I begin this morning by quoting a couple of experts. The first is none other than Michael Corleone in Godfather Three, who said when called out of retirement, “Just when I thought I was out... they pull me back in.” There aren’t a lot of ways in which I identify with the Godfather, but surprise at suddenly finding oneself back in action might be one of them.
The second is from a real local noteworthy, our mutual friend Anne Howard, who last week looked me in the eye and said to me—with all the love and empathy and pastoral care at her command—“Don’t mess up.”
“Just when I thought I was out... they pull me back in.” “Don’t mess up.” These are the two watchwords as we gather this morning. I’m very glad to be with you here at Trinity for the next while, and I will do my best not to mess up.
My wife Kathy and I moved back to Los Angeles from Washington, D.C. When I retired a year ago last February, and for my sermon at the farewell Evensong at the cathedral there I chose as my text a passage from Chapter 17 of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. If you remember that book, you probably recall the episode where Tom and Huck sneak into their own funeral—which is kind of how I felt preaching at my own farewell service. As Mark Twain says,
The minister related many a touching incident in the lives of the departed, too, which illustrated their sweet, generous natures, and the people could easily see, now, how noble and beautiful those episodes were, and remembered with grief that at the time they occurred they had seemed rank rascalities, well deserving of the cowhide.
My own “rank rascalities” aside, I have always found that as we look in history’s rear-view mirror we sentimentalize things that drove us crazy at the time. To tell the truth, I was a bit edgy for the National Cathedral—performing the first same-sex weddings there, working with the White House on gun violence, calling for the Confederate flags to come out of the building and its windows, marching with Black Lives Matter—and if I was edgy there, I’ll probably be a bit stodgy for you. (I can actually say the Nicene Creed all the way through without once crossing my fingers.) But relations between clergy and a congregation are about much more than issues or ideology. They are about the commitment to live and work together in love and mutuality to advance and enact God’s mission in the world. I have long admired Trinity Church for its inclusivity, its outreach, and its joyous spirit, and I consider it a great privilege to join you in your life and worship and work for the next indeterminate interim time.
So I ended one ministry with some words from Mark Twain and Tom Sawyer. Let me begin another one with an even more familiar episode from The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, the famous whitewashing story in Chapter two. You may remember that Aunt Polly caught Tom sneaking back into the house in the middle of the night, and she punished him by assigning him to whitewash the fence on a beautiful Saturday morning. Tom quickly figures that the way to get out of this onerous task is to pretend to his friends that it is so much fun that they will actually pay him to let them do it for him. Mark Twain concludes this chapter by observing:
Tom said to himself that it was not such a hollow world, after all. He had discovered a great law of human action, without knowing it—namely, that in order to make a man or a boy covet a thing, it is only necessary to make the thing difficult to attain. If he had been a great and wise philosopher, like the writer of this book, he would now have comprehended that Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do, and that Play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do.
“Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do, and Play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do.” Though he was a skeptic in religious matters, Mark Twain might be channeling Jesus here who says, in this morning’s gospel,
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: 28-30]
“Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do, and Play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do.” I have been a priest for over 40 years now, and one of the things I have learned over time from living and working in the church is that following Jesus is actually fun. The language we use to talk about ministry and discipleship is dark, gloomy, sacrificial language, and it therefore obscures a deep truth about what it means to be a Christian person. Caring for each other, working for justice, praying and advocating for the sick, the oppressed, sitting with the dying—these are not the bitter pills that we swallow as some kind of passport to eternal life. They are eternal life itself. The work we share together as church—praying, celebrating, mourning, serving—this work is life itself distilled into its primary elements. The yoke of Jesus is easy. His burden is light.
When I was younger, one of my heroes in the ministry was the late Bishop Daniel Corrigan, known I’m sure to many of you. In the 1980s I used to come up from Malibu on Friday mornings once a month to Mount Calvary where Bishop Corrigan would preach and preside at the Eucharist. I was talking with my friend Harvey Guthrie about Dan Corrigan last week, and Harvey told me that he once was part of a conference on the theology of work where Dan was the speaker, and Dan began his remarks by wrapping his lanky form around the lectern, leaning in, and observing, “I haven’t done a lick of work since I was 27.” I think he was in his 60s at the time.
Now Dan Corrigan lived a very long life, so for him to say, even into his 80s, that he hadn’t done a lick of work for fifty plus years must have said something about what it meant to him to be a follower of Jesus. And when you think about the life that Jesus lived and called others into, it was a life distilled into its primary elements. You and I, as educated first-worlders, often think of Jesus first as a teacher, which of course he was. But if you read the gospels, you’ll see that the people who followed Jesus did so not so much because of what he said as because of how he lived. In a world of political oppression, Jesus lived as a free person. In a world of economic privation, Jesus lived as one blessed with abundance. In a world that drove people into shaming and competition, Jesus lived in mutuality and compassion. In a world that suffered physical and mental illness, Jesus offered healing and renewal. So for Jesus to tell us that his yoke is easy and his burden is light is for him to say something about how we get through the stresses and strains and complexities of what it means to be human in a complicated and sometimes frightening world.
I don’t know about you, but when I read the New Testament what I find there is a world that looks pretty much like the world I inhabit today. Instead of the Roman Empire we have a political order that seems at worst malevolent and at best out of control. We inhabit a society where people are still persecuted and shamed because of their racial, ethnic, gender, and sexual identity. And, as did our first century forbears, we face the complications and stresses of ordinary human life. Relationships—then as now—can be conflictual. People we love leave us or die. Making a living and raising children and caring for aging relatives—all of these take energy and patience and love. And sometimes we’re just too frazzed to be gracious about it.
“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.” “Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do, and Play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do.” “I haven’t done a lick of work since I was 27.” Life will always offer us challenges and threats, but it will always give opportunities and blessings, too. We don’t find life’s meaning by searching for complicated abstract truths. We find it in shared prayer and faithful action. We meet it as we gather around the table where Jesus presides.
I cannot promise that everything will go smoothly in our time together. I cannot promise that life won’t intervene with its challenges and stresses as we seek, in community, to follow Jesus, love each other, and serve the world. But I can promise that we will find joy and meaning together in our common life. Following Jesus is actually fun. Following Jesus with others is even more than fun—it is what life is finally about.
“Just when I thought I was out... they pull me back in.” I am so looking forward to being with you as together we serve Jesus with energy, with compassion, with boldness and without doing even a lick of work. And I swear I will do my best, in our time together, not to mess up. Or at least to do so in interesting ways. Thanks so much for this opportunity to spend this interim time with you. Amen.