Sermon: Walking the Walk Unburdened

Scriptures: Romans 7:15-25a; Matthew 11: 16-19, 25-30

Preached: online for Nottingham Presbyterian Church, July 5, 2020 by Rev. Merritt N. Schatz

 

          “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” (Romans 7:15)

          Boy, doesn’t Paul’s statement hit home. I recently heard someone quote Maya Angelou, “When you know better, you do better.” In fact what Ms. Angelou actually said was, “I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.” It sounds almost the same, but there is a difference. In the actual quote, there is recognition that something that was done in the past was wrong, but without making the person feel guilty of doing what they knew. There is then the commitment to do what is better. In the shortened version there is an assumption that mere knowledge will produce better actions. Paul begs to differ. Paul admits that even when he knows what is right, he still does the wrong. Not all the time, not in every instance, but often enough that this is more the rule than the exception.

          Paul speaks for himself, but also for the whole human race. Paul’s comments reflect the state of every human being except Jesus. Our sinfulness is so imbedded in our spirits, so imbued in our society, that it is impossible for us to extricate ourselves. In fact, Paul says, even our best efforts, even our attention to the law of God, can lead us astray. Looking at the law through our twisted nature can turn us to considering sins we hadn’t even thought of committing by their very mention in the commandments! Or, as Paul says, we can become so entangled in finding the loopholes – or trying to make sure there aren’t any – that we succumb to the sin of self-righteousness! Sin, coupled with the power of evil in the world, can distort even the best of intentions.

          It isn’t enough just to know – to know laws, to know expectations, to know self-interest. Relying on ourselves alone leads to despair. What we need is God.

We need the God who digs deep in our souls – to all the places we would prefer to hide – to remove sin from our hearts. We need to experience the God who puts both hands, gently but firmly, on the sides of our heads so that we cannot blind ourselves to the sin so much connected with us. We must be repulsed by what we see so that we then turn to God and plead, ‘Cleanse me!’ We need the God who stays with us until we can confess in words similar to these:

          The Church confesses that she has not carried out openly and clearly enough her proclamation of the one God, who in Jesus Christ has revealed himself for all time, and who does not permit any other gods beside him. She confesses her fearfulness, her deviations, her dangerous concessions. She has often denied her office as watchman and as comforter. By so doing she has often denied to the outcast and the despised the mercy which she owed them. She was silent when she should have cried out because the blood of the innocent cried to heaven. She has not found the right word in the right manner at the right time.

          “…The Church confesses that she has seen the arbitrary employment of brutal force, the physical and spiritual suffering of innumerable innocent persons through oppression, hate, and murder, without raising her voice for them, without having found ways to hasten to their aid. She has become guilty of the life of the weakest and most defenseless brethren of Jesus Christ.”

          No, this isn’t the latest statement from our General Assembly. These words were written by Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer sometime in the early 1940’s. They come from a statement by Bonhoeffer compiled with others in a book called, I Loved This People. Written with love, and frustration, for the Church in Germany during the rise and power of the Third Reich, these words challenged the Church of his time, and challenge us today. For truly, this confession sound familiar.

And if it doesn’t, it should.

          Thing is, when I learned about the Holocaust in school, I couldn’t understand how people could let things like this happen. I was told that we in the United States didn’t know what was happening in Germany, didn’t understand the horrors. That is why, they said, we didn’t enter the war earlier; why we turned away boats filled with Jewish refugees. I was in my thirties before I learned that this history which I was taught wasn’t true. There were newspapers with front page stories about what was happening in Germany. There were pictures of desperate families, especially children, on those boats turned away from port after port, country after country. We knew, but we were tired. It was only a few decades after the tragedies of World War I. We had just come through the Great Depression. We didn’t want any more trouble, no more burdens. It was asking too much, we thought. We thought we couldn’t stand anymore of the pain and suffering of others.

          Just like those who shied away from the horrors of the Holocaust, we claim now not to have known of the legitimate grievances of minorities in our time. This despite the number of voices who have been raised over the years to tell us about them. We are appalled to learn of the pervasive nature of abuses – both physical and legal discriminations. We think these are all in the past. We balk at learning about the consequences that continue to affect justice and fairness. We cite as isolated instances abuses that make the news, failing to educate ourselves on the systemic nature of these injustices. We are tired of hearing about all this.

          We are not responsible for the actions of previous generations. Our sin lies in not acknowledging their harmful actions, and in not repenting of the ways in which these actions continue to benefit portions of our society. Our sin is in not repenting of the continuing discrimination, nor of acting in ways that change our societal, and often personal, patterns of behavior. Our sin lies in the systems of injustice that exist unchallenged in our time. We know better, but we do not do better. We just think we are better.

          “To what shall I compare this generation?” asked Jesus. ‘You don’t even know what you want, yet you want me to do it with you! John came preaching repentance, eating the fruits of the wilderness, wearing scratchy cheap clothing, and you complained that he would not dance to your tune. I came, eating and drinking, healing and bringing life and joy, and you complained that you didn’t like the company I kept, that I wouldn’t look down my nose at those whom you declare to be less than worthy. You want others to change, or to be outcast. You want to be considered worthy because you are not as bad as some others. You think you are so smart. What a waste! What a burden you must carry, because you will not admit your sins and let me carry them for you. You will not let me carry your sins far enough away from you that you cannot reach out quickly and snatch them back. You fear that something precious is being taken away. You think you are clever, but your cleverness will not save you. Your cleverness only makes it harder for you to see the goodness God would reveal to you. Oh, thank you God that you have hidden your will from the wise and the intelligent, but have let little babies know it!’ This is what Jesus is saying.

          Cleverness allows us to maintain, without even a hint of sarcasm, that those who work at menial jobs, even essential jobs, are lesser human beings, deserve less compensation, than those who have particular skills -essential or not. Those who do not succeed financially, we claim, are just lazy. This was the argument from slaveholders about slaves, and still is the argument today. We accept this, even as we claim to hold effort as the defining factor in our system. Cleverness spins the lie that all people of a group behave in a certain way, have certain capabilities or traits – even if the evidence shows otherwise. This presumption allows us to treat people of groups differently even as we declare that we ourselves do not do so. Cleverness distorts history so that some groups claim victory by principle, when reality shows victory has more often come by force and through brutality. Cleverness makes us think that to admit the truth about the actions of our ancestors would create an unreasonable burden of guilt upon ourselves. It makes us defend the indefensible, and to deny the reality which exists because of that indefensible history. What a burden that is! What a burden to those who know this truth. What a burden to those who deny it.

          Who will rescue us from this burden, this body of death? With Paul let us say, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” Romans 7:25a, slightly paraphrased). In Christ we become a new creation! In Christ we are relieved of the burden of sin which is so entrenched in our bodies, in our histories, in our lives that, all too often, we cannot even see it or admit to it.

          Thanks be to Jesus Christ who offers us mercy. Who calls to us, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.”

Are we tired of hearing about racism, about gender issues, about Covid-19? Think how tired are those who experience the primary force of these sufferings?

The answer is not to close our ears or turn a blind eye. These issues, these injustices, this suffering will still remain! When we are in Christ we cannot ignore them. We cannot simply ask others to be patient at the slow pace of change when they have been suffering the injustice all their lives. Even if we do not cause them, we cannot deny responsibility for helping to alleviate the suffering and to challenge injustice! God will not let us hide from these things forever. In love for others and for ourselves, God will not let us carry the burden of hidden sin, the weight of contradictory principles and actions which cause such suffering.

          Jesus offers to take the yoke of direction and guidance, of repentance and of new life, upon Christ’s shoulders WITH US. Compared to the weight of trying to live in ways contrary to God’s will, the yoke we wear with Jesus is easy. The life and joy we find in being trained to walk with Jesus is filled with light. As the song goes, “The road is long/With many a winding turn/That leads us to who knows where/Who knows where/But I'm strong/Strong enough to carry him

He ain't heavy, he's my brother/So on we go

His welfare is my concern/No burden is he to bear

We'll get there/For I know/He would not encumber me

He ain't heavy, he's my brother

If I'm laden at all/I'm laden with sadness/That everyone's heart/Isn't filled with the gladness/Of love for one another

It's a long, long road/From which there is no return

While we're on the way to there/Why not share

And the load/Doesn't weigh me down at all

He ain't heavy he's my brother


Source: LyricFind

Songwriters: Bob Russell / Bobby Scott


          Thanks be to God, that our brother Jesus Christ feels this way about us. Thanks be to God that our brother Jesus Christ breaks our yoke of sinfulness, and offers us the yoke of love for God, and for one another. Let us walk with God, unburdened by all that would divide us. Let us walk the walk of Jesus Christ, unburdened by prejudice, unburdened by injustice that weighs in our favor. Let us walk, joyfully, renewed for the life which honors, respects, and seeks justice for all God’s creation and all God’s creatures! Amen.

         

         

         

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