

Let’s not burden ourselves – or one another – with the stuff we don’t need to carry.