What’s Your Burden?

Back in the day, when I was a youth pastor, I led a week-long trip to Chicago working with Habitat For Humanity. So, we headed off in a van full of 8 youth and 5 adults to a neighborhood on the west side of Chicago that was virtually all African American. My church group – 100% Caucasian – stuck out just a little bit. Our job: refurbish an uninhabitable old home.

The first day we worked, all eyes were on us. Unemployment was very high in this neighborhood, so there were many adults sitting on their front porches and doorsteps during the day just watching us. We didn’t know what they were thinking. Were we welcome?

First thing on the second day, 7-year-old Jimmy showed up, ready to get to work with us, hammer in hand and head engulfed by one of our required construction hard hats. Jimmy lived across the street from where we worked and was now the neighborhood ambassador. He helped us some, got in the way some, ate lunch with us, and played with us. He was having the time of his life. I don’t know what sorts of things he had been taught about white people. I only hope they weren’t as bad as the things many in the white community teach their children about African Americans. Regardless, Jimmy was thoroughly enjoying his new friends, and in the process, a wall was coming down between us.

A few days later, more children put on hard hats and helped us, played with us, ate lunch with us and got in our way. And soon, the adults were inviting us into their homes to share stories.

Why do I tell this story? Because when we live tribally, when white people of privilege are isolated from those in the rest of the human family, we carry a burden. The burden of disconnection, suspicion, and sometimes self-righteous delusion. The hospitality we experienced in that neighborhood gave us a glimpse of the kingdom of God envisioned and embodied in Jesus of Nazareth, who broke down the walls that separated people in his world. In Christ, there is no slave or free, no Jew or Greek, no black or white.

So, our foray into that neighborhood to do work was not only about lightening the burden of those Chicago folks by sharing in the responsibility for their neighborhood – albeit, in just the tiniest of ways. You see, God was at work lightening our burden as well

  • the burden of living behind the wall that separates us and diminishes our humanity. Through the hospitality of the children, God broke down that wall, if only for a few Tribalism and fear are among the many burdens that we as humans carry, and God has something to say about that:

‘Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.’

Oh, on this patriotic day, these words sound an awful lot like the iconic words on the statue of liberty, do they not. I think there is a connection.

Not only are these words of Jesus a call to an inclusive community of shared humanity all gathered around Christ, it is an invitation to recognize the burden we call carry when we are exclusive.

Yoke is a word from Jesus’ time that referred to a wooden collar used by people to carry water and other things. Jesus is using the term symbolically here. When Jesus uttered these words, he was chastising the proud who would not see their own burdens and – most immediately – he was reaching out to the not so proud, who knew a savior when they saw one. And so, burdens got lifted: the blind received sight, the lame walked again, the sick were cured, the guilty were forgiven, the unloved were loved, and the poor received good news.

We, too, are among those who seek healing, love, forgiveness and a new chance, are we not?

And then there are the burdens that mask themselves as strength and privilege: spiritual blindness, the idolatry of comfortable-ness and the sad isolation it creates, the delusion of self-righteousness, the myth and weight of the self-made man or woman, the burden of living a life seeking out only people who look and act like you. These burdens are just as heavy or heavier than the first list. And the tragedy is that the ones carrying them often don’t know they are.

All of the aforementioned burdens are the weight of our brokenness as human beings. We trust in the wrong things, we fail to love our neighbor. Sometimes we can name our burdens, sometimes we’re in denial about them.

Our yoke is heavy, yet the God we worship has chosen to exchange yokes with us. God’s yoke is the promise of life, of God’s life, shared with you – a life filled with purpose and free of guilt, shame, loneliness, and despair. It is light, it is Shalom: life that is whole and complete.

In return, Christ not only relieves us of our heavy yoke, Christ carries it for us. Christ bears the weight of your broken lives. Sometimes it is the communal weight of tribalism, but often it is one’s life story, what one has done and what one has failed to do. On our trip to Chicago, one day we served at a soup kitchen on the north side. There I met Steven Ojeda, one of many homeless people in this area.

I saw Steven sitting by himself, a man in his early 30’s, perhaps. I walked up and sat down, introduced myself. He expressed gratitude for those who ran the soup kitchen and for my group that was helping that day. I could see that he wasn’t taking anyone’s help for granted. He seemed to be struggling with the fact that he was eating at a soup kitchen.

I knew then that I wasn’t going to get a sob story. He was too proud for that. He told me about himself, how he had studied to be a chef, tried to live an upscale life in a nicer part of town, but then fell behind on his payments, lost his job, and – in his own words, rejected materialism. He was doing his best to put a positive spin on all this.

We talked about God, and being ashamed of his present situation, he assured me that he prayed every night, and that – as if I would be surprised – he tried to love his neighbor. “And I try to help the homeless whenever I can,” he said. I assured him I wasn’t there to judge him.

I asked him if he had a place to stay. Now there was a lump in his throat. A park bench, a mattress in the alley, that was his home. But things were going to get better, he knew it! Then he told me about his 13-year-old daughter who was going to a Catholic school. He was proud of her because she was a good student of the Bible. But then came the hard truth: his daughter lived in Indiana with her mother. His breakup with his wife had been within the past year. His voice cracked again. I didn’t even ask. But again, his optimism came through. “I’ll be a chef someday again. I’ll make a comeback.”

At the point, I promised him that God in Jesus Christ is more present with now than ever and that he will always have help. I introduced Steven to my group and said goodbye.

“God bless you,” he said. “And God bless you.”

I think the soup kitchen and conversation is the work of Christ, lightening the burdens just a bit of the many people who attend any soup kitchen. And I think there are surprising stories to be heard, stories where we recognize, “That could be me or you. We’re all in this together.” Just as Steven once was on the other side of the tracks, so too, are there many who once worked in food shelves and now come to them for food. This was a common occurrence in Golden Valley at PRISM, the food shelf my former church worked with on the west side.

Steven clearly had heartaches and maybe a few regrets. How many of you have heartaches that weigh you down? How many have regrets – regrets that you carry around like a weight? Maybe Steven is not so different from you, and there are days you feel defeated and desperately need someone to carry your load for you so that you can run again. Jesus says, “Let me carry it. Here, take my yoke, instead.”

  • If you are guilty, I declare to you the forgiveness of your
  • If your shame is crushing you, I tell you that you are worth more to God than you can
  • If you are disconnected from people, I have knocked down walls to link you to community and to your human
  • If you are despairing, I offer you the hope of a meaningful future, partnering with me as we do God’s work to bring about a more trustworthy and hopeful world.

Good people of Mt Carmel, I’ve heard a number of you at different times speak of using our natural gifts of hospitality, a big kitchen and fellowship hall to broaden our experience of the human family in Northeast Minneapolis. Is now a time to begin experimenting with expanding our meal fellowship? Amen.

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Pastor John is Mt. Carmel’s Senior Pastor.

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