Sermon for Proper 9 (Year A) 4th Sunday after Trinity: 5 July 2020

The Venice experience (preached in 2017)

At the end of May this year Adrian and I spent four days in our favourite city in the universe – Venice.

We were both feeling stressed and tired when we took off from Bristol Airport and it’s not always easy to leave stress and exhaustion behind you – somehow they get packed in the hand luggage and travel with you. When I get stressed and tired my mind gets tied up in knots and puts more pressure on me to do “the right thing” – without telling me what “the right thing is”!

We’re in Venice and we have tickets to see the Biennale exhibitions but what else should we do?
– should we join a tour of the Doges Palace?
– queue for ages to get into the Basilica of St Mark?
– cross the Rialto Bridge – again?

What was meant to be an exciting and active few days before we flopped on a beach for ten days was for me threatening to turn into an extension of what I’d been feeling at home and about my faith and ministry.

What should I be doing here in Bishops Lydeard and the wider Benefice?
What should I be reading or studying?
Do I give enough time for reflection and prayer?

I’m sure you’ll recognise this sort of thought-cycle that builds up into huge pressure, stress and anxiety.

Well, we went to one section of the biennale exhibition and looked at some very strange and surreal works of art including that of Great Britain which was frankly ghastly and an embarrassment!

Then we decided that we’d do what we usually do in Venice which is just to wander along the calles, over bridges and across the piazzas eating and drinking at some favourite places and some unfamiliar ones. And I immediately felt better, freer and happy.

For us, Venice is a personality – she’s Serenissima – the most serene and we have a relationship with her that is exciting and unpredictable. Each time we go there we see something new as if she is always revealing more of herself to us – familiar things in a different light and new places of great beauty. This year it dawned on me that the whole point of being in Venice was – being in Venice. It didn’t matter what we did or didn’t do, what we saw or didn’t see, where we ate, walked or shopped. Those things weren’t important. What mattered was just being in this beautiful city and allowing our senses take it all in and guide us. For me there was a feeling that Venice, too, required us only to have that sort of relationship with her – she wasn’t too bothered about what we were doing – we just had to be there enjoying and loving her.

That whole experience of being in Venice this year reminded me of the bit from St Matthew’s Gospel that we heard just now.

I’d like to read you part of this morning’s reading taken from The Message version of the New Testament by Eugene Peterson, an American theologian and writer.

It’s very different from the New Revised Standard Version of the bible we heard earlier and it won’t be to everyone’s taste but for me these words are very powerful and freeing:

Jesus resumed talking to the people, but now tenderly.
“Are you tired? Worn out?
Burned out on religion?
Come to me.
Get away with me and you’ll recover your life.
I’ll show you how to take a real rest.
Walk with me and work with me –
watch how I do it.
Learn the unforced rhythms of grace.
I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you.
Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.”

“The unforced rhythms of grace”
“Keep company with me and you’ll learn how to live.”

Very often, I think, we carry burdens with us that suffocate our soul, wearing us out with the effort of living a life we were never meant to live. The burdens of hurt and disappointment which prevent us from trusting or seeing the good in people. The burdens of longstanding prejudice and fears which make us judgmental and intolerant. The burden of believing that we must struggle to earn God’s love because we can’t believe that he could possibly love us for ourselves.

Or maybe it’s not the burden of the past that wearies us but the stress of just having too much work to do, not enough time to do it in and certainly not enough time just to be, to enjoy ourselves, relax and rest.

All this baggage wears us out, exhausts us and takes away any chance of joy in faith and in living.

Jesus is saying “This is not how it’s meant to be”. God doesn’t want his children so worn out they can’t enjoy the fullness of life. Jesus wants us to be free to be who we’re created to be.
He offers to be our teacher and to guide us along the way.

In the freedom of becoming our true selves we are called to follow Jesus and to learn to be more like him. That’s a journey to last a lifetime but Jesus will be there alongside us. He knows just how much we can do and he knows our limitations caused by weakness, injury or sickness in our bodies, minds or souls. He says that life is not about wearing ourselves to the bones and being totally stressed out. It’s about living to the full with the adventure of moving forward at the pace that’s right for us.

“Come to me” he says “and you’ll recover your life. Come with me and learn the unforced rhythms of grace. Live with me beside you.”

Jesus offers the invitation. It’s up to us to decide whether or not we want to accept it and learn to live freely and lightly in the unforced rhythms of grace.