On the Road to Shambala

(A sermon for the 7th Sunday after Pentecost July 6, 2008
Song of Solomon 2:18-23; Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30–and a warning, the video clip contains a TV-14 phrase)

For the past few years, the TV show Lost has been a favorite in our family. We have followed the complex and mystical adventures of a band of airline passengers who crash-land on a mysterious island somewhere in the middle of who-knows-where. Lucy, who was too young to watch the show at first, is now catching up on DVD. And last weekend we watched an episode featuring that old song by Three Dog Night, “On the Road to Shambala.”

Being played in a VW Van…on an eight-track…

If you’re old enough to know what that means, you’ve just time-traveled with me!

All week long the song has been running through my head, with its notion of people being kind and helpful, of lights shining and a road being traveled, the voices and the music swelling with good-hearted enthusiasm.

What is Shambhala? The song tells you it’s a good place, and I can tell you it’s a mythical kingdom in the Himalayans, the name taken from a Sanskrit word. It’s just one of many idealized, Utopian communities people have imagined or attempted to create throughout history. Many people came to this continent, to what they thought of as the New World, in search of their own utopia.

Here’s the definition of Utopia, right from Merriam-Webster.

  • Etymology: Utopia, imaginary and ideal country in Utopia (1516) by Sir Thomas More, from Greek ou not, no + topos place
  • 1 : an imaginary and indefinitely remote place
  • 2 often capitalized : a place of ideal perfection especially in laws, government, and social conditions
  • 3 : an impractical scheme for social improvement

Many hopeful people, many desperate people, came to this “new” world because their understanding of how to be faithful people did not fit into the mainstream. That is not the whole story of the settling of this continent by people from Europe, but it is a large part of it. In a land that had no social standards, no religious biases and establishments, they believed they could life their faith fully, faithfully.
At this time of year, I feel their excitement and their idealism keenly, although I know their arrival unsettled the people who were already here, and we still answer for that.
Still, I believe in that “often capitalized” definition of Utopia: a place of ideal perfection especially in laws, government, and social conditions.

Declaration of independence
Our founding fathers started something they hoped would be ideal with the principles of the Declaration of Independence, in which Thomas Jefferson wrote:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain *inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

These concepts continue to be intrinsic to our view of being American. It is the very nature of our existence to be free and forward-moving, to be seekers, and to include everyone in that freedom. We value life, according to the Declaration, and liberty—or freedom—and the pursuit of happiness, which I have always taken to mean the pursuit of that which fulfills each individual.
But declaring these things is not enough to achieve Utopia or to find we are suddenly dwelling in Shambala!

The passages we heard this morning are two very different and beautiful expressions of what it means to be free. The first is suffused with love, the kind of love that just makes you shine to hear about it. The other invites us to put down what we are carrying and take up a new way of doing things.
A yoke does not sound easy if the first picture we have in our minds is of the double yoke two oxen might wear. There is perhaps some appeal in the idea that we could be in harness with Jesus, but scholars suggest Jesus more likely meant a different kind of yoke, the sort a person might wear to spread out a burden and make it easier to carry. You’ve probably seen a picture of a woman carrying two buckets of milk on either end of a yoke, to distribute the weight?
The Jesus who tells us to lay down our burdens and take up his yoke is not suggesting we will have little to carry, but that carrying it is possible, that the tools for doing his work and being his people are available.

…for now the winter is past, the rain is over and gone.
(Song of Solomon 2:11, NRSV)

Our Peter is away at his version of Shambala this summer, six weeks of music camp in Interlochen, Michigan. For six weeks he is surrounded by other young musicians, working with wonderful teachers and conductors, overwhelmed with opportunities to hear and play music in all sorts of settings and by all sorts of people: symphonic music, chamber music, private classes, guest teachers, pick-up jazz with friends, no doubt, too.

The flowers appear on the earth; the time of singing has come, and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land.
(Song of Solomon 2:12)

At the same time, he is hard at work. His placement audition on the first day disappointed, and so he disciplined himself to prepare, again, for the next round, when his chair for the second two-week block would be determined. He considered attending concerts and spent his free time practicing, instead. He gave everything he has to the work, and play, he loves.

The fig tree puts forth its figs, and the vines are in blossom; they give forth fragrance.
(Song of Solomon 2:13)

On Friday night he called to say he will be First Clarinet in the World Youth Wind Symphony, at least for Weeks Three and Four of camp. I could have sworn he was calling from Shambala.


And I think this is the key to understanding Jesus and his mystical yoke. In this complicated excerpt from Matthew, we hear Jesus struggling with the reaction of those around him, the people who will never be pleased no matter what he does, because they have their idea of who and what the Messiah will be, and he does not match up with it. He thanks God, and I believe there is a little edge to his tone, that the supposedly smart people don’t “get” who he is, because the ones who do are responding not to his posture or his wardrobe or his social position but to his kindness, his welcome, his love.

Love is the yoke he offers us, as surely as he offered himself in love, a love we will remember and experience as we break bread and share the cup together this morning.
What would our lives look like if we wore the yoke of love in all our actions?
What would our church look like?
I suspect we and it would be made new.

Unfortunately, we resist. We behave like “children sitting in the marketplace,” sniping, or like Pharisees with a laundry list of complaints. We wish for a Jesus who bends to our thoughts and our desires, who does what we expect him to do. Or we fear wearing his yoke, concerned that it will change our lives, make us seem different to others, as he did.
But if we could only accept it, oh! If only we could lay down the burdens of pride and stubbornness, of self-reliance and over-reliance on our own wisdom. If only we could lay down those burdens and choose instead the yoke of love! That could be Shambala; that could be Utopia; that could be heaven, right here on Earth. Amen.

*Highly nerdy readers will note that I am using Jefferson's spelling. Adams changed it to "unalienable" later.

11 thoughts on “On the Road to Shambala”

  1. YAY!–I have always said “inalienable”–it’s just more fun to say! Sorry John Adams, you lose this one.
    Thank for you these words!

  2. Love it, SB!
    And I guess I’m a highly nerdy reader – but that could be b/c I’ve been watching the John Adams miniseries this week and it has caused me to read up on him, like, a ton.

  3. I’m quite impressed with the inclusion of LOST, Interlochen, and the Declaration (including grammar commentary) in one sermon that still manages to be on point with the gospel lesson

  4. This is good one, Songbird! I’m with the Vicar, erudite and exegetically on point to boot…wow!

  5. I always say inalienable and all these years I thought the song said Shangrala.

  6. Oh, this is just great. I’m with the Vicar, et al. And so glad you’re the writin’ kind of sermon-izer 🙂

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