There are some moments in time that truly are liminal. Liminal times are times of threshold. They are times when the ancient Celts thought that the veils between the worlds were thin. For me and for the St John’s community, this is such a time. We have been in leadership transition, and you have called me to become your Rector, and this is my first Sunday. So for those of you who are new here, so am I. May I say from the very beginning how utterly delighted I am to be here. So in this liminal time, this time of threshold, it’s appropriate to dig deep and to remember what is important.
So – why are we here, again? Really? We could be home in our pajamas, still sleeping, or sipping really good coffee reading the paper or watching last night’s Saturday Night Live. We could be running the marathon or avoiding the marathon traffic. We could be curled up in a fetal position at home trying to escape the civil war our country has been in over the nomination of Judge Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. Or we could just be home trying to wrangle our kids into their morning naps. So why really are we here? Now I know today we all have a special reason to be here; we’re here to meet each other, and it’s really exciting. But church is always about way more than the clergy who serve it, and so I want to ask you individually to think about this: why do you come? Why do you attend St John’s? Is it the social community? Is it because you want to hear something helpful and challenging and life- giving in the sermon? Is it because it’s your habit and you can’t imagine life without it? Is it because you feel like you should because you have kids and you want them to have a religious education even though you’re ambivalent about the whole Jesus thing yourself? Is it because you have been hurt by church and religion, but this particular church at this particular time seems healing, or at least you hope it can be healing?
I’m guessing many of us come to church because of some combination of the community church offers and because we are gathered around a tradition, with the living God at the heart of it; we are gathered around a way of thinking and living that offers something valuable. We know we can do great good together. Just look at your capital campaign and the Centennial Fund you all accomplished over the past year – you raised 2 million dollars to fix your bell tower and actually tithed 10% of that, $200,000, to give to neighbors in need. You help build affordable housing one Saturday a month and you feed hungry people at Our Saviors and First Nations Kitchen. You have supported Circle of the Beloved, and you helped Craig Lemming when the Department of Homeland Security put his visa status in jeopardy. You are a church that cares about social justice and about children and about spiritual maturity. You say this right in your mission statement. You are amazing.
But underneath that, in the more vulnerable places within us, I wonder why we come. More than fifteen years ago I was going through a divorce, and my ex had a teeny tiny problem with drinking too much. I decided to go to Al- Anon, which for those of you who aren’t familiar with it is a twelve step program for the families and friends of alcoholics. I remember walking through the door of the program, looking around at the folks in the Al-Anon meeting, and immediately recognizing that everyone there was in various states of disrepair. And I felt so relieved. I was relieved because I could admit the burdens I was struggling with and know that we could talk honestly
about our struggles and follow a respectful spiritual program toward healing and wholeness. Does that sound like anything we do here at church?
In today’s gospel reading Jesus says, “Come to me, you who are weary and heavily burdened, and I will give you rest.” People at the time of Jesus were burdened by many things. They were burdened by the oppression of the Roman empire, by the hypocrisy of some of their own religious leaders, and I suspect by the demands of messy everyday life. Perhaps not so different from things today. How could Jesus give them rest, this Jesus who did not liberate them from empire in any obvious way, this Jesus who in fact made more radical demands on them than any Pharisee? Where did rest come from, then or now?
Rest was already enshrined in their religious life, through the Sabbath. Sabbath happened on the seventh day, when everyone, including slaves and animals, were supposed to refrain from work. But it seems that even the command to keep the Sabbath, to rest, had become just another thing to accomplish, another thing to white knuckle themselves into doing. I think what Jesus means by rest is something beyond avoiding work or having a date with Netflix. I think the rest Jesus is speaking about is primarily a state of being. How many of you are familiar with centering prayer? It is a form of wordless prayer from the Christian tradition, similar to meditation in the Buddhist or yogic tradition. The goal of centering prayer is this: To consent to the presence and action of God. Think about that for a minute. To consent to the presence and action of God. In the practice of centering prayer, you seek to become profoundly receptive to, and aware, of a God whose presence is not just believed in, but experienced. That receptivity and encounter with God captures something close to what I think Jesus means by rest. What if we might cultivate regular habits of stopping, listening, and becoming receptive to a God who is actually doing things within us and among us and beyond us?
That kind of rest becomes possible when we first recognize that we do carry heavy burdens. We carry the burdens of the way people in our families are struggling, and the burdens of watching survivors of sexual abuse speak about their stories and be discounted, and the burden of dismay over immigrant children living in tent cities in Texas, and the burden of our own inner wounds and failures and to-do lists. It is a great gift to know ourselves to be burdened. Because when that happens, we can dare to seek the help of God. What if the rest Jesus is speaking about involves honestly naming our burdens, our hurt places, our fears, and then receiving the love and presence of God, surrendering, letting go, instead of always coming from a place of willing, white knuckling ourselves into fixing things?
Some of you might have attended the Rev. Dr. Dwight Zscheile’s adult faith forum last Sunday, when he talked about the “Way of Love.”(1) The “Way of Love” is our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry’s description of Christian spirituality through seven practices. We’ll be talking about those seven practices more throughout this fall, but “rest” is the seventh practice. It comes from the ancient Judeo-Christian practice of Sabbath. If you paid attention to the reading from Genesis this morning, you heard that God created people on the sixth day, and on the seventh day God rested. So actually what was the first thing people did after being created? Did they jump right into their vocations? No. The first thing they did was rest with God in the unfathomable beauty of the created world. The first thing they did was rest, because rest didn’t then and still doesn’t mean only a respite from the weariness of everyday life. Rest means being receptive to God as our primary orientation in the world. Rest is built into the fabric of creation.
But this orientation of being receptive, of coming to trust that a power greater than ourselves can restore us to sanity, to borrow from our friends in alcoholics anonymous, is profoundly difficult. Many of us just don’t feel safe in the current political climate. It’s almost impossible to rest when you don’t feel safe. How can we rest when immigrants and people of color are criminalized for being who they are? How can we rest when it’s the pledge campaign and we need to raise next year’s budget? How can we rest when our children get up at 6:00am every day, rain or shine, no matter how tired their parents are?
The Jesus who invites us to accept his rest is the same one who invites us to a radical discipleship, like loving our enemies. This rest doesn’t mean trusting that God will take care of the problems in the world so we don’t have to do anything. But we can have rest from the narrative in our country, because it does not have the last word. Rest about a state of being that we can practice. We start by cultivating regular habits of stopping, listening, and becoming aware of the presence of the living God.
So back to church, and why we are here. We are here to the encounter the radical, unconditional love of God with all of who we are: wherever we are on the continuums of gender, race, politics, age, sexual orientation, or however else we identify ourselves. When we experience that love, we can be healed and then we can become agents of God’s healing for the world God so loves.
Church is a garden, where the seeds of new life are planted and they grow slowly, but surely. Church is a hospital, where sick and hurt people can come to be healed. Church is a school, where everyone gets to be like children and learn to follow the way of love, the way of Jesus, together. So this year, this first year of the rest of our lives as a faith community, let’s be intentional about pausing. Let’s be intentional about accepting the invitation of Jesus to rest, to lay down our burdens of shame and anxiety and righteous indignation and sickness, and learn to trust that Christ is in the midst of us, and that the God Jesus shows us is gentle enough to give rest to our souls.
1 See “Exploring the Way of Love: Practices for a Jesus-Centered Life,” in
https://www.episcopalchurch.org/explore-way-love, accessed October 7, 2018.