Sunday, July 5, 2020

Comfortable Words in an Uncomfortable Time: A Sermon for the Fifth Sunday After Pentecost

Preached for online Morning Prayer worship, St. Thomas Episcopal Church, Thomasville, GA.

These last few lines from our Matthew reading this morning are among my favorites in Scripture. I remember when I was a child in my church up in New Hampshire hearing our curate Rich Weymouth read them aloud right before the offertory. His voice conveyed such tenderness and kindness that it felt like a friend was pulling up a chair, wrapping their arm around my shoulders, and giving me reassurance that everything was going to be OK.
The disciples needed to hear these comforting words, too. Jesus has told them they’re gonna face resistance. Even when they’re speaking words of love and freedom…some people will not want to hear it. This God work is not easy.
To illustrate this…Jesus paints a picture of this resistance. This generation…his generation…are a people who don’t respond appropriately to anything… good or bad. Play the flute, be joyful, dance and be happy...this generation sits on the sidelines and mutters they don’t take part in such silliness. Come crying and mourning at loss and death? This people shrugs and laughs it off: it’s no big deal. They say that John the Baptizer’s religious practice of self-denial is demonic…and Jesus’ ultra-inclusive religion of love is not orthodox enough. Nothing will satisfy or convince this generation. They know better. Good luck to the disciples dealing with this mess!
Why aren’t the people convinced? Why do they resist so much? Why are they afraid to turn around, to change?
I feel like these are the same questions that we are wrestling with today. We celebrated Independence Day, but it hardly feels like a time of celebration. Racism is still dividing us, and we are caught in the net of a viral pandemic that has left many of us feeling very dependent. I’ve been shocked as I watch videos of grown men and women going ballistic in a grocery store when a teen-age clerk asks them to put on a mask. It makes no sense to me.
I know people who have or have had COVID-19. Some have died, some are still suffering from constant headache and short-term memory loss. Others have recovered relatively unscathed but may have lingering effects crop up years down the road. I can’t ignore how COVID-19 has exposed the gaps in our healthcare system and is disproportionately affecting racial minorities and the poor. All that makes me cringe as I watch the unmasked person screaming at the store employee while hurling packaged meats and loaves of bread to floor.
Is this rage really because of a request to put on a mask?
In seminary, one of the things they ask us to do is to pay attention to people and listen with what they call “our third ear.” It’s a way of being compassionate in times of high emotions and anxiety. And while I can’t say that I would have the patience to engage a person screaming at me and throwing things on the floor, I think that behavior might be pointing to something larger than a mask and more universal to all of us.
I think we are scared. This virus makes it impossible for us to go about our lives as we always have. We can’t gather together. We can’t sing in groups. We can’t go out to eat or drink. Businesses are closing. Unemployment benefits go unpaid. We are facing the uncomfortable truth that we are not in control. And when doctors and scientists come to us and say, “Put on a mask and keep social distance,” we become like that generation who thought John the Baptizer had a demon and Jesus was a glutton and drunkard.
But still…the doctors persist. The nurses keep emphasizing the public health advice. And now, even more politicians on both sides of the aisle are saying we must accept the reality of this virus, so please wear a mask in public.
Yet the resistance to these instructions continues.
So, do we give up? Do we say as Paul wrote to the Romans that we know what we ought to do, but we do the thing we hate?
We are living in a time of trouble on so many fronts. Life is hard, overwhelming and scary. Change is difficult. But Jesus’ message is that we must keep pressing forward even though we will suffer at times and may even lose a friend or two along the way. That’s part of the cost of discipleship…which brings us back to those comfortable words.
‘Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.’
Taking just a minute here…Imagine for a moment what troubles you? What makes you uncertain?
Now think of what it feels like to have someone be with you in that place of discomfort and fear. A friend or a loved one who listens attentively and stays with you in that place.
Now…imagine for a moment another person…someone who is a stranger to you. Are they feeling troubled? Do they feel anxious? As you listen to them…what are they telling you?
Ask yourself: what might I do to make their burden a little bit lighter?
This is where the Spirit of God is meeting us in this time. When we can find fellowship and kinship with another…when we can hear in their experiences echoes of our own…we come closer to living out our faith as Christians to be the true friend to another child of God.
The tasks and the difficulties before us…our race relations or COVID-19…are no less weighty…but we are not alone. Jesus is with us. He’s teaching and leading us in how to take care of one another and have compassion even when we meet with resistance. This is what it means to walk the path of Love.
We who have ears to hear, listen.

1 comment:

2Cool4School said...

The labels will work well as keywords for a Google search. But the keywords I am feeling upon reading your sermon, dear Susan, are vulnerability, loss, empathy, compassion, trust, strength, faith and hope. Times are, indeed, dark. I am thankful that I have the light of Christ, and his modern-day disciples like you, to illumine the path forward.