Do You Feel Burdened?, 22nd Sunday after Pentecost – November 5, 2017

Proper 26

[RCL] Joshua 3:7-17; Psalm 107:1-7, 33-37; 1 Thessalonians 2:9-13; Matthew 23:1-12

 Do you feel burdened? The writers of our epistle and gospel want to know. “You remember our labor and toil, brothers and sisters; we worked night and day, so that we might not burden any of you while we proclaimed to you the gospel of God,” Paul says. Jesus speaks of the scribes and Pharisees, saying, “They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them.” What is the difference between the two? What separates those in the Beloved Community who impose burdens on others, and those who remove them?

The topic of burdens is important throughout the Bible. Paul tells us in the Letter to the Galatians, “Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you fulfill the law of Christ.” Jesus himself says, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” We all know what it is like to feel burdened by life. Every single person we know is bearing a burden of some kind, some seen, some unseen. Cancer, financial hardship, caregiving for an elderly parent, a child struggling in school, addiction—the burdens add up and weigh us down. And we all feel the collective burdens of lives lost or altered in natural disasters, mass shootings, and the global struggles of poverty and disease.

It’s no surprise that the bearing of burdens shows up all over scripture. And in our texts for today, we have the contrast between how Paul is trying to relate to his spiritual community, and how the scribes and Pharisees are. What differentiates the two? After all, Paul began religious life as a Pharisee. What helped him escape being a burden to his community? And more than that, how did he become someone who lessened the burdens of others?

We can immediately see from how Jesus describes the scribes and Pharisees that they are creating burdens for others because they are carrying crippling burdens of their own. Their burden is made of a toxic combination of trying to earn God’s favor by their works and demanding that everyone around them acknowledge their superior efforts. They have taken the sacred Law of Moses, which Jesus upholds in this passage, and burdened it with the deceptively heavy weight of their fragile egos.

The scribes and Pharisees that Jesus describes do not believe that God loves them freely and fully regardless of what actions they do or do not take. They are constantly hustling for God’s favor. They do not believe in an unconditionally loving God in their heart of hearts. This is not the fault of the law, but the predictable result of any religious person who has never grown beyond the petty and fearful tyranny of the ego. There are many Christians today who suffer from this unseen burden of functional works righteousness. We say we believe God loves us, but we feel safer hedging our bets by racking up good works.

And those good works are usually seen by others. That public do-gooding starts to earn us the approval and congratulations of others, and we get addicted to it. Before long we start to think we’re better than other people who aren’t working as hard as we are to build the Kingdom of God. It can be a short road from “trying to help and care for others” to “holier-than-thou and insufferable.”

What began as an honest search for the love of God and a life in the center of God’s will has turned into our becoming a burden to our faith community. Why did this happen? What is missing?

What is missing is the space, silence, and vulnerability necessary to actually receive the radiant love of God. When we approach the Christian life as a constant stream of virtuous activity directed as loudly as possible both at God and at our faith community—“Look at me! Look at all the wonderful things I’m doing!”—the still, small voice of the Spirit is very easily drowned out. Our self-imposed burden of a needy ego, never patient enough to learn the love of God, will sooner or later become the arrogance and self-satisfaction of the scribes and Pharisees in our gospel passage today.

“You remember our labor and toil, brothers and sisters; we worked night and day, so that we might not burden any of you while we proclaimed to you the gospel of God,” Paul tells us. This “labor and toil,” “night and day,” that Paul speaks of consists in large part of patient and faithful prayer. Going within in silence and stillness, engaging in spiritual disciplines, finding and remaining faithful to daily spiritual practice—this is the labor and toil that over time, lifts our false internal burdens and makes us free. The freely chosen work of prayer and building spiritual intimacy with God slowly transforms us from being burdens, to merely having burdens, to one day lifting the burdens of others.

That’s one half of the equation—the labor and toil of prayer and individual encounter with God. The other half is the night and day patient engagement with one another in community. Moving from being a burden to others to lifting burdens from others requires exactly that—others. The quest for gospel transformation does not take place in a bubble. There are some of us who might enjoy sitting alone all day and thinking beautiful thoughts about God—but that is not love. Individualistic spiritual practice taken to an extreme will make us a burden to our community as surely as no spiritual practice at all.

Anyone who has had to carry heavy burdens will know that balance is the key. Trying to carry heavy bags of groceries up flights of stairs in only one hand is very difficult. Shift the bags to carry them equally in both hands and the burden is suddenly much easier to bear. So it is with our balance of individual and community spiritual intimacy. Keep it all on one side of the equation and we are quickly out of balance, becoming heavy to both ourselves and others. Seek an even distribution of time alone with God and time together with God, and suddenly progress forward is smoother and easier.

Paul says in our epistle today that the Word is at work in us as believers. That’s the most important thing of all as we seek to carry our own burdens and those of our fellow disciples. No burden we shoulder is ours to carry alone. The Holy Spirit within us is always present and ready to do the heavy lifting. Jesus says it himself in the Gospel of Matthew: “My yoke is easy and my burden is light.” The burdens of life and community may never go away, but when the love of God pervades them, they are no longer crushing weights. Our burdens become a steadying presence, anchoring and grounding us in the faithful pursuit of grace and truth. For it is when we commit to turning our burdens over to God that we are at last empowered to bear the burdens of one another. And a burden shared becomes a burden halved, as the old saying goes. Perhaps we could modify it for ourselves—a burden shared becomes a burden graced.

 The Rev. Whitney Rice is an Episcopal priest in the Diocese of Indianapolis and currently the Associate Rector the St. Francis-in-the-Fields Episcopal Church in Zionsville, Indiana.  A native of Lee’s Summit, Missouri, she comes to ordained ministry by way of the University of Kansas and Yale Divinity School, where she won the Yale University Charles S. Mersick Prize for Public Address and Preaching and the Yale University E. William Muehl Award for Excellence in Preaching. See more of her work at www.roofcrashersandhemgrabbers.com.

Download the sermon for the 22nd Sunday after Pentecost (A).

 

I wonder if anyone of us knows the kind of people that Jesus is talking about today, Pentecost 20, Proper 26 – 2011

[RCL] Joshua 3:7-17 and Psalm 107:1-7, 33-37 (Track 2: Micah 3:5-12 and Psalm 43); 1 Thessalonians 2:9-13; Matthew 23:1-12

I wonder if anyone of us knows the kind of people that Jesus is talking about today.

Clarence Jordan, in his Cotton Patch Gospel series, presents today’s reading from Matthew like this:

“Don’t let yourselves be called ‘Reverend,’ for you have the one pastor and you are all brothers. And don’t call any human being ‘father,’ for you have but one spiritual father; neither be called ‘Doctor,’ for you have one doctor – the Leader. Your top man shall be your houseboy. So who promotes himself gets bumped, and whoever bumps himself gets promoted.”

Clarence Jordan knew a little bit about these kinds of people; he even was one for time. Getting his Ph.D. in New Testament afforded Jordan with many of the honors that he, through the words of Jesus, finds troubling today. But Jordan did something unusual for his day, and it’s unusual today as well. He took the gospel seriously and formed an inter-racial Christian community. Now all this happened in the early 1940s, and it happened in South Georgia. “Dr. Jordan” became “farmer Clarence,” and all because of his devotion to his one teacher, Father, and Lord. Now, we are not all called to become farmers for Jesus, but we are all called to contend with what Jesus lays out for us today.

Today’s gospel reading comes from the long section in Matthew where Jesus is doing a lot of teaching. First, Jesus says that his followers ought to respect the authority of the Pharisees and the scribes. When Jesus says that they “sit on Moses’ seat,” he is, in effect, saying that these religious leaders have legitimate authority. Jesus never denounces the Law, the Torah, or the traditions of Israel. The original covenant, the first covenant, between God and Abraham, then through the life of Israel, was, and still is, in effect. Jesus is holding his listeners accountable to the Law. What Jesus is doing is lambasting these religious authorities for being too showy with the public expression of their faith. It is not that their phylacteries are wrong to wear; it’s that they have made a prayer shawl into an article of bragging.

After ridiculing the Pharisees and scribes for their showy spirituality, Jesus then goes on to say that we should recognize no rabbi, father, or teacher except Christ. This is not to be taken literally, but it is to be taken seriously. Of course, we all have fathers and teachers, but Jesus’ injunction is on our proper understanding of where we stand in the grand scheme of things. Here, Jesus is making a claim very much like the one that God made on Mount Sinai when he delivered the Ten Commandments to Moses. The first commandment was: you shall have no other gods before me. God expects us to trust him, solely and totally. God is reminding us that we all have the inclination within us to look around and try to make something complete us; this is the heart of idolatry. Things can never complete us, neither can people. It’s wrong on both counts, but it is especially unfair to make an idol of people. Why would we put such a burden on our spouses, our partners, our parents, our children? They cannot be God for us; only God can be God. It is God who is the source of our happiness, satisfaction, and hope.

This is precisely what Jesus is saying to us today. There’s only one father, there is only one rabbi, and there is only one teacher. There’s only one initiator of the Kingdom of God, and that is Jesus Christ. Of course, teachers and other mentors are good. We all have those special individuals who show us the path to approaching God, to deeper knowledge of ourselves and our Lord. But God is the goal, God is always the goal. And we never come to him but through his own bidding. God has made himself known to us first in the life of Israel, then through Jesus Christ, and now we know him through his Holy Spirit, which enables us to come to God.

Recognizing that there is only one God, one father, and one teacher is easier said than done. Usually, when we come to know something, we know it as fact and then proceed based on the facts. God has given us a peculiar commandment: to put all of our faith, hope, and trust in him and him alone. All the saints, sages, and scholars before us on our way to God have always put this kind of faith into terms dealing with trust. And the funny thing about it is that trust can only be built by extending it. When we trust someone, we don’t really know what’s going to happen. Trusting God is hard. If following God, completely and totally, were easy, everyone would be doing it.

It simply isn’t enough for us to be admirers of Christ, we need to be disciples. We become disciples by having one God, one teacher, and following him first. Our trust in God will cause His faithfulness to spring forward and drive us to deeper and deeper love for ourselves, our neighbors, and most importantly, for our God.

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Written by the Rev. Joshua Bowron
The Rev. Joshua Bowron is the senior assistant to the rector at Saint John’s Episcopal Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, where he lives with his wife and three children.

Fellow travelers, Pentecost 25, Proper 26 – 2008

[RCL] Joshua 3:7-17, Psalm 107:1-7, 33-37; or Micah 3:5-12, Psalm 43; 1 Thessalonians 2:9-13; Matthew 23:1-12

One way to approach scripture is by asking ourselves two questions.

“What’s going on here?” is the first. It forces us to delve a little deeper, to see if we can get a handle on the passage in question and really understand it.

The second question is “What does that mean for us?” This question is often the more difficult because, of course, it forces us to consider our own ways of thinking and acting in light of the gospel values.

What’s going on here? Jesus is having another one of his run-ins with the Pharisees. Many Christians see the Pharisees as the “bad guys,” always wearing the black hats. This is not true. The Pharisees were a group of pious Jews who put great emphasis on beliefs and practices of the prophets and adapted these to their own times. They sought to make the love of God and love of neighbor the chief commandments, the essence of the Torah from which all else flowed. That sounds quite a bit like Jesus himself, doesn’t it? The Pharisees were very concerned about preserving Jewish religious and cultural life in the midst of Hellenistic Roman society, and so they emphasized the laws concerning food, purity, and group practices. These practices served to keep Jews united to one another and distinct from the dominant gentile society.

Many Pharisees of Jesus’ time went one step further to make their way of life even more distinctive. They drew on an old tradition of using the priestly laws concerning purity, food, and marriage for all Jews, not just for the priests. These purity regulations, which may seem mysterious and strange to us today, regularized life and separated that which was normal and life-giving from that which was abnormal or ambiguous. The Pharisees with whom Jesus contends attempted to keep themselves in a state of purity at all times as would a priest in the Temple. They were scrupulous in their behavior and took great care not to come in contact with any source of defilement.

The gentiles presented a danger to those who would keep themselves pure, but another danger to purity was the presence of the “people of the land.” These were the ordinary folk who had neither the time, money, nor inclination to keep the priestly laws of purity. They were unable to tithe properly and their food – what little they had – was not properly sanctified and could not be eaten by the Pharisees. “The people of the land” were poor and lived a subsistence existence; they were probably too busy trying to keep food on the table to worry about what kind of food it was and if it had been properly prepared.

A word about the dietary laws today: Jews who keep these laws do so as a spiritual practice. They may be inconvenient at times, but they are not burdensome to them. Like spiritual disciplines we might practice – daily prayer, fasting or abstaining from certain foods – they serve to integrate our beliefs with daily life, to give shape to our everyday lives by living according to our principles.

In today’s gospel lesson, Jesus is not criticizing those who try faithfully to keep the Law. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus speaks of the Torah as good and God-given. Here he is speaking about those who forget what really mattered in it: loving God and loving your neighbor. He is speaking about the big things: justice and mercy and faithfulness. He is speaking to the experts, the ones who were so good at telling other people what they should be doing. And he is speaking to those who work really hard at keeping the letter of the law while forgetting about the spirit of the law.

Tom Wright, a Biblical commentator, wrote that “Generations of preachers have used this passage to criticize church leaders who like dressing up and being seen in public. That’s fair enough.”

But this is about more than fancy clothes and good seats. Jesus criticized the Pharisees because they didn’t practice what they preached; their lives did not reflect the law that they continually debated; they didn’t live out what they taught. While Jesus’ rebuke seems general, as though all scribes and Pharisees were guilty of love of place and honor, we know the rabbis themselves condemned such behavior. We know that leaders of every generation – second temple Judaism, the early church, the church through the ages, and the church today – have not lived out their vocations in congruence with the values of the gospel. So the real audience is not the Pharisees, but the disciples and, by extension, us; Jesus is talking to his church and especially to its leaders.

Remember who it is that is speaking in our gospel lesson. It is Christ Jesus, who, as we read in Philippians, “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.” Remember also, that Jesus is in Jerusalem. It is Tuesday, the Tuesday following the triumphal entry. He has returned to the Temple after casting out the animal buyers and sellers and overturning the tables of the money changers. He must have known that his time was short, that confrontation was ahead. He has just a little time left to teach his disciples, to help them to practice what they will preach.

Kathleen Norris, in her book, The Cloister Walk, writes of the congruence between monastic practice and the discipline of writing. After giving a poetry reading to a community of Trappists, she writes:

“I told the monks that I had come to see both writing and monasticism as vocations that require periods of apprenticeship and formation. Prodigies are common in mathematics, but extremely rare in literature, and, I add, ‘As far as I know, there are no prodigies in monastic life.’”
We know, from our life in the Christian community, that this is true, not just for monastics or writers, but for all of us. There are no prodigies in the Christian life; all of us are apprentices; all of us are in need of conversion; all of us require formation. That’s why we come together, week by week, to be nourished by word and sacrament. That’s why we have preaching and teaching. That’s why we gather together as a community of faith. We are not prodigies, we are fellow travelers on the journey of faith. We are here to help each other, for we all journey together.

Written by the Rev. Mary K. Morrison
The Rev. Mary K. Morrison is pastoral associate at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Los Gatos, California. E-mail: mkmorrison@stlukeslg.org.