19 July 2012

On being a mule for Jesus

15th Week OT (Th)
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St. Dominic Church, NOLA

Isaiah prays, “The way of the just is smooth, O Lord; the path of the just you make level.” By following Christ, we have chosen to walk the way of the just and our path is scraped smooth, made level by the Lord. For us, he fills the potholes; he flattens out the hills so that our pilgrimage along behind him is no burden, nothing and no one stands in our way. Can any one of us claim that our journey along the way has been free of bumps and bruises, free of aches and pains, and the occasional head-on collision? Can any of us claim that we have never encountered a nearly insurmountable obstacle along the way? The Lord has smoothed and leveled the way to Him, but the ways we must travel through this world remain as potholed, as steep, and as dangerous as ever. So, Jesus makes this invitation: “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me. . .For my yoke is easy, and my burden light.” When we choose to become beasts of burden in the fields of Christ, we do the work but he leads the way. And if we follow his lead, we learn all we need to learn to make this world's steep climbs and potholes level and smooth. 

The first thing we must notice about becoming beasts of burden for Christ is that we choose this way of life. No one sells us into slavery to Christ. We are not born as yoked pilgrims. Even if our parents gave us to Christ as children, at some point along the way, we deliberately choose to stay yoked and working. Having freely chosen the burden of working for Christ and with him, we are obligated to learn all that he has to teach us. And like all students everywhere, we sometimes see our instruction as an intrusion, something to be rebelled against, thrown off. It's a beautiful day. There's fun to be had. Friends call for our attention. And here we are: yoked, strapped in, and following behind the Master, pulling a wagon for Jesus! But we chose this yoke. We freely elected to be yoked. Why? Maybe we believed Jesus when he said that his yoke is easy and his burden light. Maybe we calculated the cost/benefit of being easily and lightly yoked and decided that the benefits outweigh the costs. Or, maybe, we recognized in Christ our only chance to live just and holy lives and jumped at his offer to become his beasts of burden. Regardless of our motivations, we chose this. We sold ourselves to the Lord and now we serve as wagon mules for Jesus! 

Before us, all the way to the Lord, the way is level and smooth. No potholes to dodge, no hills to climb. Behind us, a light load and a patient driver. The yoke we wear doesn't chafe. And yet, all too often for our own good, we feel bound and restricted, locked-in, and oppressed by our work. We know this road. We know every inch, every pebble, every stray blade of grass. The view never changes—always forward, toward another weigh station. How did go from sinners who gladly accepted the yoke of Christ to Christians who balk at the kindest command from our driver? When Jesus invited us to take on his easy yoke, he made it perfectly clear that his yoke is a tool for learning, an instrument for teaching us to be just and holy. If the way appears potholed and steep, it's b/c we have stopped learning, closed ourselves to being taught. Like a stubborn mule needing bridle and bit, we have rebelled against our freely chosen yoke and decided that being a sinner freed to sin is easier, lighter. Have we learned all that Christ has to teach us? Have we graduated from his school of virtue? When are we just enough, holy enough to liberate ourselves from his yoke and walk alone? If we sometimes see the way as potholed and steep, it's b/c we no long choose to learn from Christ. With Christ, as his beast of burden, his student, nothing stands in our way. No road is too rough, no hill to steep. Without him, we are just stubborn mules. 

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  1. Yeah, yeah, yeah...since you put it that way. Time to settle in to work, AGAIN! I keep needing and appreciating these reminders. Though, I don't usually get called a stubborn mule...more often than not I am referred to as an intelligent, albeit smaller, beast of burden.

    1. We've all had our Stubborn Mule Moments!

  2. A general comment. Not living in the South, I may be missing a set of resonances that work there which do not work elsewhere.

    I'd like you to consider how men hear your preaching. Men as in males. Your preaching is not soft and gooey, so that's a good thing. But I don't know how men hear a call to be "mules for Jesus." Again that may be a Southern thing.

    In general, more women than men participate in Church life. That says something. I think you might be well placed to more consciously consider the impact of preaching on males, who are under major attack in our post-feminist society. How can you call them to a kind of Catholic faith which perfect but does not erase (perficit sed non tollit) their natural masculine nature, soul and passions.

    1. US, I'm not sure I'm following your line of thought here. Generally, the daily Mass is pretty evenly split btw men and women. . .mostly retired folks. The same people show everyday.

      How do you see me erasing masculine/male traits in the homily?

    2. Duh. Mules are sterile. I just this second got it. Never occurred to me when I was writing the homily. Down Here we think of mules mostly in terms of "stubborn beasts of burden." I will ask around and see if any of the men at yesterday's Mass got the sterile angle.

    3. My two cents: You can read just about anything into anything if you want to. Mules aren't really stubborn - they're just pretty darn smart and just won't do certain things, so it is a stereotype but, one which most people understand. I kind of laughed at the whole "mule" angle, though it did raise my eyebrows at first. I knew what you meant by it so just put other thoughts aside. Though I don't (usually) go out of my way to offend people, I've learned that it is really their decision to be offended or not. Ages ago, my senior thesis was on the role of women throughout history as seen through drama - so I did a lot of study on gender roles, words used toward/about gender, did the play reflect reality of that time, etc... I pick up on "gender-biased" language very easily, but I usually laugh about it now (hence the laughter about the "mule" thing) - spent too many years and wasted energy being offended: it is SO not worth it. The term "mule" could offend or be off-putting to women just as easily!

      And, hey, if you ever offend me I'll let you know - though I may come back later and delete my comment :-).

    4. No. Mules are stubborn. End of discussion. ;-)

      Seriously though, mules probably aren't stubborn but everyone gets the reference, especially since the image is engraved in scripture.

      If anyone in the congregation that day were offended, they didn't report it to me.

  3. Sorry, Father, I was not clear in my comment. I didn't get the sterility angle either! It was more the beast of burden for Jesus thing. Didn't seem attractive to a man. Prolly not for a woman, but they are best left to speak for themselves, as you surely know :)

    As I said, your preaching is not gooey and New Agey and vague and neutering. But I was wondering if you ever consciously ask yourself how males would hear you? And not just at that particular daily Mass, but generally.

    Comes from a belief of mine, certainly shared by and written about by other men, that the Church --not just Catholic-- is uncomfortable territory for lots of men, as men.

    You seemed (and seem) to be a priest who could think about this issue without either personal defensiveness or avoiding the issue for fear of offending feminists. (Which are the two responses I most often get.)

    1. Honestly, it never occurs to me to think in terms in male/female unless the readings specifically address an issue pertinent to sex/gender, e.g. the woman at the well. IOW, I almost never ask myself, "How will the women (or men) in the congregation hear this?" Usually, I'm more focused on how the readings address human failures/successes and how our faith--properly understood--helps us to be more perfectly like Christ. There was one homily way back in 2007 where I addressed the college-aged men at Mass to find the courage to consider a vocation to the priesthood. There I used decidedly masculine images and language to tell them to Cowboy Up and say yes to a vocation if they were so called.

    2. Methinks you may be taking that Manosphere stuff way too seriously... :)