July 9, 2023

"Grooves in Our Souls”

Rev. Scott Landis

Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

So often in Matthew’s gospel we catch a glimpse of a very frustrated Jesus as we hear him lashing out in some rather stern words of judgment that may seem uncharacteristic. Today’s passage is no exception. Caught in no-win situation, Jesus blasts the religious establishment for doing everything it could to maintain the status quo by doing everything it could to prevent any inkling of change. 

So, Jesus called them out saying, “My cousin John came neither eating nor drinking, and you accused him of ‘having a demon.’ And then I came eating and drinking, and you said, ‘Look he’s a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’” While he didn’t say it, I imagine he thought to himself, “Dang, I can’t win!”  

It’s then that he excoriated those in the seats of power in the cities of Chorazin and Bethsaida, Tyre and Sidon. Again, condemning them for their hypocrisy and narrow-mindedness. Warning that they would not be exalted in the end as they supposed, but instead would find themselves in hell. It would take quite a few sermons to unpack all of that theologically and that may be the reason why the lectionary writers left those verses out of this Sunday’s selection opting instead to go directly to Jesus’ prayer.  

“I thank you, Holy One, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and intelligent ones and have revealed them to infants.” In other words, those in privileged positions of power would never get it. But the ones who were most vulnerable, without voice or agency … those were the ones God invited into a whole new way of being. [Pause] 

“Come unto me,” Jesus said, “all you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble of heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy (kind and good), and my burden is light (small)” 

Or as the Rev. Eugene Peterson translates: 

“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 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.”  

You hear me offer these comforting words each time I serve communion. It’s part of the invitation to come to the table – mindful of all that is going on in your life you are invited – come unto me – as we remember the gift of grace in that simple meal. “Here,” Jesus reminds us, “you will find rest, a balm for your soul.  

I believe they are some of the most important pastoral words I can offer, and they are words I say again and again because I need to hear them as well. [Pause] 

When I was in seminary, I remember one of my preaching professors admonishing us to look care-fully into the eyes of those sitting in our congregations with an awareness that each one has right next to them a bucket of tears. I’ve never forgotten that. It’s an image that helps me to connect, I believe, with those who patiently listen to what I have to say. A gift that I never take for granted. 

While I have only been serving here for about 3 ½ years, I know more about those tears now. I know some of the burdens that you have or continue to carry. I know more about the burdens you bear. And I know why you are here AND I know more about our members who are unable to be here. [Pause] 

In a recent article published in the NY Times entitled, “As a Rabbi, I’ve had a Privileged View of the Human Condition,” David Wolpe describes this phenomenon beautifully.  

He states, “All of us are wounded and broken in one way or another; those who do not recognize that in themselves or in others are more likely to cause damage than those who realize and try to rise through their brokenness.  

He continues, “That’s what binds us together as a faith community.” A community he defends despite its plummeting numbers, shrinking budgets, and uncertain future. “Sometimes it seems,” he says, “for those outside of faith communities, that religion is simply about a set of beliefs to which one assents. But I know that from the inside it is about relationships and shared vision.  

He concludes with some very powerful words that I invite you to ponder. “I still believe the synagogue is a refuge for the bereaved and provides a road map for the seeker. I have been moved by how powerful the teachings of tradition prove to be in people’s lives, helping them to sort out grievances from griefs, focusing on what matters, giving poignancy to celebrations. The stories of the Torah, read year after year, wear grooves in our souls, so that the patterns of life that MIGHT escape us become clear.  

I love that image. It’s precisely why Jesus invites us to come back again and again.  

How often have you heard the story of the Prodigal Son? How often the story of Jesus’ birth, death, and resurrection? How often have you read or heard the Beatitudes? How often have you listened to the communion liturgy and received the cup, eaten the bread? How often have you prayed the Lord’s prayer or sung it in Hawaiian and English?  

These repeated acts – and you could name many more – begin to wear grooves in our souls – they become deeper with each passing year - with each celebration - with each crisis.  They become marks that guide the needle as it were – so the patterns in our lives (joys and sorrows) might become clear.  

What Rabbi David Wolpe observed is precisely what Jesus was offering – our need to be in relationship with something much bigger than any one of us. It is an invitation to deepen our relationship with the God who comes to us in human form – God incarnate who wants us to hear the words once again – for the very first time – “Come to me. I will give you rest. My yoke is kind and good. My burden is small. 

  We may wonder from time to time why we are here. Why we have this weekly, cyclic practice of liturgy and worship. A three-year cycle of readings known as the lectionary. An annual observance of preparation known as Advent and Lent. Several days of observing the last week of Jesus’ life culminating in the Triduum – the Great Three. And here is the reason why. 

We are deepening our relationship with God as these acts, and readings, and sacraments wear grooves into our souls. And as those grooves deepen, they produce marks of character that further define who we are as children of God. This is done in part individually, but it is made pa’a (firm) by the community in which we worship. [Pause] 

As he approaches retirement and prepares to leave the synagogue, Rabbi David Wolpe observed the same thing that researchers continue to tell us. Our houses of worship are losing ground if we focus solely on numbers. And I have no idea what will happen as we walk further upon this uncertain path. But of one thing I am certain. The invitation is as strong as it has ever been. It is an invitation to deepen the grooves of our souls as we experience the presence of God in our relationship with one another.  

“Come unto me,” Jesus invites. “Lay your burdens down. I will give you rest.” 

Your bucket of tears will never be empty. I suppose that’s the downside of being human but the God who cares invites us to allow those well-worn grooves in our souls to be filled with Spirit – Holy Spirit – and therein find our rest. 

May it be so. Amen.

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