Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + 5th Sunday After Pentecost + July 9, 2017
Readings: Romans 7:15-25a; Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30
Over the last month or so y’all have been involved in a flurry of casting prayers and blessings on members of this congregation as we’ve headed out for youth event after youth event. It started with Vacation Bible School, which was only about a month ago but, to me, already feels like a lifetime ago. This morning, Sandy Vollmer, Pastor Lippard, and a pile of our youth are in a van somewhere between here and Lutherock in North Carolina. In between were other events – Affirm in Alabama, Nights Alive in Nashville. It’s been almost non-stop, and it’s been amazing. You shouldn’t be surprised if you strike up a conversation with me and I eventually start rambling about watching 400 youth dance around to the “holy, holy, holy” song during communion, or how I asked a group of kids what the word “behold,” means, and one little preschooler raised his hand and said, “It kind of means, like, ‘TA-DA!”
Last week Rand Smith and I were chatting before a Worship Planning meeting, and our conversation turned to Affirm: the synod-wide youth gathering that took place a few weeks ago. Rand’s wife, Beth, served on the camp medical staff, as she has for many years, and I’m sure various members of their family have been involved with Affirm for most of its existence. Rand shared with me some of the feedback he’d heard about this year’s Affirm, and eventually he mentioned, “I just learned about ‘Weepy Wednesday…’”
Weepy Wednesday is one of those unofficial traditions at Affirm. According to a conversation I had with Bishop Gordy in the line for the cafeteria salad bar, the Wednesday evening worship service was once intentionally built to be an especially emotional experience, or in Bishop’s words, “They tried to make the kids cry.” But even though that tradition was dropped some years ago, the phrase, “Weepy Wednesday” hangs on – but now it applies to something that happens more naturally but still almost predictably: on Wednesday evening, for some reason, campers will cry.
Maybe Weepy Wednesday happens because the lesson plans each group follows build to their most intense point in the middle of the week. Maybe Weepy Wednesday happens because the campers have started to feel safe with their small groups after a few days together. Probably some combination of things: but regardless, it happens.
My first Weepy Wednesday experience felt like it came totally out of the blue. I was on staff with a unit called Bridges, and we spent the week focusing on the differences between people, the things that turn those differences into things that divide us, and how we can “build bridges” over those divides. So from the very beginning we’d been having intense conversations about our own identities and experiences and a lot of tough topics: racism, sexism, stereotypes, violence. I’d thought we’d already been getting deeply personal. But for some reason when Wednesday evening came, it was like a floodgate burst open. All of a sudden a dozen teenagers were lying on the floor, crying and sharing their deepest, most hidden hurts with one another. My heart broke when I heard the heavy burdens some of the teenagers were bearing.
This year, at least, I saw my Weepy Wednesday experience coming. One of the units, called Exodus, spends the first part of the week focusing on some of life’s toughest issues, like sin and death. Everyone in the unit carries a brick with them everywhere they go; it’s supposed to symbolize the burdens they bear. On Wednesday evening they finally lay down their burdens: they let go of their brick; they write burdens or sins on pieces of paper and watch them dissolve in water; they participate in a service of group confession, and they are given the option of meeting with a pastor for a time of private confession. Later in the evening, they will lie down on the floor, then someone will take their hand and physically raise them up to their new life in Christ. And the next morning is an Easter party.
I was asked to be part of Exodus’s Wednesday evening because they needed a female pastor for the time of private confession. So once again I found myself experiencing Weepy Wednesday: teenagers crying and sharing the hurts they hid from the world.
And as, once again, I found myself shocked by the stories these teenagers shared with me, I thought: we just never know what burdens other people are carrying, hidden away so carefully.
In today’s reading from Romans, Paul described the burden of his own sinfulness in what I think are some of the most relatable words of the whole Bible (I catch myself thinking them a lot): “I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do…Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?”
Some of the burdens we bear are like that: Struggles with our own sins, our own tendency to make poor choices, our own bad habits and addictions. Along similar lines: we might bear the burdens of focusing on our insufficiencies, we might insult ourselves, we might feel like we will never be good enough. We might feel like Paul: trapped and overpowered by something within us.
Sometimes our burdens come from outside of us: other people’s sin affects our lives; in their brokenness, they hurt us; and sometimes the world just turns in ways that injure us – seemingly without reason. We can feel trapped and overpowered by things outside of us, too.
We express this feeling of being trapped by wrong forces within or without in different ways: Christianity has terms like “original sin” and “total depravity,” and in the Bible we often read about people’s “hardness of heart.”
And sometimes we make up complicated rules or formulas for how to escape that feeling of being trapped. If the problem feels so complicated and inescapable, surely the solution must also be complex, some specific set of things that will, like a combination on a lock, click into place and set us free.
Making things too complicated – and being stubborn and prideful and hypocritical about it — what Jesus seems to have been criticizing people for in the beginning of today’s gospel reading. They said they were open to receiving God’s messengers, but when those messengers came, they never fit the bill. First, John the Baptist was too strict and weird. Then Jesus was too lax: he ate and drank too much and hung out with the wrong sort of people.
Next there’s a part of Jesus’s speech left out by our lectionary: where Jesus proclaimed “Woe to you!” to the cities who had refused his message. He did not fit their bill, either.
And then suddenly Jesus switched tone. We hear his prayer: “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and intelligent and have revealed them to infants.” The idea seems to be: all these people are applying their complicated rules and expectations, but it only leads them to deny me and you. They stay trapped in themselves and in the ways of the world. But really your offer of freedom is so simple, a baby could grasp it.
And how does Jesus say we can get that freedom from our entrapping burdens?
Come to me, all you that 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.
That’s it. The big key the messiah offered to finding rest from our burdens and our feelings of being trapped is: Come to me, and I will give you rest.
For us, I think that means two things:
First – and this is probably what you’re already thinking about – is coming to Jesus in that personal, spiritual sense. Coming to trust in a God who cares for you; who offers you forgiveness for your own sin and fights against the sinful forces outside of you. Coming to find peace and rest in giving your burdens to God in prayer, knowing that God will bear those burdens with you. Like in that famous hymn:
What a friend we have in Jesus,
All our sins and griefs to bear!
What a privilege to carry
Everything to God in prayer!
There is also another way we who are weary and carrying heavy burdens can come to Jesus, and this one is more physical and more communal. We remember that the Church is now the Body of Christ on earth, and so we learn to come together. We come to trust one another, to get past our fear or our pride and to share our burdens with one another. We come to find in yet another sense that we are not alone in bearing our burdens. And, like the Affirm kids on Weepy Wednesday, maybe we can find a sense of relief and peace in sharing our burdens with one another.
In coming together, we come to Christ.
Let us pray:
We rejoice, O Christ,
for in your tender compassion
you shoulder our burdens and ease our heavy hearts.
Give us the strength to carry each other
as you have carried us. Amen.
 Joseph Scriven, “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” Evangelical Lutheran Worship 742.
 From Vanderbilt Divinity Library’s Revised Common Lectionary prayer resources, Proper 9 (14), Fifth Sunday After Pentecost, July 9, 2017. Available online: http://lectionary.library.vanderbilt.edu/prayers.php?id=149 Accessed July 8, 2017.