In the Name...
The story is told of a fiery preacher who stormed into a saloon and bellowed "Everyone who wants to go to heaven stand over by that wall." Stunned and embarrassed, the patrons slowly rose, left their drinks on the tables, and meekly shuffled over, except for one fellow who stayed at the bar, coolly sipping his drink. "Son," the preacher said, "Don't you want to go to heaven?” "Sure thing, Reverend", the man replied, "But I'll wait till next time you're taking a group."
Next time. For a lot of us, the thought of heaven is a long way off, about as far as Outer Mongolia. We've got more than enough to think about right now. In fact, there's probably not one of us here today who couldn't be somewhere else. A lot of folks are, and that's to be expected. It's a summer weekend. But the same thing is true every weekend, indeed every day, of the year.
Perhaps there are mundane tasks like shopping, laundry, yard work. Or work-related concerns, project deadlines, reports and reviews to prepare, or family matters, children, sports, or parents. Let's face it. The business of life, of living, is a full-time job - one day at a time. And yet, and yet, for all that, we do have concerns which have nothing to do with the present, concerns which may not even be in the forefront of our minds, but which exist in our souls and affect us.
Now, we've often heard it said that human beings are a union of flesh and spirit, mind and matter, body and soul, and that our true citizenship lies in heaven. And these are all fine sounding phrases, but what do they really mean in English? And how do they affect my daily life? Well, the translation is that, whether or not we realize it, you and I live with all the tensions and anxieties of people who are homeless. Homeless. In the streets. People who sleep under bridges and rummage through dumpsters, who wander from shelter to shelter, a few days here, a hot meal there, maybe a shower.
Oh, in reality we may have nice houses and a physically comfortable lifestyle, but we can't rid ourselves of certain nagging feelings. A restlessness, a sense of dissatisfaction which we can't quite put a finger on, or name. Some people try to bury these feelings by indulging in distractions, material possessions, activity - personal or professional. But it doesn't work. The more we do or get, the more we want. A vicious circle.
But it's a natural way to act because one side-effect of being made in the image and likeness of our Creator is that, like Him, we are doers. It's just that, unlike Him, we are limited in what we can do or enjoy. And that's why we're here today. Seeking a way to live with this spiritual unrest. Seeking some guidance on how to understand it and turn it from a problem which limits us, into an opportunity for personal growth.
In St. Paul's letter to the Romans he describes himself as being in anguish. "Wretched man that I am", he says. Wretched man? This is Paul. A brilliant theologian with impeccable credentials, influential, known and respected across an Empire, a man who exercised powerful spiritual gifts - and he called himself “wretched." Well, actually the word he used in the Greek, was "taliporos" and this was a special word used in classical literature to describe the mythic hero Odysseus. "Taliporos" really means "one who suffers while traveling" and the story of Odysseus was the story of a man who travelled far and suffered much during the twenty years it took him to get home.
In his letter, Paul was intentionally comparing himself with Odysseus. His audience knew this story well. They knew it like we know the story of Paul Revere. Of course, from Odysseus we get the word "odyssey" to describe any long journey filled with adventures. And what is the Bible if not that - the story of a journey, the journey of a people called the Human Race.
It begins by describing a home, a place called Eden. Then it tells of how, by making bad decisions, Adam and Eve were expelled from that home and their descendants, the race of Mankind, travelled far and fell victim to many evils. But here's where our story is different. Odysseus' gods were against him. Our God spared no expense to save us. He gave His Only Son to show us the way home, to be the way, the truth, and the life for all. And so St. Paul says, in the next breath, "Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ, our Lord."
And that's the answer to the root of our spiritual restlessness. Yes, this world isn't our home. This life isn't our life. All we have is not all we will have. But if we look to the life of Jesus we will see how our life here can be turned into a worthy preparation for that which is to come.
In today's Gospel, Jesus said that we should learn from him because he was, he said, "gentle and humble of heart.” In our world we tend to regard someone who is described as gentle as being something of a wimp, a doormat for the world, but again, if we look to the word Jesus used we find ourselves in for something of a surprise. The word we translate as "gentle" is the Greek word "praus" and it really means "well-trained." It's a word which refers to horses.
Horses are powerful animals which can be trained for tasks which require discipline. Maybe pulling a waggon, racing around a track, or charging into a battle. A trained horse is no wimp. It is strong, but uses its strength only in response to commands. And Jesus says that the way to make our way in this life with a minimum of anxiety and discontent is to be just as well disciplined. To be strong and confident, to respond to his will and not be distracted from our goals.
The lesson today from Zechariah calls to mind the example of a man who exhibited this quality of "praus", of well-trained gentleness. In December, 1917, during WWI, the Turkish Army in Jerusalem surrendered to one of Britain's most successful generals, Sir Edmund Allenby, a man who had, over a distinguished military career, demonstrated his courage and leadership time and time again. Well, on his way to the formal surrender ceremony, Allenby did something quite unusual. He did not enter the city in the customary fashion at the head of a parade riding a horse, or even being driven in a car. Accompanied only by a few officers, he entered the city on foot, because, he said, "My king only rode a donkey here."
Obviously, Allenby was not referring to George V. No, this decorated hero of a mighty empire knew he was ultimately subject to another king of a mightier empire and he was not ashamed to make that allegiance known.
St. Paul wrote that those who set their minds and hearts on the glories of this world will know only anxiety and frustration, but those who set their minds on the things of God will know joy and peace. In our lifetimes, we will know both anxiety and peace as our attention shifts back and forth, and shift it will because yes, there is a life to live here. Yes, it has its responsibilities and concerns. But if we behave as Jesus recommended, the more our sense of homelessness will fade and the more peace we will experience on earth.
Yes, we have a journey to make, but we know the destination of our odyssey, and how to complete it. "Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ, our Lord."
In the Name...