Sunday, March 18, 2018
Tuesday, January 23, 2018
Preached at St. Margaret of Scotland Anglican Church, Diocese of Toronto, Barrie, Ontario, on Sunday, 21 January 2018, The Third Sunday After Epiphany.
Readings for this Sunday: Jonah 3:1-5,10; Psalm 62:5-12; 1 Corinthians 7:9-31; Mark 1: 14-20.
Take gender. We live in an age of the Me Too movement, where women in the entertainment industry and in business are telling us that the sexism and abuse of powerful men has to stop. Almost every day we here about domestic violence and murder directed against ordinary women and children in our communities. What should we as followers of Jesus learn from how he treated the women around him? The scholar and novelist Dorothy Sayers once famously said that “it is no wonder that the women were first at the Cradle and last at the Cross”, because Jesus never once in all his teaching suggested that women were in no way inferior or in any way deficient to men. How can we, in our lives as a congregation, in our homes and workplaces, show that all people, regardless of gender or orientation, are fully loved and equal citizens of the kingdom of God?
Jesus is calling. Are you ready for an adventure?
Sunday, December 17, 2017
Wednesday, December 6, 2017
Kay Leslie Brown
6 July, 1952 - 25 November, 2017
St. Margaret of Scotland Anglican Church, Barrie, ON, 3 December, 2017
Bishop Shaw, dear colleagues, friends, fellow parishioners, on behalf of my family and Kay’s family, I thank you all for joining us today to pray for and to remember an extraordinary person and faithful Christian, Kay Leslie Brown. Kay received so many acts of kindness and compassion from so many of you during her long illness that any words of gratitude I could offer would be wholly inadequate.
Kay was always tickled that when we were married, three priests and a postulant, so, for you non-Anglicans, three and a half priests, officiated at our wedding. I think we have that number beaten today, as there must be a small platoon of clergy and chaplains present. Kay would enjoy that fact.
As I wrote this eulogy, I was mindful that Kay would probably not have had much interest in what I said about her, because she would never have wanted to be the focus of this event. Kay designed this funeral, chose the readings and the hymns, so that it would be about her God.
For Kay, the words of the liturgy, the proclamation of the word, and the faithful preaching of the gospel were what mattered. That was the exacting standard that she held my own sermons up to. If I saw her frowning face in the congregation, I knew I wasn’t doing well. Sometimes, in the car on the way home, she’d say “You did OK.” When it came to preaching, she was my fiercest and best critic.
In that respect, Kay always reminded me of the figure of John the Baptist, as painted in the Isenheim Altarpiece in the 1500s by Matthias Gunewald. John is depicted off to the side, pointing to the figure of Christ on the cross. The theologian Karl Barth loved this painting. I know that Kay would be rolling her eyes at my working a theologian into her eulogy, but darling, you always knew that I was a geek.
Barth said that the church must always be like John in that painting, not calling attention to itself, but rather directing attention to the cross and to Christ’s work there in defeating our enemy of sin and death. That was Kay, like John the Baptist, always pointing to the cross. Anytime she spoke up in the life of the church, you could be sure that would be asking, often impatiently, where was God in all our human activity.
However, darling, I am not here as a priest or a preacher. I am here to talk about you and about what a privilege it was to be your husband. So bear with me. I’ll speak about you briefly, and then get out of the way of the church’s true business, as you would want.
Kay fought a two front war with cancer and diabetes, and in the last year of that struggle she wrote a bible study on how our faith helps us to deal with pain and suffering. She spoke on that subject with great authority. People often told me how they were in awe of Kay’s calm, even serene, composure. As she liked to say, God gave her “the peace which passes all understanding”.
Despite four significant surgeries in three years, and long hospitalizations, Kay was gracious and kind with others. As her body slowly failed her, she never gave in to self-pity or despair. I saw her comfort other patients, nurses, and even embrace the young doctor who burst into tears as she told Kay that she had reached the end of what medicine could do for her and that she would soon die. A priest friend of mine told me that he went to the hospital to bless Kay, and he came away blessed. So while I regret that Kay never got to lead that bible study on living with pain and suffering, a friend pointed out to me the other day that, in a very real way, she did teach that lesson, just by the way she lived and died.
Kay would have been the first to tell you that her peacefulness and calm did not come from within, but rather were spiritual gifts. Kay was not a saint, and she was not always a person of faith. In her youth, she liked to say that she was, in her words, “a flaming atheist”. In her passion for research and for the scientific method, Kay convinced herself that she had to jettison her faith, but God had other plans. In the twenty years I was at her side, I saw Kay struggle with God’s call. I think God had the upper hand in that struggle, because God simply reminded Kay of who she was and of who she had always been.
Kay was always a person attuned to God’s justice and grace. Growing up in the southern United States in the 1950s and 60s, Kay saw things that would stay with her all her life. She often told me how, as a girl, she didn’t understand why there were separate water fountains for coloured people. At the same time she saw her father, a devoted civil servant, give the same care to black clients as he did to white ones. Martin Luther King was one of her early and lifelong heroes. Kay always believed that the moral arc of the universe bent towards the good, even if she stopped believing, for a while, that the moral arc came from and led back to God.
Despite being a profound introvert at times, she attracted the misfits and the hurting, who sensed her compassion and patience. Kay had deep reserves of empathy and kindness. Even while she was still a self-proclaimed “flaming atheist”, she paid the tuition of a friend so she could go to seminary. She gave freely because she had a big heart, an innate sense of decency, and an ability to see the other’s point of view.
What led Kay back to God is a long story. I think partly it was circumstances, the people and places that God led us to, and I think it was also the frustration of her hopes to make a career in science and academia. Kay had dreamed of winning a Nobel prize, and her academic career ended in frustration, partly due to bad luck and partly due to Kay’s struggles with mental illness. I was attracted to Kay because of her warmth, humour, and creativity, but I soon realized that these moments came at a cost. She had violent swings into depression and despair, and her darkest period was when she had to walk away from the university environment that she had built her identity on.
I don’t doubt for a second that it was God who led Kay out of that dark valley. It took years for us to build a new life together. Her career was ending as mine was taking off and that was a source of tension as well. We learned the hard way how to build a marriage based on mutual respect, careful listening, giving and taking. Early on I mostly took, and Kay gave, a lot. She found satisfaction in building elaborate and beautiful gardens, in which she combined a scientific method with the flair and soul of an artist, and then she had to walk away from them, repeatedly. Becoming a military spouse, at an age when most people are looking forward to settling down and staying in one place, meant that she had to move, frequently, and that got harder and harder on her. Soldiers get the medals, but really the medals should go to spouses like Kay, who gave so much to advance my career.
I think the last ten years of her life were probably the best. Kay found the right psychiatrist and the right medication, and the black clouds of her depression mostly lifted and vanished. She made friends, and opened her house to others - wandering chaplains, military people far from home, strays and misfits - all were welcome at her table. Kay thrived in a series of churches - St. Barnabas in Medicine Hat, St. Columba’s in Waterloo, and, of course, here. I have no doubt that Kay could have made significant contributions to the life of St. Margaret’s and St. Giles in the years to come, had it pleased God to leave her with us. I also have no doubt that God completed his work in Kay, by bringing her to a good place in these years. Kay’s deep and integral goodness, her joyfulness and compassion for others, her plain speaking and prophetic voice, all these things came through strongly. Kay was no longer a flaming atheist, she was simply flaming, a bright beacon of God’s power to bind up and restore.
I will always be profoundly grateful for the privilege of being Kay’s husband. In my mind’s eye I will always see her as she was, her strong and capable hands weeding a garden or paddling a stream, her mouth quirked in wonder or humour, her eyes wide and seeing the beauty of the world and the people around her. In her last years, as she grew increasingly sick and frail, Kay would talk about the resurrection body that God would give her. She hoped that when she got to heaven, that God would give her some challenging scientific assignment, like designing a new plant species, or managing a supernova. No sitting around playing the harp for Kay! I have no doubt that one day we will look on Kay again, in whatever form God pleases to give her, and that she will burn as bright and fierce and glorious as any star in heaven.
Thursday, October 12, 2017
I bought and read this book, then reviewed it, thinking i was a new publication. 2010 isn’t exactly new, but it’s a terrific book and well worth your time. MP+
Daniel Swift, Bomber Country: The Poetry of a Lost Pilot's War. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 2010.
“The beach where the body washed up is wide and white, with cafes raised on stilts and couples drinking beer in the sand. There are windsurfers; children smacking the waves. He came to land in the middle of a summer holiday, and the mismatch is startling after the calm of the cemeteries where my father and I have spent the day.”
Bomber Country is a difficult book to classify: part genealogy, part elegy, part literary criticism. The body is that of a Royal Air Force pilot, whose Lancaster crashed in the North Sea in June of 1943, on its way home from raiding Munster in Germany’s Rhur Valley. In a cemetery near the Dutch town of Bergen Op Zoom is the grave of Squadron Leader James Eric Swift, the author’s grandfather. He is buried with other bomber crew, whose bodies were recovered from the sea or found on the beach. Was his grandfather that pilot, washed up on the Dutch coast in June, as family memory would have it?
As Swift and his father stroll through the cemetery, they note the short verses and couplets, some profound, others homespun, on some of the gravestones. For Swift, clearly immersed himself in poetry, he thinks of the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas, who wrote of the dead that “The shall have stars at elbow and foot … Though they sink through the sea they shall rise again”. Thomas spent the war years in Wales and London, saw the effects of German air raids, and who memorialized those killed by bombing, the young girl and the old man, “dropped where he loved on the burst pavement stone / And the funeral grains on the slaughtered floor”.
Three connections – a dead airman, verses in a cemetery, a poet in an air raid – lead us into the heart of Swift’s book, which examines the prominence of the air war in the English language poetry of World War Two. To establish this connection, Swift fist has to remind us that the war produced poetry of any note. He briefly takes on the idea that everything about modern war was said, better and more prettily, by the soldier poets of the First World War, like Wilfrid Owen and Siegfried Sassoon. The poetry of the Second World War is far less canonized, in part, Swift argues, because of opinions like those of the late Paul Fussell, long the dean of war literature, who wrote that the conflict of 1939-45 was “a savage, insensate affair, barely conceivable to the well-conducted imagination” (15). Swift also argues that the soldier poets of the trenches created the idea that poetry was about war on land, when in fact Owen imagined himself as a pilot in “battle with the Super-Zeppelin … this would be chivalry more than Arthur dreamed of” (26).
In fact, argues Swift, the war in the air captured many imaginations. For those on the ground, like Day Lews, it was the fear of being air raids, as “searchlights set the low cloud smoking” and fear in “a terrified heart, / under the bomb-strokes” (30-31). For the aircrew whose verses are collected in the wartime volume Air Force Poetry (1944), their war combined the exhilaration of flight “Along the pillared streets of cloud” with a clear-eyed awareness of their mortality, for no wartime trade in the Allied militaries suffered great casualties than the combat aircrew: “they’ll die … / More swiftly, cleanly, star-defined, than you will ever feel”. Among these young and doomed poets, Swift also finds a brutal honesty about what bomber crews are called to do:
The moon in the star-laden sky
becomes a thin smile, as the hand moves
the bomb-release, and others, compacted
of bone and blood the same even, die below.
These lines remind us that the air war was largely about dropping bombs on people, mostly civilian, more or less indiscriminately. While the Germans started this war (the Blitz in the poetic imagination takes up a large part of Swift’s early chapters), the Allies finished it, decisively and terribly. The lasting ambivalence about the bombing campaign may also explain our preference for the Great War poets of the trenches, who like all soldiers of that war were more victim than killer. Despite the fact that the aircrew also died in their tens of thousands, the poetry of their war is far more morally ambivalent than the outraged verse of Owen or Sassoon.
In search of this war, Swift goes to Bomber Country. The name refers to the part of England, from the Midlands to East Anglia, where the Royal Air Force and the US Army Air Force concentrated its many airbases to strike targets throughout NW Europe and beyond. Today one can buy local guidebooks to Bomber Country and its abandoned airfields. For Swift, Bomber Country is also the past, the home of a man he never knew and who his father barely knew. Using diaries and memoirs, he reconstructs the life his father knew, from the monotony of training to busy bases and constant raids. Bomber Country is also a literary place, whose poets, like Randall Jarrell, help Swift imagine his grandfather’s life:
And the crews climb to them clumsily as bears.
The head withdraws into its hatch (a boys),
The engines rise to their blind laboring roar,
And the green, made beasts run home to air.
The poets’ realism about their survival prospects also helps Swift understand the studied banality of his grandfather’s letters home, about life in camp and a local “fish & chip shop that does quite a decent egg & chips”. In the poetry of John Ciardi, an American bomber crewman, he finds the sentiments that were probably unsaid in his grandfather’s homey letters.
Darling, darling, just in case
Rivets fall or engines burn,
I forget the time and place
But your flesh was sweet to learn
Finally, Bomber Country is also a metaphor for the bomber’s targets. It is the bombed city, be it English or German, and the poetry that imagines destruction and survival. Thus, T.S. Eliot’s lines from “Little Gidding” about a bombed house, “the place where a story ended”, informs Swift’s visit to Munster, which his grandfather bombed, and where Swift meets survivors of these raids. He meets an old clergyman who served in a flak battery until the raids became too overwhelming to defend against, and who passed the raids reading Dante’s Divine Comedy. Swift thinks of the souls Dante describes in the burning desert
And over all that sand on which they lay
or crouched or roamed, great flaks of flame fell slowly
as snow falls in the Alps on a windless day.
Bomber Country is ultimately an unknowable place, what Hamlet called “that undiscovered country, from whose bourn no traveler returns”. His grandfather exists in photos, in letters, and in a file in a Dutch archive with a German document from 17 June, 1943, recording the burial, “with military honours”, of an unknown airman washed ashore, whose shirt was labelled “J.E. Swift”. This airman who fell to earth becomes an almost mythological figure, like Icarus, and in a final mediation, the grandson imagines another poet who wrote of Icarus, W.H. Auden, who toured Bomber Country as part of the US Strategic Bombing Survey, just after the war’s end. In desolate Munich, “the abolished City”, Auden locates Munich in a poetic landscape of ruined towns going back to Troy and beyond.
This is the way things happen; for ever and ever
Plum-blossom falls on the dead, the road of the waterfall covers
The cries of the whipped and the sighs of the lovers
And the hard bright light composes
A meaningless moment into an eternal fact.
At the end of his journey, Swift comes to recognize that his search through Bomber Country was to participate in this process, by which “the meaningless moment” becomes “the eternal fact”.
Bomber Country is a remarkable and haunting book. As a connection of history, art and memory, it is in the tradition of Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory (1975), but pitched in a more intimate key. Parts genealogy and family history read through the literary lens of the stages of the hero’s quest, Swift’s journey touches on the historic past, in so far as we can know it, while acknowledging our desire to mythologize the past. Swift is a sensitive literary critic and cultural historian, and a skilled stylist in his own right. If I have any uncertainties about this book, it is only whether I should put it on my history shelf or my literary shelf.
Friday, September 29, 2017
McKay and Swift’s main thesis is that this ideal of a monument to peace was hijacked by a militaristic, nationalistic view of Canadian history that ignored the horrors of World War One. The authors describe this view as “Vimyism”, meaning a glorification and simplification of war, a desire to see Canada as always being on the side of right, and to see the battle of Vimy Ridge as the birth of a nation that was in fact far from unified. This idea of “Vimyism”, which becomes a long screed against militarism, is where McKay and Swift overplay their hand while pointing at some important truths.
Sunday, September 17, 2017
Preached Sunday, 17 September, 2017, St. Margaret of Scotland Anglican Church, Barrie, ON, Anglican Diocese of Toronto
Lections for this Sunday: Exodus 14:19-31; Psalm 103: 8-13; Romans 14: 1-12; Matthew 18: 21-35
We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. (Romans 14: 7-8)
Who do our lives belong to? Or, for that matter, who do our deaths belong to? In the western secular world, over the last three or so centuries, a general consensus has been that our lives belong to ourselves. Our desire for personal freedom and autonomy, our desire to chose our paths in life, has led us to believe very strongly in human freedom. For example, we commonly tell young children, particularly girls, that they can grow up to be whatever they want to be This is at it should be. I think we would all agree that we want to live in a world where children can become astronauts or nurses, pilots or politicians, stay at home programmers and parents, regardless of their colour, gender, or religion.
At the same time, these expectations lead us to believe that we are belong to ourselves, that we are, each of us, our own projects. As the poem Invictus puts it, we want to be the masters of our fate and the captains of our souls. We want to be self-reliant, to decide who, if anyone, we are responsible for. Wealth and health are important because they allow us to seek this independence. Some Christian preachers bless this mindset by preaching a prosperity gospel that promises wealth and freedom to those that God wants to bless.
Even in death, we seek to be self-reliant. Some even dream of immortality, as some technology billionaires do who invest in projects to conquer the process of aging, or failing that to upload their minds into computers. Lacking such resources, must of us prefer a peaceful oblivion. The theologian Stanley Hauerwas likes to say that given the choice, most people would prefer to die peacefully, in their sleep, so that we don’t know that we’re dying. If we can ignore death, then we can ignore our finitude, thus avoid the hard limits of our autonomy.
The church that Paul was writing to in Rome would have had a very different understanding of what the human life was all about. The idea of being the master of one’s self would have been largely foreign to them. Many would have been poor, and some would have been servants or even slaves of others. So, when Paul speaks earlier in Romans 14 about the dangers of being judgemental, he writes “Who are you to pass judgment on servants of another? It is before their own lord that they will stand or fall” (Rom 14:4-6). Paul is this writing to a congregation who know that their lives are not their own, who live in an intricate and oppressive social web of class and hierarchy.
One of the things which made the gospel so revolutionary, and so attractive, for these Christians, was that it exploded the categories of freedom and put all believers on the same level as men and women who were given freedom and equality by Christ. This, in the next breath, Paul writes that all believers, even servants and slaves, will be given their freedom through the gospel: “they will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make them stand” (Rom 14: 4). This idea of equality through faith is I think why Paul is so passionate, here in Romans and elsewhere in his letters, about why believers should tolerate and allow differences in religious practice between themselves. Some might keep Jewish holy days and practices, others as gentiles might eat food that was offensive to others. Paul didn’t want the Roman believers to fall into divisions and camps based on these old beliefs, because he saw them as all being equal to one another through Christ, who lived and died for all.
This extravagant love of God in Christ, given for all regardless of class or wealth or even the number of sins committed, creates a new relationship between God and humanity. Instead of belonging to other people, the Romans belong to God in Christ, giving them a dignity and a freedom that they have never known before. This new relationship shapes the community of the church. This is why, as Father Simon preached last week, forgiveness and reconciliation in the church is as important as it is necessary. God who forgives us and reconciles with us, despite all that we have done and not done, creates a spirit or a culture which becomes the culture of the church and God’s gift to the church. So Paul today, when he tells us in Romans not to judge one another, for that judgement is God’s work alone, and only through God’s love and grace in Christ will we be able to stand before that judgement.
We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.
So in life, so in death. Paul tells the Romans that they belong to God in life, and after life. For the believers of Paul’s day, whose lives on average were much shorter than our own, and who knew nothing of our modern medicine, I am sure that this verse was greatly reassuring. And yet, in the dark moments of our own health crises, sorrow, and grieving, are these words not just as reassuring to us? For this reason, the church has, since its beginning, advocated the idea of the good death, a time when we prepare for our end, seek absolution of our sins, and, as Christ did, hand ourselves over into the keeping of God in trust and submission to his power and his love.
As most of you know, for the past few years, my wife Kay has lived with advanced cancer and with all its various indignities. Since we’ve come to join this yparish, Kay has lived through several life-threatening complications, and is currently in hospital facing new challenges. She is not alone in this, others among you have faced or are facing situations that are just as severe. And some of us grieve, for grief is seldom stale, but always close to the surface. What gives Kay and (sometimes, me) much of our strength is that we know two things.
First, we experience God’s love through the pastoral care, love, and support of this parish, including from members whose care for Kay has been selfless and generous. This generosity was remarkable and we are grateful for it, but it is not just the generosity of one or two extraordinary people. Rather, it is the generosity of spirit that comes from the church as a community that knows it exists because of the love of Christ, and so that it might continue its relationship of love for Christ and through Christ to one another
Second, we know that in life, and in death, we are the Lord’s. We will always be the Lords. We know that whatever may happen to our frail and fickle bodies, wherever we will go after our death, we will be held in God’s hands, safe in the mind and love of God, until it pleases God to raise us on the day of resurrection.
This Thursday, as I hope to kick off the theology on tap project, I chose as our opening question, What is the Point of Being Christian? I think it’s a good starting point, even if it makes it sound like being Christian is a lifestyle choice that we make, like choosing to do yoga or follow a certain kind of diet. What if, instead of a choice that we made, being Christian was simply being aware of our belonging to God? Can we live in a way that doesn’t jealously guard our autonomy, in a way that is open to the fact that we belong to God, in life, and in death, and that through that belonging we find our true fulfillment and happiness?
Saturday, July 8, 2017
The Better Burden: A Sermon Preached at St. Margaret of Scotland Anglican Church, Barrie, Ontario (Diocese of Toronto), 9 July 2017
Readings for the Fifth Sunday After Pentecost, Genesis 24:34-38,42-49,58-67; Psalm 45:10-17; Romans 7:15-25a; Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30
28 "Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. 29 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. 30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light."
If you are an Anglican of a certain vintage, you will recall that in the Service of Holy Communion according to the Book of Common Prayer, there were four quotations from scripture that were collectively referred to as the Comfortable Words. One of them is taken from today’s gospel reading from Matthew 11.
Come unto me all that travail and are heavy laden, and I will refresh you. St. Matthew 11.28
Taken together, the four quotations of the Comfortable Words functioned as an assurance of salvation. They assured the would-be communicant that he or she would be welcome at the table of a loving and gracious God who had forgiven our sins. In a very real sense, these words reminded us that there were no barriers between us and God. They were comfortable in the sense that they eased the troubled and guilty soul and allowed us to relax into God’s love.
My Anglican upbringing probably explains how I reacted once to a certain question. When I was responsible for the chapel of a small military base out West, I got a call from the Base Maintenance office to say that I they wanted to replace the old sign on the front lawn with a new one. “What do you want on your sign, Padre?’, they asked me.
I thought long and hard about what sort of sign might attract the many young soldiers passing through the base, many tired and stressed after long wargames out on the prairie. I remembered listening to the Comfortable Words as a child and I decided on Matthew 11:28: "Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” That verse beautifully captured the sense of welcome and peacefulness that I wanted the chapel to offer to its visitors.
It may not surprise you to learn that the following verses, 11:29-30, did NOT make it onto my sign. For one thing, there wasn’t enough room, but even if there had been room, I wanted to avoid the two mentions of “yoke” and the word “burden”. Neither word seemed to offer the right sort of invitation to someone who’s been sweating for weeks at a time under a heavy pack and helmet.
Even for us civilians, unburdened by helmets and rucksacks, there is a paradox in these words of Jesus. How can a yoke be easy? How can a burden be light? And beyond the paradox lies a thought which our contemporary mindset finds deeply unattractive. When the idea of the good life, to quote the old Eagles song, is to be “running down the road, trying to loosen my load”, who really wants to be yoked or burdened?
Well, I suppose it depends what we are yoked to and burdened with, and what we think freedom really is. While Jesus’ invitation to become his disciple may use the uncomfortable language of the yoke/burden, the larger context of Matthew 11 makes it clear that this is a pretty good deal he is offering. Earlier in Matthew chapter 11, we learn that John the Baptist, who is in Herod’s prison, has sent a message asking Jesus if he is the savior that the people have been waiting for.
2 When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples 3and said to him, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’ 4Jesus answered them, ‘Go and tell John what you hear and see: 5the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. 6And blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me.’
If we hear all of Matthew 11, then, Jesus is offering good things: healing, wholeness, restoration, resurrection. It is all we would expect of the Messiah and Saviour and then some. So why the language about yokes and burdens?
I think that today’s second reading from Romans helps us to understand the gospel better, because when Paul writes about sin, he is talking about something which looks like freedom but which is actually a yoke and a heavy burden. Paul’s theology, because it depends on terms like “the flesh” and “the body”, is often taken to mean that he hates the physical human body, which in contemporary society is celebrated as the source of beauty, sex and power. In fact, as U understand it, Paul what Paul means when he says “the body” is in fact the whole human condition, which consistently brings us up short of our ideals.
For Paul, even when we know what God wants of us (“the law”), we fall short because of our imperfect human nature. For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.” (Romans 7:23)
Sin for Paul includes all the things – our impulses, temptations, thoughtless and weak moments – that cause us to fall short of the good life that God calls us to. Often we mistake sin for something that seems like freedom, and learn the difference too late. A fun trip to the casino might lead to poverty, sexual fantasy might lead to adultery and broken relationships, while a seemingly harmless racial stereotype or joke can lead to hatred and bigotry. Sin can be anything that seems to promise escape, fun, and freedom, but which can lead to captivity and constraint. Our popular culture and advertising offers endless examples, from wealth to sex to beauty.
When Jesus calls us to follow him, he offers us true freedom but it is the freedom of discipline and the ability to say no to false freedoms and bad choices. David Lose notes that “We don't (the like (the word no) because it is, well, just plain negative. Even more, it stands in our way, negating our immediate desires and wishes, withholding something from us that we want.” Saying no to ourselves or to those we love and care for may be difficult because it negates an impulse or desire that might seem like a good idea at the time.
Lose also notes that the church needs to work hard to recover an idea of discipleship that actually connects our faith lives to our real lives. Putting on the yoke of Jesus means that there we give God a say in what we do with our bodies, about the kinds of words that come out of our mouths ad keyboards, how we spend our money, and all the myriad choices that we make in a typical day. This a huge idea that needs far more time and attention that I can devote to it at the end of a summer sermon, but it is a something that always needs to be foremost in our minds as we think about what it means to be followers of Jesus.
If we read Matthew 11:28-30 again, we notice that Jesus speaks to those who already are carrying heavy burdens, to “all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens”. I think of several images from films where this mage is acted out in spiritual terms. I think of Marley’s ghost in A Christmas Carol, shacked to the cashboxes that he chose over his fellow humans as his life’s concern, or the conquistador in The Mission who punishes himself for a murder he committed by dragging his heavy, rusting armour everywhere he goes. I think of the things I can’t let go of, and wonder what other invisible burdens the people around me are carrying. I think of Jesus, waiting to set us all free of these burdens, and calling us instead into a life of true freedom, and I see that as the true message and goal of the church, to bring the burdened to Christ so they can find true freedom.
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