9/4/16: The Joyful Burden, Luke 14:25-33
The Joyful Burden
First Lesson: Philemon 1-21
Second Lesson: Luke 14:25-33
Every three years the lectionary places this difficult and onerous and perhaps even offensive call to commitment before us. Jesus stopping there in the road on the way up to Jerusalem and saying to the crowds who had gathered round him, Listen: Before we go any further, you need to know what’s at stake here. I need to know you’ve considered the costs. Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.
And to be clear, Jesus doesn’t mean “hate” in an emotional sense; that would undo everything else he said and did. This is a Hebrew idiom, a figure of speech which means to “turn away from,” or detach oneself from, to leave behind. (1) Jesus says to them in affect: Discipleship cannot be done halfway. Your identity as a disciple must come before anything else—it must be closer to you even than your own blood, your own family. If you’re to follow me, to truly follow me, you must be willing to leave all that behind.
And these words would be challenging on any Sunday in any year—not to mention the first lesson we heard from the Letter to Philemon; with all its history of interpretation regarding slavery. Was Paul ordering a slave’s release? Was he simply sending him home to his master? How are we to understand these things? But it struck me this week that these passages may be especially timely for us for us this Sunday after a week when our church has been in the news for our part in a story that, to this point at least, has unfortunately been a metaphor for all the ways that Christians through the generations have failed to leave our other groups and divisions and identities behind.
I hope by now that many of you have read some form of the article that was published this past Monday by the Associated Press that tells the story of the relationship with our friends and neighbors around the corner at the First Baptist Church on New St. A shorter version of it ran locally in the Telegraph, but there’s a longer version out there in the internet if you’re interested. Since it came from the AP it was picked up by news outlets all over the country, which means that the grandmother of one of the pastors involved was sitting in her living room in Denver, CO, reading her morning paper and nearly spit her coffee all over a picture of her grandson there on the page in front of her.
But of course, this article was not a surprise to us, thank goodness. Many of you will remember back in July when Rachel Zoll, the author of the piece, and Brandon Camp, the photographer, were with us on Sunday morning. But I hope you were moved by it all the same, like I was, even those of us who know something of our history, in having it told back to you this week in such a compassionate, honest and public way.
Many of us do know something of this story, but very quickly: our church formed in 1826, a mixed congregation of whites and blacks, some slave owners, some slaves, worshipping together, as was custom back then, for some 19 years, until 1845 when the black members of the congregation (many slaves but also freed persons) came to worship separately, though with the white pastor serving as “overseer,” (it was illegal in those days for blacks to congregate without white supervision). This arrangement lasted for another 20 years until after the end of the Civil War in 1865, when our churches split entirely, the white church finalizing it in some way by declaring that no people of color would be permitted in worship or fellowship. Another 20 years later, our church moved to our current location up the hill, right around the corner from the black congregation, and for the next 100 years or so, separated by no more than this city block, our churches had very little to do with each other. No animosity to speak of, just no relationship—the church modeling the same kind of divisions that permeated the rest of society. Each congregation traveling along on parallel tracks, until these last several months when we’ve covenanted with each other to be in closer relationship.
And there’s of course much more to it than this, much more nuance; and our story is part of a much wider story of the church and race in America over that time, in some ways a symbol of this wider story—all of which we’ll explore more together in the coming months. But however we choose to tell it, the story of our two churches is at least in part a story of how the church through the generations—in so many ways and across so many lines, has failed to follow Jesus in the way he first asked the crowds to follow on the rod to Jerusalem, which was all the way. No nets. Nothing between us and Jesus, us and each other. That whatever other ways we would come to define ourselves in life, whatever other allegiances we would have, be it political or social, national or regional or racial—however else we would come to understand who we are, that our identity as disciples of Jesus would come first.
Our churches’ shared story is a testimony to the wider church’s failure to do that. Beautiful as our story is, there is a certain pathos to it. We, like Paul, have a thorn in our flesh.
And this is our story. For better or for worse, we’ve inherited the story of this church. We’ve inherited it in the same way we’ve inherited this beautiful sanctuary in which we worship each week—this rafters that seem to open up to heavens. These pews that creak and crack and make sure we don’t get too comfortable—you never want to get to comfortable in church, by the way. This majestic pipe organ that fills this space with music—and that will be getting a significant facelift in the coming months. The baptistry where so many souls have entered in white robes, being buried with our Lord Jesus in baptism and raised to walk in newness of life with him. We’ve inherited this story in the same way that we’ve inherited this building and the other spaces in which we learn and grow and laugh and cry and teach our children.
And we’ve inherited that part of our story in the same way we’ve inherited the other parts: the parts about founding the first Baptist hospital in China back around the turn of the 20th century. The part about our roll in bringing Mercer to Macon back in the mid 19th century, and counting every university president since then as a member, save for one, and he happened to die in office—we’re far too proud of that part of the story, by the way.
We’ve inherited this part of the story in the same way we’ve inherited the part about opening our membership 50 years ago next month in October of 1965, in what’s become known as our “open-door policy,” where we made it clear that “our service of worship and education should be open to any person who seeks to enter into our fellowship and membership,” which by the way, was a reversal of the policy we took 100 years earlier. (2) Or the part of our history when we counted as a member US District Judge William Bootle, who issued a number of historic civil rights rulings in the 60s, including an order calling for the University of Georgia to desegregate—a ruling for which he was burned in effigy here in Macon. (3)
We’ve inherited the rest of our history in the same way we’ve inherited that part, and all the other parts, all the smaller parts and people who have defined and quite literally been this church through the years. So this is our story, as much as any of the rest of this is ours. And it matters. History matters. I know that it’s much easier to distance ourselves from the past and say, “I wasn’t there, that wasn’t me,” but it’s not that easy. We can’t embrace the good parts without also accepting the bad—there’s no accountability in that. And in discussing these unsavory parts of our past, if our impulse is to change the subject or point the finger, then we need to ask ourselves why that is?
But history also matters because it’s still so present. Some have asked me why it’s necessary to talk about the past; shouldn’t we just focus on the present or the future? And of course that’s important and we will get there. But the trouble is that it’s hard to understand the present without having an understanding the past. Our present is shaped by our past, in ways we don’t always acknowledge or perhaps aren’t aware. In fact, I think this is at the heart of so much of the racial tensions and divisions that are still so alive today, that we haven’t dealt with and come to terms with our past as a nation, and as a church. The present and the future are important, but we can’t really understand where or who we are and would like to be, until we have a sense of where and who’ve been.
And in doing so, it may be that like Jesus said and to truly take up our cross and follow we must leave some things behind. Some part of ourselves, even. Some understanding of where we come from, who we are, what we’ve been given.
And this is a great burden, but what else could a cross be? But our great hope—and this, I believe, is the promise of Scripture; this is truly what makes this news we proclaim “good”—that through some great mystery and in God’s great imagination, this cross we’re to carry, this burden we’ve been given to bear, will be revealed as a joyful one. The way of the cross is burdensome, but it is joyfully so.
I was first introduced to this idea of the “joyful burden” this past June at a luncheon hosted by the New Baptist Covenant at the CBF General Assembly in Greensboro, NC. The keynote speakers were Dr. Bill Leonard, whom many of you know—a baptist historian, former dean at the School of Divinity at Wake Forest—and Rev. Darryl Aaron, pastor of the Providence Baptist Church in Greensboro, NC, a large and historic African-American congregation, who once served as Bill’s pastor in Winston-Salem. And the two of them spoke from their own experience about the racial divisions within the church; their immense cost, but also the opportunities before us. And they each worked from this word burden, Bill speaking on what he’s come to see as the burden of being white, what he’s come to understand that to mean, how he must carry it if he’s to truly take up his cross and follow Jesus.
And Rev. Aaron spoke about the burden of being black. What he has come to understand this to mean, and how he must carry it if he’s to follow Jesus. But then he made a turn which has been very powerful for me, and said that he has come to terms with his burden, because, quote, “the gospel is only for those who are burdened.” He said that to see oneself as among the burdened gives us a vantage point by which to see “what God is up to in the world.” That unless we see ourselves as burdened, as having been given a holy weight to bear, a pain, a wound, a call, a purpose, then, as Rev. Aaron put it, “we cannot see that what God has offered the world is Good News.”
We can’t hear the good news in Jesus saying to the marginalized and outcast: “the first will be last and the last first,” or “blessed are the poor, and the hungry, but woe to you who have much, and whose bellies are filled.” Until we are with the last, or poor or hungry, this isn’t good news. And we must be clear here that the burden of being white in this country is much different from the burden of being black, and in many ways different from the burden that Jesus carried. We must be honest about that. But when we are, when we can see this burden, when we accept it, and take it on, when we can understand ourselves to be among the burdened, the promise of the cross is that it will be revealed as a joyful burden, for we will finally know the fullness of the gospel we proclaim. The Good News will finally be good for us.
And when we sing these words we’re about to sing—these words we know so well even if we haven’t fully come to terms with what they mean. These words penned by a slave-trader, and, it’s been pointed out to me, in God’s great imagination are played in a pentatonic scale—a scale that uses only the black notes on the keyboard (4)—these words that have become the hymn of our nation:
Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me,
I once was lost, but now I’m found, was blind but now I see.
When we take up the joyful burden of the cross, the joyful burden of confession, repentance and reconciliation, the joyful burden of resurrection—that new life that can only come from death, then and only then will truly know how sweet this grace is. Amen.
(1) Fred B. Craddock, Luke, Interpretation Series, 181
(2) The entire text ca be found in our history book, History of the First Baptist Church of Christ at Macon, 1826-1990, p. 264. This portion of the book was written by Rollin S. Armour
(4) I first heard of this feature of Amazing Grace in the second of three lectures given by Otis Moss, III as part of the William L. Self Preaching Lectures at the McAfee School of Theology, March 14, 2016