I once led a book group that read the book The Prison Angel. The Prison Angel is the story of Mother Antonio, a woman of privilege from California who had a mid-life crisis, took on the role of a nun, went to the largest prison in Tijuana, Mexico, and began a ministry of transforming guards, inmates, and families connected to the prison. Her work was amazing – the way that she was able to love everyone equally, the way that she was able to harness resources and get them where they needed to be, and the way that she was able to devote her life to this system – even living in her own prison cell for a while – were all examples of her awesome witness. As we finished the book, I had hoped that people in our book group would be inspired, and might even consider their own contribution to a prison ministry. Instead, the response was more like this: Mother Antonio is truly amazing. But let’s be honest. I can’t be like her. I’m not going to drop everything – my family and life – and become totally devoted to a ministry. And just like that, I lost them. No longer was Mother Antonio inspiring. She was impossible. And once she was impossible, no one felt compelled to do anything. I definitely felt like I failed my mission of inspiration leading to action.
As I was preparing for today’s celebration of St. Francis, I ran across this quote: “Of all the saints, Francis is the most popular and admired, but probably the least imitated.”[i] You see, we have a sanitized version of Francis in our minds. He was nice to animals and took care of the poor. He devoted his life to Christ as a monk. We even put up statues of Francis in our gardens and outside our churches. When we think of Francis, we think of a gentle man gingerly allowing a bird to perch on his finger, and we smile. We like our sanitized version of Francis because the real version is a little scary. When Francis renounced his rather significant wealth, he stripped naked in front of his father and the bishop. Francis didn’t just help the poor, he became poor, begging on the streets. He worked with lepers – people no one wanted to touch, touching them with his bare hands and kissing them. Barefoot, he preached in the streets about repentance. He preached to the birds, and is rumored to have negotiated with a wolf. If we met St. Francis today, most of us would not imitate or venerate him. We would just see him as another homeless beggar with a serious case of mental illness.
That is the challenge for us when trying to live a holy life. St. Francis is the obvious example today. Though we love and admire St. Francis, few of are comfortable with his total identification with poverty, suffering, and care for our creation. The same can be said of Jesus. Though we profess that Jesus is our Lord and Savior, we regularly fail to live in the ways that Jesus taught – in fact, some of us have given up even trying. Even looking toward a modern-day example of holy living trips us up. When we watched Pope Francis come through last week, we marveled at his radical witness. We loved what he had to say – except when he had something to say that made us uncomfortable or that we disagreed with. When thinking about the radical life that is following Jesus – whether through the Pope, through St. Francis, or Jesus himself – most of us stumble and feel like giving up.
Luckily Jesus offers us a promise today. Jesus says, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” My yoke is easy and my burden is light. When we look at St. Francis’ witness and we think about the poverty, the preaching, and the penitence, we get nervous. We like our stuff, we like being comfortable, and we like being Christians without having to be too loud about it. When we think about St. Francis, we think of a yoke – but not a light one – one that is heavy and onerous. But Jesus harkens us back to his original words. My yoke is easy and my burden is light.
One of the reasons I am a proponent of international missions is that they help you experience reality in a totally different way. When we go on local missions, we can keep our smart phones, we have access to clean, accessible health care, and we can always find a McDonalds for a burger fix. But when we are in a rural town in a third world country, things change. We may not get to shower everyday, we may have to boil our water before drinking it, we will eat food that you are not so sure about, and we pray that we don’t get too sick while abroad. And forget about a cell phone and internet access. Most of us don’t even take a watch or jewelry to ensure they do not get lost. Now that may sound like torture to most of you. But here is what we learn when we are stripped of comforts and living and working in a foreign setting: We learn to appreciate your massive wealth comparable to the poor in the third world; we learn what hospitality – real hospitality in the face of nothing – really feels like; we forget about email, phone calls, and even stop obsessively checking the time, because those things do not really matter that week; we hear birds and other creatures in a way that we never have before – maybe because of their proximity, or maybe because we normally distract ourselves with a hundred other things; and – now this is the crazy one – we talk about Jesus and no one is uncomfortable (well, except maybe us because we haven’t done that very much). When stripped of everything familiar, we discover that Jesus’ burden really is easy and his yoke truly is light. And sometimes we need to be stripped of the familiar so that when we are back in our comfort zone, we can more tangibly remember how easy that burden was and how light that yoke felt.
You may not be able to go on an international mission trip. But each of you has some experience – a heartfelt expression of gratitude when you cared for the poor, a prayer with someone who was really hurting, or surprisingly easy conversation in a coffee shop about church and your faith. Though Jesus, St. Francis, and even the Pope sometimes go to extreme measures, they all ultimately are trying to do the same thing. To remind us that Jesus’ burden is easy and his yoke is light. And then they all invite us to get comfortable with discomfort or even with the label of being crazy – and to go and do likewise. Amen.
[i] Holy Men, Holy Women: Celebrating the Saints (New York: The Church Pension Fund, 2010), 622.