“The Gospel According to Red Green”

October 6, 2013


Isaiah 46:1-4

Galatians 6:1-10


It is good to be back.

As I’ve been saying to everyone, my sabbatical was a time of renewal and wonder and I am thankful for that opportunity. I succeeded in doing much that I set out to do—and also went in some new and unexpected directions. It was a little like the way W.H. Auden described following Christ: “You will see rare beasts, and have unique adventures.” I return with a renewed appreciation of liberal Protestantism and with great excitement for the future of this congregation. I look forward to the ways in which my experiences will develop and bear fruit in this place as we continue our ministry and mission together.

While three months goes by quickly, the children in our congregation show me how much can happen in so short a time. They’ve grown! At least one has started walking! A new school year has begun. So I look forward to learning more about your lives in recent months and how the living God has been active in them and in the life of this congregation.

And what better time to be back worshipping together than on this World Communion Sunday?

The choir made this day special with that great Jamaican anthem. This tune is used widely in the global Christian community. You can go all sorts of places around the world and people know and sing it. I’m sure John wasn’t aware of this when he selected the music, but that “Alle, Alle, Alle” refrain has been a favorite of mine since I first heard and sang it at an event at Yale Divinity School shortly before I came here six years ago. Some might remember that we sang it during an Easter Sunrise Service a few years back. It brought me great joy to hear it this morning.

It’s fitting to return on World Communion Sunday because on this day connections between people are renewed—or perhaps recognized for the first time. When we gather at the Table today, our eyes are opened to see that, in the words of the hymn, “In Christ there is no east or west, in him no south or north.” We announce the reality—glimpsed occasionally but not always obvious—that we are one in Christ. That is, we have a bond with Christians in Pakistan who grieve after being attacked while worshipping; we have a bond with Christians in Syria who are suffering; we have a bond with Christians in Africa who are seeking to reduce the spread of AIDS and who, with Archbishop Desmond Tutu, are advocating for the rights of gay and lesbian people.

Liberal Protestants proposed World Communion Sunday in the 1930’s and encouraged its wider observance beginning in the 1940’s—at a time of economic inequality and uncertainty, at a time when the whole world sensed a gathering cloud of tension between nations and peoples. World Communion Sunday developed in a time much like our own and continues to inform our faith in these days. On this day, we are invited to look, to see what we share with other Christians, with other people of faith, and really, with all people.

Rabbi Michael Lerner gave me a better sense of the importance of a day such this when he wrote a few years back:

We may tell ourselves that the current violence has “nothing to do” with the way that we’ve learned to close our ears when told that one out of every three people on this planet does not have enough food, and that one billion are literally starving. We may reassure ourselves that the hoarding of the world’s resources by the richest society in world history, and our frantic attempts to accelerate globalization with its attendant inequalities of wealth, has nothing to do with the resentment that others feel toward us. We may tell ourselves that the suffering of refugees and the oppressed have nothing to do with us. . . . But we live in one world, increasingly interconnected with everyone, and the forces that lead people to feel outrage, anger, and desperation eventually impact on our own daily lives.

So it is with some urgency that the words of Paul to the early church in Galatia come to us this morning: “Bear one another’s burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ.”

It might seem strange that these words to a single congregation would have anything to say to us in our global situation. But they are like a pebble dropped into a calm pool. Let us stay with Paul’s words as the ripples expand.

Bear one another’s burdens.

Think globally and act locally, we are told so often.

We start locally, with a specific Christian congregation, with this congregation.

Over time in a place like this, we come to know each other so that we can bear one another’s burdens. This is the point, really of so much of who we do around here: selling hot dogs and Cokes on a Friday night, eating together in Rockwood Hall, gathering to clean up our building, hauling bags of winter coats in and out of here. We get to know one another so that we can share one another’s burdens.

The weight of life is just too great to carry it by ourselves.

Maybe you’re read some of the recent reports about the growth of “atheist churches”—gatherings of people who have realized that, while they might disagree with us about God, we Christians have a pretty good thing going in our congregations. One participant in an atheist assembly down in Texas said, “The church model has worked really well for a couple of thousand years.” He colorfully described what they are trying to do as holding “on to the bath water while throwing out the baby Jesus.”

Well, good luck with that—I’m convinced that the two still go together.

From the start of Christianity, individual congregations have been our great strength. Yes, they have also been places of strife, contention, and, well, sin. But by God’s grace congregations are also the places in which we fulfill the law of Christ by loving one another as we have been loved. They are communities of mutual support in which we are known by one another in a way that is different from what we experience at work, school, in our neighborhoods or civic organizations.

Sometimes bearing burdens means providing financial support through a difficult time; sometimes it is a visit or a conversation. Sometimes it is simply the fact that we are here in this place—that the chapel is open during the week, that we gather here to lift up our prayers together, sharing an often unspoken understanding that we go through life as companions— literally, those with whom we eat bread.

These times call us back to the basics of our liberal faith. This table—where bread is broken and wine is poured as we remember God’s mighty acts in Jesus—this table is the strong root of our faith and our life together. If we are going to bear one another’s burdens, we will do so only as we are frequently nourished by the food and drink offered here.

But we see ripples: there is more involved than just this congregation in this place.

Paul encourages us: “Let us work for the good of the members of the household of faith.”

Do you begin to see that this “household” is greater than our little, much-loved home? The word “ecumenical finds its root in the Greek word for household—oikos­. From its start in the twentieth century, the ecumenical movement has been a peace movement, seeking to establish bonds of compassion and mutual concern across and beyond national borders. It cares for the worldwide household of faith. This table is where we begin the work of bringing peace into the world through acts of righteousness. This table is where we return again and again to be nurtured in that work, work that we are incapable of doing on our own strength.

As we work for the good of the household of faith, the ripples expand further and we start to see more than we might have expected. Paul’s full words are, “As opportunity offers, let us work for the good of all humanity, especially members of the household of faith.” While we seek to love one another in this congregation, while we continue to work with and pray for others around the world who gather around tables like this one today, we know that our real calling is not so sectarian and limited. As far as we are able, we work for the good of all: the homeless on the Ped Mall, the hungry begging on our streets, victims of natural disasters, victims of human hatred and discrimination, Muslims as well as Christians in Syria, Buddhists who were attacked as they worshipped.

Just at this point we begin to sense the danger in all of this. We are tempted to regard ourselves as do-gooders, as those who care for the “less fortunate.” I don’t know if this is a uniquely American temptation, but we face it. So Paul reminds us—as of a tension that keeps us from being “helpers.” “Bear on another’s burdens.” Yes. But remember as well, “All must carry their own loads.” We’re not doing what we do out of a position of strength, but out of our common weakness, recognizing all that weighs us down—the little gods, Isaiah might say. We are warned not to take on more than is within our ability and encouraged to live with ourselves as we are.

So we both come to this day and live our lives with a certain humility. We are called to be, not so much a solution to the hurts of the world as a sign to a hurting world—individuals and a community that point toward what God is still doing.

On those Saturday nights when the sermon is finished, the dishes are done, and that wonderful weekend stillness descends on the house, I occasionally find myself watching The Red Green Show, that celebration of male ingenuity and cluelessness and duct tape on PBS. At some point during each show Red sits behind a desk, offering his own unique and skewed perspective on a vexing situation. Each time he concludes by saying, “Remember, we’re all in this together,” adding the encouraging words, “I’m pulling for you.”

And, well, that’s close to the message of World Communion Sunday.

We’re all in this together.

The Congregational Church.

Christians around the world.

The people of every nation.

Everything that lives and moves upon this earth.

We’re all in this together,

bearing one another’s burdens in Christ

even as the living God bears up each of us and all of us

sustaining us with food and drink  at the table

in this place and around the world.