Sunday, October 02, 2016

Yoke of Discipleship

20th Sunday after Pentecost – St. Francis Sunday
Matthew 11.25-30
St. Paul’s Emmanuel, Santa Paula

As you might have guessed by the presence of our four-legged guests, today is St. Francis Sunday. Oh yeah, and the bulletin cover might give it away, as well. This is the Sunday we commemorate St. Francis of Assisi. In our own time, Francis is greatly loved and admired because of his love of animals. So we honor him by blessing the animals in our own lives, which we will do after the sermon and prayers of the people. But to be honest, Francis’ love of animals was not the most significant thing about him, of who he was. Although this is what endears him to us, his love of animals was not what made him a saint. In our eyes, maybe, but not in the eyes of the Church.

Francis was born in the late 12th century into an upper class family, the son of a prosperous silk merchant. Like the sons of the rich and powerful of his day, Francis enjoyed the carefree and high-spirited life that his family’s status afforded. But in his early 20s, he began a spiritual conversion, prompted by mystical visions. This caused him to lose his taste for the worldly life of the upper class. He began taking more of an interest in and seeking to help the poor and the marginalized. Which he did in the extreme. This infuriated his father, as Francis was giving away goods and money from the family business to help the poor. And then, on a pilgrimage to Rome, he joined the poor in begging at St. Peter’s Basilica – an experience that profoundly moved him. Upon returning to Assisi, he stepped up his practice of selling cloth from his father’s business to help the poor and to help local churches fund their ministries. This was the final straw for Francis’ father, who brought him up on charges before the Bishop of Assisi. Standing in the town square, in front of the Bishop and his father, surrounded by townsfolk, Francis renounced his father, his claim to the family inheritance, and all the worldly possessions received from his father. Including the clothes on his back, which he stripped off and laid at his father’s feet. From that moment, Francis embraced poverty, living as a beggar.

Francis also began preaching the Gospel, particularly the need for repentance. He was soon joined by others who were attracted to his message and to his devotion to “Lady Poverty.” Within a few years, the Franciscan Order, the Order of Friars Minor, was established by Francis and sanctioned by the Pope. Francis spent the rest of his short life dedicated to poverty and proclaiming the message of care for the poor, the sick, and the marginalized.

So where do the animals come into all this? Francis firmly believed in the inherent beauty and goodness of God’s creation. He preached to humans and animals alike the duty of all creatures to praise God. He also proclaimed the duty of humanity to protect nature as the stewards of God’s creation in recognition that we are creatures ourselves. He believed that nature itself was the mirror of God and called all creatures his “brothers” and “sisters.” One of the most famous scenes illustrating these beliefs occurred when Francis was traveling with some companions just outside Assisi. They came to a place in the road where birds filled the trees on either side. Legend has it that Francis told his companions “wait for me while I go preach to my sisters the birds.” The birds gathered around him, intrigued by the power of his voice. This has become the iconic image of Francis and his love and care for animals.

Of course, as we have seen, the story of St. Francis is about so much more than his love for animals. What he was really about was absolute devotion to Christ. To carrying on the mission and ministry of Christ as fully as humanly possible. Without a doubt, no one else in history was as dedicated as Francis to imitating the life and carrying out the work of Christ – in the same way Christ did. His is really a story of discipleship. St. Francis is the epitome of discipleship.

The Gospel reading appointed for St. Francis Day speaks to this absolute devotion that Francis exhibited in his own life and ministry. This Gospel is about the life of discipleship. Our Gospel reading breaks down into two distinct parts. First is a preamble of what is needed to even consider discipleship, expressed in the form of a rather cryptic prayer. And the second is an invitation to discipleship, expressed in the form of paradoxical imagery.

Jesus opens our Gospel reading with a prayer. He cryptically thanks God for having hidden “things from the wise and the intelligent and [for revealing] them to infants” (Mt 11.25). These things hidden by the Father are the mysteries of how God operates in creation. Especially as related to issues of judgment and mercy. Of how God chooses to deal with the powerful and the marginalized, the strong and the weak. Of resignation to the ways of the world as opposed to the acceptance of God’s divine justice. While these mysteries have been hidden from some, Jesus prays about how God chooses to make these mysteries known to others. How God has chosen to share all of creation with Jesus, who in turn chooses to share it with those he refers to as infants. This is not a derogatory term, but rather a term of endearment. Those who, like children, are full of wonder and open to seeing creation as God sees it.

These infants are to those who are open to God’s message. Those who have faith and seek to follow Jesus. As one commentator notes, “It is the spiritual ‘infants’, the least theologically sophisticated people, those with the fewest illusions about their own powers of understanding, who know how to receive Jesus in humility and so gain access to the one he came to reveal” (Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 3, Homiletical Perspective, p. 217). Those who are open to seeing the truth of God’s purposes as exemplified in the life and ministry of Jesus Christ. Those who are open to following the example of Jesus Christ in their own lives and ministries. Francis saw himself as one of those infants to whom Jesus was referring in his prayer. We, too, are among those infants, called to the potential and possibility of a life of discipleship.

The second part of our Gospel reading is an explicit invitation to discipleship. And it is an image of what that life of discipleship means for those who accept it. “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Mt 11.28-30).

As Jesus spoke of yoked oxen as imagery for the life of discipleship, he undoubtedly had in mind the burdens the people of his own day carried. A people burdened by laws imposed by the Pharisees – laws which conformed to and sought to reinforce their own personal interpretation of God’s will. He undoubtedly had in mind those who were burdened by the yoke of the Roman Empire, which imposed their own taxes and regulations on the people. Systems that disregarded the religious precepts of the Jewish people. But this imagery of yoked oxen carries equal meaning in any age. Of the people of God who are burdened by the ways of secular societies and governments, particularly when at odds with God’s commandments. Certainly, Francis found the yoke under which he was born difficult, the burden heavy. The oppression of wealth and power exercised against the poor and the marginalized. The fact that the poor and the marginalized could not thrive because of the social and political systems that worked against them.

What Jesus offers is a yoke that is counter to that of secular society. As a corrective to the yoke of society’s burdens, Jesus calls those who follow him to take on a different yoke. How we respond to the call to discipleship is demonstrated in the concrete ways we live out our faith. He calls us to be mindful that living a life of discipleship means living our lives in faithfulness to God’s laws in the sure and certain hope of what God offers – new life. Faithfulness to God’s vision of creation. That just as a yoke guides oxen along a particular path, Christ’s yoke guides us along God’s path.

When taking on this yoke, we need to consider what Jesus says about it.  He says “learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” For this we need to understand how a yoke truly works. It is not meant to be a device that burdens, but a device that is actually meant to lighten the burden. A yoke binds two or more animals together, where they work in partnership so that no single animal bears the full load, so that no single animal is unjustly burdened. When it comes to discipleship, the yoke is indeed an apt image, as we all have a part to play in carrying the load – working in partnership. And more importantly, Jesus is part of that partnership. When we walk in his ways, when we follow him, we are guided along the right and true path that leads to the fulfillment of the kingdom. Of the fulfillment of the mysteries Jesus prays about. Jesus’ bidding to take up his yoke is a powerful invitation to discipleship – integrating our faith into our daily lives through faithful stewardship of all that has been entrusted to us, working in partnership with him, deepening our relationship with him in the process.

As we transition from my pastorate to Cindy’s, this imagery is very important for our parish. Going from full-time to part-time clergy leadership means changes in how things are done. If the same things are going to be done around here, there will be more of a need for collaboration. There will need to be a shift in responsibilities. There will need to be a sharing of work. What that looks like will only develop with time, as you live into this new reality. The yoke of Christ is crucial to the continued success of St. Paul’s Emmanuel. Of this parish continuing to thrive. Of it being able to move forward into the future. You and Cindy are bound together, sharing the burden. Bound together, with Christ, that burden of shaping who this parish is, what you will become, and where you will go, is made lighter. Together. Working as disciples of the One who will guide you into a beautiful future together. The future God is gently beckoning you into. Together.

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