Sermon by Rev. Deborah Hannay Sunoo
I love hearing that text from Matthew 11 in the version we have in our pew Bibles. “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” Who among us isn’t weary at times? Who among us doesn’t know what it feels like to carry burdens, whether of the physical or metaphorical variety? Whether the weight of work or family responsibilities is getting to be a bit much, or our hearts are burdened, or we’re just plain tired, Jesus’ promise is so welcome. “Come to me,” he says, “and I will give you rest.” (Matthew 11:28)
At the same time what a gift Eugene Peterson has given us in his retelling, having Jesus say to us: “Get away with me and you’ll recover your life…Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace.” (Matthew 11:28-30 The Message)
During the season of Lent this year, the six weeks leading up to Easter, we’re going to be focusing on spiritual practices. There is a long tradition of such things; many generations of Christians have found it strengthens their faith muscles, if you will, to build certain actions into their daily or weekly routine. So I’ll be inviting you over the next handful of weeks to try a few on for size. In the spirit of “unforced rhythms of grace,” I thought it might also be important to clarify at the outset what I won’t be doing.
I won’t be suggesting you adopt a long list of to do’s and somehow fit each one of them into your busy schedule. I won’t be asking you to stop doing things that have been life-giving for you and to replace them with disciplines that feel strange or uncomfortable, as if newer would necessarily be better. And I certainly won’t be leading you on guilt trip for whatever your current personal devotions may or may not be.
Speaking personally, though, I’ve been learning a lot by trying out some disciplines that are less familiar to me, and seeing with fresh eyes some practices I haven’t necessarily viewed as Christian practices in the past. So I wanted to offer you that same opportunity, and Lent seemed as good a time as any to do so. Traditionally in the Church this season of preparation for Easter offers us a sort of reset button, an invitation to re-engage with our faith and reconnect with God. So we’ll be using our worship hour together during Lent to test drive a few strategies. Our goal? To see which practices fit each one of us well enough to bring along into the rest of the year.
And throughout this Lenten journey, the phrase “unforced rhythms of grace” will guide us.
Let me offer a story by way of explanation. At an early age, I was taught by sincere, well-intentioned Sunday School teachers and camp counselors that there was one type of personal devotions that would ensure I grew in my faith. I was to carve out what they called a “quiet time” first thing in the morning, and read as much of the Bible as I could each day, working my way through it in order from the very first book, Genesis, to the very last book, Revelation, and I was to pray in a particular way, too, as I concluded that day’s reading.
Friends, I really tried. In addition to those teachers and mentors, I’ve had close friends, a husband, in-laws, grandparents, church members I admire who’ve all followed that model of quiet times and reading straight through the Bible from cover to cover and found both to be enormously valuable. Vital tools in their toolbox of faith. As for me? I’m afraid these just weren’t disciplines that resonated for me. I’d find my mind wandering, or just find myself frustrated by the lack of connection I felt with God when I used those particular blueprints for my personal devotions. And for years I worried this was a major character flaw. After all, I’d been taught by people I respected exactly what it looked like to grow as a Christian. I didn’t seem able to do it very well, or to be getting out of it what I thought I should. The only logical conclusion to draw was that I was failing at Christian formation. And I do not like to fail!
As I look back now, I wonder why my younger self didn’t give the full arc of Christian history and the full spectrum of Christian tradition a bit more credit. Why it didn’t it occur to me that with 2,000 years under our collective belts, and a whole globe-full of diversity in the Church, there might just be more than one legitimate way to steep myself in Scripture in my personal devotions? More than one acceptable way to grow in my faith? After all, God created human beings with such beautiful diversity: races and ethnicities, cultures and languages. There’s diversity in our personality types too. We’re not all wired the same way. So I’ve been grateful to discover, for instance, that reading beautifully crafted prayers written by others helps me to pray, that listening to contemporary musical settings of the psalms brings God’s word to life for me in a powerful way, and (language geek that I am) that studying biblical texts in Hebrew and Greek feeds me and gives me life.
I tell this story on myself because I’m guessing in this room there are some of you who’ve grown naturally into rhythms you learned early in life and those disciplines have remained deeply significant to you. But there may be others, like me, who’ve struggled at some point to find a good fit, whatever the details of your background. There may be still others of you so new to following Jesus that you’re just trying to find your bearings and figure out what it’s all about. All of us, whatever our starting point, can benefit from learning how fellow pilgrims along the journey have sought to connect to God.
I’m a little embarrassed to admit it was a mind-blowing moment for me when I started flipping through a book called the Spiritual Disciplines Handbook: Practices that Transform Us (by Adele Ahlberg Calhoun) and saw there were 75 brief chapters. 75! Each one a widely accepted, widely practiced Christian strategy for drawing closer to God. 75 being rather a rather larger number than one or two, I find this encouraging! And this is just one author’s tally. She doesn’t claim it’s an exhaustive list. I’m enjoying working my way through the book not because I have any intention of doing them all, or even a high percentage of them. But I’m finding some that really speak to me at this stage in my life. Or, rather, that help me speak to God, and listen to God as well. I’ll be introducing a handful over the next few weeks. (I’ll also bring the book to the back of the sanctuary with me after worship today in case you want to sneak a peek and consider reading it as well.)
One of the examples mentioned in the book is lectio divina or sacred reading, a form of Scripture reading we’ve tried in our prayer retreats this year. We’ll try it a bit together in worship over the coming weeks too. Did you know that visio divina – sacred seeing - is also a spiritual discipline? Visio divina simply means worshiping God while observing the beauty of created things. Did you further know that caring for creation can also be an intentional form of Christian practice? How about Justice seeking? Sobriety? Forgiveness? Hospitality? Journaling? Service? And for 21st century Christians, Unplugging! Intentionally stepping away from the distraction of our phones and other electronic devices once in awhile, in order to better enable us to listen for God’s voice.
Again, as I learn to embrace what is clearly a long menu of options, it seems only reasonable that the God who made each one of us uniquely would offer us more than one path to connect with him. The range is comforting, too, when we consider that not every path will be accessible to us – or helpful to us - in every season of our lives. For instance, you might love to pray while taking long hikes in the woods, something trickier for those currently wrangling toddlers, and for those whose work schedules keep them indoors during daylight hours, and for those whose muscles and joints don’t work as well as they might wish. Or things may be going a little too smoothly for you right now to appreciate the importance of lament as an intentional practice, but for others of you an invitation to lament may be just what you need. Thank heaven there are so many different ways to experience the presence of God.
While I hope you’ll enjoy exploring a range of Christian practices on your own during the season of Lent this year, you’ll do others simply by turning up for worship each week. As we pray together and sing our praises to God. As we confess our sins and offer our gifts. We’ll also be blessing one another at the end of worship with a sung benediction beginning this week. You may have heard the expression “ear worm” for a song you can’t get out of your head? This is the best kind of ear worm! We’re intentionally going to sing it a number of times today and return to it each week of Lent because we hope it will stick with you between Sundays. We want you to carry it with you wherever you go.
We’ve been memorizing Scripture together too – yet another important practice - as we learn a line from the 23rd Psalm each week: “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want…” For some of you memorizing may come easily; for others of you it may be a little harder. But it can make a world of difference to have words like these tucked away in your heart. I’ll never forget hearing my mom recite this psalm immediately following her first hospice appointment when it had become clear she was losing her battle with brain cancer. As the nurse closed the door behind her on her way out of the house, Mom addressed her fears head-on by reciting out loud words she’d been taught as a child, little knowing back then how much she’d need them in that moment years later: “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will no evil, for you are with me.” We’re not teaching the 23rd Psalm to our church kids simply because it’s beautiful and meaningful, though it is both of those things. We’re teaching it because someday they may need it.
More than anything, during Lent this year I want to give us all permission to step away from anything that feels like the forced rhythms of shoulds, the kind of religious baggage that’s really about someone else’s notion of what it means to be a good Christian. Hear instead the voice of Jesus – who knows you better than anyone – saying to you: “I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.” Learn from me “the unforced rhythms of grace.” Amen.