A Sermon Presented to St. Charles Avenue Baptist Church
My sermon a few weeks ago concerning faith mainly looked at our faith in terms of hope in God. Even then, I knew the sermon had a second part, but I wasn’t really sure what it was.
During the night one night, as I lay in bed watching the clock move through the 4 AM hour, I found myself in circular conversation with God. Frustrated by my inability to go back to sleep and my need to wrap up the conversation, I heard myself say, “Faith is a burden.” Struck by my own statement, I entered into a new circle—Is that true? Is faith burdensome? I felt a little blasphemous in even thinking about faith that way.
A lot of my 4 AM conversations seem meaningless the next day or the questions I ask are easily answered after the sun comes up, but the thought of faith being a burden has stuck with me for weeks. I keep hearing the verse, “take up your cross and follow me,” echoing in my ears.
I also have been repeatedly drawn to the part of Moses’ narrative in Exodus that begins with the scene at the burning bush. Old Moses, out shepherding his father-in-law’s flock, sees something that piques his interest. Clinging to his staff, his only means of protection, he walks over and is commanded to take off his shoes. “You are on holy ground in this wilderness, take the sandals off your feet.” Hearing God’s voice, Moses hides his face, afraid to look at God.
God tells Moses of his plan to set the Israelites free and Moses starts to tell God why he isn’t the man for the job. “God, I am no one, I have killed a man, I am a stutterer, I am in charge of my father-in-law’s flock, I have a family…”
And God answers, “Moses, you may have your share of burdens, but I am now going to ask you to throw down that staff that is currently holding you up.”
We hold on to burdens that have us ashamed, afraid to look to God; we hold burdens that leave us heavy laden and run down; we hold onto burdens that we could have thrown down long ago, but we hold onto them because they have become crutches for us and we are afraid to put them down because we are afraid that we might fall down.
Think of the illustration from today’s Gospel story (Luke 18:9-14):
Two men went to the temple to pray. The tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’
God beckons us to come before Him just as the tax collector, humbly, with our shoes off, acknowledging holy ground, and to lay down our burdens right there in His presence, to lay down the staffs that we think are holding us up. Jesus says to us, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28).
The Lord said to Moses, ‘What is that in your hand?’ Moses said, ‘A staff.’ And God said, ‘Throw it on the ground.’
That’s not the end of the story is it? Moses doesn’t get to throw down those burdens and walk away, does he?
The next part of the story begins with a snake on the ground and with God telling Moses to pick that snake up.
The Moses narrative says nothing about how quickly Moses picked up his staff. If he took a little time, I can’t say that I would blame him. Though I gave no real thought to that staff turning into a snake, if it did, I would be hoping that Tom had a net and was willing to use it.
The fact is that the next part of the story is an acceptance of a mission. The next part of the story signifies the beginning of a new journey—out of the shelter the wilderness provides and into the open action—this is where faith and works collide. This is where I hear the words we read earlier from James and this is where I hear Jesus’ words, “Take up your cross and follow me.”
When we pick up our staffs, our crosses, and in doing so accept the mission of the cross of Christ, we are accepting the collision of our faith in Jesus and the works of Jesus. We may already have the distressing voice with us that won’t let us sleep because of theological questions. The voice may keep us coming back to church, it may keep us tithing, it may urge us to walk over to a burning bush, and it may even oblige us to pass along a package of peanut butter and crackers to the fellow on the street corner.
But we mustn’t confuse being good humans with being followers of Christ. When we truly accept the burden of the cross of Christ, we are accepting the vision that compels us to see injustice, poverty, and inequality, the action that compels us to fight for freedom, to feed the hungry, and to forge a redistribution of power, and we acknowledge that it is the love of Jesus that compels us to see, to act, and to share.
Jesus beckons us to come before him, to pick up our cross, and to accept the burden of faith.
But that’s not the end of the story, is it? Moses’ journey is just beginning and it is not an easy journey. The trip to Egypt, in Egypt, and out of Egypt is horrific. And then Moses gets stuck in the wilderness with a people whose satisfaction is always short-lived. We hear these people in the wilderness ask time an time again if God has forgotten them—they lose faith during the journey.
What of our mission, of our ministry? What of those days when our good works feel worthless or painfully perpetual? What of those days when we do good works but we find our faith weakened? Come on James! We’ve got works and we’ve got faith, but there are some days when we’re not sure that we believe.
Several nights ago, as I lay in the bed with my daughter Annie, we sang “Jesus Loves Me” together because she’d be singing it since I picked her up from preschool. At the end of the song I said, rather offhandedly to her, “Jesus does love you, Annie.” Her reply, “I know. Mr. Stephen tells me that.”
All at once, I sighed with relief and felt a pang in my gut. I was relieved that she was hearing about Jesus’ love for her at school and I was hurt at the possibility that she didn’t know this from me, her mother. Her mother, a minister.
The roll of questions started to flood: “Was my ministry becoming a job and was I no longer willing to bring work home? Was my faith wavering enough that I was failing to share the faith with my own daughter?”
Here’s the answers: Maybe and maybe and I don’t know. I don’t have any answers. I’m willing to accept that I get tired and I’m willing to accept that I do share the message of Jesus with my children, and that Annie, in that occasion, was just relaying a simple fact from her day at school.
But I share the more painful possibilities of that story with you because I believe that I am more human than unique—I don’t think that I’m alone. I think that I sing in unison with many the words, “Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it, prone to leave the God I love.”
Hear this heart-wrenching quote from Mother Teresa: “Jesus has a very special love for you. As for me, the silence and the emptiness is so great that I look and do not see, listen and do not hear.”
I find consolation in the fact that others struggle, even those saints like Mother Teresa. I find consolation in the fact that it felt good that night to sing “Jesus Loves Me” with my child. I find consolation in the fact that I often feel burdened by faith; burden can sometimes mean recognition of and reaction to the lack of one’s own understanding. And realizing that we don’t know it all is, in itself, a push to do more and a release from having to know it all.
On those nights when I have circular conversations and I just want to go back to sleep, I am consoled in the morning because something has been going on—I am wrestling, I am struggling, but at least there is action.
I don’t believe that my journey of faith or our journey in faith is supposed to be easy. If we have a solely rosy interpretation of scripture, then I don’t think we’ve been presented with the whole text. In life, I believe that we will hurt and be hurt. I believe that we will feel overburdened and that sometimes those burdens will be too much. I believe that on occasion we will do good works and they won’t be received well or we will do good works for the wrong reasons. I believe that there will be days and nights and weeks or longer that we will strain to hear the voice of God and we will not be successful. And we will grieve.
These words are no benediction, are they?
Go ahead and argue with God. Pray. Cry during the struggles. Pray again. Keep doing good works! Be open to the possibility of joy every morning. And when you find it, share it abundantly. Love abundantly. Pray to the one who receives your burdens and cast those burdens before the Lord. You will be sustained. This is not the end of the story.
Read more from Stephanie Little Coyne at her blog.