A sermon preached on October 3rd, 2010 based upon 2Timothy 1:5-7 and Luke 17:5-6.
There is this wise quote I’ve come across recently, the author of whom is uncertain: “Be kind, for every one you meet is carrying a great burden.”
The implication being, that for the most part, we keep our great burdens well-disguised, even, at times, from ourselves.
“Be kind, for every one you meet is carrying a great burden.”
The quote came to mind when I heard the heart-wrenching story of the Rutgers freshman from Ridgewood who concluded that the great burden he was carrying left him with no choice but to jump off the George Washington Bridge. I’m pretty sure that if his roommate had had any inkling of the nature of the great burden he was carrying around with him, well, the roommate surely wouldn’t have acted so thoughtlessly, with such cruelty, in the manner, unfortunately all too common in our society.
There is this paradox to human nature. One side of the paradox is this: We tend to overestimate our personal strength, imagining our capacity to endure to be far greater than it is. We think to ourselves, “I can handle whatever,” not realizing that the sense of stability and strength we feel in the moment has more to do with the good fortune of our present favorable circumstances than it has to do with something innate to us. We fail to recognize how little it would take for our sense of strength to come tumbling down. This is expressed in the Gospels when James and John come to Jesus asking for positions of authority in Jesus’ coming kingdom. Jesus asks, “Can you drink the cup that I drink?” They say, “We are able.” And at the last supper, Peter declares, even if these others fall away, I will not. James, John and Peter found out soon enough just how frail they truly were.
Before all hell broke loose, the roommate of the young man who took his life probably assumed that he was on pretty much on top of his life, capable of handling whatever came his way; and in typical self-centered human fashion figured that pretty much every body else was similarly capable – his roommate included. This week, however, I suspect the roommate, his picture in the news media as the poster boy of cruelty, is wondering how he himself can go on with life.
And so, one side of the paradox is the fact that we overestimate our personal strength. The other side is this: we tend to underestimate the strength that is, in fact available to us from a place deeper than we know, particularly when we most need such strength. Unfortunately, the freshman from Ridgewood never got the chance to discover the strength that truly was available to him.
So the paradox: we are both weaker and stronger than we know.
“Be kind; for everyone we encounter is carrying a great burden.” Or to put it another way, “Be gentle; for there is inside of everyone we meet a great struggle taking place.” This struggle can be described in a variety of ways:
Courage and fear,
Faith and doubt,
Sin and grace,
Hope and despair,
Love and hate,
Life and death.
At any given moment, one side of the struggle may stand out stronger, in a manner that seems to eclipse the opposite side. If it is our weakness that is eclipsed, we are tempted to overestimate our strength; and if it is our strength that is eclipsed we may feel tempted to overestimate our weakness.
In the background of both of our short scriptures this morning is the experience expressed in the words, “feeling overwhelmed.” In the Gospel lesson, the disciples are feeling overwhelmed and for good reason. They are well on their way to Jerusalem, and they can read the handwriting on the wall. They know the threats that await them there. And they are terrified. They also recognize the high demands of the life to which Jesus is calling them; a life of forgiveness and peacemaking, of courage and trust, and they doubt they have what it takes to walk the walk.
And so they are feeling overwhelmed, and they cry out to Jesus, “Lord, increase our faith!”
The situation for Timothy to whom Paul is writing is less acute than that of the disciples, but it is one with which many of us may be more readily identify. Several decades have passed since the initial surge of enthusiasm began the church. Timothy is struggling with the burdens of “the long haul,” “the daily grind.” There is less threat of somebody trying to kill him, but now the challenge is simply to get up each day and keep trying to do your best when you know that you aren’t really doing your best. You’re warn down by the seemingly endless nature of the journey and a big part of you wants to just crawl into bed and pull up the covers and never come out.
“A little overwhelmed” is the expression I hear folks use frequently these days. I sometimes say it my self. We sense that it wouldn’t take so much for us to feel “a lot overwhelmed,” finding ourselves in that dark place the freshman found himself.
The responses given by Jesus and Paul to these situations of feeling overwhelmed, although they draw on different metaphors, are quite similar.
Jesus says, “If you have faith the size of a mustard seed” – and here we remember that a mustard seed was the smallest of known seeds in Jesus day – “you will be able to say to this mulberry bush, be uprooted, and be planted in the sea, and it will do so.”
And the point here is that Jesus is telling his disciples if you’ve gotten this far, well, you have faith at least as big as a mustard seed inside you. It may be dormant. It may be waiting around for the right conditions to burst forth and really do something amazing, but fear not, it is within you.
You do have access to more strength and courage than you can begin to imagine.
And Paul speaks of the gift of faith that is within Timothy, and he reminds him to “rekindle” this gift. The metaphor of fire being used here is significant: It makes a big difference, particularly in a primitive world where there weren’t any matches, between having a burning embers and having no fire whatsoever. The burning embers can be set ablaze to do some amazing things; the burning embers are within you; rekindle them. Remember that it wasn’t a spirit of cowardice but of power and love and self-control, making it possible for you to do wonderful things for God.
So… how are you doing? Are you feeling overwhelmed? Maybe just, a little overwhelmed?
Well, the first thing to say is, well, join the club. To be a human being is to feel overwhelmed, because we aren’t gods, we are mortals, with definite limitations. The people in this world who are truly dangerous are the ones who haven’t spent much time in “the land of overwhelmed,” and as such, they are handicapped in terms of their capacity for kindness and gentleness.
So in a certain sense, it is a good thing to feel overwhelmed. It’s your membership card to the human race.
Sometimes we have to experience being totally overwhelmed before we can begin to experience the strength that comes from beyond us. It seems to have been the case for both the disciples and for Paul. It’s like the way alcoholics have to come crashing down before they realize there is indeed a higher power that can help them with sobriety. So, first thing: be kind, be gentle with yourself. To be a human is to feel overwhelmed.
How, though, do we go about finding the greater strength?
Begin with the assumption that there is indeed a mustard seed faith within, even though we cannot sense its presence. Remember that though you cannot find a blazing fire within, there is, nonetheless, some hot coals waiting to be fanned.
Jesus identified the presence of “faith” in a handful of people he met. In every instance, the faith has the quality of a dogged determination. The four friends who wouldn’t give up in bringing their friend to Jesus’ healing touch, hoisting him up on the roof, tearing the hole, persevering on his behalf. The woman with the flow of blood for eighteen years who had seen multiple doctors who had taken her money but none her no good, but she persists in going where the rules said she didn’t belong, to touch the hem of Jesus’ garment. I could go on to other examples, but you get the point.
I read this story that illustrates something of that quality.
There were two warring tribes in the Andes, one that lived in the lowlands, and the other high in the mountains. The mountain people invaded the lowlanders one day, and as part of their plundering of the people, they kidnapped a baby of one of the lowlander families and took the infant with them back up into the mountains.
The lowlanders didn’t know how to climb the mountain. They didn’t know any of the trails that the mountain people used, and they didn’t know where to find the mountain people or how to track them in the steep terrain.
Even so, they sent out their best fighting men to climb the mountain and bring the baby home.
The men tried first one method of climbing and then another. They tried one trail and then another. After several days of effort, however, they had climbed only a couple of hundred feet.
Feeling hopeless and helpless, the lowlander men decided that the cause was lost, and they prepared to return to their village below.
As they were packing their gear for the descent, they saw the baby’s mother walking toward them. They realized that she was coming down the mountain that they hadn’t figured out how to climb.
And they saw that she had the baby strapped to her back. How could that be?
One man greeted her and said, “We couldn’t climb this mountain. How did you do this when we, the strongest and most able men in the village, couldn’t do it?”
She shrugged her shoulders and said, “It wasn’t your baby.”
This is a story about the dogged determination of mothers; but it also symbolizes something more. There is a “baby” in the lives of each of us; the vision cast by God which, when we get a hold of it, there is nothing that can stand in our way. What is the baby for you? What is the passion buried within awaiting to be awoken, at which point uprooting mulberry trees will become a piece of cake?
In a few minutes we will share once more the Lord’s Supper. Holy Communion takes us back to the Last supper, that situation of being totally overwhelmed where human strength was inadequate. Here, the power beyond our power can be discovered in the gift of the body and the blood of Jesus Christ our Lord.