Pastor B. Thrall
In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
It’s good to be back with you this morning after about 9 days away. My husband and I traveled to Williamsburg, VA to take in the history and the outdoors down there. Our hope in going was that we might find a bit of Spring, and indeed, the daffodils were out and the peepers were going crazy. We also wanted to bring a bit of Spring back to Massachusetts with us, and look at that. It’s March 21, Spring, warm and sunny. I won’t take personal credit for this, of course, but I’m not sorry about being a carrier.
Many thanks to Deacon Pat for her coverage last Sunday and for her sermon. Through the miracle of these times I was able to read it and know that she did a fine job of bringing the cross to life, as it were, to taking it up and really encountering it. The cross, as she and St. Paul said, is foolishness to those who don’t know or understand it, but to us who have encountered it often, it is the tree of life. So much to give thanks for.
And so here today we find ourselves on the 5th Sunday of Lent, a long way from Ash Wednesday last February 17, and far into this journey with Jesus. On this Sunday, the last one before Palm Sunday, we sense a shift, a change that is coming that will move into high gear a week from now. Jesus, along with the disciples, who had gone up to Jerusalem with him, they also saw a change coming, a transition in both mood and action.
They had walked together from Galilee in the North, to Jerusalem for the feast of the Passover, and they were in a city that was much like Mecca would later become at the time of the Haj. Pilgrims as well as local residents crowded the streets while everyone had their religious observances in mind. Where would they hold the Seder dinner? Who would say the prayers? Where would they buy the foods for the meal? Was there any place to sleep? (If this sounds in any way familiar, something like the first time Jesus appeared, that’s no coincidence.) In all their travels Jesus had been drawing quite a band of followers, mostly Jews who understood his references to the Law and the Prophets, and the times and events that were predicted in their scriptures. But here, in John’s gospel, Jesus and his followers encounter something new, and this encounter is loaded with meaning.
Some Greeks, men and maybe some women, who were in Jerusalem for the festivals, non-Jews who were attracted to the practices and life of the Jewish people, these Greeks approached Philip with a request. Knowing he was close to Jesus, who by now had celebrity status, they asserted, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” In other words, How about it? We heard this star is in town and can you get us in to meet him, or at least arrange for an autograph? Their request was a breakthrough, a shattering of boundaries, when non-Jews came seeking Jesus, the healer and teacher, and Jesus knew it.
“This is it”, he says, “the hour has now come”. The signs are all here, the shift has occurred and the pieces are falling into place. Jesus and his disciples, already in the city, now are firmly on the path that will move Jesus toward the conclusion of the plan God has for him and his life. That conclusion, Jesus says in our lesson from John, involves the cross.
In John’s gospel Jesus knows what he is to do and resolutely moves toward it, but Jesus nevertheless must have had some fears and trepidation. When one speaks of a grain of wheat falling to the earth and dying, so that it may come forth and bear much fruit, when you are the grain of wheat that has to die and be reborn, there has to be a hesitation, a recognition of the cost that must be paid. And Jesus admits that. He says, “Now my soul is troubled. Should I try and get out of this?” No, that’s not part of the plan and so Jesus goes forth with that awareness and a burden that his humanity would gladly have left far behind.
The author Martin Smith, in his book of readings for Lent called, “A Season for the Spirit”, talks about bearing burdens, about having to carry a whole lot of things in life that we would just as soon have dropped already, but find somehow are still sticking to us. Burdens like worries, fears, old misunderstandings or current grudges, bad actions on the part of others, bad actions that we have a part in, the limitations of age or health. I’ll confess that my 97 year-old aunt for whom I cared during the last decade of her life, could be pretty difficult, and sometimes now I find myself thinking about the abuse she poured forth on others, myself included. But would it not be better for me to lay that burden down, to remind myself that the burden she bore was much greater than any I felt, and to let it all go?
This Lent perhaps we have spent some time in letting go, in setting aside, in giving up something that tempts us and hems us in. But what about the burdens we are carrying? If we, like Jesus are burdened by what life has given us, by what seems inevitable, then there is no better time than right now to take a hard look at that. Like Jesus, we also face futures that are uncertain, and are also very certain. We don’t know how we will get there, but we do know where this road we call life is leading. And if there is a cross to be borne along the way, do we also know that God is with us in bearing that cross? Do we know the crosses we have to bear are not borne alone, that this is something God knows about first-hand? Is there something redemptive about that suffering? I think we know there is.
When we feel sympathy for or empathy with those who suffer, let’s say people with cancer who are struggling, or several communities that are dealing with grief, anger, loss and confusion following another mass shooting, or shame and anguish at being in jail for another holiday, when we are connected in spirit to these people we become burden-bearers in Christ for one another, carrying not just our own load, but helping bear theirs as well. After all, here we have a friend in Jesus who says, in what we knew as the Comfortable Words, “Come unto to me, all ye that travail and are heavy laden, and I will refresh you.”
Martin Smith would say that the secret of being a burden-bearer in Christ lies in the concept of exchange. If we are bidden to bear the burdens of others, we will not be able to do that if we hang onto our own burdens too tightly. As Mother Teresa once said, “Even God cannot fill something that is already full.” We have to lay down our own stuff so that we have room enough to take on a share of our neighbor’s stuff. That is really, really hard work, letting go of our own burdens, which in their way are at least recognizable or almost manageable, or maybe even comfortable, and yet this is what will liberate us. This making room and sharing the world’s load is precisely what Jesus was so good at doing, at setting aside his own fears, preoccupations and insecurities so that he would have room for the sins of the world, the ones he took up with him on the cross and that died with him there.
The days are coming, Jeremiah says, when things are really going to change and we will find the laws of God’s love written not on tablets of stone, but on our hearts. If they don’t already, our living, beating, tender hearts will know the power of this very human/very divine Christ who leads us. The days are coming –
the conclusion of Lent and the season of Easter, Springtime and the bursting forth of the earth and all that grows upon it, some lessening of COVID restrictions and more opportunities to move about more freely, the prospect of a new pastor or priest for this wonderful church. Those days are coming. Through faith and trust in the Holy Spirit may our God-hearts be open and unburdened to accept Christ’s strength and example, and may we share with him in the walk he is about to make. In Jesus’ name we ask this. Amen.