Monday, August 15, 2016

Bearing One Another’s Burdens

By Rev. Chris Jorgensen
Preached at Urban Abbey
August 14, 2016

Galatians 5:26 - 6:1-2

"Let us not become conceited, competing against one another, envying one another. 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. Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ."

Today as we gather to bless teachers and remember and give thanks for all the educators and mentors who have walked with us in our journey, we encounter this scripture that is about a hard but crucial part of teaching: correcting someone when they have gone off course. The scripture encourages us to do this correcting gently. And it is sort of ironic to be hearing this from the author of our scripture Paul.

See, in this Letter to the Galatians, Paul is having a good long rant about some Missionaries that have visited the Galatian community and taught them things that Paul deeply disagrees with. Specifically, the Missionaries have told the Galatians – a Gentile community - that in order to saved, they must be circumcised. Paul disagrees. He is fine with Jews being circumcised, but he is convinced that Christ has made this step unnecessary for Gentiles. So, if Paul were to take his own advice here, he might gently invite the Missionaries into conversation to consider their mistake. But this is not what Paul does. Rather, in one of the more shocking things I’ve read in the bible lately, he writes about these Missionaries: “I wish those who unsettle you would castrate themselves!” (Galatians 5:12). This does not sound like a spirit of gentleness to me.

This call to gently correct each other is hard, even for Paul, especially when emotions are high. In Paul’s case, he appears to be particularly provoked because the Missionaries are trying to undermine his authority. And feeling attacked, he goes on the defensive…and moves into the offensive!

I think this might be why, in our scripture today, Paul warns the Galatians not to compete with our envy one another. He knows it’s hard to correct someone in love when you feel the need to prove you are better than them. He writes in our scripture, “Take care that you yourselves are not tempted.”  Take care that you are not tempted to harshly correct someone out of a place of conceit or judgment. And Paul goes even further. It’s not enough to just correct someone and get them on the right path. He writes: “Bear one another's burdens, and in this way you fulfill the law of Christ."

What is this Law of Christ? Biblical commentator Richard B. Hays tells us that, according to Jesus, love of neighbor was the central tenet of the Law. And this Law of Love was fulfilled when Jesus embodied it totally in his willingness to die for his community and indeed all the world when he was crucified. But unlike theologies that claim that some sort of miracle happened with Jesus dying on the cross that makes us automatically saved, in this section, Paul brings the Galatians right into this saving work.

I think this is rather breathtaking. Paul says to the Galatians, by bearing one another's burdens, "YOU" will fulfill the Law of Christ. The fulfillment of the law of Christ, the law of selfless love, was not simply something that happened one time on a cross 2,000 years ago. It is something that happens every time we bear one another's burdens in community. [1]

But one of the things that makes this difficult, as we see revealed in Paul’s harshness to the Missionaries, is feeling like life is a competition. Hays writes that Paul’s warning here might reflect a sort of spiritual competitiveness in the Galatian community. Perhaps we and the Galatians before us need that warning: that competition and envy is what keeps us from gently bearing each other’s burdens.

But we love competition. I’m not sure if any of you know that this thing called the Olympics has been going on. And if you are like me, you tuned in night after night to see who was going to be number one. Who was going to get the gold? We love the excitement of winning by proxy as the American athletes crush the competition. And this is all fine and good, I guess, when it comes to sports.

Of course it’s not just sports. As a society, we value people for what they achieve or how well they conform so some standard. We wonder, Who has the best job? The best car? The most beautiful and successful family? And we often turn this lens on ourselves. We judge ourselves and maybe think things like: I’ll be worthy and happy when I get that promotion, when I raise a child who goes to college, when I lose 25 pounds, when I prove that I’m competent and caring and succeed at my work. And I’m not sure about you, but I am not very loving and gentle when I am judging myself and others, as a way to prove that I’m okay.

I think one of the greatest gifts of our Christian faith is that it insists this: We do not have to be successful to be worthy. We are sacred and beloved just as we are...and this is true of every one of us. We can start from a place of knowing we are worthy and loved. And we start from a place of knowing that it is true of every human being. And when we really believe that, we are freed to go through life not competing with one another, but bearing each other’s burdens.

I think we all know this in our heart of hearts. Debra and I were talking about the Olympics this week, and she told me that she cries more at the commercials during the Olympics than during an episode of Oprah Winfrey. Because these marketers get this, as do the people who sprinkle all the sports of the Olympics with the human stories behind them. We are drawn to this truth of honoring people’s full humanity. We know that life’s true fulfillment is not about being number one, but it is about supporting one another.

The most profound example of this I can imagine is the story of 18-year-old Yusra (Ees-ruh) Mardini. You probably have heard it if you’ve been following the Olympics at all. Mardini is a Syrian refugee who swam in the Olympics this year and who, like many refugees, had a harrowing journey to safety.

A British newspaper reports her story like this:

"In their desperation to escape conflict in Syria, Mardini and her sister climbed on board a dinghy built to carry six but carrying 20…Their motor failed 30 minutes into their journey and, being one of only four people on board who could swim, Mardini, her sister and two others jumped into the water. They swam for three hours, pushing and pulling the boat until it reached the shore, saving the lives of everyone on board." - from The Independent [2]

We know Mardini’s name because she's an Olympian. But there are so many other people in this story bearing each other’s burden, including Mardini’s sister and the two other unnamed swimmers. And in the midst of this immense refugee crisis, there are so many bearing each other’s burdens in countless boats like it: fathers holding onto children for dear life while the water rises, young people holding one another for support, volunteers waiting on the shoreline with an outstretched hand and solar blankets and medical equipment. Swirling around the horror of the Syrian refugee crisis is an endless stream of people bearing each other's burdens, reminding us that life is not about winning. Life is about supporting each other.

In our lives, in vastly less dramatic circumstances, we have opportunities to devote ourselves to supporting each other every day. I have seen this kind of burden-sharing happen at our partner school, the school my daughter attends, Liberty Elementary. There I have seen teachers treating each student as if she or he was worthy and beloved no matter what his or her reading level or immigration status or family situation.

I have seen children leaving school with bags of bread donated by a local restaurant. I have seen little ones waiting to be cared for in the community health center on site that helps those who don’t have a car to drive to a remote doctor’s office. I have seen teachers and administrators and parents and interpreters gathered, with all of our different races and languages and religions, together committing to bear the burdens of our whole community so that every child is educated and healthy and safe.

And in these transcendent moments, I have truly understood that each person is sacred and has one job: to bear each other's burdens. To incarnate the Law of love.

May we be freed to do this again and again.

May it be so.


[1] Richard B. Hays. Galatians. New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary. Vol. 11. P. 333.