NB. Deacon is preaching tonight. . .
14th Sunday OT (2008)
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St Paul’s Hospital, Dallas, TX
14th Sunday OT (2008)
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St Paul’s Hospital, Dallas, TX
If you have spent any time at all splitting cord-wood for the fireplace; or digging a foundation for a new house; or shoveling gravel for a roadbed; or if you have spent most of a Saturday washing and drying laundry, vacuuming the carpets, dusting and polishing the furniture, and cleaning up after a late dinner, then Christ’s invitation to take on his yoke as a lighter burden could be very appealing. Even the day to day grind at the office, the store, the classroom, the bank, wherever it is you grind away a day, the work you do can easily become a burden, not just a difficult job but a tremendous weight, an unbalanced unload that threatens to topple you over into despair. Perched on top of this leaning tower of worries and work, none of us needs a religion that imposes another set of burdens, an additional heavy-bookload of obligations, penalties, policies, and rules. The last thing we need is for our relationship with God to become work, a tedious job, a dutiful burden. And so, Jesus says, “All things have been handed over to me by my Father…Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest…For my yoke is easy, and my burden light.”
We might wonder what sort of yoke Christ would use. He says his yoke would be easy and the burden light, but a yoke is a yoke no matter how easy, and being tied to any sort of burden means pulling a weight no matter how light. I start thinking about being yoked to a burden and several questions come to mind: will I be pulling this light burden uphill? Or across sand? Stone? In traffic or out in the wild? Will it be raining or snowing or will I have to pull this burden in the heat and humidity of a July in Texas? Other questions come to mind: what’s in it for me? Is this a paid gig? Insurance, benefits? Is there a Light Burden Haulers union? Vacation time, sick days, opportunities for advancement? Does Jesus offer a tuition credit for further studies? And, by the way, exactly what is it that I will be hauling? Since I’m a peaceful man I really can’t in good conscience haul military equipment. I will haul medical equipment and supplies so long as none of them will be used for abortions or sterilizations. Will I have to haul loads going to churches other than the Catholic Church? Anyway, all good questions, but questions that miss the point entirely. These questions are asked “according to the flesh.” All Jesus is asking us to haul under his easy yoke is the light load of knowing that he is the Christ sent by the Father to free us from sin and grant us eternal life. He says, “…for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for yourselves.”
Find rest of ourselves…is this what we do when we come to believe that Jesus is the Christ? Isn’t it more often the case that we find ingenuous ways of throwing scattered junk and assorted debris on top of our easy burden, weighing down the load with more and more waste, more and more unnecessary rubbish? And as our load grows larger and the burden more difficult to manage, who is it that we blame? Jesus? The Church? Religion in general? Our Lord tells us that his Father has hidden certain truths from the “the wise and the learned,” but that He has revealed these truths to the “little ones.” Are you wise and learned, or are you a little one? The difference between the two has everything to do with whether or not you think your burden is light enough, your path straight enough, and his yoke easy enough.
In one of his many sermons,* St. Augustine has this to say about our gospel passage, "All other burdens oppress and crush you, but Christ's burden actually lightens your load. All other burdens weigh you down, but Christ's burden gives you wings. If you cut away a bird's wings, it might seem as though you are taking off some of its weight, but the more weight you take off [by removing its wings], the more you tie the bird down to the earth. There it is lying on the ground, and you wanted to relieve it of a burden; give it back the weight of its wings, and you will see how it flies." The wise and the learned know that the heavier an object is the more work it takes to make it fly. Lighter objects need less work to fly. But the little ones know that a bird cannot fly without the weight of its wings. Christ’s yoke, his burden on us weighs less than bird bones and feathers.
Paul, writing to the Romans, teaches us, “You are not in the flesh; on the contrary, you are in the spirit, if only the Spirit of God dwells in you…” As baptized and confirmed members of the Body of Christ, God’s Spirit does dwell within us. And since God’s Spirit abides in us, “the one who raised Christ from the dead will give life to [our] mortal bodies…” And since our mortal bodies will be given the life of the resurrection of the dead when our Lord returns for us, “brothers and sisters, we are not debtors to the flesh, to live according to the flesh…” And so, we are to live as Little Ones—the poor, the broken, the thrown away, the diseased, those who rush to Jesus for a word of healing, just one touch to see justice done.
Why must be become so little? Because to be filled with the Spirit we must first be emptied out as Christ himself was emptied out for us on the Cross. There is no room for God’s Spirit in a body crowded with fear, worry, anger, a lust for revenge, a desire to punish; there is no room for God in a soul stuffed full with the need to worship alien gods; to kill the innocent; to torture the enemy. Greed, jealousy, rage, promiscuity, dissent, all elbow sharply at our souls for more space for themselves but make no room for God. Paul warns us: “…if you live according to the flesh, you will die…” If we will live, we must “put to death the deeds of the body…”
Nothing that you have heard Jesus or Paul say this morning should surprise you. You know the consequences of sin. Firstly, sin makes you stupid. Disobedience quenches the fire of the intellect, so that you choose evil over good. Do this often enough and you become a fool. Secondly, since sin makes you foolish, you come to believe that you are wise. If you are also learned, that is, well-educated in the world, you might even begin to believe that you better than God Himself what is best for you. Enter all those nervous questions about the nature of Jesus’ burden and the weight of his revelation to you. Finally, since sin makes you a wise and learned fool, you may come to believe that you can do without God altogether, becoming, for all intents and purposes, your own god, worshiping at the altar of Self. At this point, you have excluded yourself from God’s love and the company of the blessed. Welcome to Hell. Maybe the Devil will let you rule a small corner of your favorite level, but don’t count on it. You know the consequences of sin. So empty yourself. Make plenty of room for God’s Spirit.
If we will come among the blessed and thrive in holiness, then we will take on the light and easy yoke of Jesus and let him teach us the one thing we must know above all else: He is the Christ sent by the Father so that we might have eternal life. This is not the end of our spiritual journey; it is just the beginning. Christ’s warnings about the wise and learned are not meant to push a kind of anti-intellectualism, a know-nothing party of prejudice and blindness. In fact, it is because we are first weighted down with the feather-light wisdom of Jesus’ yoke that we must then come to understand our faith, to use our graced minds to explore and comprehend God’s creation—ourselves and everything else. If we are emptied of the deeds of the flesh and infused with the Spirit of God, then our bodies too are graced, and we have nothing to fear from the mind, nothing to worry about in seeking out knowledge and understanding. To know God’s creation better is to know God Himself better, and when we know God better and better, we become smaller and smaller and more and more ready to receive the only revelation we need to come to Him, the only burden from Him we must carry: Jesus is the Christ!
*Sermon 126, my version
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