The Power of Service
Today’s guest blogger, Eric Bablinskas, is a member of the Deaconess Anne House, a community of young adults of the Episcopal Service Corps living and serving together in the Old North Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri. He preached this sermon on Sunday, July 6 at Trinity Episcopal Church in St. Louis.
My Yoke is Easy, My Burden Light
“For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” These words of Jesus’ have, in many ways, confused and confounded me.
This past year, as an intern for the Episcopal Service Corp’s Deaconess Anne House, has exposed me to difficulties I never imagined. It has felt neither easy nor light.
Before I moved here, I was living in a California beach town, and though it had its own set of difficulties, it was far easier than this year. My home parish back in Santa Cruz was surprisingly not supportive of my move. Most people thought that I would immediately regret it. After all, I was leaving the land of Milk and Honey, where it never got too hot or too cold, a county with one of the highest health rankings, highest median incomes, and the ocean and redwoods right at my fingertips.
I was leaving it all for a neighborhood with a 47 percent poverty rate and a staggering population decline, swapping my window views of the ocean for those of abandoned smokestacks, swapping busy streets full of life to blocks of abandoned apartment complexes, long since boarded up, decaying with time. I haven’t regretted it. Not one single bit. Not on the blistering summer days. Not on the frigid January nights. Regardless, it has been, without a doubt, the hardest thing I’ve ever done.
I’ve heard my neighbors across the street scream at each other through the night. I’ve watched people dump trash in empty lots. I’ve seen whole blocks of abandoned houses. I met a man who said the only white people he sees are the ones who are arresting his neighbors. I’ve seen used needles in the park. I’ve witnessed my fair share of drug deals. I’ve managed a struggling farmers’ market that has yet to make a dent in the despicable food desert in the Old North. I’ve felt the biting loneliness of being 2000 miles from everyone I love. And I’ve wept quietly in my room. On the darkest days, I’ve counted down the weeks till it was all over and I could go back to my land of milk and honey.
I’ve rewritten this sermon a dozen times. I just didn’t know how make sense of what Jesus is saying. It seems to contradict what he says in other passages, like “small is the gate and narrow is the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.” That just sounds difficult. The Desert Mystics of the 4th century say that the two things a monk should despise are vain glory and an easy life. For that matter, every spiritual book from every tradition seems to say, “this isn’t easy. You don’t know what you’re getting yourself into.” It contradicts my experiences this year, living as a Christian in a Christian community.
Yet in some ways, these experiences over this year have slowly cracked me open. I am so strongly affected by the things I witness. I would leave the house when my friends started an episode of the Walking Dead because I knew even the sounds would give me nightmares. The things I’ve seen in Old North, at times, have been too much for me to bear. But there comes a point when you can either decide to sink or swim. To swim, in this case for me, was not necessarily to fix the problems I was seeing, but to start with trying to see God in these places of pain and suffering.
So where is God in Old North? Every weekday, around 4 o’clock, 3 little girls run in to my office. They’re my neighbors. They all live in a two bedroom apartment with their grandparents and a few others. But when they come in, we all laugh. I play tag with them. They like to tease me and call me Shaggy. A few months ago, my household had an impromptu birthday party for our neighbor across the street. We didn’t expect it to be a big deal, but when the cake came out, I saw this gruff middle-aged man with a sailor’s mouth shed a tear and say he hadn’t celebrated in 5 years.
I’ve laughed and cried with my housemates. I’ve seen wildflowers in abandoned lots, swaying in the breeze. I’ve seen red ivy crawl up a vacant home in the autumn air. When you are forced to swim, you begin to see that God is everywhere. God has not abandoned the places humankind has forgotten. They are no less beautiful to God though they fill us with fear and dread.
To assume that God saves God’s glory for works like Yosemite or the great Redwoods or that God somehow favors the fit and attractive people belittles God’s wonder in the grassy vacant lots in North St. Louis.
The Hindu sage Ram Dass says, “if you think you’re enlightened, go home for Thanksgiving.” Being in a place like Old North, coming from the fabled Land of Milk and Honey, has challenged me in so many ways. I’ve had to reevaluate everything I believed in. I’ve had to search for beauty when I used to take it for granted. I’ve had to become accustomed to being a minority when I’ve spent my whole life being around people who looked like me. I’ve had to learn to bend like a willow when I grew up like an oak. When I saw suffering, I had to ask: where is God in this? Where is God in the decay, in the poverty? Where is God in the wounds of racism? Where is God in the dark depths of my heart, where hatred and fear still rule? God is everywhere in it.
So what was Jesus thinking when he said his yoke is easy? I’ve had a year to ponder this intently.
What I’ve learned is that God does not differentiate between the land of milk and honey and the dark places. God shines equally on both. When we live our lives without this distinction between good places and bad places, or good people and bad people, compassion has the ability to work through us and we can give it away freely.
When my nonprofit projects failed or when I was overwhelmed by the things I was seeing, the only thing that never failed was when I showed my neighbor compassion and when I trusted in God. I can always return to it, easily. Living at the Deaconess Anne House has showed me just how warped and twisted poverty and racism are and what they have done to people. I won’t solve them. I won’t fix the world’s problems. My youthful naivete and idealism have withered this year. But they are being replaced by something more concrete: by the reality that God is there. God is here. God exists in such profound wonder in the collapsing homes and in the struggling faces of the place I am proud to call my home. Amen.
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