Sunday, July 5, 2020

Phil Kniss: Return, O soul, to your rest

“Rest for your souls”
Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30; Psalm 62:1-2; Psalm 116:7

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We are a heavy-laden world longing for rest.
    If you happened to notice this morning’s photo on our bulletin,
        and video link,
        I’ll bet you felt a little wistful longing for that spot.
        An empty bench, just waiting for someone to sit,
            take a load off,
            stare off a while into that beautiful fog,
            breathe deeply of the misty, moisty, morning air.
    That’s what I felt when I found that photo.
        Thanks to the photographer, Aaron Burden . . .
            whose last name is ironically fitting.

You are probably feeling this need for rest,
    if not in yourself, in the world.
Look to the right, look to the left.
    Everywhere we turn,
        there is a desperate and fearful striving,
        there is a heavy, troubled, and chronic exhaustion
            in the human race.
    Where is a bench when we need it?
    Where is the rest our souls long for?

Well, there are benches a-plenty, if we look around.
    There are literal benches in city parks,
        along trails off Skyline Drive,
        where you could find scenes just like that photo,
        and rest your feet a while . . . and your mind.
    And there are metaphorical benches,
        moments and places of rest, when you . . .
        Enjoy a leisurely visit with a friend outdoors.
        Grill some veggies from the market or your garden.
        Take a slow walk around the neighborhood.
        Watch the sunset or sunrise from a hill.
        Hike a fire road in the national forest.
        Go to an outdoor sculpture garden
            or take a virtual tour of an art museum.
        Skip the evening news for one night,
            and watch a live-streamed concert instead.
        Go to bed early.

Yeah, sit on any of those benches, and add your own.
    All those activities can
        give us a break from our restlessness,
        help us breathe deeper,
        and ease our mind and our body and our spirit.

But . . . what about . . . our souls?
    Is this where we find rest for our souls?

The practices I named
    will help us be a more rested human being.
    I wish everyone would live more like that,
        especially more of our political leaders.
    We would all be in a better place.

But I want to take this question one important step further.
    Is this what Jesus meant when he said,
    “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.”
    Is this what the psalm writers meant,
        when they wrote, and sang,
        such as in Psalm 62:
            “Truly my soul finds rest in God;
                my salvation comes from him.
        or in Psalm 116:
            “Return, O my soul, to your rest,
                for the Lord has dealt bountifully with you.”
    Return, O my soul, to your rest.
        That phrase resonated so strongly with me,
            that I made it my sermon title.

    Three significant truths, held in one simple line.
    First, that I can speak to my soul.
        My soul is an identifiable something within me,
            that I might converse with it,
            without fearing I’ve lost my mind.
    Second, that my soul has wandered.
        It’s away from home, perhaps even lost,
            and is invited to return.
    Third, that a return home is a return to rest.
        That when my soul is aligned, and at home,
            there is genuine and deep rest.

Now it’s fair to ask,
    what Jesus, or the psalmist, really meant, by the word “soul.”
    The soul has long been a favorite subject
        of philosophers and theologians.
    Is our soul distinct from our embodied selves?
    Can it exist outside of us?
    Is it just renting space in our bodies,
        preparing to move out to its real home after death?
    Is “soul” the same as “spirit” or “heart”
        or something altogether different?

This can all get fuzzy and incoherent pretty quickly.
    And I don’t need to parse out all the philosophy,
        in order to get to where the scripture is taking us today.

But I will quote New York Times journalist and thinker, David Brooks,
    in his excellent recent book, The Second Mountain,
    where he charts his journey from being a secular materialist,
        to someone learning to embrace faith.

He says the soul is the part of you
    that has infinite value and dignity.
He talks about the soul as a deep yearning
    for what is good, and just, and righteous.

He remarks how powerful and resilient the soul is,
    even in the face of loss or injury,
    or years of being ignored or neglected.
    While you are blissfully unaware of the deeper life you are missing,
        your soul is out there far away, hunting you down.

He offers this vivid and memorable image,
    I’ll quote a couple paragraphs.
    “The soul is like a reclusive leopard
        living high up in the mountain forest somewhere.
    You may forget about him for long stretches.
    You are busy with the normal mundane activities of life,
        and the leopard is up in the mountains.

    But from time to time out of the corner of your eye,
        you glimpse the leopard, just off in the distance,
        trailing you through the tree trunks.”
    “In the middle of . . . a sleepless night . . .”
        when “there’s trouble in your soul,”
        “you vaguely or even urgently feel his presence.”

    “The leopard can visit during one of those fantastic moments,
        with friends or family . . .
        when you are overwhelmed with gratitude . . .
            and the soul swells with joy.

    “And then there are moments,
        maybe more toward middle or old age,
        when the leopard comes down out of the hills
            and just sits there in the middle of your doorframe.
        He stares at you inescapably.
        He demands your justification . . .
            For what did you come?
            What sort of person have you become?
            There are no excuses at that moment.
            Everybody has to throw off the mask,”
                and answer to their souls.

Now . . . that’s the imagination of David Brooks.
Jesus didn’t mention a leopard.
    But this metaphor resonates with what Jesus said in Matthew 11.
    Jesus was speaking to the same people he earlier
        called harassed and helpless,
        like sheep without a shepherd.
    These were lost souls.
    People who had forgotten who they were,
        who they were called to be,
        forgotten who had made and loved them,
            and given them purpose.
    And were wandering aimlessly,
        mere victims of the terrible circumstances that befell them.

Jesus’ invitation to come and rest,
    is an invitation to return home,
    to have a reckoning with your soul.

This is not just emotional or physical or psychological rest.
    Those are all good and important.
    But if these words of Jesus were only about stress reduction,
        they wouldn’t be called “Gospel.”
    This is about coming home to our deepest self,
        the self that God made and loves,
        and endowed with dignity,
        the self in which God implanted God’s own image.
    This is a Holy Homecoming.

“Come to me,” Jesus said.
    Not, “breathe deep, take a walk, and avoid the evening news.”
No. “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.”
    Lay across your shoulders a new kind of burden,
        not one that weighs you down,
        but one that connects to your calling and to your God.
    Learn from me, Jesus said,
        because it is by your connection to me,
        that you will come to know who you are,
        “for I am gentle and humble in heart,
            and you will find rest for your souls.”

I suggest, dear sisters and brothers,
    that when our souls are troubled,
    we heed this Gospel word,
    and “come to Jesus, whose yoke is easy and burden is light.”
    It is in sitting at Jesus’ feet,
        that we will find rest,
        deeper than any mere bench can provide.
    And that is a rest that requires opening ourselves
        to what Jesus demands of us.
        Being willing to shoulder the yoke,
            and humble ourselves,
            and give account to God.
    It is like that leopard sitting in our doorway,
        waiting for an answer.

Soul rest has a cost.
    That cost is humility, and vulnerability, and openness,
        a willingness to turn ourselves over to another.
    Deep soul rest requires effort on our part, a yoke to shoulder.
    We must immerse ourselves in the Gospel stories of Jesus.
        No, I don’t mean memorize them by rote,
            or know the characters, context, and plot
            like we know the back of our hand.
        I mean . . . we must find ourselves in those stories of Jesus.
        We must face the leopard.
        We must reckon with the demands of being
            not just a follower,
            but a disciple, and obedient worshiper of Jesus the Christ.
        Yes, the very one who warned his disciples, in love,
            just a few chapters later in Matthew,
            “What good is it to you,
                to gain the whole world, and lose your soul.”

    We were meant to be children of God,
        to find soul rest in our one Creator,
        and then turn to face this stormy and dangerous world
            knowing who we are,
            whose we are,
            and where we belong.

    Our journey is not guaranteed to be serene,
        those benches in the beautiful fog
            may, in reality, be few and far between.
    But if we don’t know who we are in the deepest part,
        if our soul has wandered,
        Jesus invites us to come to him,
            and find rest for your souls.

—Phil Kniss, July 5, 2020

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