Bearing Burdens: A sermon by The Rev. Mary Lynn Tobin Davis Community Church, Davis, California
Rev. Mary Lynn Tobin's sermon:
July 8, 2001
First thing Monday morning, I read the words Paul wrote to the church in Galatia so many centuries ago.
It was as though someone had slapped me. There in the very first verse of this morning's passage were these
words, "My friends, if anyone is detected in a transgression, you who have received the Spirit should restore
such a one in a spirit of gentleness.
Take care that you yourselves are not tempted.
I read this the day after Session had spent four and a half hours on Sunday afternoon working and praying together
to discern God's will for our congregation in terms of continuing as the chartering organization for the Boy Scouts
of America, who have made it a policy that gay boys and men may not be members or leaders of scout troops.
To me it is a despicable policy, and puts local troop leaders, especially those who are members of this church,
in an unconscionable position.
How can we sponsor an organization when this policy is in direct conflict with our own hard-won and courageous
Even our denomination, which has been struggling with the issue of ordination for 25 years, is very clear that
homosexual persons are to be welcomed as members of the Christian community.
It makes me furious. I confessed to one of our session members that my immediate gut reaction to the policy
and to the national Boy Scouts organization is somewhat like the Queen of Hearts, "Off with their heads!!"
It is a reaction I have had to work hard to keep under control as we have dialogued about this issue.
And then I run smack into Paul.
"If anyone is detected in a transgression, you who have received the Spirit should restore such a one in
a spirit of gentleness."
He could have said, "If any of you discovers that a member of the community has lied about how much he
has contributed to the
church, then take a couple of goons to his house, work him over until he confesses, and then take the money he
said he gave by force."
He could have said, "If you discover that a member of the community is talking to her friends about other
members behind their backs, bring her to the front of the church, hold her down and wash her mouth out with soap."
He could have said, "If you discover that a member of the community has become a workaholic, tie them to
the baptismal font until they remember and promise to honor their baptismal vows."
No, he says, "restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness."
Then he follows that by saying, "Take care that you yourselves are not tempted."
Tempted to what?
Tempted to the sin of pride.
Several members of our congregation have been alert to this potential problem and have expressed their thoughts
to session members in their letters.
But it wasn't until I read this passage that the message really got through to me.
It is altogether too easy for any of us to sit in judgment with a spirit of retribution.
Especially when we figure we've got it right.
And that, Paul says, is the temptation. It's not merely a temptation of thinking ourselves more superior than
our other brothers and sisters.
It's also a temptation of isolation "isolating ourselves over and against others, or isolating others,
as if they are the only ones who sin."
Paul goes on to say, "Bear one another's burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ."
That is a verse that we have mostly taken out of context when we think of burdens as illness, grief or poverty.
And we do want to share and help carry those kinds of burdens of others in our community.
But what Paul is referring to here is the need for us to bear our sins, and particularly the guilt for those
It is as a community that we will restore the sinner and as a community that we will help the sinner bear his
or her troubled spirit.
Now the words Paul speaks here also have another context that is quite different than the situation we face
with the Boy Scouts of America.
And that is that Paul is speaking about a situation where someone in the community has sinned, and their sin
has caught them off guard.
The sin is not intentional and the sinner does not wish to continue, but wishes to repent.
In our case, the Boy Scouts of America's national board members are not members of our community.
We don't know them.
We only know the policy they have put forth and argued vehemently before the Supreme Court.
They have no intention of backing away from their policy, and they certainly don't believe it's a sin.We do
have troop leaders, however, who are a part of our congregation.
And these troop leaders have been caught in a terrible position by this policy.
They want to keep a program going that they believe is a wonderful program for boys in this community.
And the national policy is putting that program in jeopardy, not only here in Davis, but in many other churches
and organizations around the country.
What to do?I read a story this week that helped me articulate for myself the balance we need to strike in a
situation like this.
In an article in which he is struggling with the dual concepts of God's mercy and God's wrathâ€”both of
which are contained in scripture, Robert C. Morris, an Episcopal priest, relates how he worked that dilemma through
in one of his own life situations. He writes:
"Surely any parent understands the wrestling match of wrath with merciful kindness. As the young
father of a teething infant quipped, "They drive you totally up the wall, and just as you really want to send
them away for good, the little buggers seem so cute and helpless it just cuts through the anger.' ... ."The
father of that teething infant was very good at provoking . . . wrath
in his teen years. My wife and I took him in when his family was no longer able to deal with him. Too clever by
half, he often used his infectious charm to wiggle shamelessly out of trouble. One weekend, he'd planned
a campout for our church youth group, and raised everybody's expectations with talk of the beautiful sunset on
the lake. Busy in the office, I'd sent him out to the parking lot to meet the other kids and get the cars
packed so we could get to the campsite before dark. But when it was time to go, he was standing surrounded by unpacked
boxes of food and sleeping bags, charming a bevy of girls. I was angry, and showed it. By the time
we loaded up and headed out, we were too late to get ahead of rush-hour traffic. His planned
sunset silent meditation was a lost cause "to say nothing of the hassle of arriving in the dark."We sat
in silence while I fumed, listening in my overheated head to various lectures that might make him feel guilty.
Surely he had to learn his lesson! Finally, he coughed, turned on his dazzling smile, shook his mantle of
black hair out of his eyes, looked at me soulfully and said, "Do you forgive me?"
As my righteous desire to scold, my real concern for his moral education, and my deep affection warred within
me, I knew I dare not be seduced into simply saying it was all okay. I also knew that, for his sake, I dare not
take the path of blaming. A typical parental dilemma. "Of course, I forgive you," I finally said.
"so you can turn off the charm. You don't have to win back my love because you haven't lost it. The issue
here isn't forgiveness, but consequences. You had a job to do and you didn't do it, and you blew something valuable
for yourself and the other kids.Â You've got to face that, and do something about it if you can."
Finally he said, "Well, couldn't we meditate by the campfire? 'He'd taken a step toward responsibility.
I'd learned a lesson in balancing wrath and mercy. Our love had been tested and strengthened. ("God's
Wrestling Match with Wrath," by
Robert C. Morris, in Weavings, Volume XV, Number 5, September-October 2000, pp. 17-18) Our relationship with the
Boys Scouts "national or local" is not one of parent to child. But it is one that puts many of
us on session at war within ourselves. Wrath and mercy, acts of retribution and acts of gentleness compete
for our attention and it has been very difficult finding God's way in the maze of intentions and emotions.Paul
has more to say to us, however. He goes on talking about how each one in the community must bear his or her
own responsibility for the well-being of the community and take that responsibility seriously. And then he
goes on to say, "Do not be deceived; God is not mocked, for you reap whatever you sow.. . .So let us not grow
weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest-time, if we do not give up. So then, whenever we have
an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith."
So what do we get from this passage? We are called not to ignore the sin, but to name it. We are
called to work as a community to restore the sinner and to do that in a spirit of gentleness. We are to be
very aware as we work through
the process that we all are sinners, and avoid falling into sin ourselves "either the sin of the sinner or
another sin of arrogance. And then we seek to help each other carry the burdens of our sins" the consequences,
the guilt, the ongoing temptations. Finally, whatever we do, we must be aware that we will reap what we sow, so
we should be cautious and discerning about what it is we are planting in the process.Session is not finished with
their discernment about our relationship with the Boy Scouts.
I can tell you that your letters to them have been very helpful and very much appreciated as they have been struggling
with what to do. I can also tell you that I believe the guidelines Paul outlines in this passage are being
honored by Session, even though this was not a passage of scripture that came up in our discussions. I would
ask that you continue to pray for session and for the Boy Scouts as we try to figure out how to carry this burden
together. And may we learn how to be a community in which we are not afraid to name our sins because we know
we will be restored to the community in gentleness.
May God give us such a spirit.