The Unforced Rhythms of Grace

July 5, 2020 /5th Sunday after Pentecost / Richard Holmer

1st Reading Zechariah 9:9-12/ 2nd Reading Romans 7:15-25a / Gospel Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

The Unforced Rhythms of Grace

If you’ve never been worn out, weary, running on fumes – physically, emotionally and spiritually drained – then this sermon is probably not for you. You might find something else to do for the next ten minutes or so. However, I suspect that most of you will want to keep listening. Most of us have been at that point, at the edge of burnout. Some of you may be close to that point today. We are living in a stressful time: so many changes; dealing with unprecedented challenges; new burdens to bear. When I read the passage from Zechariah, the phrase that really struck me was: “prisoners of hope”. That’s a pretty good description of our current status. These days we are living with uncertainty, hoping for better days, for relief, for something close to normal. We hope for what we cannot yet see.

People get weary in all kinds of ways: There’s the pandemic and all its attendant worries and complications. Some are out of work – and others are tired of working from home. There’s the relentless and disheartening news feed – telling us of political strife, lots of blaming and name calling. The terrible violence in Chicago, recklessly taking young, innocent lives, is heartbreaking. We get weary of the way truth gets abused, warped, ignored, denied and weaponized. We can feel the weariness Paul describes in our Second Reading: worn down by our own moral contradictions – failing to do what we know is good, and doing what we know is not. Weariness happens when our lives are out of rhythm, out of sync, out of balance. Even Jesus got weary at times – as we heard in today’s gospel. He was weary of petty complaints voiced by critics who refused to see him for who he truly is – calling him a glutton and a drunkard. Jesus understands weariness – he can surely relate!

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So today Jesus extends a gracious invitation – addressed personally to you and me:

Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, 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.”

What a blessing! What a gift! Actually, it’s a twofold invitation:

  1. First, take a break / catch your breath / take some Sabbath time – and just REST!

  2. Then, take my yoke upon you, work with me, walk with me in the way of humble, joyful service.

We can learn from Jesus the rhythm of a truly abundant life – life that balances rest and work, abiding peace and devoted service. Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of these verses points us in a helpful direction. Jesus says to us:

“Walk with me and work with me – watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. Learn to live freely and lightly.”

Sounds very inviting! Peterson has a wonderful way with words. The expression “the unforced rhythms of grace” is a profound and revealing description of a well-lived, faithful life.

Grace does not force us – grace invites us. By this invitation, Jesus urges us to redirect our lives – to learn from him how to live with a different focus, new intention, and especially with a better rhythm – the unforced rhythms of grace. To be in rhythm is to be balanced, to abide in a kind of spiritual equilibrium, to be in sync with God and others. The beauty of this way of being is that as you get the hang of it, it is unforced. As Jesus says, his yoke is easy.

All too often being religious and trying to lead a faithful life can seem forced and strained – trying to adhere to rigid standards, to external expectations – and usually coming up short. Jesus invites us to live in grace: to trust God’s constant grace for us and to be gracious with one another. This is certainly harder than learning to ride a bike – but like riding a bike, once you catch on, once you get the hang of it, find your balance, get the rhythm of peddling and steering and staying in motion – it becomes unforced, familiar and enjoyable. You don’t have to keep thinking about how to do it – you just ride.

That’s what we always see in Jesus. He doesn’t struggle with what to be or do – he lives continuously in those liberating rhythms of grace. Jesus lived each day with a balance between rest and work, being and doing, being spiritual and being very human (he enjoyed eating and drinking – even making more wine so the wedding party could go on). Jesus managed to balance saving the world for eternity and being totally present, in a single moment with just one ordinary sinner. Jesus invites you and me to live just like that – bit by bit to conform our lives to his, to grow more and more in his likeness. Jesus didn’t come to make our lives harder! He came to make our lives better – to make our lives what God intended when God created us.

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Rest for our souls isn’t like a siesta or a vacation (not that there’s anything wrong with vacation). Rather, it’s resting in the grace and peace that only God can provide. It’s seriously embracing the blessings of Sabbath time. It’s trusting that God can keep the world (and our lives) on track without our help or efforts. Rest is letting go of whatever burdens we may be carrying: guilt, frustration, remorse, grief, anger, fear. Whatever it is that’s keeping us off balance and out of rhythm.

The Prayer of the Day for this Sunday borrows from a prayer written long ago by St. Augustine:

“You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”

That’s just about right – isn’t it? The good news is that you and I can rest in the Lord – and not only when we die and depart from this world – but also as we live in this world. We can rest in peace not just in the grave, but also here and now.

A good thing to do when you’re weighed down with weariness, stress and anxiety is to remember to breathe. Breathing can be a form of prayer. Take a deep breath and exhale all the worries, griefs, uncertainties and frustrations (TRY IT!). Then inhale the grace and mercy, the peace and joy of Jesus! (We can do this!)

Sabbath rest is God’s gift. It’s about being, not doing. It’s realizing that everything doesn’t depend on you. It’s recognizing that faith isn’t holding on to God with white knuckles – it’s trusting that God is always holding you. You and I don’t have to keep shouldering the dismal weight of our sin because Jesus takes that burden off of us. There could not be a more wonderful invitation than the one Jesus extends to us to find true rest in him.

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As we rest and are refreshed, we can respond to the other aspect of his invitation: to take his yoke upon us. The yoke of Jesus is not like the yoke of the LAW, which demands perfect obedience – and so just keeps adding to the burden of sin. Instead Jesus offers the yoke of GRACE. It is being yoked together with Jesus, working and walking alongside Jesus in the good and rewarding work of justice and mercy. A yoke sounds like something oppressive – yet another burden. Actually, a yoke helps a pair of oxen to pull together more easily, more efficiently. Perhaps a better image for us today would be riding a tandem bicycle with Jesus. Can you picture it? “come ride along with me,” says Jesus, “and learn from me the unforced, vibrant rhythms of grace.” Grace is not imposed on us – it is an unforced blessing.

Jesus offers us rest and relief from our burdens and fresh energy for the tasks of loving and serving our neighbors. You and I can learn how to live by paying closer attention to Jesus. Jesus knew how to rest and also how to work hard – always in the same spirit of peace. He was both a contemplative and an activist. Abundant life is lived both resting and serving – both are essential. Accepting Christ’s invitation – and finding that vital balance – leads us to living all our days in the unforced rhythms of grace.

Thanks be to God.