One disadvantage of being a former athlete is that my body became comfortable consuming more than 10,000 calories a day in my 20s. I have a clear memory of finishing up a Saturday morning practice and stopping by Dunkin Donuts on my way home for breakfast. I ordered two breakfast sandwiches and a dozen chocolate frosted donuts; I ate every one by myself. As you might imagine, I am now struggling to unlearn some of those habits. The thing about habits, however, is that they aren’t easy to unlearn. At the end of a stressful day, I often find myself standing in front of the refrigerator taking large bites out of a Costco-sized-block of Jarlsberg cheese or guzzling directly out of the orange juice container…calories (and my wife’s indignation for not using a glass) be damned! Here’s the rub, I know that I shouldn’t do this, but I still do it.
I am sharing this because it provides us with an (admittedly silly) access point to understand Paul’s words in his letter to the Romans. Surely some of you have a habit like this in your life, something that you know you shouldn’t do, something you’d like to stop, and yet, you do it anyway. Paul writes, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing that I hate…For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.”
Paul is describing the reality of being stuck, which is a reality of the human condition that we all experience. Perhaps, like me, you find yourself stuck in some unhealthy eating habits, but there are many more ways of being stuck. Drugs are common ways that we get stuck: sugar, caffeine, nicotine, alcohol, opioids. These drugs become crutches for our flesh: things on which we become dependent before we realize that we can’t quit them. Drugs, however, are only the tip of the iceberg of stuck-ness. Some of the most difficult ways of being stuck involve relationships: patterns of behavior and thought with those around us. “This time will be different,” we tell ourselves, “I am going to be patient and kind and gracious,” and then, before we can stop ourselves, we revert to the same old patterns of pettiness, insecurity, and defensiveness. Paul’s words ring true, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing that I hate.”
Perhaps the stickiest way of being stuck involves the wounds of grief and pain that we carry with us. I remember a heartbreak in my 20s when a well-intentioned friend told me that I could “choose to get over it” if really wanted to. While this might be true in the world of theory, anyone who has been through heartbreak and death knows that grieving takes time and patience. Preemptive willpower hides or delays genuine grief, pushing it into the darkness where it becomes infected and inflamed. Those of us who have experienced these deepest-kinds-of-wounds know that when we heal is not a matter of personal willpower, but a matter of grace. This is what Paul is proclaiming at the end of his reflection on being stuck. “Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God for Jesus Christ our Lord!”
Paul’s point is this: if we want to get unstuck from the deepest-forms-of-stuck-ness, we need to look to a source a power that exists beyond ourselves. This is a radically counter-cultural idea in our current moment of self-help and self-actualization and self-realization and self-improvement and self-care. The “self” has taken on the proportions of a God, and our culture worships it upon the altars of self-righteousness; however, when we realize that we are sinking into a quicksand, Paul is pointing out that “you-do-you” leads to death. In our situation, we need a rope, a helping hand, a source of salvation that doesn’t originate with the “self.” The adage to “pull ourselves up by the bootstraps” is not helpful because our bootstraps have already disappeared into the quicksand.
For Paul writing to the Romans, the life and person of Jesus is so rich and powerful that the mere invocation of his name captures the mystical source of grace that helps us to get unstuck. Some of us may share the rich and life-giving relationship with Jesus that Paul invokes; a relationship that can be cultivated by spending time with Jesus through scripture, sacrament, and fellowship. Like all relationships, a relationship with Jesus can’t be forced without being ruined, and some of us may get stuck on Paul’s language and word-choice. Perhaps we carry wounds from self-righteous Christians who have used Jesus’ name in ways that have been weaponized. Language can become a source of stuck-ness, a source of confusion that distorts the life-giving power that Paul is pointing towards in his relationship with Jesus.
This is the kind of stuck-ness that Jesus confronts in the lesson from Matthew today. Jesus sees the hypocrisy of entrenched high conflict. He observes: “John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon.’ The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’” You don’t have to know the theological dynamics of second temple Judaism to understand this hypocrisy. An honest look at our time allows us to witness similar forms of belligerent hypocrisy and groupthink. We have seen with horrifying commonality how often truth is sacrificed in our political wars as each one of us becomes stuck in habits of mind that serve to reinforce our existing beliefs. How often do we resort to modes of expression or thought that deploy the phrase “those people,” and thereby exchanges nuance, complexity, and truth for the convenience of self-righteousness anger?
Jesus is trying to help us get un-stuck because our being stuck is what prevents us from enjoying the good things that God has given us. Just this week, my beautiful and funny two-year-old daughter was splashing in the bathtub and wanted me to join in the fun. I found myself preoccupied, stuck in a moment of frustration because of a notification that had been pushed to my phone. My daughter stopped splashing and said, “What’s wrong Dadda?” This is what I imagine Jesus means when he says, “The children are calling…‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance.’” Jesus is telling his disciples, “Woe to those who miss out on the fun!” Our lives are a constant miracle, and we too often miss it because we are stuck in cycles of self-concern.
In the same breath, Jesus is also pointing out that we are often afraid to mourn with those who are broken: “The children are calling…‘We wailed, and you did not mourn.’” Too often, like my friend who told me that I could “choose to get over heartbreak,” we turn away from grief because we are afraid of it. Getting un-stuck does not mean that we must be happy all the time; rather, it means that we can give up the pride and fear that prevent us from being fully present with the reality of heartbreak. Jesus is telling his disciples, “Woe to those whose fear of suffering and death is preventing them from fully living.”
Jesus is not a self-help hero. God doesn’t damn us for eating a block of Jarlsberg cheese at 10pm; nor, by the way, does God care if we were or ever will be an athlete or rich or famous or attractive. He isn’t keeping score (as much as most of wish he would, so long as it was in our favor). Instead of keeping score, God is inviting us to take off our armor, to lay down our worldly burdens, to accept the miracles that he has already showered upon us. The good news is that the burden of getting unstuck is light. The so-called “burden” is simply a matter of letting go: letting go of the stuff that gets in the way of enjoying the gifts that God has already given us; letting go of our fear to be fully present with the realities of death and suffering.
Listen again to Jesus’ powerful words at the end of today’s lesson: “Come to me, all you that are weary and 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.” If those words speak to you, if you know the awful weight of fear and anxiety and anger, if you are ready to let them go, then Jesus is looking at you right now.
Swinging in the Rectory hammock this week, I returned to a book by an Irish poet named John O’Donohue titled The Invisible Embrace of Beauty. The book is a remarkable invitation to a life of faith animated by Jesus, but it uses the language of beauty as a synonym for Jesus, which may make O’Donohue more accessible to some than Paul may be. O’Donohue is worth quoting at length here because he imagines how this kind letting go create space for an encounter that awakens new life. In a section titled “If Beauty Were Invited,” O’Donohue writes:
“Our times are driven by the inestimable energies of the mechanical mind…when it dominates, the habit of gentleness dies out. We become blind: nature is [defiled], politics eschews vision and becomes the obsessive servant of economics, and religion opts for the mathematics of system and forgets its mystical flame…yet constant struggle leaves us tired and empty. Our struggle for reform needs to be tempered and balanced with a capacity for celebration. When we lose sight of beauty our struggle becomes tired and functional. [But] when we expect and engage the Beautiful, a new fluency is set free within us and between us. The heart becomes rekindled, and our lives brighten with unexpected courage without realizing it…when courage comes alive, imprisoning walls become frontiers of new possibility, difficulty becomes invitation and the heart comes into a new rhythm of trust and sureness. There are secret sources of courage inside every human heart; yet courage needs to be awakened in us. The encounter with the Beautiful can bring such awakening. Courage is a spark that can become the flame of hope, lighting new and exciting pathways in what seemed to be dead, dark landscapes.”
God has gifted every person in this church a life that is beautiful. Furthermore, God has gifted every person in this church hidden sources of courage that are ready to be awakened. The question for us today is whether we are willing to lay down the heavy burdens that we carry in order to receive the gifts that God has prepared for us. We have nothing to fear in these gifts because God has already paid for them through his Son. Receiving these gifts is the kingdom of God: where we dance and splash with children and mourn with the broken hearted: where we live fully, and where we find rest for our souls. Amen.