Moving fences

Franciscans34“Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for your selves. For my yoke is easy, and my burden light.”

It is a great passage, a great image, but… I suspect when we hear that word “yoked” a particular image comes to mind. We imagine two or more beasts of burden, a huge twin harness joining them, while they pull the heavily weighted wagon, till the fields, and perform all manner of really hard work. Yet there is some comfort in the idea that the work is shared, the harness adjusted to fit, and together with a kind of family – all geared towards a common mission and purpose.

Did you know that in the Greek, the root word for “yoke” is also the root word for “marriage?” It describes that bond of family that endures and permeates our being. As a root word it also find its way into a whole host of derivative words that can be used to describe the joining of people for common cause and purpose. It describes one aspect of church. For my part, it describes part of what it means to belong, a way to life out Faith.

Let me tell you a story about mission and belonging:

During WWII there was a platoon of Army Rangers deployed well behind enemy lines on a critical mission during the European campaign. A single sniper bullet had killed one of the platoon members. The mission had to continue, but they just could not leave their friend as a stranger in a strange land, buried in an unmarked grave that they might never again find. They remembered a small Catholic church in the area. So, under the cover of the moonless night, they approached the church and rectory, and knocked on the door. After a while a singe light came on in the house. Eventually, the door cautiously opened and the parish priest even more cautiously greeted them.

They Rangers told him that they wanted to bury their friend in the church cemetery so that they would know he had a proper place until the Lord came again. The priest’s mind raced. This was still occupied territory. Would the burial be seen as a sign of collaboration? Would he be endangering his parish community? The awkward moment lingered in the silence. The Rangers repeated the request assuming the priest had no understood, but he gently waved his hand indicating he understood, then said, “Of course, let us celebrate his life, give Glory to God, and place him at rest among his fellow Catholics.”

Then it was the priest’s turn to endure the lingering silence as the Rangers looked at him and each other, before the sergeant replied, “Padre, Billy Bob was Baptist.” The priest knew that only Catholics could be buried in the hallowed ground of the parish cemetery. He thought for a moment and told the rangers, “Let us celebrate this man and mourn his passing. We will take care of your friend. We will bury him just outside the fence, and we will tend his grave as we would our own.

The Rangers prepared the grave, prayed, said their goodbyes, thanked the priest, and returned to war.

More than a year later, with peace declared in war-ravaged Europe, the Ranger platoon, at least those who survived, was sent back for R&R in Paris. They decided to pay their respects to Billy Bob and let the Army know exactly where they had laid him to rest. Army records needed to be completed and, besides, there was a family to inform.

It wasn’t easy to retrace their steps. It took several days of searching but they eventually spotted the country church. It was Sunday and mass was being celebrated inside. They would visit the priest later when the mass was done, but now they wanted to pay their respects to Billy Bob. As they walked the perimeter of the fence they were confused they could not find his grave. Confusion gave way to anger as they assumed the priest had gone back on his word and removed the evidence of his collaboration with them. They waited and silently fumed.

At the end of Mass, when the priest saw them, he knew who they were. He came over and greeted them, giving praise to God for their safety. The sergeant, as calmly as he could, asked the priest, “What happened to Billy Bob’s grave? You promised to care for it and now we can’t find it. What gives?”

The priest led them to a grave with a simple stone inscribed in French marking the resting place of their friend. The priest simply said, “We moved the fence.”

It is a simple moment when the priest more deeply understood being yoked to one another and Christ comes in forms. When a church moves from maintenance to mission. When a pastor moves from rules to embrace. When a people become the Body of Christ, arms extended to the whole world.

Moving the fences. It is a simple metaphor, but it describes the life of St. Francis as he moved the fences that defined life in medieval Europe, that defined what holiness meant, and that kept some people on the outside. It describes the missionary charism of the Franciscans who within one generation of St. Francis’ life, were found in North Africa to south, England to the north, the steppes of Russia, the Holy Land, and as far east as China. Ever moving the fences, always yoked to Christ and to each other. Always inviting people to belong to Christ and to each other.

It is the mission of our Franciscan presence in downtown Tampa, to keep moving fences and opening doors. We see it in our Ministry of Reconciliation as we continue to welcome people back to their faith from which they once felt excluded. We see it in the way in which you, the parishioners, welcome people to Mass. We see it in a hundred different ways, large and small. We might hesitate like the priest in the story, but on our best days, we move the fence to include all who seek the love of God in their lives

In the year 1255, St. Bonaventure, then Minister General of all the Franciscans gathered the brothers together and preached to them using this same Gospel. In the background was a religious order that was becoming entrenched in the universities, the halls of power as advisers to princes and popes, and were beginning to turn a bit inward – fences were being erected, gates closed. He reminded them that within one generation of the life of St. Francis they had grown to 35,000 brothers and had accomplished so many amazing things, but that they were yoked together for a common cause – a cause that was focused out from themselves to the end of the earth, to move fences so that all would be encompassed in the arms of Christ. Bonaventure reminded them it was time to go back to work, to yoke up, and again follow Christ. To remind them, of the mission of the One to whom they were yoked.

We have accomplished amazing things in the last ten years and I think the next ten years will be even more so. We have lots of fences to move here in downtown Tampa so that people are included. Think about all the new apartments and condos in downtown, the changing landscape of the neighborhoods to the north, and the poor and homeless that are part of our parish. There will always be fences to move and we will always be called to move them.

And maybe, just maybe, today we moved one fence. The reality of our common life and the constraints of our beautiful church is that we have different communities denoted by the Mass we attend. But, today we have one Mass. Today, we have come together under one roof to celebrate Eucharist. It was a logistical endeavor that was only slightly less complicated than the Normandy invasion. It was the work and love of almost 300 parishioners to make this day possible. They found that together, the yoke was light and the burden easy. And we are reminded of the call to mission.

760 year ago, St. Bonaventure reminded the friars that they were yoked together in and for the love of Christ. Look at what the Franciscans have done because they belonged to Christ, to the Church, and to each other. This is our legacy. This is our calling – to belong – to again take on the yoke of Christ and the work of the kingdom

Therefore hold back nothing of yourselves for yourselves, so that He who gives himself totally to you may receive you totally.


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