Sunday, July 29, 2018

Going in circles: a sermon

Rev. Teri Peterson
St. John’s 
Going in Circles
Matthew 11.28-30, Philippians 4.4-9
29 July 2018, O Sing To The Lord 9

129 The Lord is King
547 What a friend we have in Jesus
96 Psalm 139 You are before me
580 Abide with me
556 I need thee every hour
465 Be Thou my vision

‘Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, 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.’

Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me – put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.


“Do not be anxious about anything,” Paul writes. It feels pretty close to impossible to follow this piece of advice in a world full of fake news designed to cause anxiety, and real news that is frightening enough as it is. Between social media, politicians, and advertising, plus actual world events and natural disasters, it’s hard to imagine saying “do not be anxious about anything.” 

Yet there it is, coming from an occupied territory of the Roman Empire, from a people terrorised in the name of enforcing a particular type of peace, exploited for the gain of the few...and within that, from a people whose new faith was persecuted and on the brink of being illegal, and from a letter writer who was in prison. I imagine that people receiving Paul’s letter for the first time probably also thought this was impossible advice. “Do not be anxious about anything,” Paul? It seems there is always plenty to be anxious about in this world.

We have heard about taking up the yoke of Jesus, joining him in the work he is doing, and learning from him how to walk his way. What I didn’t tell the children is what happens when the two animals yoked together don’t figure out how to work together. If the weaker or inexperienced member of the pair doesn’t follow the lead of the stronger one and begin to pull his weight, then they end up going in circles. 

Which sounds like a description of anxiety, doesn’t it? 

It seems quite the paradox, to say “take up my yoke and you will find rest.” Yokes are for working animals. And they work hard, plowing fields or pulling carts. Even when they work together, they still get tired. Is it easier to pull the plow or cart with two oxen rather than one? Yes, of course. They can certainly work for longer that way, and be more efficient. But it’s still work, not rest. 

It matters that we read carefully. It’s very easy to hear “I will give you rest” and assume that Jesus will just handle everything, and we can sit back and relax. Or worse, we can just do whatever we want, because God will work it all out in the end anyway. That’s how we end up exploiting creation, assuming God will take care of it so we don’t have to, and how we find ourselves in a world where people’s understanding of Christian faith is defined by abuse and narrow-mindedness because they’ve never heard the good news. Jesus didn’t say “I’ll do all the work and you can just rest.” Remember what happens when one member of the yoked team doesn’t pull their weight: we go in circles. We create our own anxiety.

No, Jesus said “I will give you rest for your souls.” Join him in the work, learn from him, move in the same direction, step at the same time, pull with the same effort, and we will go forward into God’s future, out of the circles of anxiety. There’s work to do, but we don’t have to try to do it alone: the Lord is near, and if we can just follow his lead, he’ll show us a more excellent way.

It sounds so simple, but we all know there’s more to it than just cliche platitudes that sound pious but don’t penetrate our minds and hearts. And I’m not talking here about clinical depression and anxiety, which are real medical issues that require medical care and have nothing to do with how faithful we are, and are also not well-served by admonishing one another to pray more or to stick close to Jesus, and then leaving it at that. In fact sometimes I think those who live with mental illness and yet keep even a thread of a spiritual connection to God are those with far deeper faith than anyone realises. 

What I’m talking about is all those times we have been in the midst of stress or anxiety or a difficult moment at work or in the world, and we have heard or said things like “let go and let God” or “just have faith” or “everything happens for a reason,” making it sound like it’s easy and simple, a matter of willpower, and we can just flip a switch and do it, and then everything will be alright. 

The reality is that the life of faith takes practice. Jesus said “take my yoke upon you and learn from me.” Every inexperienced ox in the yoke takes time to learn to get in sync with its experienced partner. That’s true for us too—when we take up Jesus’ yoke, it takes practice to learn to feel his presence beside us, to sense when he’s moving one way or another, to step in rhythm and breathe together, to pull at the same moment and relax at the same moment. That’s why Paul writes “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things.” When we think about these things, we are training ourselves to see God, and to follow Christ’s lead. 

Compared to this list, most of what I think about would constitute anxiety, I think. If I had a way of measuring percentages, I suspect I would find my brain does not spend a majority of its time on what is true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent, or praiseworthy. Even when I’m not feeling anxious, there is a lot more going in circles than this. And I’m sure I’m not the only one. 

It’s hard to imagine focusing on what is lovely and admirable and true and excellent when the world news is full of things that are quite the opposite. But perhaps that’s part of the issue—the powers and principalities of this world would prefer that we go in circles, and so we are easily manipulated into focusing on everything but God’s big picture. That’s not to say we shouldn’t pay attention to what’s going on in the world, because of course we should. But when we lose sight of the goal of God’s justice and peace, of the commandment to love neighbour and enemy and self, and of Jesus’ method of hospitality and storytelling and grace, we go in circles of anxiety. Meanwhile the unscrupulous gather more power and wealth and the poor and the planet are both exploited for others’ gain. And we find ourselves thinking more and more about things that are not lovely or admirable or true or praiseworthy.

Yet even when we are going in circles of unfocused attention and un-peaceful activity, God is still speaking, and Jesus is still on the other side of the yoke trying to teach us the way. At no point are we left alone, abandoned to our own devices. At any moment we could tune in and find ourselves in step again. And the more we practice, the more often we will find ourselves in those moments of connection, and the better we will become at living from that spiritual reality. 

Today’s selection of people’s favourite hymns are all about this practice—trying to see God’s presence with us in the midst of the everyday, and allowing Christ to lead us. They are a reminder of Paul’s instruction to bring everything to God in prayer, rather than wandering in circles of our own anxious devising. And they give us a glimpse of the peace that is possible. The next three hymns in particular invite us to practice the presence of God. One of them, which we will sing during the offering, was actually written by a woman who one day felt a particularly strong sense of God’s presence during her daily household tasks, and so wrote these verses and gave them to her minister. Reading her story reminded me of the book by Brother Lawrence called “practicing the presence of God,” in which he teaches us to give each thing we do our full attention. When we are washing the dishes, be washing the dishes, and be alert to God’s presence in the task. If we are thinking about the cup of tea we’ll have when we finish, then we may miss the chance for wonder at the beauty of soap bubbles...and then when we drink our tea, we’ll be thinking about the next task, and we may miss the chance to be grateful for the warmth of holding the cup...and so on until we find that we come to the end of our lives without actually living a single moment of them. 

To truly be “in the moment” is a difficult thing, but worth the effort. Because this moment is all we have, and it is where we will find God whispering, and Jesus working beside us, and the Spirit breathing in our hearts. 

As we practice noticing God’s presence, I invite you this week to do what Paul instructs: whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things. And then take it one tiny step further: each day, tell someone something lovely that you have seen. Perhaps by writing a few things you are grateful for on your facebook page, or sharing a photo or a story of something that happened that day. Perhaps by phoning a friend and telling them about a moment of grace or beauty. You could draw a picture, send an email, leave a note in someone’s door...there are loads of ways to share. The main thing is this: when you see or think of something true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent, or praiseworthy, share it. Because there is a lot of the opposite in the world, and we can all use the help in redirecting our attention and our thoughts. This way we can all practice together, and lift up those moments of grace, and so find ourselves moving together in sync with the Holy Spirit, walking not in circles, but in Jesus’ way.

May it be so. Amen.