The Apostle Paul is not known for his clarity of writing. Certainly there are times when he seems crystal clear, like in Romans 8, “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” He has his moments. But I’d hate to have been in a restaurant with him back in the day, “And what will you have, sir?” “Greetings, dear one in Christ. I thank God for you and for all you’ve done for the saints. I would like most especially to order and procure a flank steak yet of the hamburger variety. Do not be deceived, dear one, for the flank steak is of the better part yet is also of the hamburger…”
Well, maybe not, but today’s lesson leaves me with some confusion: “If anyone is detected in a transgression, you who have received the Spirit should restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness…bear one another’s burdens and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ” he writes, but then he turns right around and says “all must carry their own loads.” What to make of that? Everyone should help everyone else with their troubles and each person should carry his or her own burdens. Within a sentence-distance of one another. It’s not entirely obvious what he’s meaning here, except maybe for the sentence before, “you who have received the Spirit should restore such a one”—restore—it’s about restoration. It’s about putting one another back together, for we are all broken in one way or another. And because so much of both Hebrew and Christian Scriptures are about group salvation rather than individual, it’s about returning as a community to our original state of one-ness with God. It’s about radical forgiveness and hospitality. And about a peculiar kind of freedom. We are not so much called into an individual freedom wherein we are not taxed for tea without representation but one in which we have obligations. Peculiar, indeed. We are supposed to help carry one another’s burdens in addition to our own and in turn, let others bear ours. It’s a kind of a dance, or a musical round with the weight and the parts shifting from one person to another, never being dropped.
In fact, let me teach you a round and you’ll see what I mean.
Teach: Peace, perfect peace, perfect peace. [key: G]
Canted part:Peace, perfect peace—with Jesus by our side—
That wasn’t so bad was it? You relied on your friends
Peace, perfect peace—with Spirit hovering over—
You hold your own part, then pass it off to your neighbor…
Peace perfect peace—I cue you in to sing—
And you bear one another’s burdens…musically.
Could you feel that give and take? Where one group begins, the others wait, listening, feeling out where the group is. Then a second group responds, taking up their own part, which is also part of another group’s burden, following, making harmony, holding responsibility for the music. The musical line is handed back and forth among us and no single person has to control it—if you forgot the notes or when to come in, someone else had it and you could follow her. Perhaps this is what it is to bear one another’s burdens and our own at the same time.
For many of you, music is a powerful reminder of joy, that there is order in the chaos of our lives, that in a moment of misery or frustration or triumph, there is beauty and therefore truth and hope.
For some of you, this experience of singing is not a helpful image. For folks like my loving husband, an occasion of public song is an occasion of discomfort and exclusion. He doesn’t sing. Doesn’t like singing. Maybe there are more of you out there—and you know as well as I do that there are other things you do that show you that mutual reliance—playing on a soccer team or a baseball team, working on a construction project with a group, or for that matter, raising children—if that’s not a communal dance, I don’t know what is.
And this is freedom in Christ—not as the world sees it, but as we Christians see it.
Freedom that we celebrate today as a country is wonderful—I love that I can vote and assemble with people of like minds and that we all have the right of due process under the law—great stuff. But remember what Pastor Jess spoke about last week, about not making our families into idols. That idols are anything that stands between us and God. Perhaps our nation can become an idol at times. When we equate good citizenship with Christianity or assume Jesus would vote the same way we do, we all commit the sin of idolatry. Perhaps we all need the restoration Paul talks about in Galatians—that freedom looks different when we become Christians.
Freedom in Christ involves obligations—and do not be deceived, brothers and sisters, sometimes we dislike what we’re asked to do. Sometimes we have to choose what is right over what is easy, but we can grow to love them in the practicing of them. And we certainly grow from the practicing. We take care of our ailing parents or spouses because we have to, of course, and because our love and our God tell us this is what we do. We come to worship each week because we are set free, given a 2nd, 3rd, or 4th chance to try again. We call up a friend or relative and listen or forgive or invite them to church—whatever it is we’ve been avoiding—because we are a sacrificial people. We give away our time and money because God tells us to, and because in giving away, we become whole. We are restored. Our Jewish brothers and sisters, at least theologically, delight in these obligations, these good works. Like the music we sang earlier, there’s an obligation there to sing a harmonious note but also a freedom. Listening to and participating in congregational singing is freeing—we can lose ourselves in the melody, we can make up new parts, we can let go of the idols we hold in our regular lives. And all because we are tied to the music—we bear one another’s burdens and others bear ours.
This song is what we’re called to this Independence Day. We are witnesses that there is a better way, that we don’t have to buy into political spin or the God of Consumerism or the sacredness of national security. And we don’t have to buy into the Lutheran Way or the Non-Denominational Way either. We are citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven and the way we celebrate freedom is in helping others carry their burdens. Friends, enemies, the person sitting next to you in the pew who you don’t really know what to think about, complete strangers—all are one body, one Spirit in Christ and we have one Lord, one Faith, one Baptism.
So, sing with me again, a different tune now:
Teach: Open my heart... [key: F]