Worshipping together at a closer distance
5 July 2020
Matthew 11.15-19, 25-30
I have often repeated a story I love, told by the reformer, Martin Luther. He was fond of recounting that each evening, after a hard day’s work, he would turn the key to lock the door of his room, and say: I’m going to bed now, God. The world is in your hands. See you in the morning.
It is a humorous and profoundly encouraging reminder that we are human. And that God is the One who creates each day to which we wake. It also reveals a deeply biblical understanding of what rest is really all about: not simply a good night’s sleep or even a sabbath rest from work, but the ability sometimes just to stand still, and to trust that the world is in hands other than our own.
When Moses led the people of Israel out of bondage in Egypt, you will remember that they had major second thoughts about the risk they were taking, even before they had crossed the sea. We would rather go back than die, they insisted, as their anxiety ramped up.
Don’t be afraid, Moses told them. Stand right where you are, and see what the Lord is about to do.
The ability to rest, to stop, to wait, and to watch, is above all the ability to trust in what God will do. And it’s this understanding of rest, and that our strength is sometimes in our quietness and trust, that Jesus draws on today as he teaches his disciples.
At first, he paints a portrait of what he calls this generation. Children who want to play with one another, but can’t agree on the game. Grown-ups who resist the serious self- reflection that life sometimes invites us to engage in; and yet who are equally dismissive of the unself-conscious gratitude and festivity which life also offers us. All crankiness on the one hand and indifference on the other, or at least that’s what it seems like at first.
And yet from where we stand today, perhaps we can see something else. Maybe what seems like crankiness and indifference is really just deep-seated anxiety, the anxiety of those who live in a changing landscape and are being invited to change with it.
That’s why I am beginning to dislike the phrase: the new normal. The word normal implies that, well, this is now how things are, and that we should just get on with it. In some ways, of course, that is what we have to do: coming to church with face coverings, being prepared to sit where we didn’t choose.
But we need to be careful. This is just how things are can easily become a counsel of despair. As if the times in which we live do not also invite us to reflection, as people, as households, as a church. As if the changed world in which we find ourselves does not offer us occasions for gratitude, even celebration. As if it would not be possible to become more human through what we’ve lost.
And so as we struggle to grasp all this, Jesus himself changes tack. Identifying himself with God’s wisdom, and with that teaching about rest and trust we have already recalled this morning, Jesus sits down, and waits, perhaps, before he begins to speak again.
Come here to me, he says. You’re worn out from all you’ve had to carry already. Let me teach you something about the work of trust. Shoulder my yoke; I’ll be right beside you. I’m considerate, kind. I know who I am, and to whom I belong. So will you. My yoke will actually be a good fit.
Today, of course, these words come to us, too. We who are no more where we thought we’d be, even a few months ago, than Jesus’ disciples were. But the thing is that in our very disorientation, in the midst of all the uncertainties and changes we face, we have become more like them. More raw. Less defended. And more accessible to the resourcefulness of the Spirit. In short, we are in a holy time.
And just as Moses faced down the spiralling anxiety of the Israelites, and told them, for goodness’ sake, to just stand still, so we are called to remember that sometimes our
strength is in quietness and trust. And in asking, before we rush to embrace a new normal: What is happening here? How do we make sense of what we see and hear?
Because that’s another good biblical lesson. The immediate crisis that faces us, now or at any time, is not always about what we think it is, at least at first. There’s a long description in the Book of Isaiah of the 8th century BCE invasion of Israel by brutal Assyrian military forces. It was a traumatizing experience which left physical as well as human destruction in its wake. But what was most significant, from Isaiah’s perspective, was that it destroyed a way of thinking, as well.
On the surface, of course, such an event could be comfortably understood as a deliberate attack by idolatrous foreigners on God’s people. But that was too easy. Maybe that isn’t all this is about, Isaiah insisted. No doubt the Assyrians had their own brutal reasons for the attack. But perhaps what this crisis was really about for Israel was not second guessing either God or the Assyrians. It was about finding new strength in rest and quietness.
Not in passivity, now, but in hard reflection. Not in despair or resentment or hatred. But in the rawness of learning to see more clearly in whom and in what they were called to place their trust in the first place.
And surely that raw learning will also be one of the gifts of this time to us. Trusting that God is at work here, though that work may take some time to discern more clearly. Knowing not to worry if the door now closed behind us says: No re-entry. Because God’s work is never about frantically propping up the way things once were.
On the contrary. God’s work in this raw and holy time is to create enough space and new energy for us to imagine the life we love differently, and to begin, even now, to live it.
The good news, even now, is that’s not what we call the new normal. That’s the new creation. And to God alone be the glory.
Reflection © 2020 Christ Church, Sandymount