Bear one another’s burdens

Fifth Sunday After Pentecost
Mark 5:21-43

S
everal years ago when I was in my former parish, I was working in my office at the church when the phone rang. I answered, and the person said that he wanted to speak to the priest. When I told him that I was the priest, he asked, “do you talk to people”? It seemed a kind of obvious question, and I half wondered if it might be one of those prank calls… though I couldn’t imagine what the punch line could be. Somewhat tentatively I replied that yes, I did talk to people, at which point he said that he’d like to come and talk with me, because just about everything in his life was in crisis. “You can come by right away, if you want,” I said, “But I should be really clear that I’m not a therapist or a social worker. I’m a priest, and I can listen to your story and maybe offer some reflection and support.” And then just in case the caller had missed my point, I said again, “but I’m not a therapist.” “Thank God,” he said. “I’m tired of being given answers to my problems… I’ll be right there.”

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As it turned out, the poor guy’s life was in upheaval on every level imaginable; he had just been diagnosed with cancer, a very significant relationship had recently failed, and he was up to his throat in financial debt. He had been seeing a counselor—and by no means do I mean to slam that profession!—but what he needed most that afternoon was to tell his story, speak his truth, and express his fears. For the most part, I just listened. I did provide him a bit of theological framework—he was at some level fearful that God was punishing him or had forsaken him—and at the end I prayed for him. But mostly I just listened.

After an hour or so he got up to leave, and he seemed visibly lighter. His eyes were more alive, his shoulders less defeated, and he was almost smiling. We set another time to get together, and as I watched him walk down the church stairs to the street I realized that I was feeling a little heavier; a little burdened, a little tired.

Have you had that experience? A friend who is in crisis needs to talk to you, and you wonder what you can offer? You maybe even tentatively give some well-meaning advice or solution to their struggle, but even as you do you can tell by the look on your friend’s face that they’re afraid you’re missing the mark. You set aside the problem-solving, and just listen. You spend the time, you hear the story, you promise to carry it in trust, you commit to holding them in prayer. And somehow at the end of that time together, they feel a bit better. And chances are, over the hours and days that follow, whenever you think of your friend you feel a little heavy. “Bear one another’s burdens,” writes Paul in his letter to the Galatians (6:2), and it would appear that we actually can do that for each other.

On account of his own experiences of this kind of dynamic, the English novelist and theological writer Charles Williams concluded that this is a very real part of the fabric of human life and relationships. Williams was a close friend of C.S. Lewis, and a member of the Oxford circle of writers and thinkers known as the Inklings. Both in his novels and in his more purely theological works, he set out a number of ideas that help make sense of this bearing of each other’s burdens. Williams wrote of what he called “co-inherence,” and his defining example of this was the Trinity. The life of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is one; one in which the three so perfectly “co-inhere” or “indwell” in and through each other that they are one… yet three. This is a terrible oversimplification of Williams’ thought, but essentially he understood that as people created in the image of God we are designed—hard-wired, maybe—to be in essential relationship with each other. We are not free-standing, independent, isolated individuals—that’s the illusion we have fallen into in a fragmented existence—but are instead one humanity, meant not only to be in relationship with each other, but by definition connected to each other.

One of the places that Williams saw this working itself out in real terms was in his idea of “substitution” or “substituted love,” and this is where he points to the experience of bearing one another’s burdens. At the heart of the Christian mystery is the substitutionary death of Christ on the cross, to which Paul pointed in our reading tonight from 2 Corinthians: “that though (the Lord Jesus Christ) was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.” Jesus’ death and resurrection is more than simply a sign of the promise of new or renewed human life; it actually changed things. And Williams was utterly convinced that through our own acts of love and friendship for each other, we find that we literally take over the anxieties and burdens and potentially even the physical pain of another. When a friend entrusts us with their story, and shares with us some agonizing dilemma or deep hurt, insofar as we receive it, we can actually help to carry it.

“Now there was a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years. She had endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had; and she was no better, but rather grew worse. She had heard about Jesus, and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, for she said, ‘If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.’ Immediately her hemorrhage stopped; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease. Immediately aware that power had gone forth from him, Jesus turned about in the crowd and said, ‘Who touched my clothes?’”

At first brush, it sounds vaguely magical, doesn’t it? This poor woman, suffering for twelve years from unstoppable bleeding that not only makes life miserable but also marks her as perpetually unclean under the law, steals through the crowd to touch the cloak of Jesus. And what do you know? Just by that touch, she is made well: “she felt in her body that she was healed.” If that’s all it takes, there should be quite a market for his used clothes… but that’s not the point here, and it not about magic at all.

It is about Jesus being present. Present in that marketplace as a source of life, hope, and restoration. Present in the world as God incarnate, in whom the human and the divine perfectly “co-inhere,” which finally means that Jesus was the most fully human person ever walk this earth. What he was in his life and in his resurrection gives us a picture of what we are meant to be in life, in death, and in the fullness of time.

“Immediately aware that power had gone forth from him, Jesus turned about in the crowd and said, ‘Who touched my clothes?’” His disciples can’t make sense of the question; look at this crowd, how could we possibly know who brushed against you? But the woman knows what has happened to her, and that her being made whole was all about his being that present to the world, and so she comes forward “in fear and trembling” to fess up. “Daughter,” he says to her, “your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.” No magic here, thank you very much; it is “your faith,” he says to her. To be sure, it was a faith that probably looked and felt like desperation, but between her raw openness and his being so transparently present in that marketplace as who he was, an exchange happened.

Jesus was “aware that power had gone forth from him,” Mark tells us, and you need to pause and ask if such things made him tired. Yes, of course. Which is why again and again we see him slip away quietly on his own to pray. Jesus needs to be alone, he needs to sleep, and he needs to pray. He needs to be refreshed and rejuvenated, and he needs to release into his Father’s care the burdens that he carries for so many.

Back to that person who wandered into my office to talk with me about his burdens. When I said to him that I would remember him in prayer, it was important that I actually do that. For if his story and his fears weighed heavy on me, I would need to do the very thing that Jesus did; be alone for a time, and entrust those burdens in prayer to our God.

Bear one another’s burdens, believing that we can really do that. And all that you are entrusted with as a friend dares to share with you his or her pain? Entrust that to God in prayer. Oh, and when you find yourself in some kind of trouble or crises, carrying some heavy load you’re afraid is going to take you down? Find that person you can trust with your story. For we were not made to walk alone.

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