Sunday, 16 July 2017

Bearing Burdens

Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church
16 July 2017

1 Corinthians 16.1-9   
Galatians 6.2-5  

You can listen to this sermon here:

Did you know that there are only 161 days to Christmas?
            How does that make you feel?
Excited, energised, depressed, despondent?

Have you started your Christmas shopping yet?
            Are you the kind of person who collects presents throughout the year,
                        putting them on one side so that, come December,
                        it’s just a question of wrapping and posting?
            Or are someone who leaves it all until the last minute,
                        for that adrenaline fuelled flurry of Amazon purchases
                        and trips to the packed shops on Oxford Street.

Have I just made your day, or ruined it, by mentioning Christmas?
            Can you feel it lifting you up, or weighing you down?

Paul Simon, in his wonderful song, ‘Getting Ready for Christmas Day’,
            captures something of the stress that the expense of Christmas can bring:

Getting Ready For Christmas Day
From early in November to the last week of December
I got money matters weighing me down
Oh the music may be merry, but it’s only temporary
I know Santa Claus is coming to town

In the days I work my day job, in the nights I work my night
But it all comes down to working man’s pay
Getting ready, I’m getting ready, ready for Christmas Day

It is ironic, isn’t it, that the approaching Christmas season
            is for many people a time of increased stress,
given that Jesus tells his disciples
            that his yoke is easy and his burden is light (Mt 11.30).

It may be a myth that the suicide rate spikes in December,
            - it actually goes down in the run up to Christmas,
                        only to rise dramatically in January,
            but the stress of our cultural celebration of the birth of Jesus
                        is for a burden that weighs heavy on many of us.

And I wonder,
            do you ever feel that things are weighing you down?
Is life, as they say, getting you down?

In our reading this morning from Galatians,
            Paul tells his readers that they are to ‘bear one another’s burdens’,
and I have been wondering what this might mean for us
            in 21st century London?

What are the burdens we carry, I wonder?
            Perhaps we can think of a few?
            I’d invite you to call them out…

·      Poverty
·      Financial worries
·      Inequality (gender, sexuality, ethnicity, social standing…)
·      Addiction
·      Low self esteem
·      Relationship stress / breakdown
·      Mental health problems
·      Illness

All these things are burdens that weigh us down,
            but the thing is, we don’t, each of us, carry every burden.

The person with financial worries may not suffer from addiction,
            the person with a stressful relationship may not have mental health problems.

But, as we saw last week,
            it’s when several burdens all come together at the same time,
            that a person’s life can reach crisis point.

So, for example, the main indicators of the risk of becoming homeless,
            are the combination of three key factors:
            poor mental health, financial problems, and relationship breakdown.

If those three come together,
            they can prove a burden too great for one person to bear
            without them in some way stumbling or breaking under the strain.

So, what does it mean for us to ‘bear one another’s burdens’?

Well, one thing it doesn’t mean,
            is a communal assertion of individualistic fatalism.

Let me explain…

Have you ever heard people say,
            when referring to some burden that they have in their life,
            ‘it’s just a cross I have to bear’?

It’s a comment that’s often said alongside the phrases:
            ‘these things are sent to try us’.
            ‘the Lord never sends you more than you can bear, you know’.

All of which may have some basis in the Bible,
            but which, taken in this way,
become less statements of the good news of the coming of Christ,
            and more a kind of fatalistic comforting mantra
            about the vagaries of life lived before a capricious God.

We are indeed called to follow the path of Christ,
            by taking up our own cross and following him:

Mark 8:34  tells us that Jesus
            called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them,
            "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves
            and take up their cross and follow me.

But this call to costly self-denial, and sacrificial discipleship,
            that Jesus speaks of when he calls his disciples,
is a long way from the idea that we are called to a life
            of quiet martyrdom to our personal burdens.

And similarly,
            the idea that ‘these things are sent to try us’
            and that ‘the Lord never sends you more than you can bear’,
whilst having their origins in Paul’s comforting words
            offered to disciples facing suffering and temptation in 1 Corinthians 10.13,
are not biblically valid aphorisms designed to provoke stoic endurance
            through those times when life seems burdensome and unbearable.

We are not called in Christ, to lives of individualistic fatalism,
            where be bear our burdens alone,
            and just have to ‘deal with’ whatever the Lord sends our way.
And to assert that this is what bearing life’s burdens is about
            is, I would suggest, actually a denial of the resurrection.

It is the carrying of the cross,
            without the lived reality of the new life that the cross brings.

Our approach to life’s burdens
            should be one which is motivated by the God’s power of life or uphold and release,
            rather than by the powers of death to stifle and ensnare.

Carrying the cross without embracing resurrection,
            is to miss the point of the gospel of Christ

So imagine the person who is saddled with the heavy load
            of caring for a sick loved one,
            and viewing this as ‘a cross they just have to bear’.

I wonder what difference it might make for them
            to come to experience the care they are giving not as an unsought burden,
            but as a positive choice taken to care for another
                        as an expression of the love that God has for the person who is sick?[1]

But how might such a transformation take place?
            How can someone trapped in the spiral of dependency-resentment
                        find a new quality of life in their unsought responsibilities?

Well, what difference would it make for them, for example,
            if the burden of caring were shared with others,
as fellow members of the community of Christ
            helped bear that burden with them.

In my own experience of ministry and pastoral care,
            I’ve seen over and over the life-giving difference it can make to a person
            when they realise that they are not alone in their responsibilities,
            when others help carry that burden with them

This is when the cross becomes resurrection,
            and we have to let go of our fatalism, our stoicism,
                        and our internalised martyr-complexes,
            to allow others to minister grace to us
                        in the name of the one who comes to serve
                        and to call us to acts of mutual service.

Do you remember the powerful image
            of Christian in John Bunyan’s pilgrim’s progress, published in 1678?
Christian is weighted down by a great burden,
            which for him, is the insight he has gained into his sinful nature.

He sets out on a journey to see how he can be relieved of this burden,
            and meets various characters along the way.
Struggling through places like the Slough of Despond,
            and waylaid by conversations with Mr Worldly Wiseman, Mr Legality, and others,
he eventually finds his way to the ‘place of deliverance’
            where he is able to lay his burden down.

However, he then discovers that his journey through life is far from over,
            and he has to make further adventures through places like
                        the valley of the Shadow of Death, Vanity Fair, and Doubting Castle,
            and along the way he discovers the importance of friends like Faithful and Hopeful,
                        who help him carry on even when he feels the weight of his past sins
                                    coming back to burden him again.

Eventually, with help from others,
            he makes it safely over the river of death and take his place in the Celestial City.

The allegory is clear and effective:
            if we are to make it faithfully through this life,
            we need to bear one another’s burdens.

And here’s the thing:
            it has to be mutual.
One-sided burden bearing doesn't work:
            we all have our burdens to bear
                        and if we take on someone else's burden
                        without someone helping us to carry our own,
            we just become even more weighed down.

Some of us here will know the benefit of counselling,
            or of person centred therapies such as psychoanalysis.

Those who have been through such therapy
            will have found that the act of sharing your burden with the therapist
                        is crucial in finding it easier to carry,
            or indeed in being able to lay it down altogether.

But although the therapist can help you shed your burden,
            they are also at risk of inappropriately taking it up themselves
            through inappropriate transference.
So a good therapist wouldn’t dream of offering support to someone else,
            without a good supervision and support structure in place
            to ensure that they don’t end up walking around carrying everyone else’s burdens.

The same, of course, can be said of many of us,
            who spend time sitting with and supporting those
            who are finding life hard to bear.
If I am to be effective as a pastor,
            and if we each of us are to be effective as a burden-bearers for others,
            we too will need support and help.
So, for example, I go regularly to see my Spiritual Director,
            and have done so since my ordination to ministry
            way back in the last millennium!

And this is the beauty of mutual burden-bearing.
            We don’t have to be strong to do it.

Actually, sometimes, the most effective burden-bearers
            are those who are themselves weak and carrying the scars of life,
because through our weakness we have discovered the importance
            of being willing to allow other people to help us discover strength
            that we would never have been able to summon up on our own.

I spoke last week about the idea we are exploring
            for offering a volunteer-run debt advice service here at Bloomsbury,
            offering help and support to those who are struggling under the burden of debt.
I also asked for volunteers,
            and I’m a bit concerned that we might have got the idea
            that the only people who can offer such help
            are those who have never struggled with debt or money worries themselves.

Actually, I’d like to suggest that the opposite is probably true.
            The most empathetic ear,
                        and the most sympathetically offered advice,
            may well come from the person who has been there themselves.

This, of course, is why the twelve-step anonymous groups are so effective:
            because they provide a context where a group of people
                        can speak with utter honesty about their addiction,
            knowing that every other person in the room has experienced the same burden.
And the healing and release comes
            through the group bearing one another’s burdens,
            through mutual shared vulnerability,
                        and not the futile attempt to exorcise an addiction by brute strength.

You see, this burden-bearing isn’t a theoretical idea with no practical outworking;
            rather, it’s the sharp end of the transformation of people’s lives,
                        as they make their journey from the kind of stoic,
                        individualised, fatalistic cross-bearing
                                    that weighs down and leads to death,
                        into the living out of resurrection
                                    and the opening up of the path to new life.

So what might bearing one another’s burdens look like for us, here at Bloomsbury?

It might look like volunteering to become involved in the new debt advice scheme,
            helping bear the burden of financial stress.
It might look like giving financially to the church, and to the hardship fund,
            allowing this place to minister to the immediate needs
                        of the poor and the vulnerable,
            and to offer long term structural support
                        to the congregation and other groups that meet here.
It might look like committing to come to the art therapy taster session
            that’s happening on Sunday 6th August,
            and discovering for yourself how therapy
                        can begin to untie the bonds that hold our burdens onto our backs.

Do you have the courage to do this?
            To begin the journey of allowing another person to take your burden from you?
Many of us, myself included,
            live our lives out of a narrative of strength.
We’re the strong ones, the capable ones,
            and even if we’re not – we have to look like we are.

We may know deep down inside that there is a disconnect,
            a pain, and harm or a hurt, that weighs us down,
            and stops us being the person we could be.
But to admit it to ourselves, let alone to someone else,
            is itself a concept too threatening to contemplate.

Well, all I can say is that without allowing the other to bear your burdens,
            you are not going to be able to bear the burdens of others.

In order to find release, we need to stop being strong
            and instead we need to find strength in mutuality.

This concept of mutuality isn’t something fuzzy and emotive,
            although it makes perfect emotional sense to admit weakness and seek support.
Rather, mutuality can become something profoundly transformatory
            in both the political and economic sphere.

The financial institutions known as the Building Societies,
            along with companies like the John Lewis Partnership
            were founded on the concept of mutuality,
and into that mix we might also put workers cooperatives,
            Friendly Societies, and Benefit Societies.

These institutions enabled people to collaborate for mutual benefit,
            in the face of a workplace environment where otherwise the benefit
            went to the owner, or shareholders, of the business.

The whole concept of the economics of the Common Good,
            is based on the idea of bearing one another’s burdens,
where the weakness of the individual
            becomes transformed through sharing and collaborating with others.

I have a chapter in a book which will be coming out later this month,
            edited by Virginia Moffatt who used to work here at Bloomsbury with Ekklesia.
It’s a series of essays by activists and theologians,
            looking at how Christianity can reclaim the language of the Common Good.
If you’re interested, there will be a book launch here
            on the evening of the 20th September,
and you may also be interested to know that I’ve been invited to speak about this book
            at a session at this year’s Greenbelt Festival.

How can we bear one another’s burdens?
            What does this mean for us?

London Citizens, the community organising network that we are a part of,
            interestingly don't speak about 'empowering' people,
because, they say, that is still buying into the narrative
            of the powerful gifting power to the disempowered.

Rather, they speak of organising the powerless
            so that together they can take the power they need
            in order to release themselves of the burdens of oppression.

In our reading from 1 Corinthians 16 we heard an example of Paul
            doing the first century equivalent of community organising.
The early Christian community was strung out around the Mediterranean,
            and in every area it was facing persecution and hardship.
But the Jerusalem church was facing particular financial difficulties,
            and some of the members there were facing possible starvation.

So Paul set about organising the weak community of Christians
            for mutual sharing to ensure that none were impoverished.
Each little congregation on its own could not solve the problem,
            but together they could save their mother church in Jerusalem from ruin.

Paul therefore set in place the motivation and the mechanism for a free gift of money,
            to be sent from places such as Corinth, to where it was needed.
Not out some kind of early communistic ideal,
            but simply because of the conviction that 'in Christ'
            there is an obligation to care for one's sisters and brothers.
In short, there is an obligation to bear one another’s burdens.

We spoke last week about the need to move away
            from a patriarchal understanding of charity,
                        where the strong do things for the weak,
            but in so doing inadvertently perpetuate the inequality
                        that has led to the need for charity in the first place.

And we saw how we need to move from doing for, or doing to,
            towards a concept of doing with.

Well this is what the bearing of each other’s burdens is all about,
            it is about working with others to see burdens lifted.
It is about the equalising of power within the community,
            it is about the recognition of mutual weakness,
            and the discovery of the strength that comes through mutuality.

It is about resurrection, and new life,
            and it is about the gospel of Christ
                                    taking root in our lives and our community,
            so that we might become
                        the agents of the transformation of the world.


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