Occasionally I wander the Hickory Neck property as a way of clearing my head. I often end up over in the St. Francis Memorial Garden, reveling in the quiet in that remote corner behind the Historic Chapel. The bucolic scene and the St. Francis statue make me imagine the peaceful walks he took in his journey to commune with God and God’s created order. The funny thing is our celebrations of St. Francis today are nothing like those peaceful moments. There is the chaos of the drive-thru, as confused pets worry they are headed toward the dreaded veterinarian or are confused by the people in clerical garb. There is the hubbub of owners calming pets inside the New Chapel, the curiosity of what unique pets one may see, and the endless giggles and chuckles about unpredictable animals in an enclosed space. The whole morning is a morning of contrasts.
The contradictions of this day are equally evident in our Gospel lesson. Our gospel lesson closes with one of our favorite invitations from Jesus, “Come to me, all you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you … and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” Those words describe a loving, gentle Jesus, who enfolds us in a calm, affirming embrace. At least, they should. But if we read the words critically, there is more contrast in them than we might like to admit. Yes, Jesus taking our heavy burdens and recognizing our weariness is balm for the soul. But the last time I checked, yokes were not exactly tools for rest. And even though Jesus promises his yoke is easy, the yoke is still a yoke – a tool for directing, guiding, ensuring productive work is done. Having listened to the gospels these last weeks, we know this work is anything but light. In the last few weeks in Mark’s gospel, Jesus told us we would have to take up our cross, suffer, and die; that discipleship would mean being servant of all; and that if our hand or eye were causing us to stumble, we should just cut them off! That does not really sound like an easy yoke to me!
Part of what we appreciate about St. Francis, and why we celebrate him every year – besides having an excuse to have a day to honor our beloved animals – is St. Francis understood Jesus’ words in a tangible, personal way. Francis grew up in the life of luxury. He grew up in a privileged home, lived a life of young adult revelry, and could have easily assumed his father’s wealth in adulthood. But there were these poor people everywhere he looked around town.[i] And there was the day everything changed at the church of St. Mary of the Angles[ii], when Francis heard different words from Matthew’s gospel, just a chapter before what we heard today. Jesus says, “Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons…Take no gold, or silver, or coper in your belts, no bag for your journey, or two tunics, or sandals, or a staff…”[iii] For Francis, Jesus’ yoke felt light because the yoke of keeping up appearances, the yoke of ignoring the poor to enjoy your own wealth, the yoke of never feeling like you have enough was indeed a heavy yoke. The yoke of another way – of the way of Jesus – helped Francis reframe his entire life.
That is what we celebrate too. St. Francis, in his faith conversion, and in his ability to see the sacred in all of God’s creation, saw the truth of our gospel lesson today. As one scholar explains, “The proper ordering of our relationship to Father and Son can be deemed ‘light’ and ‘easy’ because an improper relationship to them surely makes for a much harder and more restless life!”[iv] Whether in the pure love between animals and owners, whether in peaceful moments with God’s creation, or whether in today’s gospel lesson and in Francis’ example, our invitation today is to let go of the hard and restless life and to take up the light burden of Jesus’ easy yoke. The more we practice taking on that yoke, the more we find work that is meaningful, life-giving, and blessed. And that is a yoke we can all enjoy! Amen.
[i] Holy Women, Holy Men: Celebrating the Saints (New York: Church Publishing, 2010), 622.
[ii] Hilarion Kistner, O.F.M., The Gospels According to Saint Francis (Cincinnati: Franciscan Media, 2014), 6-7.
[iii] Matthew 10.7-10
[iv] Colin Yuckman, “Commentary on Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30,” July 9, 2017, as found at https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-14/commentary-on-matthew-1116-19-25-30-4 on October 1, 2021.