St. Francis Day
Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30
The Rev’d Charles Everson
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church
October 6, 2016
Click here for the audio recording of this sermon.
John the Baptist’s disciples ask Jesus at the beginning of Matthew chapter 11, which we heard part of today: “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”
It is no surprise that John sent them to ask this, for the great judgment he had announced hadn’t come about, the corrupt were still in power, and John was suffering in prison.
Jesus tells them to tell John what they had seen and heard: the blind receiving sight, the lame walking, the lepers cleansed, the deaf hearing, the dead raised, and the poor receiving good news. While this isn’t the mighty judgement John had envisioned, these were surely signs that the kingdom of God was drawing near.
Fr. Sean and I just returned last night from a week in southern Arizona at a clergy conference entitled “At the Border of Holiness.” On the first day of the conference, we visited St. Andrews Episcopal Church in Nogales, Arizona just a few miles from the southern US border and heard three powerful presentations.
The first was from Mother Alison Lee, priest-in-charge at St. Andrews, who described the clinic that parish runs for children living in Mexico who cannot afford the specialized medical care they need. We heard about children with cleft palates healed by the loving volunteer services of the doctors, and kids whose vision is so bad that they can’t see more than three feet in front of them receiving glasses for the first time. We heard story after story of the blind receiving sight, the lame walking, the lepers cleansed, the deaf hearing, and the poor receiving good news. What hope!
But then, the Anglican Bishop of Western Mexico detailed for us via a translator the stark reality of why people are risking their lives to flee Mexico to come to the United States. Listening to the murder rates, the stories of hidden graves filled with chopped up body parts, and those who were essentially enslaved by local oligarchs and drug traffickers was eye opening to me to say the least. Though I’d heard of folks dying trying to cross the border in the past, hearing all of this helped me to understand why people would risk death or imprisonment to make the dangerous trek to “our great country.”
After the presentations, we all loaded the bus and proceeded to the southern border. In typical form, I was alternating between chatting with my buddy sitting next to me and messing around with Facebook on my phone, so I wasn’t really paying attention to world around me. But then I looked up to the left and was completely overcome with emotion upon seeing a huge, imposing wall adorned with the type of round strands of razor wire you’d see at a prison. I’d seen such things on TV and online, but never in person, and I was overwhelmed with a sense of deep sadness and shame. Shame that this was the first thing that these desperate people see when arriving at our front door looking to escape misery and death.
One of the deacons from St. Andrews explained the history of how the wall came to be. The portion of the wall that runs between Nogales, Arizona, and Nogales, Mexico was built back in the 1990’s, though the razor wire has been added more recently. Until about a year ago, priests from both sides of the border would say Mass frequently next to the wall, and separated family members would gather on the other side. They would pass communion between the slats and also use the opportunity to hold hands with their loved ones. They would do this despite the risk of cutting themselves on the razor wire, but in the last year, metal mesh had been added to the lower part of the wall to prevent something as small as a communion host from being passed through. My sadness turned to anger, and my stomach turned upside down. I felt a sense of desperation wash over me and the hope that I’d encountered at the presentation about the medical clinic was nowhere to be found. My God, this is what we’ve become, I thought.
As John’s disciples said, “Jesus, are you the one, or are we to wait for another?” Lord, where are you in all of this? Why is there still so much suffering? How can you tolerate this sort of cruelty?
We then gathered on the north side of a makeshift altar facing the wall, and as Mother Alison began to celebrate Mass, which she offered for those who had died trying to cross the border, I began to see a glimpse of hope once again. For in the Eucharist, the love of God literally comes to earth. Love and compassion and peace breaks into our world, and the great border between God and man crashes down for a sweet moment and we are given a glimpse of the new heaven and the new earth. In the Eucharist, we are given hope – even a promise – that all will be made right and the world will be restored to how it was in the Garden of Eden before sin and suffering and death erected the borders that divide man from God and nation from nation.
After Mass, we milled around for a bit, most of us somewhat dazed and confused, processing all that was happening. As I was looking at the wall, it suddenly hit me that the razor wire was only on the US side. Prisons use razor wire to keep prisoners inside from escaping. It made me wonder if we, in our attempts to keep people out, had created a prison for ourselves and become those we thought we were avoiding: selfish people willing to go to any length to make things better for ourselves at the cost of those who are suffering the most. Filled with the hope given to me in the bread and the wine, I realized that I was angry. Angry mainly at myself for not doing enough to address this awful injustice.
Now, I hope you don’t hear this as a sermon about partisan politics. As I mentioned, the portion of the wall that we witnessed was built in the 1990’s, not recently. Political decisions from both sides of the aisle over many years have contributed to the situation in which we find ourselves today. And likewise, I hope you don’t expect me to have political answers on how we can fix all of this, because I don’t. But hear me, friends: the gospel of Jesus Christ is inherently political. Those who originally heard today’s gospel reading were suffering under religious oppression from the Pharisees on the one hand, and from persecution under the Roman imperial system on the other in which the ruling elite secure wealth, status, and power at the expense of the lowly. It was from unjust political systems like these that Jesus Christ came to set us free.
This is the context in which Jesus said, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” The Greek word “rest” in the New Testament functions as an image of salvation, of what will be when the world is finally ordered according to God’s purposes and made whole again as it was in the Garden. In promising us “rest,” Jesus promises abundant life under God’s reign in the new world that he is bringing.
Jesus also tell us to take his yoke upon us. The yoke was a symbol of burden bearing, oppression, and subjugation. Yokes were laid on the necks and shoulders of oxen when they were to pull something extremely heavy. What is the yoke Jesus offers? We might infer from the text that it is his teaching, his way of discipleship, which is not burdensome but life-giving. He invites the weary to learn from him, for he is not a tyrant who lords it over us, but is "gentle and humble in heart." His yoke is easy and his burden is light. To take his yoke upon oneself is to be yoked to the One in whom God's kingdom of justice, mercy, and compassion is breaking into this world, and to find the rest for which the soul longs.
In this great feast that we will celebrate in a moment, we will experience a foretaste of this heavenly rest that Jesus promises us. It doesn’t matter the emotions we feel, or whether the altar party gets all of the motions and choreography exactly right. In this sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving, the love of God will break into our world whether we like it or not, and we will see a glimpse of what the world will be like one day when all will be made right and every wall that divides us will crash to the ground. During the Eucharistic prayer, when we offer and present our selves, our souls and bodies to be a reasonable, holy and living sacrifice to God, we will offer your burdens up to Jesus. And as you receive the host in your hands or on your tongue – when the blood of our Lord touches your lips – you will receive rest and refreshment for your weary soul.
But know that the rest you receive comes with a cost. Know that receiving our Lord’s body and blood means that you’re yoking yourself to the One who loves everyone unconditionally…to the One who gives the blind sight, makes the lame walk, cleanses the leper, raises the dead, and gives good news to the poor. Know that you’re committing to join with the Holy Spirit in helping the lowly, the outcast, the poor, even the children from Mexico who don’t have basic health care. Know that you’re committing yourselves to be heralds of God’s kingdom of justice, mercy, and compassion.
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St. Mary's is a parish of the Diocese of West Missouri, The Episcopal Church, and the Anglican Communion.