There is hope in living and loving as Christ, and there is hope in failing to live and love as Christ, for Christ bears the load with us, in good and ill, and helps us walk the path of Christly love.
Pr. Joseph G. Crippen
The Fifth Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 14, year A
Texts: Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30; Romans 7:15-25a
Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
Paul of Tarsus was a saint. The Church says so.
We know it is so. His brilliant and passionate proclamation of God’s love in Christ, his tireless mission work, creating congregations across Asia Minor and Europe, his letters that still inspire and move us into faith, all witness to the holy grace that he was.
But sometimes he could be a jerk. He struggled with arrogance, had a temper problem, would sometimes wish terrible things on his opponents. Paul wasn’t always a gracious, kind, Christ-like person. And this is after his conversion from being a persecutor of the Church. Rightly or wrongly, there are many who do not see a saint when they consider Paul.
Mother Teresa of Calcutta was a saint. The Church says so.
We know it is so. Her life among the poor is inspiring to us all. Dedicating her life and all she had to caring for those on the fringes of the fringe, those whom so many had abandoned and ignored, her establishing of clinics, orphanages, and hospices, and an order of sisters who expanded her ministry, all witness to the holy grace that she was.
But she struggled with faith, often feeling God’s absence from her life. After her death, her writings were made public which described a deep sense of alienation from God lasting many years. During her process of canonization, some accused her of misusing donations, and said her methods weren’t intended to bring those who were poor out of poverty but to keep them there. Rightly or wrongly, there are some who do not see a saint when they consider Teresa.
What of the saints in our lives?
Think of those whose holiness of life and word inspired you, taught you, shaped you. Those about whom you and I could tell stories of awe and wonder, whose lives are ones for which we are still thankful. If the Church in East and West has not seen fit to formally canonize them, nonetheless we witness to the holy grace that they were.
Yet can we not also tell other stories of them which don’t neatly fit the title “saint”? There are fourteen names I name in the final petition of our prayers each week, when we each name our own beloved dead, fourteen loved ones from my mother to my uncles and all sorts of relatives in between. Some are dear models of faith to me. Not one was free of failure. With each I could tell of things that weren’t Christ-like. So could you of yours. Depending on which part of the story we tell of these who were holy in our lives, others might not see saints when they consider these people.
But think of all these and ask, are you ashamed of their failings?
I doubt it. We find inspiration and hope in their lives, and always will. People like Paul still teach us with their words, and always will. People like Teresa still inspire us with their devoted ministry, and always will. People whom we name and love still are the lights by which we first saw in the darkness, and will always be blessed in our hearts and minds.
We don’t ignore their failings, but we aren’t embarrassed by them. Their mistakes aren’t a source of shame. We love them for who they are and for the blessing they have been.
So why has the Church so long served the main course of the Good News of God’s love in Christ covered in a rich sauce of shame? For centuries now, we have been taught to be ashamed of our sin, to look at the lives of saints and note how unlike them we are, to hang our heads in humiliation before God as if we aren’t worthy. Only then are we told we can know we are loved by God’s grace.
But this is in direct conflict with the Scriptures, with the teaching, life, death and resurrection of Christ, with the teachings of the apostles and the very saints themselves, even our own. What we hear from all these is that we are beloved of God, worthy of God’s deepest attention, even to the point of God taking on our humanity alongside us. These witnesses name our sin not to humiliate, but to correct. They name it as we name the sins of our saints, as a truth needing forgiveness, not a truth that changes our view of the person.
It’s time we learned from the saints and Christ Jesus to set aside our shame and finally hear the real Good News.
Instead of shame, from the saints we receive the grace of a shared struggle.
Paul’s words from Romans 7 comfort and bless us. We hear from the apostle who taught us of God’s love for us, that he struggled to do right. “I can will what is right, but I can’t do it,” he says. “For I don’t do the good I want, but the evil I don’t want is what I do.”
We understand this in our bones. But what a gift for this saint and apostle to say, “I’m like you. This path of Christ is hard for me, too, and even when in my inmost heart I want to follow Christ, I don’t always do it.” What a blessing to hear!
Likewise, Teresa’s writings themselves give us hope, because her life of faithfulness continued in spite of her sense of a missing faith. She longed for God’s closeness, but she kept serving and loving as Christ. What a gift that is in our own times of God’s silence!
All these aren’t blessings to us because they were perfect, but because they share the same struggle we do. The best of them, if we read their writings, or remember their conversations with us, freely admit their failures to be like Christ.
When we look at the problems of the world, and at our own lives where we’re complicit in so many unspoken and unexplored areas, when we realize how hard it is to walk as Christ, even though we want to so badly, we can see around us these saints, not on pedestals but right next to us, who say, “I know exactly what you mean. It’s hard.”
But then they all say, turn to Christ for help. All these saints who share this struggle with us have this in common: they drew hope and life and strength from Christ, not themselves.
Instead of shame, from Christ we receive the grace of a shared burden.
Jesus never shamed people, or humiliated them. Yes, he called out sin, named it. But always in love, always ready to accept those who strayed. He said his job was to seek and find the lost and bring them home.
It is this crucified and risen Christ who now says to us: “Come to me, all you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
Christ Jesus says we are beloved and that as we walk the cross-shaped path that frightens and daunts and intimidates us, we do not walk it alone. In fact, we are yoked to Christ, each of us, like a fellow ox. The yoke is this life in Christ we seek. And Christ is harnessed alongside us, so we are pulling together, bearing the burden together.
When we stumble and fall, because we do, Christ doesn’t shame us or humiliate us. Christ picks up more of the weight, helps us right ourselves, and off we go again, forgiven and loved still, on this path of love of God and love of neighbor.
When Paul asks today who will save him from his struggle, he says it is God who does it, through Christ. And partly he means it is God who forgives him. But what Paul really desires is help with the struggle, help carrying the burden.
That’s the promise Christ gives Paul, and Teresa, and all the saints. And us. To pull alongside us, help us when we stumble, and get us going forward in love again.
This is the grace of our struggle to faithfully follow Christ’s path. We never carry the weight alone.
When we grasp this, it’s like the sun breaking through dark clouds. We find hope and joy in living and loving as Christ, of course. But because Christ is yoked alongside us, we also find hope and joy in failing to live and love as Christ. Because in our weakness we are made strong. In our failing we are made perfect and in our failing we are also the most aware that we are always joined to Christ, and therefore to the love of the Triune God.
Christ’s path often seems overwhelming. But once we truly see the witness of the saints in failure as well as grace, once we remember who’s yoked alongside us, we finally understand how this yoke can be easy, this burden light. “Thanks be to God through Christ Jesus our Lord!” Paul says. Thanks be to God indeed!
In the name of Jesus. Amen