Category: Sundays after Pentecost
Speaker: The Rev. Shearon Sykes Wiliams
The Very Reverend Shearon Sykes Williams
Saint George’s Episcopal Church, Arlington, Virginia
Third Sunday after Pentecost
June 5th, 2016
“Precious Lord, Take My Hand”
“As he approached the gate of the town, a man who had died was being carried out. He was his mother’s only son, and she was a widow…When the Lord saw her he had compassion for her and said to her, “Do not weep.”…And he said, “Young man, I say to you arise!” …and Jesus gave him to his mother.”
Luke 7: 11-17
In this Season after Pentecost we hear many healing stories from Jesus’ three year long ministry in Galilee and the surrounding countryside. But today’s Gospel is more than a healing story. Jesus and his disciples are approaching the gate of one of the many towns that they visited and were met by a funeral procession. There was likely wailing and lamentation going on and there was a lot to lament. A woman had lost her only son and she was deeply bereaved. Women were very vulnerable in biblical times. They needed to be under the protection and provision of their father, their husband or their son. Their safety and their very lives depended upon it. So this widow’s despair had
many levels to it. Not only had she lost her son whom she loved but she had lost her security and her future was very much at risk. Jesus saw her walking along crying as her son’s body was being carried out of the city’s gates and he had compassion on her. Compassion means to suffer with. He saw her and her pain affected him. Jesus was not indifferent. He felt her pain and he made the decision to enter into it. He did not turn away. He restored her son to life and in so doing he gave the widow a future.
When we experience a great loss in life whether it is the death of someone close to us, a divorce, a financial disaster or a job loss- whatever the tragedy may be, Jesus is there with us having compassion on us, entering our pain and loving us. But often our faith is seriously challenged during times of extreme hardship. We wonder if God is really in the picture or why this is happening to us. But God does come to us in those times. “Bidden or unbidden, God is present.” Jesus responded to the woman in today’s Gospel without her even asking.
He just saw and had compassion. In other Gospel stories, the person affected or someone concerned about them asks Jesus to help them. But bidden or unbidden, he responds and he is there for us today, whatever is happening in our lives, large or small.
This is where the particularity of Christian faith really has tremendous gravitas and keeps us grounded during times of trial. God is not just God who we cannot see or touch or feel but God is manifest in the person of Jesus and he is still present and available to us in a spiritual sense even though he is no longer here in the flesh. We can visualize him in the flesh in prayer and pour out our heart to him. Even in our darkest night he comes to us and gives us peace and hope. Picturing Jesus when we are afraid or lonely or hopeless is really powerful. That was the place that Thomas Dorsey found himself when he wrote this gospel song.
Precious Lord, take my hand, lead me on, let me stand, I am tired, I am weak, I am worn; through the storm, through the night, lead me on to the light, take my hand, precious Lord, lead me on.
Thomas Dorsey’s wife had just died in childbirth when he wrote this song and his child shortly thereafter. His faith enabled him to go on. And this song has given hope to millions of people in the darkest of times. It was Martin Luther King Junior’s favorite and he often asked Mahalia Jackson to sing it at Civil Rights rallies. She also sang it at his funeral.
Picturing Jesus leading us really does help us go on even when we can’t see a path forward. And having people around us holding the light makes the journey more bearable. No matter what has happened, we are never, ever left to carry our burdens alone. Christ is with us and so are the Christ-bearers. And sometimes we need them to pray for us when we can’t pray ourselves. It happens even to people with the
strongest faith, when they just can’t pray, can’t connect with the light, can’t visualize Jesus. But that’s o.k. The key is to keep showing up, to keep struggling, to keep putting ourselves in a context where we can experience healing. The healing of the Eucharist, of Jesus having compassion for us in the bread and the wine, in the healing of intercessory prayer, where Jesus has compassion on us through an intercessor laying hands on our heads and praying in Jesus’ name, in the healing of singing together, asking Jesus to take our hand and lead us on.
When I was little, my mother used to put Vick’s Vapor Rub on my chest when I had a cold to ease my cough so that I could sleep. And I think of singing our favorite hymns as Vick’s Vapor Rub for our souls. The music seeps in and gives us comfort. Songs like “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” can literally be an instrument of salvation, especially when we aren’t able to connect in any other way. We can experience Jesus coming to us through singing, especially when nothing else seems to
be working. Singing spiritual songs breaks the circuit of worry, interrupting all of our anxious thoughts and opens us to grace. Sometimes a hymn that we have sung in church keeps singing in us during the week.
Things happen when we are together in Jesus’ name that we really can’t put words around. It’s not magic, but it is healing. We leave church with a deeper sense of peace, or we notice later that something in us has shifted and we feel less burdened or we suddenly get an insight we hadn’t had before. And let’s be honest, some Sundays it doesn’t feel like anything is happening or that anything has changed, but if we just keep showing up, things will change over time. That I think is my operative definition of faith. Showing up, just showing up and being real. Showing up each Sunday and every day of our lives, asking God to show us the way, and showing up for each other, helping each other along. It sounds basic and it is- in concept. But showing up to God, to ourselves and to each other is often the hardest thing to do.
When people are on the prayer list at Saint George’s, a fellow parishioner who is part of the Community of Hope reaches out to ask if they would like a listening ear. They don’t try to fix anything or tell people how they should think or what they should believe, they just offer to be present and listen. And you can also reach out to the Community of Hope. You don’t have to be on the prayer list. The gift of presence is a tremendous gift. Jesus was present to the woman in today’s Gospel and he is present to each one of us. And we can offer that gift to each other. In our fast paced, technology driven world, it is an especially precious gift to just be available to someone, to suffer with them, to rejoice with them, to just really BE with them and not be distracted. We are all really tied to our devices, myself included. But it is important to not let them rule us. I heard about a recent study that showed that the very presence of a device in the same room affects our ability to be present to one another. So having the discipline to put it
in another room for a certain period each day so that we can be focused and present to each other is an important spiritual practice.
We have a lot of ways to practice being present to one another today. After the 10:30 service, we have our annual Empower the Homeless lunch. We’ll sit down with our friends from Food Pantry and HOST and break bread together. I look forward to this event each year because it is an opportunity to really BE with each other, human being to human being, to share our stories and to be reminded that very little distinguishes us from each other. We are all human beings made in the image of God to bear the light for each other, in good times and in bad, asking Jesus to take our hand and lead us forward.