[Beginning and ending prayers are below the homily.]
First Reading Zechariah 9:9–10
Second Reading Roman 8:9, 11–13
Gospel Matthew 11:25-30
We have beautiful readings to reflect upon, and I will focus my remarks on the activity that is very important to us as a community- the discussions we will have after our liturgy today. Our focus during those discussions will center on
“Who are we?” and “Who do we plan to become?”
As I reflect on our readings I recall a time in my life many decades ago. I was a member of a Michigan religious order and had been “sent” to get a masters degree in Biblical Studies. I knew it would be a challenging program, primarily because as a prerequisite I had to demonstrate the ability to read the Scriptures in Hebrew or in Greek. I studied like never before to pass the entry exams. The Greek was
relatively manageable once I captured the alphabet. The Hebrew was another matter. I was not at all confident I could pass the exam and, like any good nun, I decided that God wanted me to cheat. Yes, those were the days when the nuns were fully garbed and I took advantage of the flowing sleeves to do what I had to do, that is, transcribe
translations of key words on my lower arms, fully covered until I took a peek during the test. I am happy to say I qualified for the program and came out with an outstanding perception of Biblical texts.
We are all different in how we approach the Scriptures. Some have the practice of opening the Bible to view whatever passage their finger touches on. Some use Biblical themes or specific motifs. I prefer to put the passage in the cultural context in which it was written.
In our first reading we have the prophet Zachariah writing to his people in the years 520-518. The Israelites had just returned from seventy years of exile in Babylon, and they have been without an earthly king for generations. They knew of Alexander’s armies tramping though Syria, Phoenicia, and Philistia. Zachariah tells them of the glories that await them. In this magnificent passage, Zachariah tells his downhearted people, “Rejoice heart and soul, Fair Zion, shout for joy, Fair Jerusalem! Behold your savior shall come to you, ….great and just, riding on a donkey.” Again in the cultural context, the donkey was the regarded as a emissary of peace- unlike the horse
which was used for war. Their leader would be an emissary of peace not of war.
On this weekend after our Fourth of July, Zachariah’s prophecy invites us to look at the intersection of our civil and religious life and ask what kind of leadership we seek and support. This is true not just of our nation but of our own Spirit of St. Stephen’s community. Who are we? Who do we plan to become?
As we read Paul’s words, we see that Paul was writing to the people of Rome, the city that was his home base as he traveled through the regions. His people of Rome, too, were discouraged by their political environment. After the edict of Claudius in 49 C.E. the Jews and Jewish Christians were expelled from Rome. It was not until Claudius
died in 54 that the displaced Jewish people were allowed to return home. Disagreements over leadership, dietary regulations and table fellowship threatened the unity of the community. Here Paul is addressing the several house churches of Rome and emphasizing the power of the unifying Spirit. When he says “You are not in the flesh” he reminds his people that the flesh is closed and hostile to God. He tells that the Spirit can be a formidable force for goodness, for justice and for peace in a world so hungry for all three. How well we can relate to this as we look at our current world. Paul asks us, the SoSS community, to reflect on how we exercise our priesthood, how we follow our call to be radically inclusive, and how we support justice and peace.
The words of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew reveal to us the deep personal relationship Jesus had with God, Creator of heaven and earth. “Abba”. In this, a term of profound intimacy, Jesus claims his special and unique relationship with God. “No one knows me but you, Abba, and no one knows you, Abba, except me- and those whose
eyes I wish to open.” We rejoice that we, too, are able to have this intimate relationship with God through Jesus. We realize that our relationship with God is truly a gift.
In the second part of this Gospel reading, Jesus calls us to rouse ourselves, put down the tv remote and the iPad. “Take my yoke upon your shoulders” Jesus tells us. For those who take this yoke, Jesus promises the burden will be light. In the time of Christ, measurements were taken and adjustments were made so that the oxen would not
be overly burdened by the added discomfort of an ill-fitting yoke. Jesus’s promise of an easy or well-fitting yoke contrasts sharply with the attitude of the Scribes and Pharisees of whom Jesus said, “They tie up heavy burdens, hard to carry, and lay them on their own people’s shoulders and will not lift a finger to help them.” Jesus not
only offers a lighter burden but, in keeping with his times, recognized that yokes were built for two oxen and Jesus was, in effect, promising to be the yoke mate for those who came to rest in Him. When the burden is laid upon us in love and shared by a loving yoke mate such as Jesus, then, as an ancient rabbi once said, “My burden is become my song.”
So let us continue our celebration together as we, a faith community, begin the celebration of our tenth anniversary. We recall the Israelites who came before us, and the early Christians as they reflected on their new faith. Together we ask: “Who are we?” and “Who do we plan to become?” We look forward to your responses during our
As swimmers dare to lie face to the sky and water bears them,
as hawks rest upon air and air sustains them,
so would I learn to attain freefall,
and float into Creator Spirit’s deep embrace,
knowing no effort earns that all-surrounding grace.
Denise Levertov, From Oblique Prayers, 1984
There were times when I could not afford to sacrifice the bloom of the present moment to any work, whether of head or hands.
Sometimes, in a summer morning, having taken my accustomed bath, I sat in my sunny doorway from sunrise till noon, rapt in a reverie, amidst the pines and hickories and sumachs, in undisturbed solitude and stillness, while the birds sang around.
I grew in those seasons like corn in the night, and they were far better than any work of the hands would have been.
They were not time subtracted from my life, but so much over and above my usual allowance.
Henry David Thoreau