From the Gospel of Matthew we heard these words: Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.
Today we observe the feast day of St. Francis of Assisi. Francis died on October 3, 1226 -- some 784 years ago. He is remembered principally for his gentleness, poverty, and devotion to all of God's creation. There are wonderful stories of him seeking alms for people even poorer than himself, restoring dilapidated churches, preaching to anyone who would listen, and even preaching to birds and animals. His love of animals inspired churches to bless animals on his feast day. It's a tradition we gladly continue, and each year marvel at the good behavior of so diverse a congregation of all creatures great and small. Perhaps they've heard of Francis too and pay homage to his memory as well!
One of the remarkable things about Francis is that he came from a wealthy family and ended up renouncing his place in that family and his inheritance so that he could embrace poverty and the spiritual riches he found in it. It was a big change from a young man who was known to enjoy himself lavishly and party with the all the other young nobles in grand style. Between war, personal illness and contact with the poor and lepers, a change overcame him, a conversion to a different way of life and a reordering of his values and priorities.
He started an order of monks equally devoted to prayer, poverty and good works. There were many other monastic orders in the 13th century, but they had become wealthy and Francis believed corrupted by that wealth. Poverty for him was a way of keeping the focus on God and not protecting their assets.
To say the least, he was controversial for the point of view of his family and the larger church who didn't appreciate his criticism or the popular support he received from common folk who wondered if the wealth had indeed corrupted the church. Though we know the date of his death, the date of his birth is believed to be approximately 1181, making him about 45 year old at the time of his death.
St. Francis let go or the very things that most people spend their lives trying to attain -- materially and in security. In letting go, he put his trust in God fully. I believe he is honored for that courage and faith. Most of us cannot do what he did. But perhaps there is a corner in us that admires the ability to let go, and secretly harbors things that we wish to let go of also. Through our smiles and often seemingly worry free lives, there is something we want to let go of -- fears, anger, suspicions, memories, insecurities; something. We want a spiritual freedom that Francis personifies, but letting go is not easy.
Jesus said, "Come to me, all you who are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest." When Francis ran up against his family and church officials who actually expelled him from the town, he was able to do so firmly in the knowledge that he was loved by God, even if it appeared that no one else did and that was enough for him. He felt so connect to that love that he was able to let go of everything else.
Part of the modern problem of letting go of the spiritual burdens we so often carry is that we're not as sure of the love of God that Francis was. Echoes of the images of a vengeful, angry, and punishing God make us really question that loving God. God may love others, but can God love me? That fundamental question cuts to the heart of so much spiritual angst. The answer is a thousand times yes. If we would just believe it.
I fell compelled to talk about the suicides that made the news this week. There were five young men -- teenagers -- who killed themselves this past week because they were gay and were harassed, bullied or humiliated to a degree that they couldn't handle it and felt their only way out was suicide.
Justin Aaberg, age 15 in Minnesota; Asher Brown, age 13 in Houston Texas; Billy Lucas, aged 15 in Indiana; Seth Walsh, aged 13 in California and Tyler Clementi aged 18 in New Brunswick, NJ, at Rutgers University. These deaths represent only a few of the epidemic of teen age suicide in this country alone. Suicide is the third leading cause of death among those aged 15 -- 24 years old behind accident and homicide. The primary reason cited is depression, and that is caused by a variety of circumstances such as divorce, rejection at school, lack of success at school, death of someone close to them, feelings of unworthiness or substance abuse.
The role of a gay identity in this equation is receiving a lot more attention, especially in light of these cases that get such national publicity. Suicides are heart breaking for the survivors and the helplessness of wondering what could have been done to prevent it is matched by the rage of appalling actions that prompted it on the part of bullies, uncaring or insensitive family members or the intolerance of houses of faith, most notably churches.
The simple message of Jesus' love is too often obscured by a horrific message of death and destruction in the guise of Christianity that is judgmental, cruel and simply wrong. I know what it's like to be a gay teenager terrified of discovery and rejection. Watching my every move as young person, what I say, how I say it, in case I might give myself away. Between friends and family, the stakes are very high for people so young and before the internet, there was no one to talk to and so like some of you I carried the burden alone for years and it twisted inside me not knowing how to find an escape.
The internet seems like a mixed blessing in that regard. It allows the youth to know that they are not alone, but also gives a false sense of safety and acceptance that is not universal. For all our progress, young people are still vulnerable to the viciousness of intolerant judgment and possible physical injury.
I often make humor of the fact that I don't like football. I don't like what it stands for or the acceptability of fatality and injury in the name of entertainment. Never the less I played the game in high school all four years and received honorable mention in the state's standings in my senior year. I did not like the game, but it was a place for me to hide because it didn't fit the image of a gay teen.
What made things easier for me was my church. I never felt condemned or judged there. Only love. Now, I didn't want to test it, by telling anyone there I was gay, but at least I didn't hear any anti gay rhetoric from the pulpit. Prayer became my solace and refuge and I took serious the quote we read today from Matthew. "Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest." Jesus did that for me, still does. I needed it then and I often need it still.
We have a responsibility to ourselves and our children and youth to counteract the message of hate and negativity that is so often heard from some segments of the Christian church. We have to assure everyone who will listen that God's love and acceptance is real, even when the culture's may not be. My heart aches for those young people who took their lives because they never really heard that message. I fear the wave of intolerance that seems to be growing in this country threatening freedom all the while promising it. Being gay is part of a wide spectrum of human sexuality that is a gift of God. It is not a sin and youth who are discovering their sexuality need to know that and love and accept themselves as God does.
The healing ministry here is very important. It's always been important to me because I've always felt a need for it in one way or another. It begins with prayer and knowledge of the love of God. It helps to hear that from a pulpit, it helps to hear it from the lips of a fellow parishioner and it helps to read it in the Bible. But once you hear it and accept it, you have to share it. You never know whose life you might save. Their spiritual life, their emotional life, or perhaps even their physical life.
Bullying is wrong and cannot be tolerated at any level, whether it's in the school yard or in the state house or the US Congress. Abuse cannot be tolerated whether in the church, or the home or the school.
Today I focused on the gay issue because of the recent news items. But even here it's only an example of the kinds of burdens that secrets can be. There are so many other burdens that people carry related to other parts of their lives. Addictions, affairs, debt, self esteem -- so many.
We have so much that needs to be healed and it's fear of judgment from others that keeps it inside us. Even fear in a deeper sense that God will condemn. I believe that's why Jesus said, the truth shall set you free. Some of our truths we embrace and share proudly. Others we hide in fear or shame. But the truth ultimately will set us free. But until that happens, the truths that we hold in fear are extremely burdensome. Begin telling your truth in prayer and eventually with another person. Seek healing, find it and offer healing in the love of God.
Francis learned that a long time ago and still teaches us in his word of love and praise to God who created us and loves us and through Jesus said, "Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest." Amen.
©2010 St. George's Episcopal Church, Maplewood, NJ