Saturday, July 16, 2016

With Friends Like These



suffering - Paula Smith Heffel


Job 3:1-10, 4:1-9, 8:1-6, 11:1-6, 14-17
July 17, 2016
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling IL
Christina Berry

Last week we heard the opening two chapters of Job, in which the writer imagines God and “ha-shatan” – the adversary, debating whether Job would stay faithful in the face of unspeakable suffering. It is worthwhile to emphasize a few important points as we explore this story.

First, it is widely recognized to be a story – a parable, not a literal account.
Second, the character we would call “Satan” is not a being whose name is “Satan” or “Lucifer.” We get the term “Satan” from the Hebrew words “ha shatan” which means “the adversary” or “the accuser.” The term is used to designate the character’s role in the story, not a name. So “Satan” is not a name of an individual any more than “politician” or “banker” or “arguer” or “liar” is a name.
Third, like all folk tales or parables, this story is purposeful –the characters and the story line are drawn broadly so that we are forced, as the hearers and readers, to think deeply about what this story says.

Let’s listen for God’s word to us in the story of Job.
We have four brief readings today – I couldn’t figure out what to leave out!

This first reading is Job’s reaction to what he has suffered – losing all of his children, all of his livestock, all of his wealth, and his health. He expresses his despair in a cry of desolation and sorrow, wondering why he was even born: Job 3:1-10.
After this Job opened his mouth and cursed the day of his birth. Job said: ‘Let the day perish on which I was born, and the night that said, “A man-child is conceived.” Let that day be darkness! May God above not seek it, or light shine on it. Let gloom and deep darkness claim it. Let clouds settle upon it; let the blackness of the day terrify it. That night—let thick darkness seize it! let it not rejoice among the days of the year; let it not come into the number of the months. Yes, let that night be barren; let no joyful cry be heard in it. Let those curse it who curse the Sea, those who are skilled to rouse up Leviathan. Let the stars of its dawn be dark; let it hope for light, but have none; may it not see the eyelids of the morning— because it did not shut the doors of my mother’s womb, and hide trouble from my eyes.

In our next excerpt, Job’s friend Eliphaz offers his advice in Job 4: 1-9.
Then Eliphaz the Temanite answered: ‘If one ventures a word with you, will you be offended? But who can keep from speaking? See, you have instructed many; you have strengthened the weak hands. Your words have supported those who were stumbling, and you have made firm the feeble knees. But now it has come to you, and you are impatient; it touches you, and you are dismayed. Is not your fear of God your confidence, and the integrity of your ways your hope? ‘Think now, who that was innocent ever perished? Or where were the upright cut off? As I have seen, those who plough iniquity and sow trouble reap the same. By the breath of God they perish, and by the blast of his anger they are consumed.

Now Job’s friend Bildad weighs in, suggesting that somehow Job’s suffering is a result of God’s justice, or Job’s sin: Job 8: 1-6.
Then Bildad the Shuhite answered: ‘How long will you say these things, and the words of your mouth be a great wind? Does God pervert justice? Or does the Almighty pervert the right? If your children sinned against him, he delivered them into the power of their transgression. If you will seek God and make supplication to the Almighty, if you are pure and upright, surely then he will rouse himself for you and restore to you your rightful place.

And finally, in Job 11: 1- 6, 14-17 we hear Zophar’s two cents worth:
Then Zophar the Naamathite answered: ‘Should a multitude of words go unanswered, and should one full of talk be vindicated? Should your babble put others to silence, and when you mock, shall no one shame you? For you say, “My conduct is pure, and I am clean in God’s sight.” But O that God would speak, and open his lips to you, and that he would tell you the secrets of wisdom! For wisdom is many-sided. Know then that God exacts of you less than your guilt deserves. If iniquity is in your hand, put it far away, and do not let wickedness reside in your tents. Surely then you will lift up your face without blemish; you will be secure, and will not fear. You will forget your misery; you will remember it as waters that have passed away. And your life will be brighter than the noonday; its darkness will be like the morning.

The word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.


What an overwhelming disaster. Job has just lost everything except his wife and his life. Not only has all of his livestock been killed, a house has fallen on all of his children – seven sons and three daughters. Only his wife survives, and she suggested that he should simply “curse God and die.” So supportive, no?

Good thing he has his three friends, Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar. In last week’s reading, they came to sit with Job. They wept with him. They were exemplary friends. Now, it’s as if they Googled “Top ten worst things to say to a suffering friend.” Or maybe they Googled “why God makes people suffer.” Now it’s easy to think, “With friends like these, who needs enemies?”

Actually, of course, they didn’t Google anything. They simply relied on the faulty logic that all people use. These three friends wanted to say something in a time when there really wasn’t much to be said. I’ve done that. I bet you’ve been there, too. You want to offer some words of comfort to a friend, so you say, “Well, it was God’s will that this happened.” Or maybe “I know exactly how you feel.” Or maybe someone has said to you, “Well, it’s sad, but just put it behind you.”

“You shouldn’t feel that way.” Perhaps someone has implied that you brought your suffering upon yourself: “Maybe there was something you could have done….or shouldn’t have done.” A lot of us say these things to ourselves!

And none of these attempts to be helpful are helpful at all. But let’s not be too hard on Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar. They are, after all, fictional characters, drawn to make particular points. Each one of them has a long speech in which he puts forward the pious and popular beliefs about suffering. They suggest that Job somehow deserves these calamities. They suggest that he just needs to be strong and trust God’s will. They suggest that if Job would repent of his sin, and stop protesting his innocence, that things would go better for him.

There’s a grain of truth in each of their speeches, and there’s a part of each of us that is drawn to these beliefs. When tragedy strikes, we want to understand. We try to make meaning of it. We want to know who to blame. We even revert to childlike thinking, half-believing that if we can just find the magical key, we can reverse the heartbreak. So the words of Job’s friends echo in our own hearts: “If only I had….” “I should have…could have…if only…”

And sadly, when we are not at our best, we project those same judgments on our own suffering friends. Then we start problem solving – “Have you tried…? If you would just… Why don’t you…?”

Job’s friends truly care about him. They see that he is suffering. And certainly, these many hundreds of years later, we do not have to look far to see suffering all around us. And though we may blunder, we are called to respond to that suffering.

The writer of the prelude pondering, Venetha Rendall Risner, is no stranger to suffering. She has written some very helpful articles about what not to say, and offered some solid thoughts on what is helpful in the time of suffering. Her list includes some of the responses I’ve mentioned – and how they feel. See if some of these resonate with things you might have heard.

1. Minimizing– it’s not that bad. Look on the bright side.
2. Criticizing -if you had enough faith, things could be much better.
3. Moralizing - if you confess your sin and change your ways, God’ll bless you.
4. Scrutinizing and Advising - Why don’t you take a walk?
You just need to get your mind off your problems.
5. Vaporizing - some people virtually disappear when tragedy strikes.[1]

Risner’s writings address the reality that sometimes, human suffering is a mystery. Job’s story addresses that same reality. Job didn’t like the advice his friends were giving, and neither did God!
Sometimes, there is no explanation whatsoever for disasters – whether personal or global.

We might like to single out a single adversary, a Satan, an enemy, to blame.
We might like to blame the victims, pointing out what they should have done.
We might like to believe that if only the suffering person would turn to Jesus,
their suffering would end and all would be well.
In the face of such difficulty, in times of tragedy, which we have seen yet again this week,
we want to make sense of everything. But we can’t.

What can we do, then?

In any case of trouble or suffering, the best way to help is to find out what is needed, and then provide it, as much as possible. When disaster strikes, our first impulse is to provide what we have, or what we think is needed, or what we believe is comforting. For example – and it is just one example: in the weeks following the murder of twenty children and six teachers in Newtown, Connecticut the agencies in the area were inundated– $27,000 worth of toys, sixty five thousand stuffed toys and teddy bears, six truckloads of paper snowflakes and origami cranes –for a town of less than 30,000 people.[2]

Every gift, I am sure, was given with a heartfelt desire to help.
Every gift, I am sure, was given out of a need to take action.
But not one gift changed the problems at the root of that horrible event.

That’s much harder.

That takes stamina and courage and the willingness to listen and maybe even reconsider what was once a certain truth. Disaster relief workers and associations assure us that when tragedy strikes and we want to help, that our good intentions are not enough. One estimated that a donation of a can of peas can cost up to $80 to handle before it gets to the intended recipient.[3] So when global disasters happen, the most immediate and useful response is to give money that can be used to help those most in need.

When the suffering is personal, we can respond like Job’s friends did at first: Sit and listen.
Listen to the stories of others, without judgment or advice. Listen to the pain that is not yours, until you feel it. Listen with empathy and love. After the listening is done, be present and offer to help. Stay present and connected, even when it is difficult and painful.

When the suffering is bigger than us, as it has been so often lately, we can begin by tamping down our first impulses to blame and moralize. We can understand that God is big enough, and strong enough, to hear our anger and our frustration and our distress. (If you are not certain that this is true, read the Psalms.) We can trust that God is not indifferent to our suffering, even while we trust that God does not visit that suffering upon us. We can pray, even if our prayers have no words, because the Holy Spirit will pray with us and for us. And we can listen, offer to help, and stay connected.

We’ve once again had a difficult week, with much violence in the news. In situations such as the latest horror in France, or when acts of violence, terror and racism take place in our world, or even in our own town or neighborhood, we start by listening to the voices crying out in anguish. After the listening, we can respond with acts of care – not only prayers, though prayers are always good, but also with actions – advocacy, assistance, and action. By listening, we can learn how to advocate, and what actions to take. I don’t know what that advocacy or assistance or action will look like for you – it should emerge from your own prayers and attentive listening – but I do know that if the answers we find or the actions we take are something that is easy and cost us little or nothing, we need to carefully examine our decisions.

As Christians, we respond to suffering on behalf of those who suffer – not to make ourselves feel better, but to materially, spiritually and physically aid those in need. When that happens, people in misery and pain 
can see God’s love in action, 
can feel the empathy and grace we share, 
can know that there are people who truly, deeply care, 
can learn about faith by seeing how we live,
can look to followers of Jesus and be glad to have friends like these.

Amen.




[1] http://www.todayschristianwoman.com/articles/2015/january-week-4/what-not-to-say-to-someone-whos-suffering.html
[2] https://www.thetrace.org/2015/12/sandy-hook-shooting-donations/
[3] http://www.nbcnews.com/id/34958965/ns/world_news-haiti/t/disaster-do-gooders-can-actually-hinder-help/#.V4lthLgrLIU

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Hold Fast

This is the first sermon in a series on the Book of Job.





Job 1-2
July 10, 2016
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling, IL
Christina Berry

Every story that begins with “once upon a time” can be expected to end with, “and they lived happily ever after.” The story of Job is no exception. But what happens in between those two phrases is not a child’s storybook tale. The book of Job is an ancient folk tale, a compelling tale that tells us something important about suffering. The theological term for that is “theodicy,” the attempt to defend God’s goodness in the face of evil. Theodicy is an effort to sort how a benevolent God can cause or permit evil and suffering in a world that God loves.

Job does not give us any easy answers. In fact, the story is a complicated, difficult tale, and sometimes it sounds like two people trying to tell the same story. That may be a result of multiple authors working on the story over time – we just are not sure about that – but it can be confusing. For today, though, we start with the simple beginning, setting the scene in Job, chapters one and two.

Chapter 1

There was once a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job. That man was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil. There were born to him seven sons and three daughters. He had seven thousand sheep, three thousand camels, five hundred yoke of oxen, five hundred donkeys, and very many servants; so that this man was the greatest of all the people of the east.

His sons used to go and hold feasts in one another’s houses in turn; and they would send and invite their three sisters to eat and drink with them. And when the feast days had run their course, Job would send and sanctify them, and he would rise early in the morning and offer burnt offerings according to the number of them all; for Job said, “It may be that my children have sinned, and cursed God in their hearts.” This is what Job always did.

One day the heavenly beings came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan also came among them. The Lord said to Satan, “Where have you come from?” Satan answered the Lord, “From going to and fro on the earth, and from walking up and down on it.”

The Lord said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man who fears God and turns away from evil.”

Then Satan answered the Lord, “Does Job fear God for nothing? Have you not put a fence around him and his house and all that he has, on every side? You have blessed the work of his hands, and his possessions have increased in the land. But stretch out your hand now, and touch all that he has, and he will curse you to your face.”

The Lord said to Satan, “Very well, all that he has is in your power; only do not stretch out your hand against him!” So Satan went out from the presence of the Lord.

One day when his sons and daughters were eating and drinking wine in the eldest brother’s house, a messenger came to Job and said, ‘ The oxen were plowing and the donkeys were feeding beside them, and the Sabeans fell on them and carried them off, and killed the servants with the edge of the sword; I alone have escaped to tell you.”

While he was still speaking, another came and said, “The fire of God fell from heaven and burned up the sheep and the servants, and consumed them; I alone have escaped to tell you.”

While he was still speaking, another came and said, “The Chaldeans formed three columns, made a raid on the camels and carried them off, and killed the servants with the edge of the sword; I alone have escaped to tell you.”

While he was still speaking, another came and said, “Your sons and daughters were eating and drinking wine in their eldest brother’s house, and suddenly a great wind came across the desert, struck the four corners of the house, and it fell on the young people, and they are dead; I alone have escaped to tell you.”

Then Job arose, tore his robe, shaved his head, and fell on the ground and worshiped. He said, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return there; the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” 22 In all this Job did not sin or charge God with wrongdoing.

Chapter 2

One day the heavenly beings came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan also came among them to present himself before the Lord. The Lord said to Satan, “Where have you come from?” Satan answered the Lord, “From going to and fro on the earth, and from walking up and down on it.” The Lord said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man who fears God and turns away from evil. He still persists in his integrity, although you incited me against him, to destroy him for no reason.” Then Satan answered the Lord, “Skin for skin! All that people have they will give to save their lives. But stretch out your hand now and touch his bone and his flesh, and he will curse you to your face.”

The Lord said to Satan, “Very well, he is in your power; only spare his life.”

So Satan went out from the presence of the Lord, and inflicted loathsome sores on Job from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head. Job took a potsherd with which to scrape himself, and sat among the ashes.

Then his wife said to him, “Do you still persist in your integrity? Curse God, and die.”
But he said to her, “You speak as any foolish woman would speak.
Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?”

In all this Job did not sin with his lips.

Now when Job’s three friends heard of all these troubles that had come upon him, each of them set out from his home— Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite, and Zophar the Naamathite. They met together to go and console and comfort him. When they saw him from a distance, they did not recognize him, and they raised their voices and wept aloud; they tore their robes and threw dust in the air upon their heads. They sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great.



Here we have Job, an upright and blameless man.
Of course he is. When everything is going his way.
Let’s see how he holds up to some misery.
Let’s see how his faith withstands death and destruction and illness.
Let’s see whether he will turn away from God.
Let’s see how this upright man reacts to violence against his children.

This conversation between God and Satan – the Hebrew word is “Ha-Shatan – the adversary” -- it sounds like the beginning of a cruel joke, or a sardonic drama.
Thankfully, this is a parable, not meant to be taken literally.
Sadly, what happens to Job is reflective of literal suffering.

Set aside the seeming indifference of God to Job’s plight – we’ll deal with it later.
Descend into the depths of Job’s suffering.
It shouldn’t be hard, not after the week we’ve had.
You’ve no doubt been hearing about the gun violence.
As if that is not enough, here’s a sampling of CNN headlines from yesterday[1]:
· Iraqis retake air base from ISIS, PM says
· U.S., Russia expel each other's diplomats
· South Sudan Independence Day violence: Nearly 150 dead
· More than 200 bodies from migrant shipwreck, Italy says
· Germany: Iran may have tried to violate nuclear deal
· Shots fired at US embassy vehicles
· Bangladeshi police: Attackers fire on prayer group
· N. Korea fires missile from sub
· Typhoon Nepartak forces thousands to evacuate

Karl Barth famously said we should preach with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other – advice I’ve found it hard to follow but even harder to ignore this week. I had different plans for this morning. I didn’t want to talk about gun violence, police shooting people, or people shooting police. I don’t want to talk about the suffering we’ve seen these past few days. I’m out of words today.

Job didn’t want to talk about it either. But he held fast to his faith. From somewhere inside himself, he drew upon a deep well of faith and trust in God.

He refused to curse God and die.
He refused to complain.
He refused to blame anyone.
But oh, how he was hurting.

When your children have been killed, what do you say?
When your sons and daughters have been murdered, what do you say?
When your friend is devastated, what do you say?
When your family, your town, your city, your country,
is crushed by the brutality of death,
what do you say? how do you pray?

When your son or brother or neighbor or friend is shot by the police,
what do you say? how do you pray?

When your son or brother or neighbor or friend is a murdered police officer,
what do you say? how do you pray?

Diamond Reynolds’ little daughter said to her mother,
as they sat in that car where Philando Castile was dying,
“It’s okay. I’m right here with you.”

In moments of despair, we have this same assurance from God:
It’s okay. I’m right here with you.

So let’s sit with this, but let’s not curse God.
Let’s hold fast to faith.
Let’s hold fast to God.
Let’s hold fast to the promises.

God did not cause this suffering.
This is not God’s will for us or for anyone.
God did NOT will this suffering!
God is weeping with us.

I don’t think there is anything more to say right now.
Tomorrow, we can begin to transform mourning to movement.
Tomorrow, we can change our anger to activity.
Today, let’s sit with this, with this sorrow, setting aside our explanations or rationalizations or justifications. Let’s sit with this, with this horror, and if we look at anyone with judgment, let it be while we are looking in the mirror. Let’s sit with our country, with ourselves, and with those we perceive to be our enemies, let’s sit in silence and listen, like Job’s friends.

“They met together to go and console and comfort him.
When they saw him from a distance, they did not recognize him,
and they raised their voices and wept aloud;
they tore their robes and threw dust in the air upon their heads.
They sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights,
and no one spoke a word to him,
for they saw that his suffering was very great.”

So we sit with this sorrow. And we hold fast.
Hold fast to God. Hold fast to faith.
Hold fast to one another.
Don’t give up. Hold fast.

Prayer (by David Gambrell, used with permission)
God of righteousness, justice, and peace:
we lament the tragic deaths of this week—
Alton Sterling, Philando Castile,
Lorne Ahrens, Michael Krol, Michael Smith,
Brent Thompson, Patrick Zamarripa,
and others whose names are known to you.
We confess sin and renounce evil—
systems of racial injustice, patterns of power and privilege,
and cycles of violence that lead to more death and despair.
We give thanks for courage and service—
for law enforcement officers who risk their lives for others,
and for activists and protesters who struggle for a better world.
We pray for those who are suffering—
for the families and loved ones of those who have died this week,
and for all who live in fear of continuing violence.
By the power of your Holy Spirit
turn prayers into practice, anger into meaningful action,
silence into solidarity, frustration and fear into love.
In these troubling times, O God, uphold us by your righteousness,
transform us through your justice, and surround us with your peace;
through Jesus Christ our Savior.
Amen.
Amen.






[1] http://www.cnn.com/world accessed July 9, 2016

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

What to Carry





Galatians 6:(1-6), 7-16, Luke 10:1-11, 16
July 3, 2016
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling IL
Christina Berry

This reading marks the final week in our study of Paul’s letter to the Galatians. In his closing words, Paul tries to deal with practical issues with advice on how to challenge and forgive members of the flock, and with some general comments on good works. We should be advised not to take the sowing and reaping metaphor too literally. Doing so could give people the idea that sickness is God's punishment, an idea challenged in Job and contradicted by Jesus. As we begin a study of Job next week, we’ll get some perspective on that. Meanwhile, in Galatians, Paul puts the emphasis on working for the good of all, coming back, as Paul always does, to the centrality of the cross of Christ.

Let's listen as for God’s gracious word to us in Galatians 6: (1-6) 7 – 16

1 My friends, if anyone is detected in a transgression, you who have received the Spirit should restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness. Take care that you yourselves are not tempted. 2 Bear one another's burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. 3 For if those who are nothing think they are something, they deceive themselves. 4 All must test their own work; then that work, rather than their neighbor's work, will become a cause for pride.
5 For all must carry their own loads. 6 Those who are taught the word must share in all good things with their teacher. 7 Do not be deceived; God is not mocked, for you reap whatever you sow. 8 If you sow to your own flesh, you will reap corruption from the flesh; but if you sow to the Spirit, you will reap eternal life from the Spirit. 9 So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest-time, if we do not give up. 10 So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith. 11 See what large letters I make when I am writing in my own hand! 12 It is those who want to make a good showing in the flesh that try to compel you to be circumcised--only that they may not be persecuted for the cross of Christ. 13 Even the circumcised do not themselves obey the law, but they want you to be circumcised so that they may boast about your flesh. 14 May I never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. 15 For neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything; but a new creation is everything! 16 As for those who will follow this rule--peace be upon them, and mercy, and upon the Israel of God.


In the Gospel reading, we can focus on those who are sent on a mission relying on God's care, without carrying anything with them – neither hiking pack, itinerary nor equipment. They are Jesus’ agents, totally and utterly representing him. They go, and the mission is successful enough for Jesus and his friends to rejoice. Let's listen closely for the Good News for us in Luke's account in Luke 10:1-11, 16
10:1 After this the Lord appointed seventy others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go. 2 He said to them, "The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest. 3 Go on your way. See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves. 4 Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road.
5 Whatever house you enter, first say, 'Peace to this house!' 6 And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you.
7 Remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide, for the laborer deserves to be paid. Do not move about from house to house. 8 Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; 9 cure the sick who are there, and say to them, 'The kingdom of God has come near to you.
10 But whenever you enter a town and they do not welcome you, go out into its streets and say, 11 'Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet, we wipe off in protest against you. Yet know this: the kingdom of God has come near.' 16 "Whoever listens to you listens to me, and whoever rejects you rejects me, and whoever rejects me rejects the one who sent me."

In 1990, the winner of the National Book award was Tim O’ Brien’s book about the Vietnam War:
The Things They Carried.

O’Brien uses lists of the items soldiers carried
to tell us something about their lives and their characters.
It is a profoundly moving and important book.
It shows us not only the conditions of the war in Vietnam,
but also it shows us so vividly how the things we carry can affect us.

One soldier carries pictures of a girl he loves;
another a war hatchet, and another carries cans of peaches.
One carries extra socks and foot powder, while another carries a Bible.
O Brien says, “They carried USO stationery and pencils and pens.
They carried Sterno, safety pins, trip flares, signal flares, spools of wire,
razor blades, chewing tobacco, …. fingernail clippers, Psy Ops leaflets,
bush hats, bolos, and much more…..
Henry Dobbins carried Black Flag insecticide.
Dave Jensen carried empty sandbags
that could be filled at night for added protection.
Lee Strunk carried tanning lotion.
Some things they carried in common.
Taking turns, they carried the big PRC-77 scrambler radio,
which weighed 30 pounds with its battery.
They shared the weight of memory.
They took up what others could no longer bear.”

They took up what others could no longer bear.

What burdens do you bear?
What are the things you carry?
We all carry things – some people carry a torch for a long lost love;
others carry a grudge for a long ago injury.
Everyone carries some secrets,
some carry a load of shame.
Some carry a virus,
and some people carry water for other people.

Some carry a tune while others carry a cross.
What they carry changes how they live and walk in the world.
The things we carry change who we are.

You have seen it, I’m sure –
the one who looks as if they carry the weight of the world on their shoulders,
the one who carries an inner light that illuminates the room they enter.

In Jesus time, people who were traveling carried a bag, a staff, a cloak.
They’d have carried some bread, olive oil, water, perhaps a wineskin.
Along the Roman roads or the meadow paths that led to villages
they’d have walked from place to place,
taking lodging where they could
- sleeping in a home if it were offered, or camping outside if not.
Into this cold and unwelcoming world,
Jesus sent them out empty-handed:
“Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road.”

You’ll not need any of these things – they will only weigh you down.
Here is what to carry, Jesus said,
“Carry the message of peace. Take a companion. Take the gospel.
Take your hunger and thirst, take your fatigue, into their houses.
Take healing.
Take the good news of the kingdom of God.
Carry with you this message of grace, carry it in your hearts and hands.”

But Jesus, we can’t go empty handed, not now.
We live in the twenty-first century.
We need stuff.

We need our phones and our money and our credit cards,
we need our attitudes and our suspicions to keep us safe from exploitation.
We need our prejudices and our knowledge and wisdom.
Don’t we?

Most of us are carrying around all kinds of things –
actual items, in pockets or purses or tote bags –
pocket knives or toys or combs or money.

All of us are carrying old hurts and memories,
hopes and dreams and desires.

We come together in community, in this community, not just two by two,
and all the things we carry come along with us.
We carry them like talismans, like pictures or religious medals,
to ward off evil and misfortune.
We carry them like medals or awards –
our goodness or our martyrdom, or our righteousness.
We carry them like weapons to be used against others,
like shields to defend ourselves from each other.

Everything we carry, or don’t carry, literally or figuratively,
says something about us.

The Apostle Paul knew this – he knew the Galatians were carrying plenty.
Maybe they were fearful, and that fear made them feel vulnerable.
Certainly they had been confused by these recent teachings
about what they needed to add to their faith in Jesus Christ.
But as Paul closes his letter,
he suggests that they need add nothing to their faith.
Instead, Paul says, “Gently restore those who falter.”
Don’t carry around a chip on your should or any temptations.
Bear one another's burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.
Leave your ego behind, do not carry your pride.

Then Paul seems to contradict himself.
“All must carry their own loads.” he says.
It’s wearisome business, some days.
Some days we want to just give up.
To be sure, there are times when we cannot carry our own loads,
and there are days when we are strong,
when we can bear not only our own,
but the burdens of others.
There are days when we can only whimper for help,
and days when we can lift the heaviest load.
It isn’t easy, this community of faith stuff –
we don’t want to carry someone else’s baggage,
and we don’t want to put down our hurts and grudges
in order to pick up someone else’s pain or grief.

Some days we’d rather labor under the weight of our own sorrow,
rather than let go of it.

It’s so tiring. But we can’t give up.
Like the young soldiers in O’Brien’s book, we have things to carry.

“Often, they carried each other, the wounded or weak. …
They carried chess sets, basketballs, Vietnamese-English dictionaries,
insignia of rank, Bronze Stars and Purple Hearts, …
They carried the land itself—Vietnam, the place, the soil—…
They carried the sky.”[1]

Friends, we don’t have to carry the world singlehandedly,
but as the community of faith transformed in Jesus Christ,
we need only carry the gospel.

There will always be troubles, always things to carry.
But Jesus says, “You don’t need to be weighed down with this.
Are you weary and heavy-laden?
Come to me.
My yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

Lay your burdens down at the feet of Jesus.
Leave behind the malice and shame, the anger and pain.
Lift up instead this basket of peace, patience, kindness and generosity,
faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.

In this new and transformed community created by the Risen Lord,
we are given strength beyond our need,
to support those who are weak, to carry those who falter.
Reach out your hand and guide others, carry them if you can,
carry one another with the light of love,
carry everything to the table of grace.
We carry the light.
We carry the sky.

We carry the message that Jesus is everything.
Everything.

Thanks be to God! Amen!






[1] O’Brien, Tim The Things They Carried, p. 19