July 7, 2019, The Burden of Going to Church, a sermon on Galatians 6 – guest speaker, Carroll Boswell
To listen to this sermon, click here: Z0000143
So why do you go to church? I have met a lot of people over the years who don’t go to church and I have always been curious why “religious” or “spiritual” people don’t go. I can’t count how many times people have said to me, “I don’t go to church. I go out in the woods (or the beach or whatever) and I feel closer to God when I am out in nature. I just don’t get that in a church.” Or they say, “I don’t go to church. By Sunday morning I am so worn out from the week that I need that extra sleep.” Others say, “I don’t go to church because I don’t feel welcome.” You are here this morning so those reasons don’t keep you at home. But why do you come to church? Why should anyone of those people I just mentioned go to church? I used to go to church because I felt guilty. They I quit going to church because I felt guilty. I hope none of you feel like that.
I would say that those answers reveal a basic misunderstanding of what the main purpose of “going to church” is. The main reason we should come here to church is not so that we can feel closer to God. Hopefully we do, but sometimes we don’t. The main reasons for going to church are here in Galatians 6 which we just read. In summary we are here to bear one another’s burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ. Earlier Paul said the whole Law is summed up in one word, love your neighbor as yourself. In other words, bearing our neighbor’s burdens is one of the main ways we love our neighbor. The whole purpose of coming to church, or of staying home, or of anything else we do, is loving our neighbors. That is the point of everything. So we come here to give ourselves a better opportunity to bear one another’s burdens.
It is tricky to talk about bearing one another’s burdens because a few verses later Paul seems to contradict himself when he says that everyone has to carry their own load. How can we bear another person’s burden if that person ultimately has to carry it himself?
I know I sound like a school teacher, but we have to start by being clear of what the definitions are. The Greek word for “burdens” was used to mean a wide variety of things. First it meant a literal heavy weight, a difficult job. You know what a burden because it makes you tired. You know the kinds of burdens some of us are facing and how they just wear people down. Bad health is a big one; responsibilities that seem too difficult to handle like raising children sometimes does or caring for an invalid spouse, having a horrible job where there is a lot of conflict, depression, bitterness from past offenses, repeated disappointments – there is a proverb that says, “hope deferred makes the heart sick”.
But the Greek word was also used to mean the burden of importance, of authority, of office. Imagine the burden that goes with being an important official, a governor, a president, a general, a queen. Paul talks about the burden of being an apostle, of how God has placed on him the weight of the churches. We are exhorted to be kind to our pastors so that their burden will be lightened.
Some burdens are very far away from us. Being born black in America is a heavy burden than none of us here have to bear, that none of us can truly understand. Being a refugee seeking safety and shelter in America is a burden none of here can imagine bearing, that none of us can understand. We are not bearing the burden of these refugees like the Christian nation we claim to be, and many of those refugees are in fact fellow Christians. We don’t know how to bear burdens like those, and Mother Kathryn has suggested that we be praying for some kind of revelation of what God would have us do. But if we can’t figure how to lighten these burdens we can at least see to it that we don’t do anything to make those burdens heavier. How we vote, who we elect, can have a big effect on the burdens to put on others, or the burdens we help relieve. Think about that before you vote. And we can make ourselves the kind of congregation in which black people and refugees could find welcome and rest and relief from some of their burdens.
Nearer to home, it is a heavy burden to be an alcoholic, for example and it is a heavy burden to be gay. Some churches have discovered a clever way of getting around the duty to bear these burdens. Just label alcoholism a sin and then you can condemn it and feel like you have done your duty. Just label homosexuality a perversion and then you don’t have to worry about trying to understand or lighten the burden. But whether these are sins or not is irrelevant. They are not sins so much as they are burdens weighing down our brothers and sisters. If we don’t know how to lighten their burdens we can at least not make them heavier. We can at least try to become a congregation where alcoholics and gay people and people who are desperately poor can feel welcome and find rest from some of their burden.
Obviously it would help if we could understand the burdens we are trying to bear. People who have carried a particular burden can help bear that burden more effectively than those of us who haven’t; that is why things like AA exist. But the rest of us are still called to do what we can. Making burdens heavier is exactly what the Pharisees were doing in Jesus’ day. Jesus said of the Pharisees “They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger.” Let’s not let that happen in St. Philip’s. Let’s not get so involved in denouncing sins that we forget about the spirit of gentleness that lightens the burdens. In the Bible this is called “hardness of heart”; it is a kind of spiritual quicksand that can swallow up a whole congregation of the unwary.
Now think about it. If I am moving a piano and you want to bear my burden, you don’t push me aside and try to pick up the piano by yourself. You move to the other end and try to lift that part of it. Or you call up a few other burly friends and we all move it together. Don’t try to take some one else’s burden for your own. You will only wear yourself out and accomplish nothing. It is a big mistake to believe that bearing another’s burdens means taking over and fixing them. You can’t even fix yourself, much less someone else. It is no part of bearing someone’s burden to give them your cheap advice about exactly what to do to sort it all out. A burden worthy of the name is not going to be fixed by making some small but crucially important change to your morning routine, by starting to jog or eating more fiber or watching less television. As Paul says in Colossians, advice like that has an appearance of wisdom but has no power to stop the flesh. People who intrude into another person’s burden with a view to taking over and fixing what ails them always just add to the burden. I have been on the receiving end of just such help and it is too much to be borne. Let’s not be like that.
At root, the reason we have burdens is because we have a future. A thing is only a burden when we know it is just going to keep on being there. If we could just face it get it over with and tomorrow wake up to a fresh new burdenless day then it would be hardly a burden at all. But it is the nature of a burden to go on and on with no end we can see. What makes a burden a burden is that we care about it, we don’t want to just drop it, we can’t let it go. This is related to another way the Greek word was used. In II Corinthians 4:17 Paul says “For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison.” He calls the burdens we bear in our daily lives light and momentary. They sure don’t seem that way. They wear us out and that is why each of us needs help. Later in this chapter Paul will say, “Do not grow weary in doing good” and bearing burdens is doing good. Don’t give up because this will end someday; it won’t really go on forever. The weight we are carrying is the weight of glory, the weight of eternity. The heaviness of our eternal destiny is actually what we are carrying right now. Our burdens matter, and that makes them heavier. But it also makes them worth it.
“For everyone must bear his own load”. The Greek word for load is a different word than he used for burden. It meant most literally the cargo of a ship. But it was used figuratively to mean the unborn child being carried by a pregnant woman. You can see what Paul is doing. This whole thing of bearing burdens is like being pregnant. A new creation is growing inside of us. Any pregnancy is like carrying a burden and many others are needed to help bear that burden. But when it comes down to it, no one can experience the labor with the woman. She must bear that part alone. And so we each come to church to help one another along because the one we help is pregnant with the glory of God. The church is like the maternity ward in a hospital and we are here to help each other give full birth to a son or daughter of God. Jesus said, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, 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.” His burden it is the same Greek word Paul just used to mean load. Jesus is the Midwife. He will bring the new creation into the world and you will not be what you are now. He began a good work in you, and He will not leave it unfinished. He will see to it that you are not crushed by your burdens. Learn to see your burdens as a sign of hope that someday it will be finished and all the pains of pregnancy and labor will be forgotten at the joy of the new life that has been born.