When I was a little girl, attending a little Southern Baptist church in a little suburb of Columbia, South Carolina, with the possible exception of the big downtown Columbia library, church was my favorite place in the world. In church, I found everything– caring adults, dear friends, fun activities, LOTS of good food, and a connection to God. At this little Pizza Hut-shaped church, First Baptist of Irmo, I felt God’s call–a call to serve, a call to learn, a call to love… a call I finally realized later was also a call to vocational ministry.
You might imagine that a lot has happened since I was that little girl in that suburban Baptist church in South Carolina! And you’d be right. Like many young adults, in my teen and college years, I began to feel disenchanted with the church. I took my love of books and became a high school English teacher. For three years, I taught high school students how to dig into a text, look for cultural and historical context, the perspective of the author, and to wonder whose voices are missing. And during my time as a teacher, one of those life-long friends of mine from that little Baptist church died from leukemia. His name was Lee, and he was the kindest, gentlest soul. Before he went on home hospice, he was at a hospital near me, and I spent many evenings and weekends at his bedside. Sometimes I chattered until he smiled; sometimes he slept and I cried. I sat at his bedside, feeling lonely, like God was so far away. And I sat in his funeral, filled with enough anger to scream! Anger at God for not offering a miracle healing, and angry at the church for singing upbeat praise songs at his funeral when I wanted to weep and wail and lament.
Lee’s death changed me. I remembered how it felt to sit alone at his bedside, wishing I could tell someone what I felt, and I wanted to be that someone for others. So, I left teaching. I went to seminary, and that first summer, I did a summer internship as a hospital chaplain in my hometown of Columbia, South Carolina. The Navy moved my spouse and me to Washington. I changed denominations and was confirmed into the Episcopal Church in 2015. (Yes, I’ve skipped over some details, but you and I will have two years to get to know each other!) All that to say, hospital ministry became part of my priestly calling, and I was hired as a staff chaplain for Swedish Medical Center in Seattle in March 0f 2019.
And in March of 2020, we were in the full throes of a global pandemic. In these past few months, working as a chaplain during this time of coronavirus, I have witnessed some crushing losses. For a time, I could no longer be at the bedside, and I could no longer be present to family members in person, because they were not allowed to visit. I would call family members of patients hospitalized in our ICU’s with coronavirus, and they would tell me, “I am home sick too, and so are my children,” or “I have already had two other family members die of this virus,” or “Would you please just go into their room and tell them I love them?” Days and days, weeks and weeks of this; one morning, I woke up on the first day of my work week and immediately burst into tears, knowing I had to go back to the hospital and do it again, knowing that so many families were suffering, that people were dying, with no end in sight. I would find my friends and coworkers, the nurses and medical staff, hunched over in a corner, weeping, as yet another family said goodbye. Perhaps you felt that too, in the thick of it.
And just as we started to turn the corner, to see a glimpse of hope in the battle against this virus, George Floyd was killed by a police officer kneeling on his neck as he cried out for his mother. His death was a symptom of another virus, just as deadly and not nearly as new: a deeply systemic racism that has oppressed Black people, indigenous people, and people of color in this country and all over the world.
For weeks, there was this surge of energy, of drive to push back against these systems of oppression. Protestors marched, statues came down, reform bills were passed. Yet right now, maybe you have noticed too, I feel the energy, particularly in myself and other white people trying to learn how to be allies, I feel that energy waning. And I hear the exhaustion of my dear friends of color, asking me, “How are you just now noticing what we have been experiencing for all these generations? How are you tired after a few weeks, when this is my life every day?”
We are tired. We are tired of staying home, tired of staying six feet away, tired of feeling unsafe. We are tired of turning on the news and watching Black people being murdered by police, tired of seeing systems of injustice cling to power, tired of feeling this dread of injustice and this fear of COVID-19 which have both already claimed too many lives far too soon.
We are living in unprecedented times, and we are, all of us, exhausted.
Never have we needed to hear these words more than right now. “Come to me, all you who are weary and 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.”
Jesus says these words to contrast all the stories he is about to tell about the Pharisees in Matthew chapter 12. The Pharisees were teaching many, many rules and regulations required by the Law. Rabbis often used the metaphor of a “yoke” to talk about following the Law. But Matthew writes that the Pharisees were prioritizing following those rules even if it meant not helping others. They criticized Jesus for healing people on the Sabbath. Their teaching on the law was a great burden; Jesus offers his teachings as an “easy yoke”, a “light burden.” The commandments are simple, Jesus says. Just two rules will do. “Love the Lord with all your heart, and love your neighbor as yourself.” If you focus on these simple things, you will find rest for your soul.
If we, in these unprecedented, exhausting times, focus on learning from Christ and on loving God and loving our neighbors, we will find rest. There is no hard choice but to choose to love. When I woke that Wednesday morning, back in April, weeping at the thought of going back to work, I literally gave myself a pep talk, out loud, in my bed. “You will love God. You will love people. You will call families and talk to patients on the phone, and it will not be nothing.” And I went to work another day.
And so will you, my friends. Today you will face another day of uncertainty in the face of this invisible virus, so you will show your love for your neighbors by being cautious in whatever ways you can. Today you will face another day, knowing that racism is real, that it claims lives too. So you will show your love for your neighbors by listening, learning, and helping wherever you can.
And it will not be nothing. It matters.