Listen to the sermon HERE.
If you walked by the church on July 4, you might have noticed that things were pretty quiet. I was travelling back and lots of our regular folks were out of town, and so we decided not to have our usual Morning Prayer. The offices were closed and the garden gates were not opened. All of that is fairly ordinary for a holiday.
And yet, if you look at The Book of Common Prayer, which is the foundation for much of our common life as Episcopalians, you’ll notice that the Prayer Book imagines us being in church on July 4. The Prayer Book views Independence Day as a feast day and gives us appointed scriptures, a Collect of the Day, and imagines us all singing a hymn or two—all of us coming together in the freedom to worship and praise our God.
On this 7th of July, it’s still good to be in church—to give thanks for religious freedom, to work on behalf of religious freedom for others, and to think about what it means for us to be God’s people in this place.
The scriptures for today help us do this and help us remember especially what it is to practice “independence” in a Christian context. They can help us remember that while it is “Independence” day—(celebrating independence from a colonial power)—it is not Individualist Day. It is not Isolationist Day. It’s a day for refreshing our understanding of the common good and of the “united” states. The Declaration of Independence, after all, reminds us that “We the people” have come together for a “more perfect Union”… for the Common defense… and for the General welfare….Our founding documents stress that we are in this together.
The first reading today from Isaiah can at first seem to be an intimate one, but it’s more public than it might first seem. The image here of God comforting a child is really more of God like a mother who comforts not just one child, but a whole family of children.
“As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you,” God says. The “you” is collective, it is communal. The other side of God’s “you” is a “we,” and the “we” was the nation of Israel who struggled like children for forty years before they were made into a nation. Isaiah’s words come as a blessing– a blessing on Israel’s effort to be one family. Isaiah assures the people of Israel that God sees their desire to be one people and God honors that dream and holds it close, like snuggling with a beloved child.
The Psalm sings of a faith in God who has already brought us a long way and a God who “holds our souls in life, and will not allow our feet to slip.” But God keeps us from slipping not by extending a holy and ghostly hand out of heaven to steady us and prop us up. Instead, the Incarnation of Jesus Christ shows us that God works by becoming human. God keeps us “in life” and prevents “our feet from slipping” by giving us one another to hold on to.
Paul puts it clearly in his Letter to the Galatians: “Bear one another’s burdens.” “Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.” Paul says to help each other out not because it’s a practical way to get more done (which it is.) Not because it will make the other person feel better (which it will). And not even because it makes you feel better (which I guarantee, it does).
Instead, Paul connects our “bearing one another’s burdens” to Christ. It’s as though Paul is saying, “humanitarian reasons are all fine and good,” but if I say I love Jesus Christ, then it’s a part of that love, a natural extension and expression of that love, for me to begin moving out of myself and toward another person. That’s the way Christ’s love grows—for me and for the other person. It’s in the helping, the sharing, the praying for and with, the serving, the feeding, and the lending. And it’s also in the reception of help—the borrowing, the asking, and the allowing.
Paul uses a phrase that is often plucked out of context and misused. “All must carry their own loads,” he says. But notice that this in the context of Christian community, of family, and of network. Each must do something to help with the load because we’re all in this together. Each is connected to the other. Just like in a family, the youngest and the eldest probably do not carry what would be understood as a “full load.” But the young add their energy and brightness and reason to go forward. The old offer their reflection, their wisdom, their prayers, and their love for going forward. Paul understands our living out the love of Christ has no room for the family that would work itself to death to obtain and produce and hoard, yet all the while, looking at their next door neighbor with disdain and judgment: “All those lazy so-in-so’s… they really should get to work.” Instead, Paul commends a picture of community than shows us people helping one another to carry their load, to share their burdens.
The Gospel of Luke is written from the perspective of encouraging us to share the common life in Christ. Among the four Gospels, Luke is often symbolized by the ox. Some suggest the ox is used to represent Luke because it is a beast of burden. An ox may seem slow and plodding to some, but especially in other cultures, the ox is king of the animals—it carries loads, it moves things, it is strong and persistent, it allows for things to grow and develop.
Jesus sends his disciples out in pairs, and he sends us out in a similar way. Sometimes we might be called upon to be the strong one: to be silent like an ox and ease the weight of the other. But there are also those times when we might be out of energy or resources and we need another or others to help with the burdens I’m trying to navigate.
The Christian tradition gives us a variety of ways of sharing our burdens with others.
We can ask others to pray for us—like on Sundays or through the week.
We can also share burdens in practical, tangible ways—by showing our prayer in a note, or a well-placed word. Money might be a good way to ease another’s burden. And how many of us have had burdens lifted if not disappear altogether when another brought us food or treated us to a meal. And the meal of meals, the Holy Eucharist is a ritual sharing of Christ’s body with each other, to sustain, to nurture, to build up.
We share one another’s burdens by volunteering with Trinity Cares, or Health Advocates for Older Adults, or the Holy Trinity Neighborhood Center. There are all kinds of ways we can experience the strength in community that bearing one another’s burdens can be.
If we can grow in our ability to be like the children of the God of Isaiah who comforts us like a mother, if we can bear one another’s burdens like Paul says, and if we can team up with others so as to draw on their strength and share our own, we’ll grow in our ability to help others live into a Common Good.
In 1630, as people crossed the ocean to come to this country, John Winthrop, governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, preached a sermon to that early group of Puritans looking for a place to worship and live in freedom. Well into his famous sermon, “A Model of Christian Charity,” he says,
Now the only way to avoid this shipwreck, and to provide for our posterity, is to follow the counsel of [the Prophet] Micah, to do justly, to love mercy, to walk humbly with our God . . . We must delight in each other; make others’ conditions our own; rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together, always having before our eyes our commission and community in the work, as members of the same body. So shall we keep the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace.
John Winthrop had a great vision in 1630. May the Holy Spirit renew a vision for our time that includes, “delighting in each other; making others’ conditions our own; rejoicing together, mourning together, laboring and suffering together, … so that we, too, might “keep the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace.”
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.