Another trip to my personal Bexley Hall archives finds this offering for a celebration of St Francis of Assisi, from October 5th, 2011. No animals were harmed in the writing of this sermon, which was delivered at the Bexley Hall and Trinity Lutheran Seminary Tuesday evening Eucharist.
Francesco Bernardone, better known to us as St Francis of Assisi, knew all about traveling light. An early account of his life tells the story of his stripping naked in front of his bishop and handing his father the clothes off his back to confirm his dedication to a life of poverty and service instead of the family business. Later, when he had dressed himself in a tunic and belt, with staff and shoes, he heard the gospel message in which the disciples are sent out without footwear or spare clothes, without money or bread or a staff, and he threw away everything extra that he had once more, and dressed himself in a tunic shaped like the cross, to carry nothing with him but Christ crucified, and to ward off the temptations of the devil.1
So here’s a question: if Francis turned up at Columbus airport today, and tried to go through security, would he be blessed and waved through, because he has no carry-on luggage to feed through the x-ray, no shoes to take off before walking through the scanner, he isn’t carrying a bottle of water greater than 3.5oz, and he possesses no gold, silver, or other precious metals to set off the metal detector? Or would he be called out and taken to a small, windowless room, suspected of anti-social tendencies and possibly worse, because he doesn’t fit the acceptable model of the 21st-century material traveler? In a culture that makes a virtue of traveling smart, is traveling light a step too far?
I confuse traveling light with traveling smart all the time.
Ask a child to pack a bag for a vacation or a trip away from home, and see what they consider essential. They might pack a teddy bear, for cuddling. A favorite book, to which they already know all the words and animal noises, because it represents special moments with a beloved carer, at bedtime, or naptime. They probably won’t worry about too much else, partly because, if they’re lucky enough, they can trust their parent or guardian to take care of the rest; partly because they know that what matters the most is being loved, and giving love. The bedtime story and the cuddle bear are the essentials for traveling light.
Ask me to pack a bag and I’m afraid I’ll put in too many clothes, just in case the weather changes; too many books that I’ll never get around to reading but I feel as though I should; too many electronic devices and all of their chargers, so that I’ll never be out of touch with the wider world, should it feel the need to call upon me while I’m gone. Even if I get smart and buy myself a Kindle, so that the weight of the hardback books is not in my baggage; that doesn’t reduce the burden of books I should read but won’t. And buying a smart, universal charger won’t reduce the burden to me or to the environment of all of my electronics, including my new Kindle, which bleed power from every available source, the weight of the world on my laptop.
Traveling smart does not necessarily equal traveling light.
In Jesus’ day, the smart travelers were the ones arguing about who could do what on the Sabbath, about the proper way to go about achieving salvation. I wonder, are we so very different?
Traveling light meant laying down the burden of being right in favor of trusting the right one, Jesus, the one sent by God to reveal God’s gracious love of us.
The children were the ones whose eyes were open in wonder to the reality of Jesus’ gospel message: that none of the burdens which we lay upon ourselves make a blind bit of difference to God’s love for us. That God loves us enough to reach out regardless, that all we need to do is to be open to that love. The burden of God’s love is light and easy to carry; it is gentle. It touches us with tenderness.
Elsewhere, Jesus sums up the burden of the law: love God and love one another. It’s that simple. So easy a child can understand it and get it right.
It’s not that the rest of us like to make things complicated for ourselves. Alan Durning has written that when Moses came down from Mt Sinai, the considerations of an ethical life could be summarized in ten bullet points. Now, the flipping of a switch can involve at least that many factors to be considered.2 The burdens of a faithful life are difficult to escape.
But sometimes, we are tempted to yoke ourselves to expectations and resolutions and demands which miss the point. We put a premium on training ourselves to be independent, self-sufficient leaders, while Jesus invites us to gentleness and humility. We insist on the correct liturgy and music, the right way to do things, while the child makes a joyful noise to God and revels in the spectacle of solemn grown-ups. We make clever arguments and fine points when the innocent child knows that if we make them without love, they are hollow and meaningless.
And it’s not that there’s anything wrong with being a strong leader. There’s nothing wrong with being smart or clever. There’s certainly nothing wrong with worshiping God with liturgy blessed by tradition and authority and uplifted by fine music and solemn gestures. There’s nothing wrong with trying to get things right, whether we’re preaching or parenting, praying or playing or writing a paper.
But when we burden ourselves with excessive demands and perfectionist expectations which have nothing to do with the Gospel of love, of gentleness, of humility and grace, then we trade the lightness of Jesus’ yoke for the smart but heavy baggage of the religious leaders.
I know it’s a trap that I fall into all the time.
I’m so ready to take up my cross and follow Jesus that I forget that he has already done the work of the cross and resurrection, without any help from me.
But the invitation proffered in this Gospel is irresistible. “Come to me, all of you who are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. …For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”3
The sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving is an easy burden to carry.
The yoke of love is a comfortable one, which brings its own delight.
Most of us will not take the call to burdenless living, of total dependence upon Christ, as literally as Fransesco Bernadone did, to the relief perhaps of our bishops, our families, and airport security personnel. Perhaps our burdens will remain heavier as a result. And even burdens of love bring grief as well as delight into our lives. But wouldn’t it be refreshing to trust ourselves to the gentleness and humility that Christ promises, and to lay down our burdens to rest in God, as a child rests in its parent’s arms?
So this evening, may we rest a while from our burdens, and like children of a loving God, let Christ feed us and forgive us, and fill us with delight in the One who creates, sustains and redeems us.
1 Medieval Sourcebook: Thomas Celano, First and Second Lives of Saint Francis (excerpts and commentary) @ http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/source/stfran-lives.html
2 “When Moses came down from Mount Sinai, he could count the rules of ethical behavior on his fingers. In the complex global economy of the late 20th century, in which the simple act of turning on an air conditioner affects planetary systems, the list of rules for ecologically sustainable living could run into the hundreds.” Alan Durning, “How Much is Enough,” in Simpler Living, Compassionate Life: a christian perspective, edited and compiled by Michael Schut (Denver: Morehouse Publishing, and Earth Ministry, 1999), p.97