Fear and Love
July 6, 2008
Fear can paralyze us. Fear can undo the good that we are trying to accomplish. A young priest, who had only been ordained three months, was having a very difficult time preaching. Every time he approached addressing the assembly, he was so overcome with fear that he found himself tongue-tied and confused. The problem became so severe that he decided to schedule a meeting with the bishop. He outlined the problem. He was uncertain of how to continue. The bishop listened patiently and assured him that with practice things would improve. But then he said, “If I could make a suggestion, I find it always helpful to begin my homilies with a joke. Not only does it get the audience’s attention, but it breaks the ice and relaxes everyone, including myself. I would suggest that you adopt this procedure.” The young priest said, “Well, you know, I’m not very good at jokes.” The bishop said, “Nothing complex; something short. For example, last week I began my homily this way: ‘My dear friends, I spent last evening in the loving embrace of the woman I love.’ And then, after a long pause to build the tension, I said to everyone’s relief and laughter, ‘I had dinner with my mother!’ You see how that kind of a light-hearted approach breaks the ice and can relax you?.”
The young priest thought he should take the bishop’s advice, and so all that week he worked very hard on his homily. He kept practicing the bishop’s joke. But by the time it came for Mass to begin, he found himself fearful and confused. And by the time he was ready to give the homily, he was in a near panic. He addressed the assembly, “My dear friends, I spent last night in the arms of a hot woman!” A gasp went throughout the assembly. The priest’s mind went blank, so he continued, “But for the life of me, I can’t remember who she was.” And then in desperation he added, “But she was recommended by the bishop.” Fear can paralyze us. Fear can undo the good that we are trying to accomplish. That is why Jesus’ words in today’s gospel are so important. Jesus tells us that if we come to him, if we place our fear into his hands, he will put our souls at rest. He will calm our hearts. Now notice that Jesus does not promise to take the causes of our fear away or to lift the burdens from our shoulders. But he says that if we trust him, we can carry those burdens, because his yoke is easy and his burden is light. Now this promise of Jesus is extremely important and makes his words in today’s gospel some of the most significant that we can find in the Scriptures. There are real fears in our life. We have fears about our health. We have fears about the economy. We have fears about the decisions our children might make. We have fears about divisions that exist in our family, or security in our country. All of these fears can paralyze us. But if we give those fears to the Lord, if we can trust in his presence, then we can face the future with the confidence of his love. And that is good news indeed. Thirty years ago members of this community founded this parish as a place where men and women of faith could gather together to worship and to encourage one another in the belief that God is real and that God’s presence can help us cope with the fears and burdens of life. God has blessed our community. All that we do here is an attempt to build that faith that we share in God’s presence and care. After communion today our new Cluster Coordinator for Youth Ministry, David Napoli, will be introducing himself and sharing some of his vision about how the faith we share can be deepened in our young people. But everything we do in this parish, from GIFT to Bereavement to Vacation Bible School, is an effort on our part to support one another in the belief that God is real and that our faith in God can help us live. So as we share together this Eucharist today, let us encourage one another in the reality of our faith and the power of the good news. There are always reasons to be fearful. But fear need not overcome us. God is real, and with God’s grace we can carry our burdens. With God’s help we can replace fear with love.
Listen to the Women
July 3, 2011
Two women direct our thoughts today.
Jesus says in today’s Gospel, “Come to me all you who labor and are burdened and I will give you rest.” Jesus is actually quoting a passage from the Old Testament book of Sirach. The words that he is quoting are those of Wisdom. Frequently in the Old Testament, Wisdom is presented as a woman. This female character describes who God is and what it means to serve God.
In the words from Sirach, Wisdom tells us that if we labor, if we are burdened, if we have any need, we are to come to God because God will not turn us away. God will welcome us and give us rest. Woman Wisdom tells us that our God is one who loves us and is with us. We need not fear approaching God, because God welcomes and helps us.
Now of course, as soon as we recognize the generosity and welcoming of God, we realize that we have a responsibility to be generous and to welcome others. This brings us to the second woman whom I wish to set before you today: Liberty. She stands in New York harbor. On the base of the Statue of Liberty is a poem by Emma Lazarus that gives Liberty a voice. Her voice is remarkably similar to the female figure of Wisdom. It is one of invitation and welcome. Part of Emma Lazarus’ poem reads like this:
“Give me your tired, your poor,
your huddled masses yearning to breathe free;
the wretched refuse of your teeming shore,
send these tempest-tost to me.
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”
Almost a century ago our nation held open the golden door to millions of immigrants who sailed past the Statue of Liberty, were welcomed into this country, and eventually became citizens. Indeed, many of us here today are descendants of those immigrants. We can see that welcoming them to this country accepting the diversity of races, creeds, and cultures did not diminish our country but strengthened it. In fact, it made us who we are.
So Wisdom calls out the generosity and welcome of God, and Liberty calls out the generosity and welcome of this nation. It would be wise on this holiday weekend to listen to these two women and to commit ourselves to be people of generosity and welcome. We could begin in our own families and relationships, making sure that we are willing to receive and respect people who are different from us: people who we meet in our schools, in our workplace, in our neighborhoods. But also, as citizens, we should commit ourselves to see that our country keeps open the door of citizenship to those who wish to immigrate here. We should work to make sure that our policies are fair and just.
People of all political backgrounds agree that our immigration system is broken. We should, then, as Christians and Americans, work to fix it. As people of faith, we believe that this country and our freedom are gifts from God and we acknowledge those gifts not by hoarding them but by sharing them. When we do that we follow the example of those Americans decades ago who welcomed our grandparents and parents to this great nation.
Let us acknowledge the generosity of God which has given us so much and then use the gifts that we have received to accept others. Wisdom and Liberty call out a message of generosity and welcome. Let us listen to them.
How Is a Burden Light?
July 8, 2017
In today’s gospel, Jesus says that his yoke is easy and his burden is light. Aren’t these contradictions in terms? If a burden is light, how can it be a burden? An easy yoke makes about as much sense as a delightful disaster or a healthy poison. Jesus’ sayings today at first seem confusing. But if we take some time to reflect upon them, it becomes clear that Jesus has named something that we all know is true from our own experience.
A yoke is something that ties us, binds us to something else. And we all know that when we commit ourselves to someone or something of value, the result will be a mixture of what is easy and what is difficult, a combination of both joy and pain. Parents know this to be true. There are few greater joys in life than the joy of knowing and loving a son or daughter. Yet that relationship can cause tremendous pain, if we have to see a child suffer or if our relationship to our child begins to deteriorate. Spouses see the meaning of Jesus’ words. It is a blessing it is to find another person with whom we can share life intellectually, spiritually, sexually. Yet at the same time, what a challenge it is to have patience and forgiveness when our spouse is thoughtless or begins to grow in a new direction. Jesus’ words certainly ring true to anyone who has ever tried to accomplish some significant good thing or to bring more justice into our world. Such an effort is filled with the frustrations of ignorance, bureaucracy, and indifference. But at the same time, there are moments of bliss when even one step is taken in the right direction or even a few people begin to understand.
Human life on anything more than a surface level is always a mixture of the easy and the difficult, a burden that is also light. So what does Jesus have to say about this mixed reality of life that we all live? Jesus invites us to place our light burden into a relationship with our heavenly Father. In today’s gospel Jesus prays to his father, and there are two aspects to his prayer: thanksgiving and learning. Jesus gives thanks to his father for revealing what is true, for allowing us to learn what has true value. We are called to follow Jesus’ example in prayer: to be thankful for all the joys and blessings that are in our life and to learn from the mistakes and pain that we must endure. Because we are people of faith, we believe that all the good things in our lives are gifts from God and a sign of God’s love for us. For these we should give thanks. Because we are believers, we also trust that that same good God can draw out of our pain and suffering something to learn, a truth that can make us stronger and give us the courage to carry the burdens we must bear.
Human life is not completely easy or completely difficult. It is both. It is the light burden, the easy yoke that we must take up. That is why as people of faith, we should always and constantly give thanks for the people, for the talents, for the opportunities with which God has blessed us. At the same time we should dare to believe that God will lead us to learn from our suffering and our pain, so that in time we will have even more reason to give thanks to the God who loves us.
July 5, 2020
Romans 8:9, 11-13
This weekend we celebrate our national holiday, the Fourth of July. This is a time when we celebrate our pride in being American. There is much to be proud of, beginning with the occasion that this day commemorates: the decision by the American colonies to declare their independence from the King of England. And it was to the great credit of our founders that they based that independence not on an economic foundation, but on a moral one. As they famously wrote, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.” It is argued that this is the most famous sentence in the English language. It has had a profound effect on our country and on countries and governments throughout the world. The moral foundation which our founders chose is one among many reasons to be proud of being an American today.
It should be pointed out, however, that there are different kinds of pride. There is an absolute pride that insists that every aspect of America be celebrated and that any criticism of our country amounts to treason. Then there is a conditional pride, what I would call a “humble pride,” because it has the humility to admit that our country is not perfect and that there are aspects of our country we need to change. I believe that true patriotism is founded on humble pride. This view is reflected in many popular civic hymns. As you well know, “America the Beautiful” includes a petition, “God mend thy every flaw.” True patriotism realizes that there are flaws in our country and that recognizing them is our responsibility as Americans.
Now it is incumbent to us that we celebrate our Independence Day this year with humble pride. The last few months have drawn our attention to a profound flaw in our society – the sin of racism. It was not too long ago that people were suggesting that racism died with the end of slavery, or certainly racism came to an end when we elected a black President. But the last number of months has shown us that racism is alive in our country and is still causing harm. The racism I am talking about is institutional racism, those structures in our laws and customs that give preference to those who are white over those who are black. That preference is seen in wealth, education, housing, health care, and the exercise of both our legal and penal systems. Data that establishes such inequality has been present for decades. But it seems that this year is the year that Americans are beginning to understand the significance of the data and the harm done though such inequality. More of us are facing an uncomfortable truth: although we live in a country where we believe that all people are created equal, black Americans do not have equal access to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
This discomfort is compounded for us who are followers of Jesus, because we know that our faith fully supports the equality that has been enshrined in the Declaration of Independence. It calls each one of us to do our part to oppose racism as it occurs among us. But here is the good news: in today’s Gospel, Jesus promises us that when we have to bear a burden, when we have to take up a heavy yoke and place it on our shoulders, we will be able to carry it with his help. His words today are words of hope. They tell us that as we strive to take up the responsibility of opposing racism, with God’s grace we can make progress. With the help of God and our own determination, we can lift up systems of racism and eliminate them from our society. This will not be easy. It will not be quick. But we have hope through Jesus’ words that it is possible.
On this Fourth of July we should celebrate with humble pride. We should celebrate all of the good things that are a part of being an American and also recommit ourselves to changing the things that must be changed in our society. In this way, working together with God’s grace, we can build an America where people are truly equal from sea to shining sea.