A sermon preached on July 6, 2008 based upon Matthew 11:16 – 19, 25 – 30, entitled, “Getting Out of Rhythm.”
The Gospel lesson got me to thinking about the natural rhythms of creation. There is night and there is day, repeated continually. There are the tides and the seasons. There are the rhythms of our bodies; the beat of our heart, and the rest in between. Our breath: inhale, exhale, over and over again. There is sleep and there is wakefulness; work and rest.
The beginning of our Gospel lesson alludes to another rhythm of human life, and that is the rhythm between play, celebration and rejoicing on one end, and grief and mourning on the other. Life leads us into both, over and over. The story at the core of our faith expresses both poles: there is the crucifixion and there is the resurrection.
Wholeness involves finding the rhythm of life, the balance that allows us to go easily back and forth between the polarities that life requires of us.
Part of what is meant by sin is the loss of this rhythm. In the Gospel lesson, Jesus refers to people in his day who had lost the rhythm; they weren’t free either to play and celebrate or to grieve and mourn. John the Baptist came calling people to mourn with him, and they said he was too dour. Jesus came calling people to rejoice with him, and they called him a drunkard. They are stuck between the two poles, unable to enter fully into either. They have lost the capacity to be in the moment, to be spontaneous.
Children tend to be far more spontaneous than adults; more capable of entering into whatever the moment calls for. This is another part of what Jesus meant when he said that “Unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of God.” Watch a small child, and over the course of an hour you will likely see them weep over a boo boo or a disappointment, and laugh and giggle with extraordinary abandon, both in ways rarely seen by adults. As we grow up, draw back from such immediacy of experience in order to protect ourselves from such vulnerability to loss, but in doing, we also distance ourselves from raw joy and celebration as well.
From the very beginning of the Bible, attention is given to the rhythm of work and rest. God works and God rests and then God devotes one of the 10 commandments entirely to the keeping of the Sabbath, the day of rest, because left to our own devices, we human beings will neglect that part of the rhythm of life. We will work ourselves to the bone.
So the commandment to honor the Sabbath is a good gift given to us by the God who created us and loves us.
And yet, just like everything else, we human beings can take something good and turn it into something bad. In Jesus’ day, the Sabbath was often experienced as another burden -as something to obsess about in regards to doing it right. It was a day for play or for laughter. It was a time when you had better watch your step lest you do something that might cross over into the category of work. For instance, heal someone. And so the absurdity of Jesus getting criticized by the Pharisees because he practices compassion on the official day of rest.
2000 years later, we aren’t likely to encounter someone attacking us for working on the Sabbath. But we are no less out of rhythm — indeed, the case can be made that our society is far more out of rhythm than past generations were.
Many of us find it very difficult to shift out of the work mode — there are always more problems to be solved, or more money to be made, or more chaos to bring order to.
The “on” button gets stuck; we can’t turn it off. We try to stop working, and we find our mind continues to race, and so we require television or the internet to distract us from our work. Stillness seems intolerable. We can’t seem to rest — not in the depth required to restore our souls, and yet we’re not fully engaged in our work either, even though it seems at times as though working is all we ever do. Our attention can’t focus, and we make mistakes in our work. We lose our creativity and imagination to find new and better solutions to problems, and we lose our temper with the people around us, creating more barriers to overcome.
In some instances, our bodies — recognizing that the person in charge has forgotten how to push the “stop” button — conspires to brings things to halt by making us sick, or causing us to have an accident. Maybe we need to listen to the wisdom of our bodies.
As we get stuck in the work mode, in our fantasies we swing to the far end of the opposite end of the pendulum and imagine ourselves giving up work altogether. Ah, if only I could win the lottery, then I wouldn’t have to work another day of my life, and could lie on the beach of some Caribbean island for the rest of my life.
We long for retirement for the same reasons, or maybe we even long forward to death, because heaven comes to represent for us the place where we don’t have to do any more work. (I knew a woman whose sister died at an early age. She was very comforted one night when her sister appeared vividly to her in a dream, describing life in heaven to her. “We have jobs to do here,” she said. Errands to do for God.)
But these fantasies simply reveal that we’ve lost the rhythm. Both work and rest are good gifts from God, and we need both in order to be whole. And were these fantasies actually come to pass, and we were to actually win the lottery, or be put out to pasture in permanent retirement with no work to do, our once overworked souls would soon discover a great emptiness — longing for something worthwhile to do, some way to make a contribution, some manner in which to express our creativity.
And so it struck me that when Jesus addresses these weary, overworked people, he speaks not of being put out to pasture but rather of a “yoke.” “Come unto me all you who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me…” It’s balance, not an endless vacation that we need.
Learn from Jesus how to live a balanced life in harmony with the rhythms of creation.
He worked, but he also rested. He spent time with others; he spent time alone. He played, and he also wept. He was fully present to his life, never hurried.
For some of us, summer can be a time of rest. This is good. While we take time to rest, let us ask ourselves, what would it mean for me to live a more balanced life? Learn from your breath: you breathe in, you breath out. You give and you receive. Return to your God-Given rhythm.