The Yoke of Freedom – Br. Jim Woodrum
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Galatians 5:1, 13-25
One of my favorite windows in this chapel that I like to pray with is the last of the three in St. John’s Chapel which depicts fishermen mending their nets (probably James, John, and their father, Zebedee). Jesus is standing on the shore beckoning them to follow him. Many of the vocational stories in the Gospels have this mysterious quality about them: John the Baptist points Jesus out to his disciples saying “Here is the Lamb of God!” The two disciples follow Jesus a little ways at a distance until he turns and asks them, “What are you looking for?” They reply “Rabbi, where are you staying?” He answers, “Come and see !” In another scene we wonder about the persuasive quality of Jesus’ call as he sees a tax collector named Levi sitting in his tax booth. Jesus simply says, “Follow me!” And Levi got up, left everything and followed Jesus. In Matthew’s gospel we read: As Jesus walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew, casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. 19And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” 20Immediately they left their nets and followed him.
In each of these scenes there is this romantic notion of leaving the mundane for the promise of adventure. Jesus seems to know of something more beyond the confines of the world these men inhabit, and they leave everything behind to follow him.But today’s gospel lesson from Luke presents a very stark contrast to these other stories. First, instead of heading into the great unknown, Luke says: “When the days drew near for Jesus to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.” There is a sense of urgency to this statement and in the ensuing conversations the sense of romance has disappeared and Jesus makes it very clear what discipleship will cost those who follow him.
The first man that comes to Jesus volunteers himself for duty and says, “I will follow you wherever you go.” Jesus replies, “Foxes have holes, and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” We know from our reading of scripture that Jesus and his disciples were nomadic. While the region in which they lived was not huge, the terrain was rugged and the landscape could be quite treacherous. Survival skills would be necessary to those who followed Jesus throughout that desert climate. There would be no going home at the end of the day to relax and unwind after a day’s work of teaching and healing and in those regions you would most likely encounter people who would not receive you kindly.
To the second man we hear Jesus’ familiar invitation: “Follow me.” But the man replies with what may seem to us as a reasonable request: “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” Jesus’ reply is callous: “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” We noticed a moment ago the sense of urgency which Luke sets up the story. Jesus’ face was set toward Jerusalem. The time for action was now and if you were to join Jesus on his mission you would have to leave everything behind. I can relate to this man very much. In my own time of discernment to the monastic life I had many conversations with my parents about what this would cost not only me, but also them. Being an only child, I would not be the son who could take care of them in the autumn and winters of their lives and I needed assurance that they would be able to take care of themselves. I’m lucky to have parents whose desire for me to live my own life outweighs there need for security. Perhaps this was not so for the second man and while Jesus may have had compassion, the urgency in which Jesus issued his call could not wait and even a slight hesitation would result in a missed opportunity.
The third man says: I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” Jesus replies, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” The farming metaphor is apt in that when plowing a field you need to focus forward with your eye on the horizon. By looking back you will steer off course and will be unable to plant the straight rows that will enable you to access the plants efficiently at harvest. Jesus needed disciples who would be wholly committed to the mission on which he set out.
So what does this mean for us today sitting underneath the arches of this chapel? Admittedly, we might strain to find the good news in Jesus call. I suspect many of us will relate to one or all three of the men Jesus is talking to. In our society, comfort and stability are paramount. We are constantly barraged with advertisements that tell us that our worth is bound up in what we own or what we achieve and if you don’t measure up to a certain societal standard, then you are a failure. If we make one wrong move, everything in which you have worked for could vanish in an instant, so we hesitate. For many of us, the chains of our past keep us from experiencing the abundance of the future.
In the letter to the Galatians, Paul illuminates the good news of Jesus’ invitation. He says: For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. Live by the Spirit and do not gratify the desires of the flesh, for those who do will not inherit the kingdom of God. Among the items of Paul’s laundry list of the flesh are: idolatry, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, etc. One has only to look to the political landscape of this country to see how these works of the flesh can corrode our solidarity and cause us to isolate ourselves from one another. What is it in your life that fills you with fear? What is it that is keeping you chained to the past?
Paul says the freedom Jesus is calling us to is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. While we may all desire this freedom and abundance, we will have to leave behind the illusions and delusions that society tries to make so attractive. This is not an easy process or we would not need Jesus as our savior. And while Jesus does not avoid telling us what it will cost, He will be with us every step of the way, gently guiding us and encouraging us. Often the hardest step for us to take in accepting Jesus’ invitation is the first one. In Matthew’s gospel we hear Jesus say: “Come to me all who labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from, for I am gentle and lowly in heart and you will find rest for your soul. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.
Perhaps today, you can take the first step in accepting Jesus’ call to freedom. As you come forward in a few moments to receive communion, lift up your hands and offer to God just one thing that is weighing you down, and then receive sustenance for the first leg of your journey with Jesus.
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Thank you so much Br Jim. This speaks so to what I have been going through the last while. You are right, the first step is the hardest, but Christ is with us always. Here is a lovely quote about experiencing the darkness and taking that first step into the darkness, which in the end leads us to God: “Christ leads me through no darker rooms/ Than he went through before;/He that unto God’s Kingdom comes,/ Must enter by this door.” Richard Baxter. When you take the first step into the darkness, it is very difficult, but Christ is with us and has gone the same way before. It does indeed lead to Gods’ Kingdom when we make the right choice, the choice that leads us to Jesus, and the fruits of the Spirit which you quoted from Galatians (one of my favourite verses by the way). Thank you.
Br. Jim, this is a challenging message. Thank you for it. Thanks be to God, we are free indeed, released from the yoke of slavery to sin. Praised be His name!