Gospel: Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30
1st Reading: Zechariah 9:9-12
2nd Reading: Romans 7:15-25a
This week, as we do every year, we had a 4th of July barbecue at our house. We invite our friends, make oodles of food, borrow chairs from the church, and relax with a few beers and some vegan sausages, and watch the fireworks from all over the neighborhood. The barbecue is a lot of work to put on. We have to clean up the yard and the house. This year we were smart and started a month in advance. I listed our old tires on Craigslist and they were scooped up the same day. Nick sawed up the long tree branches that I had trimmed from our Hawthorne tree. We mowed and weed-whacked the yard. I pulled some weeds I had been meaning to get to. We did the recycling, scrubbed the bathroom top to bottom, and chased away the fruit flies.
It was a lot of work, and yet the burden was light. Nick and I both chipped in. I let Sterling think he was helping me clean the bathroom. Nick got me to take care of some of his pet peeves around the yard—like the set of tires that had been stacked by the bush for over a year. I got him to take care of some of projects—I pruned the tree, why should I have to cut up all the branches, too? If it was up to me, I was getting out the circular saw for those big branches, but he used a hand saw and pure muscle to make it happen. We worked together and we didn’t even get on each other’s nerves that bad.
The yard and the house and the barbecue were burdens, but we chose them. The barbecue may even have partially been an excuse to get the other things done in a spirit of cooperation and fun. And we both enjoyed the company of our friends and the chance to offer hospitality to them.
I don’t think we can overestimate the heavy burdens that people are carrying. Many in my generation carry overwhelming debt, that’s enough to turn our hair gray. There are many people you would never know who are carrying heavy grief, live in pain or illness, or live in constant worry for a relative who is sick either physically or mentally.
Does being a Christian add to that burden or relieve it? Many would say it has added to their burden. Sometimes church adds guilt and shame, a long list of “shoulds” about dress and language and proper behavior and praying and reading the Bible and serving others and never thinking of yourself. Sometimes church becomes another place where the burdens are heaped upon us.
Paul, the writer of the book of Romans that we read from this morning, sometimes felt that burden. He wanted to do right, but he just found himself doing wrong. I’m sure any of us could relate to his statement, “I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.” He has good intentions but doesn’t always follow through. Paul had a lot of burdens. He was imprisoned. He was ill. He suffered from some thorn in the flesh that he doesn’t ever directly name. And he was the chief persecutor of Christians. He always carried the memory of those he had tortured and killed.
But Paul didn’t live as if he was burdened with guilt and shame. He didn’t hide away and shrivel up. Instead, he put himself out there, traveled all around the land telling the Good News of Jesus, that even after all the evil he had done and the people he had hurt, God came to him and welcomed him and forgave him and gave him a job to do transforming this world. Not only did God forgive and welcome him, but God’s people did, too. The very people he had hurt, took him in, nursed him back to health and put their trust in him. They made him a leader and helped him use his gifts to get the word out of who Jesus is and what Jesus’ message and purpose is.
We could say, “That’s all well and good for Paul. God loved him because he changed his life. That’s why God took away his burdens. I could never do what Paul did.” But God loved Paul, even when he was persecuting people. God cared about Paul and valued Paul’s gifts and was planting the seeds that would eventually give Paul what he needed to share the Good News and plant Christian churches all over the place. Also notice that even after Paul’s conversion, here he is admitting the struggle between good and evil that was still going on within him. He wasn’t evil in the past and now he is cured of that and that’s why his burdens are lifted. His life was always a struggle between good and bad in the past and also after his conversion. The thing that has changed as he writes what we read this morning, is that he knows God’s love. In the past he used to “know” that he was good with God, because, in his mind, he followed the letter of the law. Now, he still knows God’s love, but on a much deeper level. He knows that sometimes he does what is right. When that happens he gives credit to God, who is the only one who can do good through us. And he admits that sometimes he does what is evil. When that happens only he is to blame. Yet, God always loves and forgives and accepts him and walks with him in that struggle, as does his community of faith.
Jesus says, “Come to me, all you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens.” We all are carrying heavy burdens. We’ve all done things that are wrong, even when we knew the right thing to do. We all could have done more to help others. Because of this, we might be inclined to hide from God. But like a loving parent, God invites us to come to God with all that we carry, with our struggle to do what is right, because God wants us to give those burdens to God and to get some rest. God wants us to let go of the struggle of trying always to do right, and just know that we are loved no matter what. God wants us to yoke ourselves to God and to a loving community we can work together with. God wants to free us from guilt and shame and always having to measure up. God loves us as God’s own children. So we are free to try new things, to make mistakes, to screw up royally, never doubting God’s love. We are free to get on with the important work of transforming this world more into the vision that God has in mind. Or rather God can get on with transforming this world through us. God is transforming this world so that everyone has enough and no one has too much, so that jealousy and backbiting have no place, so that all are empowered to use their gifts to contribute to the good of everyone, so that leaders look out for the good of all people instead of just trying to increase their own power, and that we share each other’s burdens and make the burden lighter for all who struggle.
When we have our 4th of July barbecue, when we come here on Sundays, when we visit the sick and imprisoned, when we lay down our weapons, the Kingdom of God is at hand, it is coming close. We all carry burdens, but we don’t have to do so alone. When we gather together, we share those burdens, in the prayers, in the sharing of the peace, in Holy Communion. We yoke ourselves with others so we know we aren’t alone. Community is a place we can practice the forgiveness and love we know from God. It may add extra burdens, in that we all have to contribute something, and sometimes put up with people and situations we might not choose, but doesn’t that lighten our burden to let go of control and receive the gifts that God offers through all these other people laying down their burdens and reaching out with now empty hands to embrace and to give.