“You’ve Got to Carry That Weight”
A Sermon for First Church or Christ, Congregational
East Haddam, Connecticut
July 2, 2017
When it comes to the stories of our faith, there’s not a Sunday that goes by that we don’t start in the middle of something. Our passage for this morning is a good example. The preceding chapters are a succession of Jesus’ daily interactions with people—healings, questions, challenges, parables. Then Jesus pulls the twelve aside for more specific instructions that are a not so much a pep talk as a gut check. He is trying to make sure they understand what they are doing together. A big part of Jesus’ ministry was spent trying to make sure people understood what he was saying and what he was asking of them. They didn’t always understand. As the stories have been handed down from generation to generation of Christians, so have the difficulties in understanding. Our passage this morning is one of those difficulties.
One of my favorite writers is a man named John Berger. He was an art critic, a social activist, a thinker, and a person fascinated with humanity. I said was because he died earlier this year. I am grateful for all he wrote down, because I keep going back to it. In one short essay, he talks about difficulties in translations of literary works. He says the usual practice is to translate word for word and then adapt the words to make them fit the second language. He says most of these translations are “worthy but second rate.” Then he wonders why this is true, and answers his question:
Why? Because true translation is not a binary affair between two languages but a triangular affair. The third point of the triangle being what lay beyond the words of the original text before it was written. True translation demands a return to the pre-verbal. We read and reread the words of the original text in order to penetrate through them, to reach, to touch the vision or experience which prompted them. (Confabulations 4)
As heavy and intellectual as his words are, I have to say the first place my mind went was to the movie, The Princess Bride. After Vizzini keeps repeating, “Inconceivable,” every time something happens, Indio Montoya says, “You keep saying that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
The meanings of words change, from language to language, from century to century, even over the span of a few years—even when we are translating words in the same language over time. When we hold on to old words, we have to update the meanings, which an unending task, and not an easy one. I grew up with the King James translation of the Bible that talked about “the fear of God.” I thought it meant we had to be afraid. That’s not what fear meant in the early 1600s. It meant to stand in awe—in amazement and reverence. Those same translators wrote, “Be ye perfect, as God is perfect.” Again, perfect has changed meanings over four hundred years. What they did was—how did Berger put it?—a worthy but second rate translation.
I say all of that because I got hung up on a word in today’s passage, one that John Berger used in the sentence I just quoted: worthy.
Jesus said, “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me.”
How are we to understand that word?
When we try to get back to the experience of Jesus and the disciples that prompted Jesus’ words, we begin to see that we have only a few details about what was going on in their lives: they were being followed by larger and more persistent crowds, they were overwhelmed by people in need, they were facing greater scrutiny by some of the religious leaders, and they were on the radar of the Roman occupying force who weren’t happy about the possibility of a popular leader rising up from the masses. But we don’t get to all of the back story, the smells and sounds and feelings that would put some meat on the line drawings the gospels offer us.
What I can get to are the experiences of my life that color how I hear the words—how I translate them. When I hear the word worthy, as in “you’re not . . . ,” it sinks into my back story. I am someone named for my father, who was named for his father. Both men were determined to change the world. Both men also lived with deep insecurities. They never felt good enough. They never felt worthy. I inherited some of that along with my name. My time on the planet has shown me that a haunting sense of unworthiness doesn’t only belong to men named Milton. Maybe you know what that feels like, too.
The translation, “You are not worthy,” sent me searching for another way to understand it, since the words, as they are translated in our Bible, don’t ring true to the Jesus I know in my heart. I looked up the Greek word axios, which is translated as worthy in most every version I read, and I found this definition: “weighing, having weight, having the weight of another thing of like value, worth as much.” You are not worthy to be my disciples means you aren’t able to bear the weight of discipleship—you aren’t able to live up to the gravity of the commitment.
I realize that neither Jesus nor his contemporaries would have known the word or the concept of gravity, but it gave me a new way to hear the passage. Listen to the verses again.
Whoever loves father or mother more than me doesn’t grasp the weight of following me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me doesn’t grasp the weight of following me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me doesn’t grasp the weight of following me.
If the gravitational pull of our commitment to follow Christ is not the fundamental force that orders our lives, we have some things to learn about the weight of both the world and the weight of the call to follow Jesus, which leads me to the second thing that came to mind—the Beatles singing, “Boy, you’re gonna carry that weight a long time.” Yes. And we have to carry it for a lifetime.
Jesus is not speaking out of insecurity here; he is not setting up a competition, calling us to pick him over family. He is saying, If your family relationships don’t have to gravity to hold your universe together. Your friendships don’t have the gravity to hold your universe together. The fundamental force must be your relationship with God to make the most of all the other relationships in your life. We must carry that weight everywhere we go, if we are going to keep our promises to God and to others.
The weight of discipleship is weight both in term of significance and heaviness. There is a burden to living out the love of God. My brother calls it “the paradox of blessing.” Gabriel, for example, told Mary who her son would be, and Mary said, “Let it be just as you said.” (We keep coming back to Beatles songs.) Her life was made more meaningful by Jesus, but it was not made easier. She carried that weight her whole life. To let our commitment to Christ be the weight that grounds us means to carry the burden of difficult relationships we would rather avoid or write off; it means investing in each other as a congregation, rather than making our involvement conditional on getting our way; it means carrying the weight of the world—from our home, to people on the street, to the poverty and injustice around the world. How else can we bear the weight if our primary allegiance, our defining force is not in our love for God?
Heavy. I know. And bearable, with the help of God.
Jesus finishes his talk with his closest disciples by saying, basically, that we carry the weight one step at a time: “Whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones” understands the gravity of discipleship. Notice a need and respond. Yes, the needs are endless. Relentless, like gravity. They are everywhere, if we choose to see them. Wendell Berry said, “Great problems call for many small solutions.”
As those created in the image of God and worthy to be loved—and I do mean worthy, as in worth it, in God’s eyes—we carry the weight, the burden, of the world together. We don’t have to fix the needs; all at once; we don’t even have to fix them all. But we are called to notice them. To carry the weight of response of compassion. Look at the way Jesus carried the weight of the world—he walked and talked and touched and loved: he lived a lifetime of small solutions, meeting the needs in front of him.
God calls us to carry the weight of the world. Come, let us carry that weight together—in Jesus’ name. Amen.
Really good, Milton! Will reread more than once!
Thank you! Words by themselves matter, but understanding their meaning in time and place and context is critical to discernment. You clarified a confusion for me.
You have given me something of value to think of over and over…something to add to my life. Thank you.