The Burden Is Not on Us
This sermon was preached on September 24, 2017.
Scrabble was cutthroat in my house growing up. On my eighteenth birthday, my mother gave me a t-shirt that said: SCRABBLE: It’s your word against mine.
There was one notable exception to this Isaacs family blood sport—my grandmother, the language arts teacher
There were three rules when you played with her:
- You could use the unabridged dictionary—take as much time as you like.
- You had to keep score—not her. It is good to work on arithmetic.
- And, third, the winner had clean up the game.
There was no way that my eight-year old self could go undefeated against this woman who loved language. The burden was never on me to win the game. I knew the moment that game was brought out from the closet that I was going to win.
Then something strange happened well into my late teenage years—I was probably wearing that t-shirt. It was the last handful of games that we played together. She was getting a little bit older. Her faculties were beginning to slip. Maybe, she wanted to assert herself. All of the sudden, she was playing risqué words to ensure that X—which is worth eight points—landed on a triple-letter square.
She was playing to win! What happened? And since one of the rules was that I had to keep score, I found myself giving back to her all of the points she had generously given to me over the years. It was the only way to keep the game competitive. And, then, I also realized the burden was not on me to win the game; I had been freed from that burden long ago.
When I think of grace, I can’t help but to think of all those Scrabble victories that I notched. I deserved none of them. The burden was never on me to win. It was always a gift—and probably, for her, an excuse not to clean up after the game.
And I am convinced there not a lot of places in life that reinforce the idea that the burden is not on us. Actually, we live in a world where the burden is always placed on us. You can do better. You don’t measure up. It’s your fault. What’s the matter with me? What didn’t do I do? Where do I go wrong? Burden. Burden. Burden.
And there aren’t a lot of places where we don’t expect to shoulder that burden ourselves. Shoe companies tell us: Just do it. Military recruiters say “an army of one.” People cut one another down in the workplace to compete for promotions. It is up to you.
And this fool-hearted individualism enters our religious lives. You don’t live up to the law. You have to got make yourself righteous. No one is going to do this for you. God is punishing me. God help those who help themselves. All of that is non-sense.
All of that is the burden being placed on you.
However, God takes the burden. The burden is not on us.
When God takes the burden, we experience grace.
When God take the burden. We experience endurance, hope, and peace.
In our scripture reading, Paul says that we are justified by faith, and we have obtained this access to grace through Jesus Christ. When God makes us righteous—or justifies us—God takes the burden.
Grace happens when God takes the burden, and then Jesus invites us to let go. Grace is when we stop trying to prove ourselves worthy and simply allow God to take the burden.
Here is how theologian Paul Tillich described this moment: “You are accepted. You are accepted, accepted by that which is greater than you, and the name of which you do not know. Do not ask for the name now; perhaps you will find it later. Do not try to do anything now; perhaps later you will do much. Do not seek for anything; do not perform anything; do not intend anything. Simply accept the fact that you are accepted!”
Grace isn’t up to us. If we believe—like some of Paul’s audience in Rome—that living by the law make you righteous, then you’ll realize that you’ll never live up to that standard. Paul says this approach beings death, but Jesus Christ brings life.
The temptation is try to prove yourself. That is something we are taught to do quite well, but in God’s economy of grace it utterly unnecessary. We do it from the time we are small. We try to prove ourselves to older siblings. We try to prove ourselves to our parents. And then our teachers and our employer. We try to prove that we some merit. But we never have to prove our self to God.
God asks that we trust the burden is no longer ours. God asks that we have faith that God will bear the burden. God will handle sin, death, and separation, enmity, strife, and peril so that we are freed to serve God. None of that is left to us. You are free.
And you are free to serve God.
Consider what Martin Luther once said,
“This life… is not righteousness
but growth in righteousness,
not health, but healing, not being, but becoming…
We are not yet what we shall be,
but we are growing toward it,
the process is not yet finished,
but is going on,
this is not the end,
but it is the road.
All does not yet gleam in glory but all is being purified.”
In all of this, it is God who is at work in us.
One of the fascinating about this passage from Romans 5 is that it is hard to find an explanation of how God justifies. Paul does not rely on theoretical discourse. Rather, we see is a list of verbs. Christ saves; Christ reconciles; Christ justifies.
We are not the subject of any of those verbs. God is the subject of each of those verbs. It is God who acts. We are acted upon because the burden is not on us. God takes the burden. God acts. God saves. God reconciles. God justifies.
It is only Jesus who is in the position to condemn. And, while we were still sinners, Jesus died for us. The burden, again, is not on us. God takes the burden.
We hear this phrase “while we were still sinners.” In the letter to the Romans, sin is not about doing good or bad things. For Paul, sin is a cosmic power that has a grasp on humanity. This can lead to bad things being done, but the overall picture of sin is larger than that. This grasp on humanity is always trying to hand us the burden. The burden is always trying to be passed to us. Death tries to pass us the burden. Hardship and distress tries to place the burden on us. Persecution—burden. Famine—burden. Nakedness, peril, and sword—all according to Paul—try to pass the burden. And some Paul doesn’t mention: Anxiety—burden. Shame—burden. Addiction—burden. Test results—burden.
God takes it all for us. The burden is not on us. That is why the cross is such a powerful image—it is nakedness and sword and peril and persecution all wrapped up into one. Since God takes the burden for us, none of it can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.
Jesus takes the burden and leaves us with grace. Jesus flips the script.
* * *
There is a band that comes out Cincinnati named Over the Rhine—they named themselves after the neighborhood. Karin—the lead singer—tells a story of visiting her mom in a nursing home. Her mother had spent her whole adult life providing care for people as a nurse, and she had a debilitating stroke happened right after she retired. It seemed pretty unfair. It was strange visiting her mom in this type of place.
The nursing home is a place where she describes as the tragic meeting the comic
There is man in a corner named Bob. Bob loved to chant night and day. His favorite chant was “how now brown cow.” He had this deep, bellowing voice. You couldn’t stop him, so you had to join him. Before you knew it, the whole place would be chanting “how now brown cow.”
Miss Cleve, she says, must have spent her whole life in a choir. She sat in her chair all day, and she just hummed and hummed while the craziness of the world continued to spin around her. And then she would just sing out, “Alleluia.”
Karin confesses that they had to heighten security of the medicine cart for her mother.
There was also Ms. Genieve. You couldn’t get in or out of this place without saying hi to Ms. Genieve. But the problem is that you never knew what Ms. Genieve was going to say in response. It could be coherent, almost insightful, or it could be way out in left-field.
One day she walked in and said, “Hi.” Genieve looked up through her thick glasses, and simply said, “Only God can save us now.”
Ms. Genieve spoke with absolute clarity about our need for God from a place vulnerability and dependence. She may have been speaking about Bob and Miss Cleve, or she may have been speaking about each one of us. Any false pretense that Bob and Miss Cleve can save themselves is gone. What we are often slow to realize is that we are in the same place; we are no closer to saving ourselves.
But the burden is not on us. It is God who justifies. Who is in a position to condemn? Only Christ, and Christ died for us. We cannot bear our own burdens; God sent Jesus Christ to intercede on our behalf. God takes the burden.
You don’t have to carry those burdens yourself. Stop trying.
You are free. God frees you from your burdens.
God gives endurance and hope and peace. We call that grace.
Don’t prove yourself to God. You have nothing to prove.
Accept that you are accepted.
You are free when God bears the burden.
And, then, you might just pick up a burden for someone else.
You might sacrifice something out of love because you are free to serve and to love.
And you might—heaven forbid—throw a Scrabble game.
Because you are free.
You are free.
You are free.