Social psychologists say our collective capacity for grief and outrage is about 21 days. We have a three-week endurance when it comes to feeling the weight of disaster and despair together as one people. And then something else happens. Or perhaps a whole bunch of things do.
If we have not practiced real rest, we get tired and burn out. Our headlines shift. Our attention turns elsewhere. We begin to bicker about the finer points, ranking priorities, canceling those who do not stand where we do. And if we have not practiced rest and risk and recovery over time, then we do not know what to do next. And when cries for justice stop trending, we forget.
Earlier this week, I was having a picnic with my kids on a patch of green in our neighborhood. The sun was shining and the birds were singing. Artwork covered plywood on storefronts and traffic was returning to normal along our stretch of Lake Street. We were taking in these sights and sounds when Pastor Mary called my cell phone and I stepped away to chat. She reminded me that Sunday (today) would mark 22 days since George Floyd was killed. And I knew what she meant.
Today invites a quieter tension, when old habits and deep privilege whisper permission to move on from the moment, to stop talking about what hurts, to give our attention back to the things that held our focus before we knew his name. Even while there is another, newer name to speak: Rayshard Brooks. I confess, I don’t have the muscle memory for this next stage. I am more familiar with the retreat back to what is familiar and personal for my lived experience as a white woman, for my faith as a Christian who grew up thinking of the historical Jesus as a comfort and a friend who looked more like me than George Floyd.
I confess, I don’t know how to re-center my wonder about Christ so I can also see him as a poor brown man of questionable ancestry, a colonized religious minority who was publicly killed by the state, who spent his ministry proclaiming that the lives of lepers and Samaritans and prostitutes and criminals and slaves matter. I confess, I don’t know how to stay awake, to keep centering the story of other people instead my own, to set my heart cracked wide open instead of sewing it back up when our collective empathy gets inconvenient and quiet again.
But I know who does.
This morning we hear that Jesus is on the move. He is in every city and town and village. He is teaching in the synagogues and telling them stories about how the reign of God is different than the reign of empires and kings – and even their own priests. He is curing them – not just treating their symptoms or managing their pain – but curing the diseases they had thought terminal, the incarnate trauma that had been haunting generations, the sicknesses that had settled over their whole lives.
Our gospel reading says that Jesus was in the crowds and every time he saw them, he had compassion for them. He empathized with them. He changed his own location in order to stand with them. He talked about the diseases that were hurting them. And in doing so, he loosened their power so they could be cured.
These stories about Jesus on the move, in the crowds, on the streets, proclaiming another way – they are not isolated incidents. They are not a few verses that can be twisted or ignored. They are a deep pattern of accompaniment, of abiding, of moving the margins into the center so the masses can begin to imagine something more than the empires allow folks to dream possible.
If we back up in Matthew’s gospel, we see Jesus modeling the holy endurance it takes to keep showing up for the least of these, the unheard, the devalued, the forgotten. He cleanses both lepers and Centurion servants. He teaches a resistance of cancel culture, of performative prayer, of fasting for tradition’s sake alone. He tells them the hard truth about storing up treasure and worrying for our own sake and using the scriptures for personal agenda.
He meets people where they are, condemning malicious intent but never ignorance. Jesus does not demand that people stand on the road to justice right where he stands, but rather he moves. He comes alongside them and urges their motion, their beginning, their unspeakable things, and then their freedom – “Come and see. This movement is better with you in it. Come as you are and just remember to keep moving.”
In today’s gospel, Jesus turns to his disciples and says, “The harvest is plentiful because the sower has been generous, wild in the planting of possibilities. This land will bear fruit, an abundance to feed and fill and satisfy everyone. There is so much to do. But the workers are few. Who will work this land? Who will tend the possibilities of what has been planted and grows this season?”
Jesus gives his disciples the authority to name and cast out unclean spirits, to loosen the power of what is evil and causing harm, and to cure what has been ailing the people.
They do not pack a bag or a crust of bread or an extra tunic. They are sent out with nothing but empty hands and the authority of Jesus Christ – called to the gaps between the deep needs of the vulnerable and the empire’s capacity to show up or care. This is where we find Jesus. In the spaces between comfort and crisis, where God’s people are harassed and helpless, where the sheep do not have the protection of a shepherd. This is where the church is called – where the authority of Christ becomes generous, where the Kingdom of God is radical, revealed not only for ourselves but for our neighbors, where the harvest is plentiful and Jesus is calling us to labor.
And I fear that this is where Jesus loses me. This is where my privilege and fear send me searching for something else to read and believe and serve and preach instead. Because I am holding onto too many dear things to be sent out empty handed.
I am clutching the ongoing grief of COVID-19. I feel sad and angry that gathering to sing and worship in mass remains dangerous, that large funerals would put our elders at risk, that children did not get to hug their teachers goodbye on the last day of school and families who need stability and structure are weary. I am worried about those who are under-employed and barely hanging onto their homes, and folks whose isolation is torture right now. I am clinging to the remnant of church as I have always known it – buildings and programs and a faith that has given me comfort far more often than it has asked me to change. I am carrying all the gear I believe will keep me safe and in control of what happens next – all the fears of what I might lose if I put anything down and follow this Jesus who keeps moving.
I feel like the scene in Mary Poppins when Admiral Boom fires the cannon at 8:00 am each day and the Banks family has to run around the living room holding onto everything so the vases don’t break and the piano doesn’t slide away. If you do, too, I want you to know you are not alone. It’s pretty on brand for Day 22. And we worship a God who, because of the crucifixion, knows exactly what we are holding and how scary it is to think about giving it to Jesus instead of trying to manage it ourselves.
In his book, “The Cost of Discipleship,” Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes, “Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate. But costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man will go and sell all that he has. It is the pearl of great price to buy which the merchant will sell all his goods… It is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows him.”
When Pastor Mary and I were finished talking this week, I put my phone back in my pocket and waited a moment before rejoining my family. “How will this time be different? How do we stay awake this time? How do we keep taking steps together, keep centering those on the margins, and keep our hearts cracked open wide?”
I thought about the anniversary of the Pulse Nightclub massacre and all the trans black women killed in the last 22 days, how it hurts to talk about, to explain the headlines to my children, to discern how to remember them collectively in the liturgy when we don’t have a history of naming public pain and violence during worship.
I thought about the Emmanuel 9. It’s been five years since they welcomed Dylann Roof into their bible study circle, and he murdered them because he decided their lives didn’t matter. I thought about the clergy march two weeks ago, when Black clergy called upon white clergy to show up and walk behind them, when they asked us to stay quiet so their voices could be heard, when they asked us if we would have their backs?
I thought about the kids in my neighborhood, who finished this school year under the weight of two pandemics – COVID-19 and Racism – who line up for food donations because the grocery store burned down, who wonder if their grown ups will be able to keep them safe and figure all of this out, or if we will leave it up to them instead.
I thought about how we’ll do this when we’re all starting in different places, all asking different questions, all expecting different kinds of engagement from our congregations. I thought about the free gift of grace, but also the steep cost of discipleship and wondered what I am willing to risk for freedom – real freedom – in Christ.
I thought about Jesus, traveling from town to city to village, moving through the crowds, looking at the people and having compassion for all of them, curing the diseases that haunt their communities, preaching so that their imaginations grow.
Friends, it is Day 22. Jesus is on the move. He is going from city to town to village, standing in the crowds with compassion, naming that which ails them, and curing the most dread diseases with power from heaven. He has traded his healing authority for every burden we bear, that keeps us from going into the crowd of unanswered sickness with him. So I must ask. What are you clutching today? What piles of pain and desire are keeping you from following Jesus into the unknowable?
Search yourself and name what you find – to your pastor, to your friend, to your fellow congregation member – and be moved together. Speak what is hard about where you are aloud to another who loves you and needs you. Because God is calling us to keep awake, to move into a new way of being the church that speaks what is hard and true, that stands proximate to our most vulnerable neighbors, that proclaims a gospel that cures every dread disease! It will require every single one of us – searching, naming, sharing, laboring this harvest in the name of Jesus.
We don’t know how to do this, but we know the One who does. Hold out your hands, palms up, and examine them while I tell you the only thing I’m sure about this morning: Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ has declared the sower generous, the harvest plenty, and the workers few. He is calling us into the fields – just as we are, wherever we are, on this journey toward healing and freedom and life for all people. You have what you need. You are enough and the work is better with you in it. So hold out your empty hands for the meal that meets you in this moment, that satisfies your life, and gives you the strength to keep moving into God’s wildest dream.