Sermon for Third Sunday after Trinity – High Mass Sunday 6 July 2014
Sermon preached by Father Michael Bowie
The first reading today takes us back to the Palm Sunday procession, really for the sake of a single word.
Our Lord entered Jerusalem to go to his Passion. That is how it turned out. Historically speaking, his motive was probably to lay down the final challenge to his people to accept the message and coming of the kingdom of God, with full knowledge that his action would almost certainly cost him his life. They rejected his message and brought him to the cross. As John’s Gospel reminds us (12.16) the true meaning of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem did not dawn on his disciples until after Easter. Then they came to see that the entry, in line with the life and the teaching, was a paradox, the procession of a king to his coronation (his crown would be of thorns and his throne a cross).
Matthew refers that distinctive entry to today’s first reading, specifically the first verse – Zechariah 9.9:
Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
Despite much that has been said and written about the humility of this beast, it is in fact a royal animal: the point of the donkey as opposed to a horse is that horses are for war, and this is to be a peaceful triumph (Old Testament parallels show this); Jesus’ acted parable evokes the entrance of King David into his city. Ordinary pilgrims generally approached the Holy City on foot. To ride any animal in these circumstances rather than walk was not inherently humble; the action is the more extraordinary since Jesus seems to walk everywhere else. This is an animal fit for a king: the irony of his kingship and its challenge to worldly categories will be demonstrated in the crown and throne which follow.
So we have something subtler than Uriah Heap in-your-face humility here. The key is in the word ‘and‘: ‘humble and riding on a donkey’ is intended to be an oxymoron, or at least a paradoxical surprise; the passage of time and lack of context has made it sound to us like something much more banal.
But we’ve been given this Old Testament text this morning to gloss, not the triumphal entry into Jerusalem, but two small pieces of Jesus’ teaching, with special reference to humility.
The first few gospel verses today refer to an oft-repeated theme in Jesus’ teaching – that there’s no pleasing the people of God. Plus ça change. John, he says, was treated as a weirdo because of his abstemious lifestyle; Jesus is reviled as a lush because he goes to parties.
But then we come to the purple passage at the end, distinguished by its use in both the so-called ‘Comfortable Words’ of the Prayerbook Communion rite and in popular devotion to the Sacred Heart of another Communion (and sometimes our own).
‘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. (Mt 11.28-29)
‘Come unto me all ye that travail and are heavy laden and I will refresh you.’
‘Jesu, meek and lowly of heart; make our hearts like unto thy heart.’
The first was repeated at millions of prayerbook communion services to reassure the guilty sinner that they have a friend in Jesus; the second was piously repeated in zillions of popular devotions by those who felt they needed just such a friend. In each case the gently mercy of God was recalled, a counter to more scary iconographies.
And the passage finishes with a double oxymoron like that of the humble king which I was mentioning a moment ago: the ‘easy yoke’ and the ‘light burden’, so often sonorously repeated in liturgical use that we probably don’t even notice them. We may also note that the word for ‘easy’ in ‘easy yoke’, is ‘chreystos‘, a deliberate play on ‘christos’, (Christ, Messiah) by the gospel writer (or even by Jesus himself, who may have spoken Greek – another topic for another day). Of course, we aren’t much used to wearing actual yokes or carrying really heavy burdens, third-world style, but there’s more than one type of burden. The gospel, Jesus says, is truly good news about God, a light and joyful thing, not the heavy burden that Pharisees, both Jewish and Christian, seek to make it. Again, plus ça change.
It’s a simple piece of teaching but one that the Church still finds oddly difficult to hear. It is about who can receive the message of Jesus, and its ultimate inclusivity. Earlier in the chapter John the Baptist himself has become unsure about whether Jesus was the real thing. In response, Jesus returns to theme of how difficult it is to get God’s message across, because we always want to discredit the speaker of any words we don’t want to hear (there was also a bit in the middle of this passage which was left out today, about two now-obscure cities which wouldn’t accept Jesus).
In the final verses, Jesus spells out how receiving the message of God works: revelation comes from the Father to the Son, and then to those who are open to it. These, in Jesus’ repeated teaching, are exactly the people for whom the Comfortable Words and devotion to the Sacred Heart were intended. God’s message is especially directed to those in any sense crushed by life.
Pious repetitions of Sacred Heart devotions and the Comfortable Words have blunted this teaching. But of course burdens and yokes remain, within and without the Church. Our task is to question those within, wherever we insist upon things which alienate people from God. Life is not easy for most of the world’s population most of the time, whether physically, economically, psychologically or emotionally. And that’s true for many of us, if we’re honest.
The way to lighten our burdens, Jesus teaches, is not to be ever cleverer, richer or more powerful, though all of those things will provide instant, if evanescent, gratification. Letting go of some or all of that stuff will help. But remembering, with Pope Francis, that those who never had them in the first place have something to teach us as well as something to receive from us will bring us nearer to God.