July 3, 2011: III Pentecost (9a)

Patrick Allen on July 5, 2011

III Pentecost (9a),
Rm 7.21-8.6; Mt 11.25-30
3 July 2011
Fr. Patrick S. Allen

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Eleven-score and fifteen years ago, our fathers brought forth a new nation, conceived in liberty.  (It took me most of Thursday and an iphone to do the math on that.)  Liberty is what, we hope, America is about, what it is for, and what – taking some time out from the fireworks and festivities of this Independence Day weekend – we ought all to pause and reflect upon.  It is what "we the people" value:  liberty, freedom, independence.  

This is a sermon and not a civics lesson, and I don't mean to get too political, but I don't think I'll get much argument if I suggest that our notions of liberty, freedom, and independence have evolved some these last 235 years.  And part of that evolution is that more and more we conceive of liberty as unfettered individual preference, absolute personal autonomy, the maximizing of personal choice, however arbitrarily and to whatever end that autonomy and choice might be exercised.  More and more we have come to see "the heart of liberty," as one recent Supreme Court decision put it, as "the right to define one's own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life."[i]  

But even if we might have some qualms about that language and what it might be –  and is – used to justify, we Americans are big believers in individual liberty, of being beholden to no one, of the freedom to set our own course in life, and always have been.  In the film version of James Fenimore Cooper's classic novel of the American colonies The Last of the Mohicans, the character Hawkeye, asked by a British officer if he is not a loyal subject of the British crown, replies, "I do not call myself subject to much at all."  Hawkeye is presented to us as the primal, the ur-American.

Not subject to much at all.  The right to define one's own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.  And here we are, about to celebrate our great national holiday – indeed, our great national virtue:  Independence Day.

So, it may be, that we American Christians have a little trouble with how to understand and apply these words of Jesus from this morning's gospel lesson.  Come unto me all ye that travail and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest – sounds pretty good so far, sounds like a week at Edisto Beach.  But then he goes on, And take my yoke upon you, and learn of me.  So much for independence.  Our self-conception, our desire, is to be "not subject to much at all," but Jesus calls us to, and offers to us as if it is a mercy, a yoke - which, no matter how easy or light, at least sounds like a kind of slavery.  Options are closed off.  Personal choice lost.

Of course, the implication that Jesus is making by calling his yoke "easy" and burden "light" is that we are, all of us, apart from him, striving under a cruel yoke and a crushing burden.  And maybe one way to say that, and to see it, is to say – as Jesus elsewhere did – that knowing the truth will set us free, and that lies, falsehoods, not only deceive, they enslave.

But to make any sense of that, we have to understand what freedom is.  Our modern, evolved notion of freedom is largely, I think almost exclusively, negative.  It is always freedom from something:  freedom from moral or legal restraint, freedom from limit, from being told what to do.  So, it's "Keep your laws off my body," or, "The government can't make me buy health insurance," to choose left and right examples.

But there is another and older idea of freedom.  It conceives of freedom as a positive capability.  It is freedom for.  It has to do with understanding what sort of a creature I am, and then the pursuit of those good things to which my being, my nature, is ordered.  

In other words, a fish is not more free if it decides to forsake the limits of water and flop up on the dock and go for a stroll; it is decidedly less so.  But a fish is free for submarine life – to live and move and swim and have its being in the water, in accord with its nature.  A fish is free for fishy things.  The limits of a fish's physical nature are not limits on its freedom, but only the "ordinary limits which make freedom possible in the first place."  Which is merely to say that it exists, and exists as a fish.[ii]

In order to understand what freedom means for any particular creature, we have to understand sort of thing that creature is, and so what good things it is ordered to:  it has gills and fins; it is ordered towards swimming.

Well, then.  What are we?  What is a human being, and what are those good things toward which our nature is ordered?  This is precisely where we are confused.  Fish, if you've ever tried to talk to one (the incredible Mr. Limpet notwithstanding), are not particularly reflective, and in fact do not pine away for life on land.  But we human beings are different.  Not only do we have arms and legs and lungs, we have the capacity – the freedom for – reflection and self-examination and the conception and the pursuit of life and conditions other than they are.  We can imagine and choose for things to be different.  We long and we desire and then, what do we find?  That we have, at the same time, longings and desires that are in conflict.  And not just among and between one another, but within ourselves, down deep in our own hearts.

For I delight in the law of God, in my inmost self, St. Paul says in our epistle lesson, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind – that is, the reasonable, in accord with reality, and true law – the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin which dwells in my members.  

I want to be generous towards others, towards the poor, and at the same time I want to keep my money and spend it on myself.  I want to love, honor, cherish, and serve my wife, and at the same time I want to sit on the sofa, watch the Braves, and eat corn chips.  Wretched man that I am ... who will deliver me?  Who will deliver her?, poor woman.

This confusion, this fissure, this fault line, in our hearts and wills, between what St. Paul calls the law of our minds and the law of sin, which is itself the fruit of human sin, binds us, makes us captive so that we no longer know what our true freedom is, nor have the strength to pursue it.  A cruel yoke and a crushing burden.  We no longer know what it is to be, we no longer have the strength to be, truly, a human being, a reasonable creature made in God's own image.

How can we know, and knowing, how can we pursue our freedom?  Come unto me, says Jesus, take my yoke upon you and learn of me.  We learn, we recover our true selves, by taking on Christ's yoke.  In the paradox of faith, we find our freedom by binding ourselves to him "whose service is perfect freedom."[iii]  

We learn what it is to be a human being, to be ourselves, by yoking ourselves to the Real Thing:  Jesus Christ, the True Man, in whom we see all the lost glory, all the lost freedom, of our own tarnished and bent, broken and bound humanity.  

On this Independence Day weekend, is this invitation to take on a yoke a little off-putting?  Well, the point of taking on Christ's yoke, as he tells us, is to learn.  And this is always the way we learn, if we are really to learn.  If I want to build houses but am ignorant of carpentry, I won't get very far by going down to Lowe's, purchasing tools and materials, and banging away.  The way to learn, the way to be free to build, is to apprentice myself to a carpenter, to do what he does, and eventually to think and see as he thinks and sees.

If I want to be a free man, to live and love as a human being made in the image of God, the thing to do is apprentice myself – to a Carpenter, as it turns out – to yoke myself to the Real Thing, to Jesus Christ, true God and true Man, who in love has given his own life to and for us, and to let him bear the weight – the weight of my sins, the weight of my own abused freedom, and finally to learn of him life:  easy, light, and free at last.

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[i] Planned Parenthood v. Casey, 1992.

[ii] These thoughts prompted largely by Rodney Howsare, "A Dangerous Freedom," 30 June 2011: http://www.firstthings.com/onthesquare/2011/06/a-dangerous-freedom

[iii] So the Collect for Peace in the morning office.