Prisoners of Hope

This sermon was preached at St. Michael & St. George on Sunday July 9, 2017, the 4th Sunday after Trinity/3rd after Pentecost. It was my first Sunday back from vacation in California and England. Among other things, the choir sang one of my favorite anthems, Howells’s “Mine eyes for beauty pine.” (Text by Robert Bridges: Mine eyes for beauty pine, My soul for Goddes grace: No other care nor hope is mine, To heaven I turn my face. / One splendor thence is shed, From all the stars above: ‘Tis named when God’s name is said, ‘Tis Love, ’tis heavenly Love. / And every gentle heart, That burns with true desire, Is lit from eyes that mirror part Of that celestial fire.)

Collect: O God, who hast taught us to keep all thy commandments by loving thee and our neighbor: Grant us the grace of thy Holy Spirit, that we may be devoted to thee with our whole heart, and united to one another with pure affection; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reighneth with thee and the same Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Readings: Zechariah 9:9-12; Romans 7:15-25a; Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen:

Just before I left on vacation, a woman came to my office to share with me something important that had just happened in her life. She was very nervous: she had made a momentous decision that was the fruit of many long months of anxious thought. As she told me about it, it was clear that this was a decision for the best, but I also noticed that she was so overwhelmed she was visibly shaking. I didn’t want her to be embarrassed, I’ve been in that situation before too. Momentous decisions tend to have that effect on us: it’s hard for us to separate our selves from the matter at hand. And it’s the nature of the thing, decisions like these actually do a lot to shape who we are as people, and how we operate in the world. No doubt you have your own set of moments like this one, where so much of yourself is invested in the outcome that it becomes a part of you.

The prophet Zechariah seems to have something like this in mind today in our first lesson, when he addresses people whom he calls, “prisoners of hope.” “Return to your stronghold, O prisoners of hope; today I declare that I will restore to you double.” It’s the end of a passage we usually read in Advent, or Palm Sunday. But today, the 9th of July, it’s an invitation to consider our own moments as prisoners of hope: when we are so invested in a positive outcome we find it hard to separate our selves from our hope. Maybe that’s something as simple and good as a successful pregnancy, or maybe something more dire: hoping for relief from some kind of affliction, or help for someone else; hoping for Mom to stop drinking, or for Dad to fall in love again; or for Illinois to get its budget figured out. Whatever it is, we can find ourselves completely wrapped up in the pressures of the moment, prisoners of hope, or else prisoners of anxiety or fear.

St. Paul continues the same tack, in one of his most famously neurotic passages — and actually one of the earliest examples of writing of this kind: the passage we heard from his letter to the Romans is full of intense self-searching, self-doubt; a psychological exploration of the body’s complicity in sin, along with the will’s impotence to accomplish the good it desires. He concludes with one of the most despairing cries in Scripture, “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” Thankfully St. Paul follows this passage from Romans 7 with Romans 8, and if you want the end of the story go home and read Romans 8; copy it down, memorize it, take it with you everywhere, put it under your pillow at night. But for now, Romans 7 presents us with Paul himself as a prisoner of hope: full of hope for the good, but a prisoner to the anxiety of his mind.

One of the best analogies I can think of is digital and social media: Facebook, YouTube, television, email, all of them are what I call “infinity devices,” to which there is effectively no end: we keep scrolling, we keep watching, there’s always something more to see, to read, to “like.” Our minds are like that too: there’s always another pressure, another distraction, another task that needs doing, idea that needs exploring, event that needs unpacking, emotion that needs expressing. This constant “mindstream” can imprison us, keeping us from exploring the full range of the world around us, keeping us from doing the good we wish or loving as we ought. What to do?

In the midst of all this, the Gospel promises relief: Jesus gives us one of the most famous of his Comfortable Words, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

How is this? What is the relief that Jesus brings? How does he loose the bonds of us prisoners of hope?

As Christians we think a lot about the God who saves us, and how that’s accomplished. But we don’t as often think about who it is that God saves. That’s you and me. And if you’re like me, maybe sometimes you could do with a little more thought, a little more consideration for you, yourself, just you, whom God saves; not in a narrow self-centered way that makes ME the center of the universe; but in a way that frees us from our various anxieties and emotions, and places us on secure footing in the simple, unconditional love of God. Only the love of God frees us to engage all the more fully with our neighbors, freed from the pressure of our “mindstream” infinity device.

Be still for a moment. Stop. Just listen. Let the love of God drive a wedge between you and the constantly playing screen of stories and reactions and worries in your head. Let them be, but you just step aside for a moment without them, and consider that here, alone, in the quiet, just yourself, with nothing else, you are with God.

You are not merely the sum of your emotions, your opinions, even your convictions; you are not your failures, your talents, your sins, your virtues; I am not my anxiety, or my fortitude, or whatever. The Lord’s yoke that is easy, his burden that is light, is simply the knowledge that you in yourself, without anything else, in silence, the person that God made, is the person whom God loves, whom God saves.

All this might sound like pop psychology, but it is deeply rooted in the Gospel, and the hard work of Christian prayer. The better we know ourselves as creatures of God’s love, the better we can know God, as the one who loves us. The more we do that, the more we can love our neighbors and our world for God’s sake and theirs, selflessly, not needing them to answer our own worries or hopes, but allowing them to delight us with who they are as creatures of God’s love themselves.

We all have hard decisions to make, and I’m not advocating we ignore them or pass them off as mere distractions. But I am suggesting that the Gospel releases us from imprisonment to our mindstreams, and equips us to see the world for what it really is: a surprising, unnecessary creation which God made for the sheer delight of it, in which you and I may find our places as creatures of his love, of his forgiveness.

May we hear today Jesus’ voice calling through the fray, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me. For I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: Amen.