SCRIPTURE READING I John 5:1-6
Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the parent loves the child. By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments. For the love of God is this, that we obey his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome, for whatever is born of God conquers the world. And this is the victory that conquers the world, our faith. Who is it that conquers the world but the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?
MESSAGE “Burden and Joy” Rev. James R. Renfrew On
This morning I want to address a question that has been on my mind over the last few weeks. Is Christianity a burden or a joy? What do I think about that? What do you think about that? Burden or joy? I know most of you well enough that if I try to take a vote on the question, most of you will try to say “both”, that Christianity is a “burden” and a “joy”. If you asked me the question, I’d probably try to answer “both”, as well! We all might even testify that you can’t have one without the other. If Christian faith is only a burden, who would want to join it? And if the Christian faith is only joy there would never be anything in you that would ever need to change. So, burden or joy?
The text in the First Letter to John claims that God’s commandments are not burdensome, and those who follow the commandments of God conquer the world through love. Even if you assume that the word “commandment” refers only to the Ten Commandments, I can think of a lot of ways that these Ten Commandments prove to be very burdensome. And those are just ten of them. There are many more, hundreds more commandments distilled from all of the pages in Scripture. Most of them seem to require me to go well beyond my ability or capacity, and since I can’t do that consistently or well, I can easily fee defeated and burdened.
Take the First Commandment. Worship no idols; that should be easy. No idols in my house, no idols in church. Do we have that one covered? Maybe not. Robin has a large brass plate hanging up above our mantle that she received from her grandfather from one of his travels, depicting the many armed Hindu elephant God, Ganesha. Supposedly, if you rub Ganesha’s elephant belly you get good luck. In Hindu temples that image is usually worn down from thousands upon thousands of worshippers rubbing Ganesha’s belly, but nothing like that with our brass plate. It looks like it’s never been rubbed, so I think I can safely say we don’t worship any idols at our house, and certainly don’t rub their bellies! But maybe I need to think a little more critically about the First Commandment. Maybe the idols in my house are not Hindu gods, but things like money, power, or privilege? Maybe that’s the burden I need to be a lot more honest about?
I don’t have time to review all of the Ten Commandments, but just the first one seems more burdensome than I would have thought at first glance. The truth is that nearly all of them are burdensome and I don’t do as good job of living them as I should. There are a lot of burdens involved in being a Christian. The job of faith never seems done. The requirements of faith seem never-ending. Even when I seem to master one of those burdens, other ones quickly crop up. I’m never generous enough, loving enough, daring enough, persistent enough, or peaceful enough.
If Christian faith is all about burdens, who would join us? Imagine if we had replaced our sign on the front lawn with a message like this: “come visit us on Sunday and get more soul-crushing burdens than you could ever handle in multiple lifetimes!” Who would ever walk through the door?
I remember one day many years while driving through Baldwinsville on my way to Syracuse. A most unusual song was being played on 89.1 from Syracuse University. I had never heard it before. It was the first time. Most of you have heard it at one time or another. “Don’t Worry, be Happy” by Bobby McFarrin. Over and over the song repeats the title phrase, “Don’t worry, be happy”. It stood in dramatic contrast to the Bible message as I had understood it and tried to live it. It was the least burdensome phrase I had ever heard, “don’t worry, be happy”.
Ever since I heard that song, it has gotten me thinking that the best part of the Christian message ought to be joy, not burden. As a pastor, I hope that when you leave after a Sunday service that you are happier, more joyful, laughing, smiling. I am not usually hoping that you go home on Sunday feeling more burdened, more guilty, or more responsible for the hurts of others, and definitely not any of that soul-crushing stuff!.
It began with a woman I heard during a call-in program on WXXI Radio one afternoon. I can’t remember the theme of the program, but I do remember one woman who called in. She said “I used to be a Christian.” Well, of course, I wanted to hear more about that, so I kept listening. How and why did this woman decide not to be a Christian anymore? She sounded thoughtful. She wasn’t making fun of the church’s hypocrisies. She wasn’t attacking Christianity with venom. She wasn’t promoting another religion. Christian faith just wasn’t working for her anymore. She said she grew up in a Christian Church, was still influenced by all she had learned, but as time has passed she could no longer consider herself to be a Christian.
Her reasoning was that to be a Christian she had to accept herself as deeply flawed if not completely broken, that somehow her very existence was a deep disappointment to God. The joy was missing, or in very short supply. In her mind God should be all about joy as the starting point, joy for blooming flowers, joy for a baby’s smile, joy for a beautiful song, joy for each new day.
I didn’t agree with her conclusion, but I do accept her observation that joy doesn’t get enough emphasis in who we are and in what we do as Christians. And that through the joy we feel as followers of Jesus we are conquering the world.
Burden or Joy? I’m still working on the question, and I hope you are, too. Yesterday I attended a memorial service for one of our retired Presbyterian pastors, Don Roth. The preacher, in talking about the meaning and significance of Don’s ministry shared a quote from William Barclay, a well-known Bible commentator, “we seem to be surrounded by infirmity” which means disease, violence, injustice, sadness, “but we are really surrounded by praise”, which means joy, love, and hope. The challenge for us is to get to the truth of what surrounds us.
“For the love of God is this, that we obey his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome, for whatever is born of God conquers the world. And this is the victory that conquers the world, our faith.”