The Feast of St. Francis
Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20; Psalm 121; Galatians 6: 14-18: Matthew 11:25-30
“Come to me, all who labor 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.”
Today’s Gospel contains one of the best-known passages in all of Scripture. Jesus intends to comfort us with his words but offers us much more, always, than mere words. What Jesus is really saying to His disciples and to us? Maybe “I think you are living in a difficult time and much is being asked of you.” The coronavirus has altered nearly everything about the way that we live now and we don’t need to go into all those ways because you know them; we’ve been living them for the last six months! The very fact we are outside in early October, wearing masks, and taking Communion in the manner we are is some indicator that something strange is going on. Jesus is extending an invitation for us to unburden ourselves of all of the anxiety, fear, isolation, and concern about the future; Jesus wants us to lay all of the things that prevent us from living a closer life with God, and a hand all of those things over to Jesus. Jesus will then in exchange, give us, his yoke and his burden which he calls light and easy, respectively.
We should be careful when thinking that Jesus is offering us a carefree life, a life where we can put our feet up and be at ease. Jesus is offering - in exchange for all of the toxins that can build up in us over time, when under stress, sick, or alone; when we deny God’s place in the world - the purposeful way of the Christ-centered life. The yoke and burden of Jesus translate into a life lived with and to God. The Christ-centered life is a life alive to the gifts of God in the natural world through the glorious New England fall, just for instance; and in the people who move in and out of our lives. But above all the Christ-centered life is a life path on which we come to understand that we are entirely known and completely loved by God. Our opening to God’s knowing and loving tells us, finally, that there’s nothing - not any of the things that are happening to us now or that may occur in the future - that can separate us from the love of God known to us in Christ Jesus our Lord.
St. Paul knew a great deal about what it means to unburden oneself from the heavy loads that we tend to carry in this life lived outside of our journey with God and, conversely, what it means to take on the yoke and burdens, the mantle of Jesus. Paul’s letter to the Galatians gives us some insight into what Paul has discovered. Today’s passage from Galatians - a reading for the feast day of Saint Francis - occurs very late in the Paul’s short letter. Paul is writing to a church that he had established in the city-state of Galatia but has fallen into dissent, false teaching, and an unwillingness to hold fast to the gospel of Jesus as Paul has unfolded it to the community. By way of his own story, Paul tells the Galatians what it means to unburden oneself from the negative forces that would keep us from God and to hold fast to the promises which is the yoke and easy the burden of Jesus.
Paul relates a story, in the first chapter or two of Galatians, that is a fairly different version of those same events that Luke tells of in the book of Acts. Paul tells of his serious persecution of the way of Christ in the beginning through violence, imprisonment, and even murder. After he encounters the risen Christ on the road to Damascus, in Galatians, Paul went out to the desert to pray and to discern how he could best take on the yolk and of the way of Jesus. So, when we encounter Paul in today’s passage from Galatians, we hear the apostle tell us that he bears the marks of Jesus in his body, in his very being. Paul had so internalized the gift that Jesus had given him through his sacrifice on the cross that Paul had taken those things on for himself. Paul was liberated from the fear, the anxiety, hopelessness, and violence of the world and had taken on the yoke and easy burden of Jesus. The life of Jesus is not a life devoid of suffering, rather one lived in very close proximity to the kindness, gentleness, and saving, redemptive love of God in Jesus Christ.
So taking on the yoke of Jesus and the burdens of Jesus are made light only because they are wrapped up in an awareness of who Jesus is, how much he loves us, and that in our lives with Jesus we are like fish in the sea surrounded by water: we are surrounded and inundated with the saving love of God every minute of every day. So, we exchange a life of intense worry, anxiousness, desires to fit into the world somehow, and receive the peace of knowing we are held by Christ. The yoke and burden lay hold of us and direct us back into the world knowing that Christ is forever on our side. God is with us.
And this image of moving forward in life wearing the yoke of Jesus - which is clothing himself with Jesus himself - is what stimulates me so much about the life of the saint whose feast day we celebrate today, Saint Francis of Assisi. We don’t have enough time to talk at length about all the things that Saint Francis did or is given credit for, so I will talk about the one thing that works in the context of today’s message. During the life of Saint Francis, in the late 12th and early 13th centuries, Italy was not a unified country and would not be for many, many centuries. Italy was a series of city states, as were many other regions of Western Europe at that time. Saint Francis was the son of a wealthy cloth merchant who trafficked in fine linens and silks. By the time St. Francis was 19 or 20 he was living a privileged life but really had no interest in his father’s business. He wanted what most wealthy young man wanted at that time: to find romantic glory in military battles and to spend time with friends in reveling. When Francis was about 20 his city came into conflict with another city and, dreaming of glory, Francis joined the campaign. He was quickly captured and spent a year in prison. During the time Saint Francis became ill, most likely with tuberculosis, which he would deal with often on for the rest of his life.
Francis would eventually be ransomed by his father. During his imprisonment, Francis had felt the stirrings of the Holy Spirit but, once released, he went back to his old life of wealth and privilege. About a year or so later he prepared for another military campaign, purchasing expensive armor and clothing, in preparation, again dreaming of glory. But the story goes that as Francis was on his way to join his companions, he came across an extremely poor beggar, who had no coat and no proper shoes. So, Francis got off his horse and gave the beggar his fine clothing and his armor. Again, he went back to his old life. But he lived that life without much enthusiasm. He began to take long rides and walks outside the city. While on one of these rides he came across a ruin church and went inside to pray. While praying he had a vision of God instructing him to rebuild the church. Francis would steal much expensive fabric and silk from his father’s storehouse and sell them, along with his horse, bringing the money to St. Damian’s priest to rebuild the church. Francis’s father was furious anti-apprehended his son and beat him mercilessly, then placed him in chains. His mother released him and he went right back to Saint Damien‘s. His father came to the church intending to take Francis back home but Francis informed his father he would not go back, his life now belong to Christ. Saint Francis ‘s father brought charges against his son to re-pay the cost of the material he had stolen. The bishop who oversaw such matters ordered Francis to pay his father back. Francis agreed and then symbolically removed his clothing, leave them at his father’s feet, giving back everything that belonged to his father, and then returned to Saint Damien’s to begin his life as a disciple of Jesus.
My brothers and sisters in Christ, Jesus may not be calling for us to leave our lives and our families and become a hermit or a monk. Jesus’ invitation to us is to allow ourselves to let go of the really toxic, draining, difficult views of life we can adopt for survival and to embrace, instead, the wonder and blessing of walking down the path of life with Jesus as our companion, teacher, Savior, and master. Wearing the yoke and carrying the burdens of Jesus will make it possible for us to engage the Christ-centered life with vigor, purpose, mercy, grace, and life-giving love. And the wonderful thing about Jesus’ yoke and burdens is that we can share them with the world. Christ always has more of himself to offer. Christ always Has love to spare. We have much in our lives right now to concern and worry us and we are all carrying heavy burdens of one type or another. The yoke and burden of Jesus is not one of judgment but one of the blessing. The life of Jesus is not easy but it does offer us peace, at the last.