A Commentary for the Sixth Sunday after Pentecost

Posted by: on Jul 4, 2010 | No Comments

There are three things in today’s lessons that I’d like to talk about. The first is an image of God that we hear about in Isaiah; the second is Paul’s counsel about “bearing one another’s burdens”; and the last is the Gospel and what it says about the “harvest”.

The image to which I want to draw our attention in Isaiah is this: “As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you.” This is an image of God that we are not used to hearing; it is a feminine image of God. I have often wondered why the Church has been so reluctant to speak about God in feminine terms when there is clear biblical warrant for doing so. It is as if we forget that when we are speaking about God, we are speaking about the One who is neither male nor female. God is beyond these categories. Think of what we heard from Paul in recent weeks: “In Christ there is neither slave nor free, Jew nor Greek, male nor female.” This is true for the one who is in Christ only because it is first true of God. We might use images of a father to talk about God, just as there is reason to use images of maternal care to talk about God; but God is not one or the other, and not ever a combination of the two. God is beyond all of these images.

In the section from Galatians that we hear today, Paul seems to contradict himself. He says, first of all, to “bear one another’s burdens.” Then, only a few sentences later, he says, “For everyone must carry their own load.”

The contradiction is only apparent; actually, these two sayings go together. First, what is the burden to which Paul refers? The burden is, I think, nothing other than the burden of being human, with our longings, our disappointments, our confusion, our sorrows, our hope for meaning and fulfillment. No one carries this burden easily; it is hard work. It is not easy to be a human being. We no longer have those deep instincts that seem to guide other animals through the course of their life. What other creatures do automatically, we must do voluntarily; and in trying to find our way, we often feel lost, confused, overwhelmed. We often lose the path of our own lives.

Paul is saying that we are to be compassionate toward one another in this struggle. We all share it, and no one escapes it. We can help one another, but ultimately, each of us must live our own lives, and no one can do this for another. The ways we help one another–the listening, the counsel, the kindness, the encouragement–are meant to help the other to pick up their own burden again, when they have forgotten how to carry it, or when they believe that it is too much to carry.

The last comment is about the image of the harvest, which occurs in both Paul and Luke. There is a relatively famous story about the monk, Thomas Merton, who one day stood on the corner of Louisville and saw the crowded street filled with “people who were shining like the sun, only they did not know it.” This is a harvest image. In Merton’s vision, no one was excluded. Every person that Merton saw was already radiant with a light of which they were unaware. The “harvest” in this sense is to help people become aware of who and what they already are.

The harvest might be even more broadly understood as referring to Creation itself, the vast play of life and being that is the universe. Who thinks of himself, or herself, as the agent through whom God is bringing all Creation to fulfillment? Does that sound too grandiose? And yet, what else does it mean to be human? Why are we here?

To understand ourselves in this way, as collaborators with God in the work of helping all Creation come to fulfillment, has several implications. First, it means that there are no boundaries to this work. It is possible to bring an awareness of God’s active presence into everything we do. Everything. There are no longer any divisions between the sacred and the secular. Irrigating a field can be as holy as celebrating communion, if it is correctly understood.

Second, it means recognizing the dignity of every person’s path in life. In the “world” there are people who have important decisions to make, decisions that will affect the lives of thousands, and then there are people of no significance. In the Kingdom of God–and that is what we have been talking about–this distinction is erased. In the Kingdom of God, every person’s decisions are of ultimate importance. Every person, however insignificant by the standards of the world, is wrestling with God. No one is closer to this wrestling than any other; the day laborer is the equal of the President.

In the world, success is measured by how close one is to the center of power. In the Kingdom, the center of power is everywhere, waiting to be recognized so that the real work might begin. In worldly terms, we here in Montana “are out in the sticks” where nothing important happens. In terms of the Kingdom of God, we’re at the exact center of all reality. Everyone and everything is equidistant from God. No place on earth is privileged. All that is asked of us—nothing less—is that we understand the high dignity that is ours in this relationship, and act appropriately.