July 7, 2019
Rev. Elizabeth Mangham Lott
St. Charles Ave. Baptist Church
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. 2 Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill[b] the law of Christ. 3 For if those who are nothing think they are something, they deceive themselves. 4 All must test their own work; then that work, rather than their neighbor’s work, will become a cause for pride. 5 For all must carry their own loads.
6 Those who are taught the word must share in all good things with their teacher.
7 Do not be deceived; God is not mocked, for you reap whatever you sow. 8 If you sow to your own flesh, you will reap corruption from the flesh; but if you sow to the Spirit, you will reap eternal life from the Spirit. 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. 10 So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith.
A lot of preachers, particularly in my circles, it seems, don’t like to spend too much time in the epistles because there’s so much to untangle and mend. In these old letters, we also come across an awful lot about avoiding sin and hear that as swapping one old purity code for a new one: staying clean for Jesus lest he take back that gift of salvation. As I’m sitting with the letter to the Galatians in one hand and Richard Rohr’s The Universal Christ in the other, I find I quite love what Paul and his colleagues are writing to these early churches. They are saying: this way of doing faith that you are living out together in real time requires you all stick together, walk together, and share a common life together. You can’t do this alone.
Alone is how we spend much of our lives. I don’t mean alone in that really good, decadent sense. Alone for just a couple of hours in an empty house before kids and spouse come home. Alone overlooking the beach at sunrise with a cup of coffee in hand watching the sky turn blue. Alone walking a bayou at dusk as the night herons and ibis make their way home. That’s good alone, invigorating alone, overflowing with beauty kind of alone.
Paul is warning against the kind of alone that we know all too well in this age some have called a loneliness epidemic. According to the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration, “Loneliness and social isolation can be as damaging to health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, researchers warned in a recent webcast, and the problem is particularly acute among seniors, especially during holidays.
Two in five Americans report that they sometimes or always feel their social relationships are not meaningful, and one in five say they feel lonely or socially isolated. The lack of connection can have life threatening consequences, said Brigham Young University professor Julianne Holt-Lunstad, who testified before the U.S. Senate in April, 2017 that the problem is structural as well as psychological.”
“As a force in shaping our health, medical care pales in comparison with the circumstances of the communities in which we live. Few aspects of community are more powerful than is the degree of connectedness and social support for individuals.
Living alone, being unmarried (single, divorced, widowed), no participation in social groups, fewer friends, and strained relationships are not only all risk factors for premature mortality but also increase risk for loneliness. Retirement and physical impairments may also increase the risk of social isolation.” The last U.S. census reports over a quarter of adults living alone. The next census will likely show a significant increase in this point of data.
Please don’t hear this as a criticism of being single, divorced, or widowed. It’s not. The real issue here is no participation in social groups—no meaningful connection for a significant population in our country. This is scientific data backing up that very first comment of not-goodness God made in the poetry of creation upon forming only one human. “It is not good for man to be alone,” the creator says. Sky is good, water is good, birds are good, fish are good, day is good, night is good. Then God makes a single human and realizes something isn’t good about the solitary being. Before the tree, before the snake, before the fruit, before the clothes stitched together by a compassionate creator, something is already not good in the garden—human isolation. Community and relationship are part of the intention of creation, and we are living in a time of facing the consequences of the fierce autonomy we have taught for a very long time in this part of the world.
We have also lifted up autonomy as a source of pride—we admiringly say, “he pulled himself up by his bootstraps and really made something of himself” or “she never complained once about how hard it was to care for her husband all by herself as he died.” We suffer in silence because we don’t want to burden each other or even show the realities of our pain. In doing so, our suffering becomes even greater. This fact isn’t just rooted in this one letter from Paul to the churches at Galatia. This fact is rooted in present-day, scientific research. Our suffering becomes even greater when we do not share our lives in meaningful ways with other human beings.
Paul begins this section of his letter by calling the church his friends and encourages them to restore anyone who is falling away from the path they are walking. Carry each others burdens—don’t let a friend in the community suffer alone but walk alongside them to help strengthen them. The opposite of what we have valued for so long in our culture! He goes into a bit about carrying your own load and doing your own work not because of some sense of divine judgment for that work but because the part you do impacts your neighbor, the contributions you make also strengthen the community of which you are apart. Work for the good of all, he urges.
Richard Rohr writes, “When we carry our small suffering in solidarity with the one universal longing of all humanity, it helps keep us from self-pity or self-preoccupation. We know that we are all in this together, and it is just as hard for everybody else. Almost all people are carrying a great and secret hurt, even when they don’t know it. When we can make the shift to realize this, it softens the space around our overly defended hearts. It makes it hard to be cruel to anyone. It somehow makes us one—in a way that easy comfort and entertainment never can.”
This embodied empathy is the calling of our faith community—to carry each other, to work for the good of all, to soften the space around our overly defended hearts. We are taking steps all the time toward being this type of people for each other and for the greater community around us. It hasn’t always been this way and still isn’t, in many faith communities. There has been a strong, “Come here to us and join us for your own personal piety and salvation.” Then the fruit of personal piety, we taught, was a pleasant happiness. And pleasant happiness surely isn’t compatible with tears and anger and admitting to feeling overwhelmed by life.
In order to maintain the persona of pleasant happiness, the companion to personal piety and salvation became personal shame and fear of vulnerability. We began to hide what we perceived as weaknesses and shortcomings because we understood suffering as a moral failing instead of part of the human experience. And never once did we understand that in hiding our suffering, we were denying our friends and community the opportunity to grow (not just as humans but as people of faith) by caring for us and sharing the weight of our burdens.
Rohr criticizes the dominant teaching in the Western church over the past several hundred years for over-personalizing Christianity. Instead, the concept of one baptism drawing us all into relationship with the one Christ does the opposite. “Within this worldview,” he writes, “we are saved not be being privately perfect, but by being ‘part of the body,’ humble links in the great chain of history.”
He continues, “We are now too preoccupied with the ‘salvation of individuals’ to read history in a corporate way, and the results have been disastrous. The isolated individual is now left fragile and defensive, adrift in a huge ocean of others who are also trying to save themselves—and not the whole. [When this happens,] Christianity is now more of a contest, or even an ego trip, than a proclamation of…love.”
And what happens when Christianity becomes a contest and ego trip rather than a proclamation of love? Rohr suspects “that Western individualism has done more than any other single factor to anesthetize and even euthanize the power of the Gospel. Salvation, heaven, hell, worthiness, grace, and eternal life all came to be read through the lens of the separate ego, crowding God’s transformative power out of history and society.”
Reading Rohr alongside these old letters calls us to some real disentangling and mending work. We’re repairers of something broken when we tell the truth about our lives AND then let our friends carry us, walk with us, bear the weight of our burdens with us. The community grows and becomes stronger through these brave acts of personal story telling. And to share our lives together in this way feels completely and utterly new to some of us. I’m reminded of one St. Charles friend who came to me in my first year here and said, “You keep using this word ‘community,’ and I don’t think you realize that we don’t know what you mean by that.”
Maybe he was exaggerating, but I think he was getting at something too true in most faith communities in our lifetimes—we gather as isolated individuals, share an experience from a very safe physical distance, then leave this place again as isolated individuals. We’re undoing that old way here. A growing edge for us is to continue enjoying one another in good times, continue organizing and advocating for peace and justice work in our world, and to also show our vulnerabilities and tell the truth about our struggles inter-personally. It’s scary to do that because we could be judged or rejected for revealing the ways we suffer. But we are making a commitment here to carry each other as a fulfillment of Christ’s call to love.
Set before us is a meal marked by love—a common loaf and a common cup to be shared to call us back to the way of Christ’s love, to draw us together as friends, and to make fresh our commitment to share this life together. Friends, may we seek the Christ together at this table today.