11 August 2014

A sermon for Claretide

Today is the the Feast of St Clare, so I thought I’d post a sermon I gave at a Third Order Claretide Eucharist a few years ago:
At that time Jesus said, ‘I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him. 
‘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.’ (Matthew 11:25–30; nrsv)
This Gospel reading seems particularly appropriate for a Franciscan gathering at which we are celebrating the life of St Clare.

It begins with Jesus responding to rejection – to the fickleness of the crowds who criticized John for one thing and Jesus for the precise opposite; and to the straightforward unbelief of many in the towns and cities he had visited. Strictly speaking it is a continuation of his response, which actually begins at verse 16. He has already addressed himself to those who have rejected him. These verses offer another dimension: he begins to praise God for what has happened. Human agency and divine agency are inextricably intertwined. It is impossible to divide up events or actions by saying humans did a, b, or c, but God did x, y, and z. God is intimately involved in every aspect of creation, even in the rejection of Jesus by these people.

What lies behind that rejection? Jesus says unequivocally that it has come about because God has hidden these things – the truth about John the Baptist and about Jesus himself – from ‘the wise and the intelligent’. Of course the other side of the coin – the human dimension – is that they have hidden the truth from themselves by their cleverness. Theirs is the intellectual pride that picks and chooses what to believe, that rejects the teachings of an itinerant rabbi because he lacks the necessary academic credentials (he’s just some carpenter’s son from Nazareth, hasn’t been to the right colleges, hasn’t been properly trained in the art of biblical exegesis) or more likely because he has touched a nerve with his ethical pronouncements (how dare he question how I choose to spend my money or express my sexuality or treat my employees).

And he contrasts the intellectually proud (the rich, the self-sufficient) with those to whom the Father has revealed these things – infants, those who have nothing, who are completely dependent on others. In order to receive the gospel, we have to become like infants. We have to cultivate intellectual humility (which, by the way, should never be confused with gullibility; though, of course, there will always be those who try to identify the two for their own purposes). This implies that, faced with the challenge of the gospel, we do not deploy the weapons of literary criticism (though I don’t deny that there is a place for those in the academic study of the Bible) but rather adopt the attitude which Eli commended to Samuel: ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’

I want to suggest, further, that intellectual humility does not stand on its own. I don’t think it is really possible to compartmentalize our existence in that way. Rather it is an aspect of humility in the broader sense, and that in turn is an aspect of evangelical poverty. If you like, humility is freely chosen poverty of status. What do I mean by evangelical poverty? Simply the joyful recognition that all I am (whether by nature or by nurture) and all I possess (whether inherited or earned) is rendered completely worthless by the overwhelming grace of God offered in Jesus.

And this, I think, is the vision of poverty that motivated Francis and (possibly to an even greater extent) Clare. This I think is the poverty Clare speaks of in her first letter to Agnes of Prague:
I am sure that you know that the kingdom of heaven is promised and given by the Lord only to the poor, because as long as something temporal is the object of love, the fruit of charity is lost. You know, too, that one cannot serve God and material wealth, since either the one is loved and the other hated, or a person will serve one and despise the other. You also know that a person wearing clothing cannot fight with another who is naked, because the one who has something that might be grasped is more quickly thrown to the ground. You know, too, that it is not possible for a person to remain glorious in the world and to reign with Christ in heaven; and that a camel will be able to pass through the eye of a needle before a rich person ascends into the kingdom of heaven. These are the reasons why you disposed of your clothing, I mean your worldly wealth, so that you might have the strength not to succumb completely to the one struggling against you, so that you may enter the kingdom of heaven by the narrow road and constricted gate.
So, I can imagine Clare nodding her head in vigorous agreement with this passage from Matthew. How should you approach the gospel? As an infant – as one who is humble, who is poor, who is naked.

Then Matthew adds these words: ‘All things have been handed over to me by the Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.’ If you like, this is the Matthean equivalent of Jesus’ saying in John’s Gospel, ‘I am the Way, the Truth and the Life, no one comes to the Father but by me.’ If you want to see what God is like; if you want to begin to understand the mind of God, the heart of God, the nature of God; if you want an inkling into God’s attitude to humankind, follow me, he says. Only through him can we see what God is like – which may sound terribly exclusive – but perhaps that is just pride speaking; perhaps if like Clare we approach it with the poverty of an infant, we would see it in a different light – the free offer of God and with him all things to all people regardless of race, social status or gender if only we would accept it with humility.

And, as if to underline that, the Gospel reading ends with Jesus making this direct offer: ‘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.’

All the commentaries I have looked at seem to agree that Jesus is speaking metaphorically here about life under the Jewish law as burdensome. He is addressing people who have been driven to despair, who have exhausted themselves by trying to make themselves acceptable to God on their own terms. And doubtless that is part of the meaning. But I can’t help feeling that the offer is more than that. Jesus is offering freedom not just from the self-imposed burden of keeping the Jewish or any other law, but from any oppressive situation.

And that immediately makes me think of Clare again. By all accounts she was a pious young woman. When she was just twelve she sent some money to Francis and the brothers while they were repairing the Porziuncula. It is fairly clear that from an early age she had a vision of emulating Francis’s radical way of living out the gospel. But she was also the eldest daughter of Favarone di Offreduccio, of the family of the counts of Sasso Rosso. So she was a member of the minor nobility and her life was most certainly not her own. She was trapped, burdened by the ill-fitting yoke of impending marriage. As the eldest daughter of the family she did not even have the option of escaping into normal conventual life. All she could reasonably expect was to be used as a bargaining chip in the great game of dynastic alliance: married off to strengthen the family’s ties with a wealthier or more powerful family.

In Clare’s case it was not law-keeping that was burdensome. Rather the burden that weighed her down was her social status, her wealth and the prospect of marriage. She knew in her heart of hearts that she did not fit in to this life; or, it did not fit who she really was. The crisis came on Palm Sunday in 1212. Accept what her family and society in general expected of her, even though it chafed. Or throw everything away for the sake of her Franciscan vision of radical poverty. I don’t know whether this gospel promise played any part in her thinking that day, but it might well have done since it encapsulated the choice that was before her. That night she left her parents’ home through the door of the dead, slipped out of the city by the Porta Moiana, and ran down the hill through the olive groves to meet Francis and the brothers at the Porziuncula.

Just a couple of final thoughts about the yoke that Jesus promises. Anyone who doubts that Jesus has a sense of humour has not read this passage. ‘My yoke is easy’ – chrestos – literally, my yoke fits well. I imagine him saying this with a smile and a twinkle in his eye, after all those close to him would know that he was a carpenter’s son. How many well-fitting yokes had he made over the years? But there is a more serious point to be made about this. The freedom that Jesus promises, whether it is freedom from self-imposed legalism or freedom from the oppressive expectations of our family, friends, employer, society at large, political leaders, etc. is not freedom in the abstract; it is not freedom from all limits. No, what Jesus promises is a well-fitting yoke, a burden that we can carry without over-exerting ourselves. We will still be surrounded by limits, because we are finite creatures and because we are social creatures.

Think of Clare again. She abandoned the ill-fitting constraints of married life in a medieval culture for the much better fitting constraints of Franciscan radical poverty. The limits Jesus places on us are suited to our nature; they are limits that allow us room to grow into whatever he has called us to be.


In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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