Rest

Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

16-19 “How can I account for this generation? The people have been like spoiled children whining to their parents, ‘We wanted to skip rope, and you were always too tired; we wanted to talk, but you were always too busy.’ John came fasting and they called him crazy. I came feasting and they called me a lush, a friend of the riffraff. Opinion polls don’t count for much, do they? The proof of the pudding is in the eating.”

25-26 Abruptly Jesus broke into prayer: “Thank you, God, Lord of heaven and earth. You’ve concealed your ways from sophisticates and know-it-alls, but spelled them out clearly to ordinary people. Yes, God, that’s the way you like to work.”

27 Jesus resumed talking to the people, but now tenderly. “God has given me all these things to do and say. This is a unique divine operation, coming out of [our relationship full of] intimacies and knowledge. No one knows the Son the way the Father does, nor the Father the way the Son does. But I’m not keeping it to myself; I’m ready to go over it line by line with anyone willing to listen.

28-30 “Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.”

Rest

A storm descends on a small town, and the downpour soon turns into a flood. As the waters rise, the local preacher kneels in prayer on the church porch, surrounded by water. By and by, one of the townsfolk comes up the street in a canoe.

“Better get in, Preacher. The waters are rising fast.”

“No,” says the preacher. “I have faith in the Lord. God will save me.”

Still the waters rise. Now the preacher is up on the balcony, wringing his hands, when another person zips up in a motorboat.

“Come on, Preacher. We need to get you out of here.”  Once again, the preacher is unmoved. “I shall remain. The Lord will see me through.”

Higher and higher the water climbs, and the preacher too, above the roof now clinging to the cross, when a helicopter descends out of the clouds, and a rescuer calls down to him through a megaphone.

“Grab the ladder, Preacher. This is your last chance.” Once again, the preacher insists God will deliver him. And, predictably, he drowns.

The preacher goes to heaven and after a while he gets an interview with God.  The first thing the preacher asks, is “Why didn’t you deliver me from that flood?”

God looks down and with sadness says, “What did you want from me? I sent you two boats and a helicopter.”

God sends us plenty of signs that we miss.  In the first story of Creation (Genesis 1), God rests on the seventh day.  In the first passing down of the “rules” by which our lives should be shaped, God says, Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy (Exodus 20), and in one of the first teachings of Jesus from Mark 2, Jesus says the Sabbath was made for humankind…(yet if we keep reading) humankind as not made for the Sabbath.  It is a gift of God to rest, yet,

We have lost this essential rhythm [between rest and work].  Our culture invariably supposes that action and accomplishment are better than rest, that doing something – anything – is better than doing nothing.  Because of our desire to succeed, to meet these ever-growing expectations, we do not rest.[1]

We do not rest because humankind was not made for the Sabbath.  We work and work and work and it takes a quarantine to break it all apart.  Before – rest came when we had a calendar tell us when we could rest – but if your past few months were anything like mine, I had to be reminded what day of the week it was, and at really bad times, what month it was.  It’s like those little divider lines and all the little boxes dissolved away into one big mush.  Though what replaced the work week wasn’t Sabbath – we have been on edge, and worrying, and stressing – and we still are.   The idea of Sabbath became more and more unnatural, as if I wasn’t made for the Sabbath, as if the signs around me to rest had all but disappeared. 

In our Gospel reading for this week, Jesus describes children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to each other with songs that no one understands.  When they sing happy songs, no one dances.  When they play dirges, no one mourns.[2]  [And just like in quarantine, when they wanted to skip rope or talk – parents were tired and busy]…When John the Baptist comes along and preaches an austere message of repentance, his listeners say he’s [crazy].  When Jesus comes along, eating, drinking around a common table, his listeners call him a [lush].  

In other words, when we’re left to fend for ourselves, we routinely miss what really matters. We don’t know when to dance, [when to skip and play], when to mourn, when to repent, when to celebrate.  We claim to be wise and discerning, but we don’t recognize the divine when we encounter it. [3]

There have been plenty of signs about a coming pandemic,[4]  there have been plenty of signs about the need for police reform,[5] there has been plenty of signs of a need for either shorter work weeks,[6] or basic incomes,[7] but if the truth is not the song we want to sing, then we don’t join in.  The voice of God can call, the presence of God can send boats and helicopters, the limitless divine energy can create rest, but unless we choose to listen, we don’t recognize the divine when we encounter it. 

It’s why in the middle of this text, it takes a sharp right turn.  After words of judgment and disdain, (words that have been omitted from our reading as Jesus speaks ill of various cities in his context), Jesus prays for those listening.  Jesus looks at our tired eyes, our quarantine eyes, our weary hearts.  Jesus sees the burdens we carry, the self-imposed unbearable workloads and the unkept Sabbaths, and he asks:

“Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.” The Message, Matthew 11, 28-30

We have a Saviour that wants only to save us from ourselves…a Saviour that says the only way to keep your life is to lose it…to release our grip and hold even our own lives with an open hand. 

Thomas Dorsey wrote our next hymn, called Take My Hand, Precious Lord… and created what we today call Gospel music,[8] merging two of his great loves:  his music, and his faith.  Not to be confused with Tommy Dorsey (a swing musician in the 40s), Thomas Dorsey was schooled in blues music, and at a point when he believed he had nothing left, as anxiety and depression and a breakdown derailed his music career, he turned to his faith for comfort.  Opening his hand and releasing the tight grip upon his life, Dorsey reached out to the Christ, who saw his tired eyes, and his weary heart.  And I wish that was the happy ending to that tale. But that’s not what prompted the song Precious Lord… in August 1932, Dorsey’s life was thrown into crisis when his wife and son died during childbirth. In his grief, he turned to the piano for comfort. The tune he wrote, “Take My Hand, Precious Lord,”[9] mixes the reality of our blues with the grace of the Gospel[10] and reminds us that when we’ve got nothing left, we’ve still got God. 

In this time of exhaustion, may Sabbath rest remind you that you’re not alone.
In this time when burdens persist, and our strength falters, may you hear the voice of Jesus that calls you to live freely and lightly.
And may you learn the unforced rhythms of grace, as you take the precious hand of one who saves us, even from ourselves. 


[1] Wayne Mueller, Sabbath, page 1

[2] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kzXj1inT70k

[3] From https://www.journeywithjesus.net/lectionary-essays/current-essay (Debbie Thomas for Sunday July 5)

[4] https://khn.org/news/evidence-shows-obama-team-left-a-pandemic-game-plan-for-trump-administration/

[5] https://www.macleans.ca/news/canada/new-light-on-saskatoons-starlight-tours/

[6] https://www.npr.org/2019/11/04/776163853/microsoft-japan-says-4-day-workweek-boosted-workers-productivity-by-40

[7] https://www.marketplace.org/2016/12/20/dauphin/

[8] https://www.pbs.org/thisfarbyfaith/people/thomas_dorsey.html

[9] ibid

[10] https://www.huffpost.com/entry/blue-note-gospel_b_1126621

2 Comments

  1. Thank you for highlighting our summer fundraising effort for Monica Place. Daisy and I really enjoyed the July 5th virtual service. Your sermon was very inspiring and meaningful for us. The father-daughter duet was very special.

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