In the middle of WWII, after fleeing Paris and eventually joining the resistance, Albert Camus wrote an essay called “The Myth of Sisyphus.” Sisyphus is the trickster God of Greek mythology who was condemned to roll a boulder up a hill for eternity. But just before it makes it to the top it would always roll back down, forcing him to start again. And Camus looks at Sisyphus from his place in the French resistance and sees a hero for the age. In his life, Camus says, Sisyphus exhibited an unrivaled passion for life. He escaped Hades twice and put death in chains. He ratted out Zeus in exchange for a spring under his city. Now, in the underworld, his punishment is to endure life without meaning, an effort that will never produce success or reward.
And Camus points us right at the moment the boulder has rolled down hill. Sisyphus, his task almost complete, has to turn and go back down the mountain. And in this moment he says, we should assume that Sisyphus is happy, because it’s not the success that brings joy, but the struggle itself. What he seems to be saying is that it is not necessarily the summit that makes life worth living, but the struggle to reach it. And the struggle is worth it even if we never make it to the top.
In our text for today Paul is writing to the Galatians about his vision for Christian life. Since Paul left the churches in Galatia (Western Turkey), some other Christian teachers have come to tell them that they must convert and adopt all of the practices and customs of 1st century Judaism, including circumcision. Paul has heard reports of this and is writing them to say, “No! Stop! You don’t have to do this!” What saves us is Christ, not our own efforts. But having made this argument, now Paul’s got to explain what is necessary for Christian life. If they don’t have to follow Jewish law, do they have to follow any laws? From what Paul wrote to the church in Corinth, it does seem that some Christians thought that was the case. If we’re freed from the law, and we can’t save ourselves with good behavior, can we do anything we want?
So the last two chapters of Galatians involve Paul explaining how Christians should live and behave. In the passage we talked about last week, he said that the whole law is summed up by the Golden Rule – treat your neighbor as you want to be treated—and then lists out things to avoid and things to pursue for neighborliness. Now Paul continues with more advice on how to be neighborly to each other. Treat offenders gently. Lean on each other, but don’t get lazy. Do work that is worth being proud of.
“Whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially those in our family of faith.” Where have I heard that before? We welcome everyone, we take care of each other, we help people in need. To live by this is simply to take the chances that life offers you to do something good. Did you receive a blessing? Share it. Is your friend suffering? You can share that too. If you have a choice between becoming an exception to an unjust law or changing an unjust law, you know which one is for the good of all. In any given day, you have the opportunity to do something that will help someone, even if it just to swallow an unkind word. And it’s worth doing. I think you could take just about any one of these, needlepoint it and put it on your wall, and it would be worth looking at while you eat your breakfast.
But I think the most difficult is in verse 9. “So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest time, if we do not give up.” (Galatians 6:9) Don’t let doing the right thing become a burden for you. But that is more easily said than done. What Jesus asks of us is hard. Doing good can be exhausting, and one look around at this world tells us that there is more good to be done than doers to do it. The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few. But ultimately doing good without getting weary comes down for our motivation for doing what is good.
We often focus on the benefits of doing good. People who volunteer more live longer, happier lives than people who don’t. Doing good for someone feels good. It makes us feel important. People say thank you, or we can see that we’re making a difference, contributing to something greater than ourselves. But ultimately getting attached to the feelings or the benefits of doing good is dangerous for us. What happens when doing good does not bring a reward, or the reward is unsure? How will we strengthen ourselves to do the thankless tasks, or the dangerous ones, if we are used to it being easy and fun?
If we don’t want to get weary, if we don’t want to let doing good become a burden on us, we have to orient our thinking differently from the way we are accustomed to. First, we have to operate with the confidence in God. Ultimately, we know how the story ends. The story of Good Friday continues with the resurrection. The story of our world ends with its redemption and the holy city of light. Don’t get caught up in the rewards you receive now, however nice they are. We will reap at harvest-time.
Second, we have to learn to love doing what is good and right regardless of whether it makes us feel good or not, regardless of whether or not we perceive it as successful, regardless of whether or not the boulder will roll down the hill again. The way we keep doing good from becoming a burden on ourselves is to teach ourselves to love doing good. Fred Clark wrote last week that “In trying to help others, we cement who we are becoming. And also in not trying to help others, we do the same.” Character happens by accretion, the slow accumulation of a lifetime of habits, opinions, and behaviors. Practicing doing what is right, learning to love doing good for its own sake, not its rewards, is how we generate the ability to do it without getting worn out.
One of the most profound aspects of ministry is getting to know the saints of God. You see things in humanity that most of us don’t get to see, and it’s heartening. You learn more about the human spirit and its capacity getting to be there for big moments in people’s lives and small moments.
I remember one time I was riding in the car with one of my members in Texas, a sweet woman in her early 80s. Her husband had a pretty severe dementia. He was no longer verbal, and he was in a home about twenty-five miles away. She had had her share of problems, and lately she’d had a couple of falls and lost the use of one hand. But every day she went up to see him, and I asked if I could go with her. When we got there, she went to his room, wheeled him out into the common area, and got out his two favorite foods. Chocolate-covered pecans and Coca-cola. And I watched her slowly hand-feed him pecans and give him sips of coke until he shook his head no.
I confess I was a little overwhelmed at that level of kindness and devotion, even between a wife and her husband. It is amazing what love can do. On the way home, I couldn’t help but ask. “I don’t know how you do it,” I said. How do you not get weary? And she didn’t look at me, she just said, “I don’t know what else to do.” And I really think she didn’t. Little did she know that there were dozens of people there who did not get their favorite food every afternoon. There simply wasn’t another option than to drive half an hour every day to hand-feed snacks to someone who couldn’t even say her name.
I think about her now and again as I hope that I will do anything with the level of care and devotion that she did everything. And I cannot help but think that she might have the key to understanding what Paul is telling us in Galatians. “So let us not grow weary in doing what is right….” (Galatians 6:9)
Learn to love the struggle for the heights. Don’t get caught up in whether someone sees what you’ve done or whether or not you will be rewarded. When a ball you’ve rolled almost all the way uphill rolls back down again, don’t be disheartened. Know that is another opportunity to do good. Practice. And eventually it will come so naturally to you that there won’t be any other way.