Mission and Belonging

“Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for yourselves. 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 biblical 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 finds 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 live out Faith.

Let me tell you a story about mission and belonging:

rangersDuring 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 single light came on in the house. Eventually, the door cautiously opened and the parish priest even more cautiously greeted them.

The 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 not 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 Rangers and priest more deeply understand 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.

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