Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY
Br. Robert James Magliula, OHC
Proper 9 - Year A - Sunday July 9,2017
|Robert James Magliula|
When asked to distill the Gospel to its purest, most primitive expression —devoid of doctrine or dogma— the spiritual writer, Henri Nouwen contended that God was saying to the world in Jesus, “Come close.” We hear the same invitation in the beautiful passage from the Song of Solomon this morning. God has been trying to entice us to come close throughout all of salvation history. Jesus said to all who would listen, “Come nearer to this ultimate reality called Abba---with the simple-heartedness of a child running into the arms of its mother. Don’t keep your distance from God any longer. Become like trusting children, and come close.”
Immediately our inner, jaded self squirms. There’s got to be a catch. It’s too simple, too free of an invitation to swallow. How much more comfortable we would be with an invitation like “Come …all you deserving… all you bright and understanding ones… all you pious …all you considered worldly successes.”
Jesus knew God and called all who would listen to enter into this unique relationship with God. No questions were asked; no restrictions were laid down. All that was required to receive the invitation was a desire to trust and come close. Those who responded were not the educated or the sophisticated, but those who simply wanted change. They were the ones burdened by systems of economic and religious oppression imposed on them from above. They had no possibility of adhering to the purity code of the day. They were the unobservant and the unclean---tax collectors, shepherds, lepers, and prostitutes.
The Gospel today begins with the children of the land whose song is not understood. Jesus isn’t addressing individuals but the society as a whole, the entire generation. In this past week of patriotic celebration of the strength and determination of our nation, how can we fail to reflect on the ways in which our generation fails to understand the reasons for dancing and the reasons for weeping. We are so easily lulled by the other songs of our culture that we not only miss the moment that matters, but we regularly dance when we ought to mourn our burdened world. Jesus’ prayer is not for the powerful, wise, and intelligent who get our attention, but for those who are far from the places of influence that we yearn for. In God’s realm the things that attract our human attention are barely noticed. It is the innocent who somehow understand best the ways of God. Jesus’ invitation to intimacy births a significant engagement with our world before he offers his words of comfort:
Come to me all you who are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and Iwill 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. (Matt. 11:28-30)
Setting yoke and easy next to each other seems paradoxical---especially considering the hot sun and rocky fields of Palestine. How can a heavy yoke rubbing on the necks of struggling oxen symbolize peace of heart and mastery of life’s problems? It boils down to this. By making Christ the master partner in our lives, by yoking ourselves to him, enables us to harness power beyond our own. It enables us to control and discipline our inner divisions. It may sound paradoxical to speak of discipline and obedience as conducive to freedom but that’s because we have a misguided notion about freedom having no responsibility. Freedom implies choice to be or do something. Discipline liberates us from our appetites that enslave us as strongly as any chains can.
In today’s epistle. Paul is describing the inner struggle of every heart. For all of his desire for living the Christian life, he boasted most of his weakness. For what Paul wanted to do and what Paul did were constantly at odds. He assumes that every one of us knows what this conflict feels like. Although this civil war raged within, for him the victory was found in Christ. His inner struggle was not the final story of who he was. Neither was his self-contradiction. His deepest self was yoked to Christ, whom he found most loving and powerful at the times of his greatest weakness. It released him from sin’s power to shame and destroy.
Paul views sin not as the breaking of a rule, but rather as the distortion of a relationship. The idolatrous distortion of our proper relationship with God, this turning from God-centeredness to self-centeredness, introduces a darkening of mind into the very center of our being. The turn to self-assertion unleashes the self’s insatiable desire to secure its own acceptability through acquisition and possession rather than trust in God’s love. The self’s means for converting its good intentions into good deeds is infected by the futility of self-centeredness. It draws itself by sheer willpower further from God. If Paul’s bad news is that the self is trapped and cannot rescue itself, Paul’s good news is that God intervenes in Jesus. God’s grace draws and restores the self back to God-centered wholeness. In and with Christ, Paul carried on, falling down and getting back up. This is how he could go on in the midst of change and an uncertain future. He had accepted the invitation to come close, which enabled him to face anything.
We are so heavily invested in perfection---or at least the illusion of perfection. Paul assures us that doing the right thing apart from God’s grace is a losing battle. It is not that we are simply weak or lazy or not trying hard enough. There are forces at work in us with which we cannot contend. The will may be strong, but the flesh rules the day. Those who believe they are responsible for their own salvation, through military might or political power, through intellectual prowess or personal magnetism, have no need of the comforting arms of Jesus. He will not trouble them with heaven’s gifts.
Jesus insists that the trusting and the lowly know and accept his blessing. His invitation for us to come close draws us to identify with the suffering and struggle of those who live on the fringes of our society and our lives.
Personal transformation and social transformation are of one piece. The true spiritual quest is that the world becomes whole and we along with it. Comfort and rest in this endeavor is not offered to the strongest and most powerful. It is offered to those who have been made weary by a world that fails to comprehend the burden of injustice. It is to those who recognize their need and the need of others that Jesus comes with comfort, lifting life’s burdens and offering rest. +Amen.