Friday, February 4, 2011

My yoke is easy, and my burden is light (Matthew 11:30)

The Antiochian Orthodox parish of St Botolph's London, founded by the late Father Michael Harper, has a great website on which can be found various sermons and other interesting bits 'n pieces. The parish priest, Fr. Alexander Tefft, is a Canadian. As a child, he attended the Orthodox Church but was not baptised until his twenties. Thus, he speaks to both 'cradle' and 'convert'. Fr. Alexander has taught the Orthodox faith for twenty years. Graduating from St. Tikhon's Seminary in Pennsylvania, he was ordained a deacon in the Orthodox Church in America (OCA). Going to England to pursue doctoral research, he was appointed a tutor and later chaplain of the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies, Cambridge. Upon transfer from the OCA to the Antiochian Church, he was ordained to the priesthood by Metropolitan Kallistos (Ware). His sermons are challenging and thought provoking, always about some aspect of the Good News of Jesus. The website is HERE. Fr. Alexander preached this sermon on 5th December, 2010.

Luke 13:10-17; Matthew 11:27-30

When a Breton fisherman sets sail from a port along the rocky coast of Brittany, tradition states that he prays: ‘Protègez moi, mon Seigneur, ma barque est si petite, et votre mer est si grande’ – ‘Protect me, O Lord, my boat is so small, and your sea is so great’. All that we need to know about life is here. And prayer. About life. And the Lord of life. ‘My boat is so small, and your sea is so great’. The sea is so vast and powerful; and I am so small. Look out on its endless expanse. Who would not feel pity for a little wooden boat, journeying out on the waves? Swept by the foam, battered by the storms that sweep the surface and carry whole villages away. Beneath the surface are animals that are larger and more terrifying than anything on dry land. The sea never forgets that you are small. Your boat is small. No one but a lunatic expects your little boat to master the sea. No one – least of all … God. God watches you set sail. God blesses you. God directs your little boat, over the waves. And God knows when the storms toss you, this way and that, and sometimes, carry you away. God knows, and understands.

A priest of God who is worthy of the name never expects more of you than God himself. He helps you into a tiny boat, he points the way – by means of the true worship: incense and candles, vestments and prayer; processions with the Gospel, and with the holy gifts of bread and wine. He teaches you true doctrine, to direct your little boat over the waves that tempt you to despair; the foam made up of lies and deceit that hide the face of God. A true priest blesses you, again and again, and points your boat toward the land beyond the Jordan, promised by God. But a true priest of God also knows when the storms toss you, this way and that. The white lie that you told. The angry thoughts, the angry words about your husband or wife or co-worker. The piece of meat that you ate during the fast. A true priest knows when the storms sometimes carry you away. The bottle of cider that you drank and forgot all the bottles that went before. The warm body that you clung to in the night, when a friend became a little more than a friend. A true priest, a priest of God, knows, and understands. Your boat is so small. Sometimes, it cannot reach its destined port. Sometimes, it crashes on rocks or sinks below the waves. Sin is no crime. It is the sickness, the infirmity, that comes upon you and others; and a true priest is not there to judge you, but to heal. He is not there to bind you, but to set you free.

A false priest is stiff and proud. Around your neck, he binds a hard yoke of guilt, in order to harness you to some distant tyrant that he calls ‘God’. Upon your shoulders, he lays a burden of ‘right conduct’, rewards and punishments, so heavy that it weighs you down – until you cannot stand up straight, but grovel at his feet. He loads your little boat with his chains until it sinks from the unbearable weight. Have you ever known a priest like that? A priest who never lets God stand in the way of the law.

God, who lifts the burden, breaks the yoke – and recognises him who laid them on you.

For eighteen years, Satan has bound a woman with a spirit of infirmity. She is bent over and cannot stand up straight. The sickness is in her spine, where worries and fears and, above all, guilt, weigh down a body and pull it down under the waves. She comes to the synagogue to hear Jesus teach. He sees her, there in the crowd. He calls out: ‘Woman, you are free. I set you free from the sickness that bends you down in fear. I set free from the tyranny that weighs upon you’. As soon as he lays his hands on her, she does not fall to his feet. She stands and praises God. But the pious leader – let us call him, a ‘false priest’ – hates to see her standing straight. He is angry that Jesus has violated the law. ‘Come here some other day’, he yells at those present, ‘but not the Sabbath’. Jesus does not spare these righteous folk. ‘Hypocrites! Would you keep this woman bound up in sickness, just to obey your laws? Why not keep your own animals tied up, hungry and thirsty, just to obey your laws to the letter? You are of your father, the devil. He sees the little boat tossed on the waves and loads it down with heavy chains. I break the chains – I smash them – here and now, on the Sabbath day, set aside for the glory of God’.

Why else was the Sabbath created if not to set you free? Why Sunday, the glorious Day of Resurrection, if not to free you from death? Why teach true doctrine, if not to free you from every lie? Why obey the commandment of love, if not to free you from yourselves? A false priest delights in seeing you bowed down. Unable to stand. Bound with the chain that he mistakes for the law of God. But in truth, it is he who is chained by the chain that he forged in life; and someday, he will awaken to find himself chained … forever. A true priest of God does not chain you: you, or your little boat. He waits, as long as it takes for you to remember, then gently guides your little boat on its voyage home.

Beloved in Christ: Saint Sabas – Mar Saba, as his disciples called him – was just such a priest. Wise beyond his years. His name Savá in Hebrew meant ‘old man’; and this child elder, as they called him, saw how the storms of life toss you up and down, this way and that, and all too easily carry you away. Rather than abandon men to the storms, he set up a community in the Kedron Valley near Jerusalem: the Great Lávra, dedicated to the perpetual prayers of the monks. Rather than draw up a rigid rule of conduct, he gave us the Týpikon, the guidelines for the true worship still used in the Orthodox Church – for the word ‘Orthodox’ does not mean ‘right conduct’ but true worship. Most importantly, Saint Sabas opposed the false priests – those who depicted Christ as some distant tyrant, who bends and breaks you to his will. Christ, our true God, is no less human than we. He sees that our boat is small and the sea is great. He knows how weak and frightened we are. God knows, and understands.

Our God is not stiff and proud; he is gentle and lowly. He commands us, not to grovel at his feet but to stand upright. To cast off the crippling burden of fear and the yoke of guilt. To remember, each time that we hear the word ‘mercy’, that all the sins ever committed by mankind are only a handful of dust cast into the infinite sea of God’s love. He lays on us no yoke, except the true Orthodox worship of Christ our God: the yoke, not of fear but of love.

For his yoke is easy, and his burden is light.


Alice C. Linsley said...

Wonderful! So inspiring. I had never heard of Fr. Saba.

We are indeed well loved by God. This never fails to overwhelm me.

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