The Rev. Brad Sullivan
Lord of the Streets Episcopal Church
August 9, 2023
Proper 9, Year A
Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30
Both John the Baptist and Jesus had harsh critics who blasted them for their ways of life. Their critics blasted them for the ways of their religion, and their critics blasted them for the way they spoke to the powerful pointing out ways they were oppressing others and being hypocrites. Both John and Jesus were executed by the powerful for all of the above reasons. Of John, his critics said, “He has a demon,” because of his ascetic lifestyle, his religious devotion and self-discipline. Of Jesus, his critics said, “Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners,” because of how he spent time with the outcast sinners who were receptive to his message of forgiveness, his message of changing their ways and turning to God, his message of love and faith rather than certainty and fear.
John and Jesus’ critics were afraid of them and them and their messages. John and Jesus’ critics felt threatened by them and their messages, and so they condemned John and Jesus. Our Zechariah reading today called on the people of Israel to be prisoners of hope. John and Jesus’ critics were acting instead as prisoners of despair.
I don’t mean they were sad and forlorn. They were afraid. They were judging and condemning John and Jesus, feeling threatened by them. They were judging and condemning others, those they felt were sinning too much, those fellow Israelites whom they felt were on the outs with God. In their judgment and fear, they were unknowingly prisoners of despair. Did they have to condemn others to make themselves feel like they were ok in God’s eyes? Did they condemn others because they were afraid of what “those sinners” might do to their country or because they were afraid of what God might do to their country because of “those sinners”?
Being afraid of “those sinners,” John and Jesus’ critics worked against them, spoke against them, and eventually had them killed. Such is the way of prisoners of despair. Fight against. Let anger and fear rule. Seek the destruction or subjugation of “those sinners,” or “those others” so that they don’t ruin everything.
Now, on the one hand, John and Jesus’ critics had the wrong bad guys labeled as “those sinners.” On the other hand, even if we have the right bad buys labeled as “those sinners,” fighting against them, letting fear and anger rule, subjugating or especially destroying “those others” or “those sinners” isn’t really going to help us. Living as prisoners of despair doesn’t really help anyone.
I think we generally know this, although there are times when we don’t see any other way. How can we not be against people who subjugate others? How can we not be against people who rape and steal? How can we not be against people who work to make life difficult and miserable for others? Our brains and our emotions often tell us we have to be against “those others” who do terrible things, but our brains and our emotions are wrong. They are stuck in hurt and fear. Our brains and our emotions are all too often prisoners of despair.
Who will rescue us from these prisons? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! “Come to me,” Jesus says. “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.”
“Come to me,” Jesus says, and be prisoners of hope.
In our Zechariah reading today, the prophet says “Return to your stronghold, O prisoners of hope.” What is our stronghold? Our stronghold is God. “The Lord is a stronghold for the oppressed, a stronghold in times of trouble,” says Psalm 9:9. Likewise, Psalm 18:2 says, “The Lord is my rock, my fortress, and my deliverer, [the Lord is] my God, my rock in whom I take refuge, my shield, and the horn of my salvation, [the Lord is] my stronghold.”
When Jesus says, “Come to me all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest,” Jesus is promising to be our stronghold. Jesus is calling us not to be prisoners of despair, but to be prisoners of hope.
As prisoners of hope, we don’t just rage against “those others,” even if we have the right “others” in mind. As prisoners of hope, we follow the words of Psalm 37:8, “Refrain from anger, leave rage alone; * do not fret yourself; it leads only to evil.” As prisoners of hope, we don’t have to be against “those others” who do wrong. As prisoners of hope, we can, instead, live for those who are hurting, afraid, and oppressed.
If we continually rage against “those others,” we’ll just keep creating a mightier enemy. The more anyone fights someone, the more they tend to fight back. Living for someone, however, we end up building people up, guiding others, living into our truest selves: helpers and companions for one another. Such is life as prisoners of hope.
So, how do we go from being prisoners of despair to being prisoners of hope? We don’t, not by ourselves. We bring our hurt and our fear to Jesus. We bring our anger and our rage to Jesus. We come to him with those heavy burdens, hard to bear, we lay them upon him, and he grants us rest. Jesus heals us from being prisoners of despair and offers his yoke, his ways and teachings, that we may become prisoners of hope.
Then, Jesus offers us help, because as easy and light as his ways and teachings are, they are still often hard for us. Our brains and emotions, our bodies, still want us to be prisoners of despair. So Jesus offers us help in giving over our heavy burdens over and over again. Ask, Jesus says, and I will help you give those burdens to me. Then, freed of those burdens of hurt and fear, freed of those burdens of anger and rage, we can find rest for our souls and live as prisoners of hope.
We return over and over to Jesus, our stronghold, and we find that we don’t have to be against others. We can instead live for one another. We can be against those who would rape and steal; we can be full of anger and hate, or instead, we can live for those who might be victims. It’s harder to steal from and rape groups of people who are joined together, living for one another. It’s harder to hurt people who are prisoners of hope.
It still happens, of course, as it did to John the Baptist and Jesus. Those prisoners of despair who were against them eventually did hurt them, and yet they remained prisoners of hope. Their lives continue to bless us two-thousand years later. Such is the power of prisoners of hope. We return to Jesus our stronghold. We lay down our burdens, find rest for our souls, and get to live for others. We refrain from anger and leave rage alone. We stop living as prisoners of despair. We come to Jesus and live as prisoners of hope.