August 25

Weight of the World

By Marsh Chapel

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Luke 13:10-17

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Let there be peace among us and let us not be part of our own or another’s oppression.

It was a perfect late fall day.  You know one of those days where the warmth of the sun on your face and the light jacket that you are wearing has everyone remarking to each other that it looks like a mild New England winter may be in the making.  “If it could feel like this in February, that would be wonderful”. Nodding in agreement with the full knowledge that New England winters never work like this.  

I had been ordained to the priesthood two months prior and was serving as an assistant priest in a parish west of Boston, the beginning of the church year was in high gear.  Parish activities were fully underway, church school, bible study, pastoral response ministry, cooking lunch for those on the margins, the resale shop to name a few of the goings on.  

That day I had just returned from visiting Ellen one of our homebound parishioners.  While her body didn’t allow her to attend Sunday worship, her mind was sharp, and her quick wit was always provided a delightful visit

I walked into the office and our parish administrator said “Rob called and said his son was gone and is sobbing uncontrollably”.  “He want either you or the rector” to call him immediately. I must note here due to the sensitivity nature of the story, I am using pseudonyms.  Rob’s and his family were a fixture in the town. His wife was his high-school sweetheart, his sons were smart, popular, and handsome and played a lot of sports. I called and said “Hi Rob, M said to call you”.  Rob replied: “my son is gone, my son is gone” still sobbing uncontrollably. I said: “I am on my way to your house right now”. On my way out the door the rector was getting out of his car having run out to meet with someone and grab a sandwich.  I said “hand me your sandwich, Rob just called and said his son is gone, I was on my way to the house but feel it is better if you go”. “I’ll stay here and hold space”.

The rector called me a little while later from Rob’s house and said that Rob’s son who was a freshman in college had taken his own life.  It hit all of us like a brick wall. Rob’s wife and his mother were both in shock. The entire town was in shock. News travels fast in a small town.  Many of our youth group members and their friends came to the church and wept openly. Many parents came to the church and wept openly and held their children close.  Many people we had never meet came to the church as a place of solace. 

Later that evening I was sitting in my office which overlooked the side street where the church was located  an saw three police cars and an ambulance pull up and run into a house three doors up. I only saw flashlights scanning a corner room when more students came into my office.  We found out the next day another young person had taken their life. In the following weeks there would be additional young people who would take their own lives. The air hung heavy everywhere in the town.  Parents were fearful, youth were fearful. The schools partnered with the town and houses of worship to be with each other. To provide support, to hold space, to offer a shoulder or a meal, to provide love. An entire town was weighed down with grief.  

I don’t know if the expression “we made it through” is an apt description.  However, we were all bent over carrying the weight of the world, the weight of grieving parents, the weight of grieving young people, the weight of an entire town.  What I do know is that people in this town and surrounding towns came together, supported each other, cooked for each other, held each other, cried with each other, held space for each other when on some days that was all that was all we could offer.  Rob and his family have moved out of the town but is still active in the church and he serves on a foundation for suicide prevention. The school system and houses of worship still work together most recently to address the opioid epidemic among young people.  A tragedy brought people together. It is love and an awareness that no one should have to shoulder anything alone that keeps them together.

I want us to try something this Sunday.  You know they say that when we are tense we tend to hold our shoulders up near our ears.  So try this, hold your shoulders up to your ears in a tense position. Then try to move your head to the left, now to the right.  It’s hard right? Now try and move your body, to the left, to the right. It’s hard. Now let go with an exhale.

There is an expression “he / she looks like they are carrying the weight of the world on their shoulders.” What we just did was an example of that statement.  

When you are carrying the weight of the world it is hard to move.

We don’t know what weight the bent over woman was carrying: perhaps she was the victim of some sort of oppression, perhaps her binary pronoun did not match their non-binary authenticity, perhaps she was the victim of domestic abuse.  If it wasn’t for the fact she was bent over she would just have been another woman going on with her day to day activities.  

But Jesus noticed that she was carrying the weight of the world and had been for so long that people assumed that she had an infirmity.  But Jesus sees her suffering and he heals her on the Sabbath. Notice here that Jesus approaches the woman. Not the usual healing stores of the infirmed approaching Jesus for healing. 

In the second half of the Gospel the woman recedes from the narrative and we move into Jesus’ encounter with the leader of the synagogue. It’s not the healing that concerns the leader of the synagogue, it’s that Jesus heals on the Sabbath day.

The Sabbath was meant to be a complete day of rest as God had rested on the 7th day.  No work was to be done; no farming, no fishing, no shopping, no cooking, no healing.  The leader was caught up in the when’s and the where’s of the letter of the law by pointing out that this was not the day.  Pick another day to heal. But Jesus saw the same law much differently. The law did not trump God’s action when it came to God’s children especially this child of God, the daughter of Abraham.  From where Jesus stood, what better way to honor the Sabbath than by setting a captive free?

This is why he came after all.  Early on in Luke’s Gospel Jesus made know his work in the world as he read the words of Isiah:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. Luke 4:18-19. 

The invitation that Jesus gave the woman who was carrying the weight of the world on her shoulders is the same invitation he extends to us today.

Jesus says: Stand up!  Breathe and let your shoulders down with whatever the weight of the world that you are bearing.

He invites us to stand up and be transformed, and to be released from the things that leave us bent over, feeling low and less than, to be released from whatever bondage messes with our self-worth and our self-esteem.  We are invited to come from out of the shadows and valleys, and into the light of God’s amazing and healing love.

So many times we try to put our best foot forward and never let on how burdened we may really feel.  Some of us come into a place of worship with our brokenness and we feel that if we keep a smile on our faces and pretend that everything is alright no one will ever know the weight that we are facing.  Once inside places where we think we are safe we still are unable to look up and see the world around us. We may feel alone or forgotten. We may struggle to see and remember that God is present. But like the woman who stood tall in the synagogue that day, we are the children of a loving and caring God.  God’s grace working among us and through us helps us to stand up straight.

This week in a news release from the Public Affairs Office of the Episcopal Church the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, The Rt. Rev. Michael Curry and the Episcopal Bishop of the Diocese of Southern Virginia, The Rt. Rev. James B. Magness have invited Episcopal Churches to take part in a national action to remember and honor the first enslaved Africans who landed in English North America this week in 1619.  The Bishops have asked that Episcopal churches toll their bells for on minute today at 3:00 pm Eastern Time.

To quote Bishop Curry “I’m inviting us as The Episcopal Church to join in this commemoration as part of our continued work or racial healing and reconciliation.  At 3:00 pm we can join together with people of other Christian faiths and people of all faiths to remember those who came as enslaved, who came to a country that one day would proclaim liberty. And so we remember them and pray for a new future for us all.”

Bishop Magness in his response says “ The 2019 commemoration of the arrival of the first enslaved Africans to North America is for me a highly personal occasion.  As a descendent of slaveholders, and as a white male who came of age in the racially polarized south during the 1950’s and 1960’s, I am painfully aware of my own complicity in furthering and perpetuating the subjugation of my African American brothers and sisters.  At a time when the racial divide in this country seems to be growing rather than diminishing, we are in dire need of a moment, an event when we can stop and take stock of our responsibilities to bring races together, perhaps in a new manner that truly is an embrace of what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ”.

The Rt. Rev. Susan Goff, bishop suffragan of the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia further notes “The first African people were brought to this continent in harrowing and dehumanizing circumstances.  As we remember the 400th anniversary of their survival, I pray that we will do the hard work of reconciliation that God longs for us to do.” “God forgive us. God give us courage and resolve. And God bless us.”

On the cover of the The New York Times Magazine Section of August 16th there is a grey hued photo of water and the caption below reads “In August of 1619, a ship appeared on this horizon, near Point Comfort, a coastal port in the British colony of Virginia.  It carried more than 20 enslaved Africans, who were sold to the colonists. American was not yet America, but this was the moment it began. No aspect of the country that would be formed here has been untouched by the 250 years of slavery that followed.  

The 1619 Project, a major initiative from The New York Times was born to not only chronicle that day but to place the consequences of slavery at the center of a larger story that we tell ourselves about where we are as a country.  You can find the entire article and supporting and educational material on The New York Times website.

My sisters and brothers, I want to tell you: there is no day, week, hour or moment that the God who formed and created us does not see our plight or hear our cries.  Our God energizes us and gives us hope no matter what trail, burden, or injustice we might face. And God gives us one another to share in that hope.

I would like to stand before you and preach that we are beyond being bent over carrying the weight of the world but we all are aware that recently we have witnessed firsthand the actions of the weight that is being pressed down on innocent children, the weight being pressed down on those who feel that they are not heard, the weight of families whose loved ones have died as a result of guns violence.  We are never in a position in God’s eyes to oppress another, belittle another, scare or gaslight another or to act like another is less than. That thought that it doesn’t happen here, it won’t happen here, it doesn’t apply to me disconnects us from the love of God and from our neighbor.

Like so many prophets known and unknown, past and present, like Jesus himself, we have been put on this earth so that we might find a way to ease one another’s pain and release from bondage and set them free, to raise up people and children who will stand tall knowing that they are precious children of God and worthy to share in God’s love.

It was a Sabbath day when the bent over woman was told to stand and stand she did and she praised God.

With God’s help, any day is a good day to help others to stand.  Amen.

– The Reverend Dr. Karen Coleman

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