Sunday, July 9, 2017


Come to me all you who are weary and
find life burdensome and I will give
you rest. For my yoke is easy and my
burden light.
Matthew 11

Religion! Can’t live with it and can’t live without it! Religion! Wears you out and gives you life! Religion! So complicated and yet so simple!

Those of us who bother with religion, at some time or another, no doubt feel like the great prophet, Jeremiah. Jeremiah tried his best to be faithful, tried to do what God had called him to do, but ended up so frustrated with all the trouble it caused him that he screamed out at God in frustration, “You suckered me into this stupid mess and I was dumb enough to fall for it!” If Jeremiah had been a country music writer, he would have surely written the famous song, “Take this job and shove it. I ain’t workin’ here no more!”

Thomas the Apostle doubted. In fact, he refused to believe until he could see Jesus with his own eyes and touch his wounds with his own hands. I have always liked Celie’s lines in the wonderful book The Color Purple, “It ain’t easy trying to do without God. Even if you know he ain’t there, trying to do without him is a strain.”  I also resonate with St. Theresa of Avila, patron saint of liberated women, when she was said to have let God have it with these words, “Listen, God, if this is the way you treat your friends, no wonder you don’t have many!”

Over the years, many believers have worked through their doubts of faith and frustrations with religion, but remained faithful to the Church, in spite of their deep disappointment with its very human side. Many have stayed in to do the dirty work of reforming the Church and have gone on to become great saints in doing so – St Francis of Assisi, St. Catherine of Siena, St. Bernard of Clairvaux, St. Theresa of Avila and John XXIII. They all argued with God and criticized the Church. Arguing, fighting and fussing still goes on within the Church today.

Still others made decisions to leave, turning their reforms efforts into new denominations – people like Martin Luther, John Calvin and John Knox. One internet site lists 5,000 Protestant denominations alone.

Jesus, himself, was known for his frustration with the organized religion of his day because he loved it. The ancient Jewish religion that he knew and loved had become so tedious, complicated, twisted and burdensome that he actually went on a rampage outside the temple in Jerusalem, kicking over the tables of the money-changers and screaming in frustration.

In today’s gospel, looking at how worn-down the average God-loving person of his day was, Jesus cries out, “Come to me, all you who are weary and find life burdensome and I will refresh you. My yoke is easy and my burden light.” The “yoke and burden” he was talking about was the “yoke and burden” of an overly complicated religion that was crushing the people that it was supposed to be lifting up. “The ease and lightness” that Jesus offered, in contrast, was the “ease and lightness” of a heart given completely to God and simple service to one’s neighbor.

The Ten Commandments contained the essence of the Jewish faith. Our spiritual ancestors, the Jewish people of old, struggled to live by them. But, over time, living them in community led to an immensely complicated set of rule books, guidelines and ethical codes.  When Jesus was asked which of all those rules and regulations was most important, he cut through all the layers of complication and said, “love your God and your neighbor as yourself “ and you will fulfill the whole law.

Those of us who are on the front line of trying to reform the Church today sometimes feel like Jeremiah. We get discouraged. We sometimes feel like giving up and walking away. Like Jeremiah, we cannot walk away because God is like a fire burning in our hearts. We are like Peter, when so many disciples walked away from Jesus after he talked about the Eucharist, telling them to “feed on his body and blood.”  When Peter was asked whether he would walk away too, he said, “To whom else shall we go? You have the words of everlasting life.”

Those of us who choose to stay know that if we were to leave, we would lose our right to criticize. For us, taking cheap shots at the Church from the outside is easy and cowardly. We know that “armchair quarterbacks” and “back seat drivers” are a dime a dozen. 

Jesus did not come to destroy organized religion, but to reform it, one heart at a time. The “church” can never become an enemy for Christians because it is the Body of Christ in the world. Christianity will always be messy because it is a communal religion. Those who choose the “just me and Jesus” brand of religion really do not know much about Jesus. They are like Lucy in the comic strip who professed that she “loved humanity, but it was people she could not stand.” When he left this world, Jesus told his followers, as a group, not individually, “I will be with you always.” His church is still one (with many parts), holy (in spite of its many sins), catholic (universal and inclusive) and apostolic (lives on in an unbroken succession back to the original apostles). Because it is made up of human beings, it will always be in need of reform.  Real reform always calls us back to the basics, the only path to the true reform of its structures. Changed people can change things.      

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