- Parish House
Sermon for the Fifth Sunday after Pentecost – Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30
The Rev. Dr. Kate Alexander
A sweet young couple got married here last night. They are avid crossfit athletes, so they planned a sporty honeymoon. They recently got certified to scuba dive here in an Arkansas lake, so they’ll be ready to dive when they reach their tropical destination. When they told me this, I engaged in some good-natured trash-talk about scuba diving. I suggested that communing with the ocean through scuba gear is a bit like trying to experience a forest by driving a loud all terrain vehicle through it – you scare everything away and only hear the sound of your own apparatus. They were defensive, of course, and asked about my scuba experience. Of which I have, well, none. But I did read a great book about diving this summer. It’s called Deep: Freediving, Renegade Science, and What the Ocean Tells Us About Ourselves by James Nestor. And it was fascinating.
Unlike scuba diving, freediving is about going deep into the ocean without any gear and learning to hold your breath for minutes at a time. This technique has ancient origins. Indigenous coastal communities freedove to harvest food on the ocean floor, with stories of dives lasting as long as 15 minutes. Freedivers claim that we have innate abilities to do this given our aquatic origins and our genetic connections to ocean life. Today, freediving is a high-risk, competitive sport, but it’s also used for research. Freedivers tag sharks, study the eco-location of sperm whales, and other amazing feats, all of which you can’t do in the same way with scuba gear or underwater vehicles. Researchers say that if the ocean were the size of a human body, what we know of the ocean so far is about the size of just one finger. Freediving, they claim, helps us to know more of the ocean on its own terms.
As I read about this, the technicalities of the sport were a bit lost on me. But I saw clear implications for the spiritual life. If God is like an ocean, our approach to God is very similar to wearing all that scuba gear. With the loudness of our own ideas of who God is, we separate ourselves from who God actually is. We assume that the little we know of God, maybe enough to fill up a finger, means we know the whole body of God.
Here is how this pitfall works. Through things like prayer, scripture, and community, I have evidence of a loving God. And I fill in the rest with my own ideas. I think that since God is loving, God therefore should bring about world peace. I think God should eradicate diseases and suffering. Yet mysteriously, God has not done these things. God must be different than my ideas of God. There is an otherness to God, which must be a good thing because, if God were just like us, who would save us?
Jesus knew that we have this tendency to think about God based on our own ideas. That’s what’s going on in the scene we just heard from Matthew. John the Baptist had come along, and people thought he wasn’t quite right. He wasn’t what people thought he should be. He was too reclusive, too weird, too somber. He should eat and drink more. Then God came more fully in Jesus, and people thought he wasn’t quite right either. He was too much the opposite from John. He drank and ate too much, and with all the wrong kinds of people.
It seems that people always want God to be just right, maybe more like ourselves. We are like small scuba divers in a vast ocean. We feel comfortable in the protective gear of our own imaginations. But salvation, our ability to be reconnected to a loving God, comes from beyond our own apparatus. It always has.
I think Jesus had compassion for this limitation in us. Look at what comes next in the Gospel. “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.” There is great comfort in these beautiful words. But there is an unexpected metaphor. Yokes are heavy devices for joining together a pair of draft animals. Jesus says, join yourself to me with my yoke, a heavy thing, and you will find it light. You will find freedom from your burdens.
Here again, we need to think beyond our own gear, our own ideas. We tend to hear these words as a kind of self-care clause in the Gospel, as simply rest from our troubles if we trust in Jesus. And that is true on one level. But the message here is meant to take us much deeper than that. Because freedom in Jesus is freedom for something, freedom to be his disciples.
Martin Luther once wrote about this freedom. He said that, through Christ, we are perfectly free, or in his words, “lord of all, subject to none.” And at the very same time, a Christian is “a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.” Freedom in Christ is the freedom to serve others.
And such service brings us right back to how God is not confined to what we think God is. God always shows up where we least expect God to be: not in the sudden presence of world peace, for example, but in the need of our neighbor, in the person that doesn’t look anything like us, in the person who believes and thinks and acts differently than we do. And in all of these circumstances, our call is the same: to care for the other, to bear their burdens, to accept and serve one another. Jesus promised that we would find our true lives by giving them away, in de-centering our egos for a higher love. We do that in service. And then we discover that God is already here, perhaps as close as the ocean water to a freediver. Waiting for us, loving us, forgiving us, saving us, which makes the burden light, and the yoke not just easy but a joy. (David Lose)
It was lovely last night to send that couple off into their married life. And they were very gracious about the scuba diving thing. I’m sure they will have a wonderful time exploring the ocean that way. But they, like us, will be called at times to let go of their protective gear and limited ideas about God. We need to be reminded that our salvation comes from outside of ourselves, not from our own gear but from a cross. In following the way of Jesus we encounter a God who is bigger than our ideas, and who shows up in places and people we don’t expect. And maybe this knowledge is something like what a freediver experiences, touching the actual ocean at greater depths. We learn that we can indeed be free from the limits of ourselves and find true communion with God and with one another.