Bearing Burdens, Finding Freedom

Sometimes it’s all about the burden. Sometimes it’s all about what you carry on your back – even in Scripture.

Joshua directs the priests and people of the Lord across the Jordan River into the Promised Land that will be Israel. There must be such a sense of arrival, of a kind of completion, of reaching an end-point that had been desired for so long. But there is something to carry. The priests stand at the river’s edge and then on the riverbed, bearing their burden, the Ark of the Lord, the dwelling place of the Holy One of Israel. The burdens of slavery, of exile, of homelessness are fading to the past. But there will be new burdens to bear.

Paul the Apostle writes to the Thessalonians. He writes of his affection for them, of his longing to see them again, of the fact that he feels himself a father to them. He lets them know that he realizes what they have suffered; that he stands with them in their persecution. And, first of all, he reminds them that he had worked diligently when he was among them, “so that we might not burden any of you while we proclaimed to you the gospel of God.” The one thing that he did not want to be to them; the one thing he asserted he never was to them, was a burden.

And Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew, speaking of what is lacking in the way of the Pharisees, says, “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.”

Not every river stands up and behaves itself when God’s people pass by, as did the Jordan that day for Joshua and his people. Last week I stood by the side of apparently innocent streams in the state of Vermont, which rose up as hurricane Irene passed by, and left behind homes lifted up and thrown down, livelihoods and hopes wounded and destroyed. If you’re able to go on the service trip upstate on November 11, go. Rivers are often channels of life. They can also bring burdens of sorrow and leave them along the banks for the people there to struggle against.

Burdens. We all carry them. Sometimes we are aware of them. Sometimes not. Sometimes we can name them. Sometimes they remain anonymous. But their weight remains.

Where do they come from, these burdens we carry? Do you carry a weight of sorrow? Do you know where its genesis lies? And if you do, do you know also how it has survived and grown from that starting point to become the burden you bear today? Do you carry a burden of regret? How did it first begin? And why is it still with you today? Does loneliness weigh you down? Can you name your burdens? Can you count them? Do you dare? Do I?

If God is a good God, if the divine kindness is embodied in Jesus Christ and among us still today and always, then why are there burdens among us? Why, if we could pause the flowing river of life at any given moment at Connecticut Muffin or at Teresa’s Restaurant or in the line at Rite Aid and listen to the inner stories of everyone in that space, would we hear stories that inevitably include – whatever else may be there – the carrying of burdens, psychic, emotional, physical and spiritual? Why?

When I say it here, standing in a pulpit in a beautiful church in the midst of the celebration of a time of prayer, it sounds like a rhetorical question, doesn’t it? A high-falluting question asked from an altitude above: why do these humans suffer? But it’s not a question of rhetoric is it? It is instead a question of life – and of death. It’s a question of flesh and blood and spirit, and the intersection of all of these.

Each of us, if we dare, inches gropingly, or perhaps even strides confidently, toward our own answer to the question of why we carry the burdens we carry. I can only share with you something haltingly of my own response. I’ve known love as a burden, and the lack of love as well. I’ve known anger as an oppressive weight, but I’ve known a lack of strong feeling as a burden too. I have felt faith itself as a thing that requires more of me than I am willing to give, but the lack of faith as a burden even heavier. Heavier by far.

There are many more as well, burdens of my own. When I think of them soberly and quietly, that last phrase becomes most important: “burdens of my own.” For myself, as I look back, most of the burdens I have known – at least most – have been fashioned by my own hands, or shaped by my own psyche. The book of Genesis tells us that God created all things good. It took human eyes to see any of that creation as lacking in goodness. I don’t believe that God, the Father of Jesus Christ, the Giver of the Spirit, spends time devising burdens to strew along my path. I believe God places blessings there in abundance. Some of them I recognize, rejoice in, and accept with joy. Some of them I trip over, fall over, fail to recognize and curse. I see them lying along the way behind me, and I call them burdens.

But even so, God continues to place renewed good things in my way.

I need new eyes. I need new ears. I need a new heart. I need re-creation.

With these gifts, burdens become something else altogether, at least in potential. They become the source of new freedom.

Do you remember “The Mission”? It’s a film about the Jesuit missions in 16th century South America, with Jeremy Irons and Robert Deniro. Deniro’s character is a villain, a mercenary, an enslaver of the natives of the land.

He is touched by something – Christians might call it grace – and something, everything, begins to change. As penance for his past, which he is determined to do, he takes all the instruments of torture and violence that have been his over the years, binds them in a huge weighty pack. He hoists that grievous weight on his back and begins to climb the nearby mountain. He struggles and agonies and makes his way to the top. There the native people he has disdained meet him; they cut the burden off his pack and heave it downward into the river. The new man, free and immeasurably light, lies on the earth and sobs with all the emotion of a long human lifetime. He cries while those around him caress his hair, embrace him, lean into his back where the burden had been and gently touch him. His tears continue unabated as his sorry changes into joy.

He made the burden. He recognized it for what it was at last. He carried it upward and allowed himself to be freed. At that moment he was more truly human, and more truly himself, than at any prior moment since he emerged from his mother’s womb into this world of rivers and apostles and Pharisees and saviors, this world that can look – sometimes for years – like it is the work of the giver of sorrow. But no, it is instead the gift of the One who has made all that is to be a lasting joy. In the end it will all be recognized as gift, and all received with joy.

In the end the only burden that will remain is the one the priests bore into the Jordan River on that fateful day of arrival and hope. We carry the ark of the presence of the glory of God. We carry what Jesus called the ‘burden that is light and the yoke that is easy.’

As a fellow believer sang it four centuries ago: “A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing; our helper he amid the flood of mortal ills prevailing. … let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also; the body they may kill; God’s truth abideth still; God’s kingdom is forever.”

John P. McGinty

October 30, 2011
Scriptures: Joshua 3:7-17, 1 Thessalonians 2:9-13, Matthew 23:1-12.

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