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Saturday, July 5, 2008

The Fourth Sunday Homily (Second in Germany)

Well, it's been a few days because this was my first week of German language classes. I came home each day pretty exhausted, and with hausaufgaben (that's homework) to do!

And, as you'll see, the experience of this week had more than a little influence on this weekend's homily!:

“Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest.
Take my yoke upon you and learn from me,
for I am meek and humble of heart;
and you will find rest for yourselves.
For my yoke is easy, and my burden light.”

As I listened to those final words of the Gospel today, I couldn’t help but be struck by the apparent difference from the message of our readings in the previous two Sundays. Last week, the readings shared the theme of rescue, and seemed to be warning us that our belief in God and our choice to follow Jesus will often find us helpless and in need of rescue. And one clear message which came through in the readings the week before that seemed to be that our following of Jesus would not only at times find us helpless, but also that we would suffer for it. So, what a relief to hear from Jesus today: Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest . . . for my yoke is easy, and my burden light. This is the message we’ve been waiting for! No helplessness, no suffering, but rather, this is going to be easy! Does Jesus’ invitation today mean we can just forget about those other things he said? Or is Jesus contradicting himself?

As I pondered this question, a rather obvious analogy presented itself to me. Most of you here today are people who are living somewhere that requires you to speak a language that is not your own. And that required that somehow you had to learn the language. So, you already know the helplessness and suffering involved in making such a change in your life. Yesterday, I finished my first week of learning to speak German. There are few things that leave me feeling as humiliated and helpless as learning a new language. One day it seems like I’m starting to get it. The next day I’m wondering if I learned anything the past few days. And I don’t know about you, but this is much like my experience of being a Christian. One day, one week, I’m on such a roll, doing precisely the kind of things God has been asking me to do, and I start feeling pretty good about myself. I’m starting to get this Christian thing! Then I find myself doing something really awful to somebody, or getting distracted by things not of God, and I wonder: have I learned anything in thirty years?

As followers of God, as Christians, it seems that we are always trying to learn the language. And readings like our first two today serve to remind us that it is a language often foreign to our experience. God’s dominion, Zechariah, tells us comes not from violence, war and domination, but by proclaiming peace to the nations! And Saint Paul tells us over and over again in his letters, as he does today, that we must forego the language of the “flesh” and learn the language of the “spirit.” We need only read the newspaper or watch the evening news to realize that in this world where war rages in so many places and many people know nothing of God, this will not come easy. But we can take comfort in the fact that Jesus’ invitation is not to those who find life easy. He says “come to me all you who labor and are burdened, and you will find rest.

Jesus’ invitation isn’t offered to those who find life easy, with a promise that life will continue to be that way. No, he presumes that we are laboring, that we are burdened, trying to learn the language of the Christian life. A language in which dominion comes from peace and not war. A language in which our material desires are transformed and replaced by the desires of the Holy Spirit, and the desire of Jesus for a world in which all will come to know God his Father as he does. Learning this language, like learning any language which is not one’s own, puts us in situations in which we are helpless, unable to understand what someone is trying to say to us, and suffering from the humiliation which comes with it. Our pride is taken away, and we find ourselves dependent upon others, even for the most basic of things. This, by the way, is a good time to remember that this is the daily reality for many in our world.

But, if we continue to labor, carrying the burden that each time we take a step forward we soon seem to be taking a half step—or even two steps—back; If we stay with it, we eventually find ourselves at that wondrous moment when those conversations which we once seemed like so much noise, suddenly start to make some sense! Soon, it’s not so much effort to speak or even understand the language. We needn’t translate every word. It starts to come more naturally. Indeed, I except some of you have been here long enough that at times you need to say something in German, because you can’t remember the English word! The language has not changed, but we have. In a significant sense, we have been made new. How much greater, then, if in our Christian lives, we can get to the point where we can’t even remember how we used to think or do things, because we have become so accustomed to living as Christ calls us to live—living lives filled with generosity, faith, hope and love. Our burden becomes lighter, our work easier, because we have come to know how to speak the language of the Spirit, even though as with any language there is always more to learn.

And the greater ease which comes with living this language of the Spirit frees each of us to do what we are called to do: to teach others to speak it too.