Words for the weary

There is Jesus, offering himself to the Weary, offering to carry part of their load, not to erase, but rather to ease their burdens from the heaviness of this world. And there are the people, touching Christ’s foot.

Sermon on Matthew 11:25-30 / Feast of St. Francis / by the Rev. Tracey Kelly / Final sermon preached to the congregation of St. Francis Episcopal Church, Great Falls, VA / October 4, 2020

Come to me

“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.”

These are the words of Jesus in this morning’s gospel from Matthew.

And these are the words of Jesus inscribed on the pedestal of the Jesus statue which stands in the rotunda of Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore.

The statue is known as “Christus Consolator” – Christ the Consoler. It is larger than life, ten and a half feet standing upon a pedestal. All who enter the hospital through the Rotunda must veer either left or right to go past the statute.

Christ literally towers over all who pass. Yet, the face of Christ kindly looks down on those below. His arms are open, his hands gently reaching out towards those who look upwards.  His bare right foot extends beyond the corner of the pedestal.

Twelve years ago, while I was in seminary, I did a six-month internship as a chaplain at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. Twelve years earlier than that, I had begun to sense persistent nudges towards ordained ministry. Let me just say that this calling was an unexpected and puzzling experience.

Yet, twelve years later, I found myself sitting in the quiet corners of the Rotunda, watching the shift change. In the early mornings and the early evenings, at the time of the shift change, a steady stream of employees passes through the Rotunda – nurses, custodial staff, cafeteria staff, medical technicians and physicians. Some people walk by the statue without noticing it.  A few people stop and pray at the base. 

But many, many people simply touch Christ’s extended right foot as they pass. They barely break stride as they enter and exit on their way to important places.  But they walk close to Christ, reaching out, touching the top of his foot, touching his toes. Thousands and thousands of fingertips brushing Christ’s right foot have polished the marble into a glassy sheen.

Within the walls of Johns Hopkins, the full gamut of the human experience plays out daily: life and death; joy and grief; fear, uncertainty, disappointment and doubt; healing and hope. And throughout it all, Jesus and his shiny foot stand tall in the rotunda over his words: Take my yoke upon you… For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

A yoke. It is an agricultural reference, a wooden beam placed upon the shoulders of a pair of oxen or mules or donkeys to enable them to pull together on a load, such as a cart or a plow. Sometimes yokes are fitted to individual animals. Sometimes a yoke is a frame fitting over the neck and shoulders of a person, to carry pails or baskets.

A yoke is meant to distribute the load, to ease the burden of the weight.

And there is Jesus, offering himself to the Weary, offering to carry part of their load, not to erase, but rather to ease their burdens from the heaviness of the world. And there are the people, touching Christ’s foot. A simple yet powerful gesture.  An acknowledgement of our human limitations and a need for Christ. 

A Letter

I attended a two-day New Employee Orientation at Johns Hopkins, and I sat in a small auditorium with perhaps a hundred other new employees. All sorts of new employees were there: nurses, orderlies, administration staff, cafeteria workers.

A letter was read to us during that orientation. A letter that had been mailed to Johns Hopkins administrators a few years earlier. A letter that was read out loud to demonstrate what service excellence looks like as a Hopkins employee.

I am going to read you that letter: These are the words of the anonymous patient: 

I have cancer. I came to Hopkins on Friday, February 13, 2004 for a final opinion on whether I needed radiation. I had arrangements to stay at the McElderry House Friday night because of extra testing that would be performed on Saturday. I ate all of my meals, five in total, in the Hospital cafeteria beginning with lunch on Friday. I was at the sandwich bar, trying to decide what to eat.  I have a very restricted diet and sometimes it’s overwhelming to put together a meal. A nice young woman who had been working at the cash register approached me and asked me if I needed help. I explained to her what I could and couldn’t eat and she helped me put together a meal. 

I went to the cafeteria again for dinner, breakfast and lunch. When I returned for dinner on Saturday, I just finished seeing my doctor. I went to the area where the warm food is served, and I saw the same young lady who had assisted me with lunch the previous day. I guess she must have remembered me because when it was my turn, she asked me how things went with the doctor. At that point, I absolutely lost it and started sobbing. She came around the counter and looked at her watch and said, “It’s time for my break.” She gave me a hug and guided me to a table. I guess the news I received upset me more than I thought. I must have gone through thirty napkins.   

We connected very easily.  It was at this point that I learned her name – Denise Barbara Mason. We talked for a while. When her break was up, she said “I want you to have something, something special.” I started to cry again as she removed the cross from around her neck and put it around my neck. She fixed me a meal tray and went back to work.  I ate and went to say goodbye to her.  Once again, she showed me kindness, compassion and caring. There were very few people in the cafeteria, and she asked me if I had seen the statue. I asked her what statue.  She said come with me. She brought me to the Christ Statue, and it blew me way. I started to cry again. After I regained my composure and prepared to leave, she volunteered to walk me to the front entrance of the Hospital so I could catch my cab. She told me things would work out and I should leave it to the Lord.  Her calming voice made all the difference in the world.

Riding back on the train, I wasn’t thinking about my illness, prognosis or treatment options. I kept thinking about Ms. Mason’s kindness and compassion. I don’t think I would be made it through the trip as well as I did. I have never had an experience like this in my life. I am a nurse with over thirty years experience; I haven’t met many people who work at a hospital other than nurses and other clinicians that have compassion and a commitment to patients.  I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone like Ms. Mason. I thank God that I met Ms. Mason when I did. I’m not sure she realized how much of an impact she had.  I sent her a card to thank her, but I wanted everyone to know how special she is and what a difference she made in my visit to Hopkins and my life. She deserves to be recognized.

I love this letter, and I have saved a copy of it all these years. It seems to me that this letter reveals how each one of us, no matter how small our role might seem, can bring about spiritual healing. Ms. Mason literally pointed the way towards Jesus, but so did her compassion and kindness.

Our ministry together

Twenty-four years ago, I began this strange and unexpected journey towards the priesthood. It wasn’t until I became a member of the St. Francis community five and a half years ago, that I began to truly understand why and how I was called to the priesthood.

The times in my ministry with you that have felt the most authentic to my particular calling to the priesthood have been found in small moments of relationship. Moments of friendship and laughter. The moments of chatting with visitors on Sunday mornings. The moments of sitting with a family, hearing the stories of a loved one who has just died. The moments of sitting with you and hearing your stories of pain, and fear, and loss, and worries. The moments when I stood in the pulpit in trust to share my own stories of vulnerability and uncertainty. The moments when I shared in the joys and triumphs of your lives. The moments when our eyes met, and I pressed the Body of Christ into your open hands.

And within each of these moments, you and I were there, both of us pointing the way back towards Jesus with his shiny foot, and his offer to lighten the burden of our weary souls.

“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.”

Seven months into a pandemic, we are weary. Today, our lives may feel particularly uncertain, and fragile. And every day the full gamut of the human experience – life and death; joy and grief; fear, uncertainty, disappointment and doubt; healing and hope – is put on full display before us.

Our souls need rest.

You may not have a 10-foot-tall Jesus statue to remind you of Christ’s presence in the midst of the messiness of life. But, you do have the grounds of St. Francis, a space that I know brings peace to many of you.

And you have each other.

During the time I have spent at St. Francis, I have sat in the quiet corners and watched you minister to each other. And just like Ms. Mason from her vantage point behind the cash register, you have seen the fear and the hurt manifest in each other. And I have seen you respond, just like Ms. Mason, with kindness and compassion, and in doing so, point out where Jesus is in the hardest moments.

This is my final blessing for you:

May you always welcome the stranger. May you continue to love one another as Jesus has loved you. Your lives are already sacred and blessed; may you never stop reminding each other of that. And may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing through the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

© 2020 Tracey Kelly. All rights reserved.

Photo credits: “Jesus’ shiny foot,” “Christus Consolator at Johns Hopkins Hospital.” “Celtic Cross” © Tracey Kelly

One Reply to “Words for the weary”

  1. Thank you, Tracey, this is beautiful. And what a wonderful letter from the suffering woman sharing the kindness of Ms Mason. As I grow older and somewhat physically limited, I can wonder how to continue to give and to serve others. Your reflection reminds me.

    I wish you the best in your new job. I will continue to enjoy reading your blog posts here. I will remember with delight your time with us at Holy Comforter, and I will enjoy “seeing” you on Facebook. Lovingly, Judith Bowers

    On Thu, Dec 31, 2020 at 11:57 AM The Well of Sychar wrote:

    > Rev. Tracey Kelly posted: ” There is Jesus, offering himself to the Weary, > offering to carry part of their load, not to erase, but rather to ease > their burdens from the heaviness of this world. And there are the people, > touching Christ’s foot. Sermon on Matthew 11:25-30 / Fe” >

    Like

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