This Burden of Responsibility
Updated: Jan 23, 2022
What a wild and tough start to the year, in succession with a wild and tough couple of years. I feel like it's all I talk about and all I preach about, I'm sure it's all you've heard me preach about. But as we drag our feet into a third year of this pandemic, it still feels like -the thing- that we are facing.
This season of the pandemic feels different than the others, at least for me. Other chapters in this COVID story have been characterized by, for example, -total fear- about this unknown virus, or -creeping hope- with vaccines on the horizon, or the -profound fatigue- from reordering our lives or from being stuck indoors. This chapter though, the feeling that I feel the most, and that I wonder if you feel too, is a kind of staggering disorientation. I feel like I can't really wrap my brain around what we are facing and how we're supposed to respond to it. Risk assessment and risk mitigation felt simpler somehow earlier in the pandemic, now I am dizzied by how differently it seems like different chunks of our population are perceiving and communicating and ordering their lives within this on-going public health crisis.
I say "disorientation" specifically, because depending on where you find yourself in this little society of ours, you will hear completely different things, see completely different behaviors, have completely different expectations placed upon you, and it is disorienting to know that there are so many who do not share your perception of what's going on in the world. On the one hand, you'll see that nationally, case rates and hospitalization rates are as bad as they have ever been; you hear harrowing reports that Mary Washington hospital converted a parking garage into a triage center; you hear teachers and doctors and nurses and parents, immunocompromised and disabled friends and neighbors absolutely bereft with how to care for the health and well-being of themselves; you'll find yourself in places like Mary Washington with strict masking and booster requirements, indoor eating restrictions. In other places, you'll hear people downplaying the severity of omicron or even ongoingly downplaying the severity of COVID at all, school boards and politicians allowing mask mandates and social assistance programs to expire, messaging from major institutions that "it's time to get back to work and school." I say that this is disorienting because it is unsettling, it's destabilizing to know that there are so many people -- whomever you are, wherever you fall -- who do not share your perception of the state of affairs.
And here we are in the middle of all of this, struggling to grapple with what is truth and what is fiction, what is level headed, what is underestimated, and what is overblown, what is fair and what is responsible. I pose this conundrum, not as somebody who has any of the answers--in fact this is a live bit of discernment for my campus ministry over at The House,, I'm not sure what our activity will look like,, even next week. I won't pretend to be an epidemiologist or a doctor, I'm not a school administrator. What I am is a priest, and what I can do this morning is reflect this Gospel passage against this problem--this question--that feels stuck at the very middle of our lives.
This passage from the Gospel of Luke is kind of like Jesus' coming out party. At this point, the middle of chapter 4, the Gospel of Luke has accounted to us for the annunciation and birth of Jesus, the testament of John the Baptist to Jesus' coming, we've heard the genealogy of Jesus, see his baptism and his temptation by the devil in the wilderness. And this passage, his teaching in the synagogue in Nazareth is his first accounted for public appearance. And, of course, in his first appearance, he announces what he is doing here among us, quoting the prophet Isaiah, he says: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor." Jesus' ministry is to bring good news to the poor, the captive, the blind, the oppressed. In a time when so much inequity has been so exposed, this sounds good and right and needed. Then, though, I might wonder, what kind of news then is the Gospel to the rich, the well-off, the free, those with sight? We might ask, if the Gospel is good news to those who are suffering, what news is it to the rest of us?
What follows in the Gospel of Luke elaborates on this initial charge. In chapter 6, Jesus offers his beatitudes -- blessed are the poor, the hungry, those who weep, and in turn he says woe to you who are rich, woe to you who are well fed, woe to you who laugh now. In chapter 18, Jesus tells the story of the rich man who in death is cast onto the other side of the great chasm for his ignoring of the poor Lazarus right outside his gates. In chapter 16, the young ruler asks Jesus what he must do to inherit the kingdom of Heaven and he is told that he must sell all of his belongings and give the money to the poor, and the ruler goes away disheartened at hearing what he must give up. In chapter 10, he calls and commissions 72 disciples to spread his message and multiple his ministry, sending them from city to city without any belongings, accepting the hospitality offered them, as sheep among wolves. Jesus came to bring good news to the poor, to bring good news to the hungry, the sick, the homeless, the alone. And to the rest of us, he came to bring an incredible burden of responsibility.
Our question as Christians, might be:
If the Gospel of Jesus is good news for the poor, but a burden of responsibility for the rich, would we still choose it?
If the Gospel is good news for the sick, the hungry, but a burden of responsibility for the well-fed and the well-off, would we still think it's worth it?
If Jesus came to bring good news to the oppressed, the imprisoned, the homebound, but a burden of restrictions for the free, would we still think it was good news?
To be a Christian--to be like Jesus--is to live with a broken heart in a broken-hearted world, to borrow griefs that do not belong to you, to take on responsibilities for the vulnerable that no one who lives by the ways of the world would expect of you. Jesus' point is that those who are well, well-fed, well-off have already been afforded good news -- with or without him -- simply because of their station in life. And his charge for them is to dare to imagine that responsibility and self-sacrifice--that their care of the vulnerable--above and beyond what the world expects of them can be good news for them too.
I do not mean to paint with a broad brush -- that all of us here in this community are good, and other people out there are vulnerable. There are people among us who have both long-standing and acute and recent griefs, illnesses, vulnerabilities, challenges. For those who are struggling, among us and beyond, the Gospel is good news for you. And that good news is, in part, the rest of us rallying around you.
In the midst of this totally disorienting cacophony of choices, expectations, restrictions -- instead of thinking "what's a good compromise" or "what level of risk am I comfortable with" -- as Christians we might narrow the scope of our discernment and ask instead "what way forward would be good news for the vulnerable, the grieving, the sick?" and start from there. And if the pursuit of that question exacts a price that no one in the world out there would expect us to pay, wouldn't it be worth it to see what good news it yields for us, too? Yes, yes, yes.