Bearing the Burden

St James Fordham • Proper 9c • Tobias Haller BSG

Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.+

I imagine that many of you here this morning saw the film Titanic when it came out a few years back, or perhaps one of the earlier versions such as A Night to Remember, or if you haven’t, you at least know the story of that tragic disaster. The story strikes close to home in this parish — for as I recently learned one of the survivors of the tragedy, Colonel Archibald Gracie, was the grandson of one of the founding members of this parish. He was a hero of that terrible night, staying on board the ship helping people into the lifeboats right up until it sank, and survived because he managed to catch hold of one of the capsized collapsible boats, and under the guidance of one of the ship’s crew, stand — yes I said “stand” — along with about thirty other survivors balanced on the hull and tilting from side to side to keep the upside-down boat steady against the swell; until they were rescued by the Carpathia.

But another aspect of this tragedy, perhaps even less well known until the most recent film version portrayed it, is the fact that all but one of the lifeboats refused to row back after the ship had sunk, to gather more survivors from the water. Most of the lifeboats were far from full, some less than half — such was the haste and unpreparedness of the evacuation. There was plenty of room to save dozens of other lives — but only Lifeboat Number 14 turned back, seeking out survivors floating and slowly freezing to death in the icy waters.

The rest of the lifeboats remained distant, out at the edge of the wreckage, but not so far that those lucky enough to have made it into them were unable to hear the cries for help, cries that slowly weakened, grew hoarse, and then weak, and then silent, until all that was left was the quiet lapping of the water, the creak of planks, the bump of flotsam against the sides of the boats in that calm, cold, cold water. The survivors were left to contemplate in silence the imponderable weight of their guilt.

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“Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.” This is Saint Paul’s word to us this morning. “Bear one another’s burdens.” I’ve pointed out to you before how well the nave of this church lives up to its name — for this church building is like an inverted naval vessel, a boat turned upside down with its ribs becoming the roof-beams — as upside down as that capsized boat that saved the lives of 30-some people along with Mr. Gracie’s grandson. And sure enough our roof used to leak like a sinking ship until we fixed the big holes in the roof there, and there, and there!

But there is a deeper truth to this — and that is that the church has long been known as the vessel of salvation, a lifeboat — even an upside-down one — that saves from a dying world. And if this is so — and I believe it is or we are wasting our time — then the church cannot be a lifeboat that hangs back on the edges of the shipwreck, half-empty, ignoring the cries of those in need.

Why, after all, did the Titanic’s lifeboats hold back? Why did all but those in Lifeboat Number 14 close their ears and their hearts to the cries for help? The sad answer is they were afraid: afraid that if they went back, those still in the water would cling to the boats, would swamp them and sink them, and that all would founder and drown.

Yet Lifeboat 14 did not founder; it did not sink; it saved a precious few more who otherwise would have surely died. The risk that one boat took could have been taken by most of the others, and how many more would have lived to tell their children and their grandchildren the story of that fateful night?

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Does the church act the same way from time to time? Do we, the church’s members, fear that if the church grows too much we will lose something, something precious? I have heard of parishes that want to stay small because they like the feeling of everybody knowing everybody else. I have heard of parishes that want to stay small because a few people like to have the last word on this or that, and the fewer the people, the easier it is for them to keep control. I have heard of parishes that fail to reach out into their communities so that they can preserve their “identity.”

But my dear brothers and sisters, what identity is worth having if it is not the identity of Christ? Of what use is our “Anglican identity” if it does not serve Christ. The harvest is great and the laborers are few: can the church stand idle and fail to send out workers to harvest the abundant wheat, simply because it would rather harvest rye?

We cannot choose what voices will cry out to us from the cold and darkness that surrounds our lifeboat. We can only hear their cry, and choose to help them or ignore them. “Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.”

Paul continues his admonition, “all must carry their own loads.” This may seem at first a contradiction. Is Paul saying, Mind your own business; take care of your own lifeboat?” Well, yes, in a way, he is. The problem is, we don’t always know what our lifeboat is, what the heart and soul of our life itself is; we don’t know what our business is half of the time, we are so busy minding it.

Jacob Marley from Dickens’ Christmas Carol learned too late what his business was, and from beyond the grave he warned his old colleague Ebenezer Scrooge. When the old miser complimented Marley’s ghost on always having been a “good man of business,” the angry ghost rose to his feet, shaking the chains he had forged in life, and cried out in anguish, “Business? Mankind was my business!”

Well, mankind is our business, too. The proper use of a lifeboat is to save lives, to save as many lives as it can, not to row about half-empty in the dark, while people freeze to death. The business of being human is involvement with what matters to humanity, the human community in which “no man is an island,” and in which we all have a responsibility for the well-being and the salvation of our brothers and sisters. Remember, it was the first murderer who asked, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” There are no innocent bystanders — and we all have the option of helping those in need.

So surely it is true, we all must carry our own loads: but our most important burden is the burden of our neighbor. It is, in fact, our neighbor himself.

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One day a student asked the great anthropologist, Margaret Mead — who, by the way, was an Episcopalian and participated in the creation of our present Book of Common Prayer — a student asked Mead what she regarded as the earliest sign of civilization. Was it an axe-blade, an arrowhead, a fish-hook, or something more sophisticated, such as a musical instrument or a pottery bowl? She answered, “A healed human femur.” Not something made by a human, but something human: a healed human leg-bone; not an artifact, but a part of someone who once lived and walked this earth, until the leg was broken, and given time to heal.

She explained to the surprised student that where the law of survival of the fittest reigns, a broken leg spells certain death. When you can’t make it on your own, you die. But a healed leg-bone is physical evidence that someone cared. Someone else gathered food for that injured person until the leg was healed. Someone cared for that person until they were able to care for themselves. Someone expressed what Mead regarded as the first sign of civilization: compassion.

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One cold night in 1912, a group of people by all other standards considered civilized, by many standards considered the very cream of society, failed to fulfill the law of Christ, the law of compassion, the law of love. In the face of tremendous need, all but one of the lifeboats drifted in idleness and half-emptiness.

The world is in no less trouble now than the Titanic was that night. People are dying all around us, dying spiritually and physically, and calling for our help. Some have given up hope, and aren’t even crying out any longer. Our little lifeboat, our little church, as leaky as it once was, may seem too small to do any good: but look around. Our vessel isn’t foundering upside-down; the leaks have been repaired — and there is still plenty of room.

Inviting new people to join us will involve some risk. We may find that the newcomers will have different favorite hymns than we do. We may find that they don’t share all of the same traditions we do. We may find ourselves challenged — but we will also find ourselves blessed. For in bearing one another’s burdens, we will be fulfilling the law of Christ. The harvest is plentiful, the laborers few. And who dares stand idle on the harvest plain?+