The Things We Carry

By now, the War in Vietnam happened a long time ago.  People who are 50-years-old-and-younger today have no recollection of it at all, and that includes me, so I don’t really know, but from most accounts, it was quite different than our present war in Afghanistan.  We don’t hear too much about the War in Afghanistan.  Its always going on but it seems we don’t hear too much about it unless we go looking for news.  But if you talk to people who lived through the Vietnam War, from what I understand, every night on television there would be footage of the war.  There would be updates of the number of people who had died that day.  That was something people lived with and as they shut off their TVs at night they probably went to bed still thinking about it.

In 1990 a writer by the name of Tim O’ Brien wrote a book called the Things They Carried, about the Vietnam War.  It was required reading when I was a student at Appalachian State University and is still read widely in 12th grade curriculum and college curriculum.  He had been on the ground in Viet Nam and he used his own real life experience as the basis for this novel.

With a keen eye, he tells about the men who were in platoon together.  He tells us their names: there was Lieutenant Jimmy Cross who lead the men through the jungle, there was Rat Kiley the medic who tried to take care of the men when they were wounded, there was Kiowa, a Native American Baptist who went to sleep each night smelling the smell of the New Testament he used for a pillow, there was Ted Lavender, who didn’t make it home.  And there were many more men – all different in their personalities and from different places around the US – but, according to O’Brien, they were all united by the things that each of the men carried.

O Brien writes, “The things they carried were largely determined by necessity. Among the necessities or near-necessities were P-38 can openers, pocket knives, heat tabs, wristwatches, dog tags, mosquito repellent, chewing gum, candy, cigarettes, salt tablets, packets of Kool-Aid, lighters, matches, sewing kits, Military Payment Certificates, C – rations, and two or three canteens of water.”

But each of these men carried more.  Extra socks and boots, food, helmets, ponchos.  Heavy things.  Things of war.

“In addition to the three standard weapons—the M-60, M-16, and M-79—all heavy –and they carried whatever presented itself, or whatever seemed appropriate as a means of killing or staying alive. They all carried fragmentation grenades. They all carried at least one M-18 colored smoke grenade. Some carried tear gas or white phosphorus grenades.”

The list of the things they carried goes on and on, as O’Brien paints his picture of men carrying terrible loads.  Loads always being added to by resupply choppers.  No matter what they laid down, there was always more being sent, which must be carried.  But these men were not just carrying heavy things in their rucksacks and across their shoulders.

“They were tough,” O Brien writes, “[But] They carried all the emotional baggage of men who might die. Grief, terror, love, longing—these were intangibles, but the intangibles had their own mass and specific gravity, [and] they had tangible weight.”

“They carried all they could bear, and then some, including a silent awe for the terrible power of the things they carried.”

I think we carry heavy things.  I think you and I carry the weight of our past mistakesm, which sometimes haunt us.  I think we carry the heaviness of difficult decisions in our midst today.  We carry the worry of what tomorrow will bring.  Think about the things you carry in your life.

We carry our sadness for the brokenness of this world, in places as far away as Afghanistan and places as close and personal as right here at home, where as a country we still grapple with our racism and our sexist and how to treat one another well and live together.  We carry burdens for the things that hurt us and others which we have no power to change and for the things which are of our own doing. 

We carry heavy things. 

God knows the terrible power of the things we carry, because in Jesus he has carried their terrible weight on his very own shoulders.

With all the emotional baggage of a man who not only might die – but who is destined to die – Jesus sits at the table with his friends on the night that he will be turned over to the authorities and truly feels the grief, he truly feels their terror, as well as the love and the longing that his disciples felt.

Jesus looks and says, “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot carry them now – you can’t bear them up now.  They are too heavy.”

Because each of these disciples will be sent out to carry the gospel to people and places and they will experience animosity, judgement, exclusion, and some will lose their lives.

But as they sit at the table, and even as Jesus is carrying this tremendous weight of his passion, he promises to send his Spirit to guide these disciples through all these things that they can’t even bear to hear about.  He is going to be with them through it all.  He is going to be and all who would follow him on this way of self-giving. 

Jesus promises to be with you and to be with me in the difficult twists and turns of our life as we follow him.  He promises to strengthen us so that we can to stand when the weight seems too heavy and when it feels like our knees are buckling under the worry or the sickness or the grief.

When we can’t carry the weight any more by ourselves, Jesus promises, God will be there to help us.

In baptism, as water is poured over you, the Word of God penetrates into you with the sounding of the name: You are baptized in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. 

At the font, the Spirit of God took you and immersed you in the love that the Father and the Son share with one another for all eternity.

Think about the waters of God’s creation — Think about the depths of the deepest ocean.  Think about the most-high crashing thunderstorm.  Think about the most-mighty roaring river  — the waters of God’s creation.  That is the power of the love that has grasped you in baptism, because God loves you so much.  This mighty water crashed into your life to sweep away the weight of the things we carry.

Paul says it this way:  He says that we have been justified – we’ve been acquitted – the burden of guilt that we carried has been lifted away by the faith of Jesus, so that we have harmony and health and peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, who causes us to stand with unbuckled legs. 

Because of Jesus, we stand before God with such favor and love that we can even boast about the things we carry. 

Now this is a mystery of faith – that we can boast about the things we carry.  If you have ever suffered, if you know what that is, to be able to boast about that – that would only be something that God could bring about.

We can boast about the afflictions, the oppression, the tribulation, the trouble, the difficulty that we experience because we know that by God’s grace – in some mysterious way – these things that we carry which would crush us if it were up to us alone, will not destroy us and actually serve the purpose of bringing us closer to God because we know that we can’t do it alone.  We have to rely on God.

By grace God brings us to a steadfastness of character and a closeness with him that produces hope.  A hope that wells up like those waters.  A hope that does not disappoint us because God’s love has been poured out into the depths of our being through the Holy Spirit which has given to us.

God’s love has been given to us, NOT superficially and NOT just skin deep.  God’s love has been poured into our hearts.

This past week I was with my family in North Carolina and we went to the family grave and I recalled Marie, who was my grandmother’s older sister. 

And I recalled that when I was a real little boy, maybe four-years-old or so, I remember being at my Grandmother’s house and Marie would come to Grandmother’s house for Sunday lunch and other family gatherings and Marie must’ve been in her eighties at the time.  Wherever we were, she would always come looking for me to find me and squeeze me up tight and give me a gushing series of furious, wet kisses on my cheek.

She always found me and she always gave me those kisses.

But I wasn’t shy about taking my sleeve and defiantly trying to wipe my face dry.

I’d run away yelling, “I’m wiping your kisses off!”  

I can still her calling back after me, “You’re not rubbing them off, you’re just rubbing them in!”

God’s love for us is poured into our hearts.  We can’t rub his love off.  We can’t wipe it away.  We can’t defend against it.  We can’t do anything to stop his gracious love for us.

Look to the cross and see his love for you poured out in the One who took on the weight of humanity’s despair and gave his life to so that you might be with God forever.

Remember the running of water of your baptism poured out over your head as God claimed you and washed away the burden of our sin. 

Taste and see the body and blood of Christ poured out at this table today to penetrate into our very body and blood with the gift of love that frees us from every weight we carry.

We do not have the power to bear up the things we carry that weigh us down – the grief, our sickness,  our worry – but Jesus has carried these things to the cross where their power over us died with him, and because Jesus is risen, in a happy exchange he takes away these things we carried and now sends his Spirit to give us the things that God desires us to carry.

The Spirit pours into our hearts all that belongs to God as a free gift.  We get to carry the things that the Spirit sends us – we carry with us God’s forgiveness, God’s hope, God’s love, and God’s faith.  These are the things we carry out into a world in desperate need. 

Now we are called to give ourselves away and to spill the things God gives us to carry, so that they might fill this world God loves – so that everyone would know no one can escape what God is doing in the world.

Brothers and sisters, God’s eternal love carries us all.  God picks us up with a Father’s embrace and holds us forever.  He carries us and all the world in love.

The Team Economy

One Sunday morning a couple years ago Pastor Phillip was away for a vacation with his family and I was here at Epiphany leading the service.

Cason Gardner, who’s a freshman at George Mason, was still in high school at the time and he was also helping lead the service that morning – he may have been serving as the crucifer. Anyway, I thought it would be a good idea to ask Cason to pray the prayers of the people – the prayers that come after the sermon and before communion and which have a series of petitions that all end: Lord in your Mercy, and the congregation responds, “hear our prayer.”

I had written the prayers ahead of time and before the service that Sunday morning I gave them to Cason.

Cason and I have laughed about what happened next many times and when we talked about it again yesterday, he was glad to have me remember it with you. Well, when it came time for Cason to pray, he was behind the altar, he had the microphone in his hand, he was doing a great job, but then he came to this petition I had written where I asked God to bless the church’s ecumenical relationships.

You wouldn’t necessarily know this, but the word “Ecumenical” means the partnerships we have with other kinds of Christian denominations, and I was asking God to bless these relationships and to make us one in Christ.
When Cason came to pray that petition, he stopped a little short, he looked at it a second time and then he went for it. He said, “God, bless the church’s…ec…onomical relationships.”

Little did Cason know how right he was!

There is an economy to our relationship with God. A partnership. He gives himself completely to us and invites us to give ourselves completely to him. Through the gift of baptism, he is in us and we are in him, and through the gift of prayer we are all held together in God.

In the 17th chapter of the Gospel according to John we hear how Jesus prays for us. He prays for his first disciples and all those who will come to believe through their witness. And he prays for you and me and all those who will come to believe through our witness. With this intimacy he has with God, he calls on God’s mercy and love and protection for you and for me.

And then in this reading from Revelation today we hear how he sends his Spirit to inspire us to reciprocate and return our prayer to God.

We pray for our salvation, our health, and our life – when we pray Come Lord Jesus. We pray for the healing and the renewal of this weary world and so we pray for Jesus to come.

This prayer is given to us as a gift so that we can be in that intimate embrace between the Father and his Son; and made a part of the economy of what God is doing in the world.

He is praying for us, and he is inspiring the prayers we lift up to him, as we call for Jesus to return as crucified and risen, glorious Lord of all, and to bring the fullness of his salvation, health, and life to us and to the whole world as a free gift.

A few months ago, I went to a varsity basketball game between Tucker and Hermitage high schools to see a young man from our congregation play.

The young man I had gone to see play is a student at Tucker and at halftime his team was down by a few points, but just before the start of the second half a member of Tucker’s team gathered his teammates courtside and gave a pep talk. This guy may not have called it that, but that’s what he was doing – he was pumping his team up, and everyone stepped forward and leaned in to hear what he had to say.

I was sitting way up in the stands with parents and grandparents and we were too far from courtside to hear the words this guy was saying, but you could tell he was on fire, gesturing with his hands, commanding their attention, everyone was looking him, completely focused on what he was saying, and nodding at every word he said.

When they broke the huddle with a thunderous chant they went back out on to the court and the whole team was on fire, and the father beside me summed it up just right when he said, “I don’t know what he just said, but everyone on the team heard it!” Sure enough, Tucker clawed their way back and won the game in the last seconds before the final buzzer sounded.

There’s something about playing on a team that changes the way you think about life. When you put on the team jersey, you hang up something of your individuality. When you run out of the locker room, you do it together. There is an economy to the team. You all come sharing the gifts you’ve been given for the good of the whole.

Jesus’ prayer is a plea for us to be a part of his team and he prays for our success.

Jesus prays that we will all be one, like a team breaking from the huddle, headed out to run the plays of forgiveness, service, gratitude, and love. Jesus prays for us, that we might learn to hang our impulses of individual preservation and the need to be right up on the hanger in the locker room and put on his team jersey of humility, of partnership, of bearing with one another.

But we don’t always do well at being a part of the team. We sometimes want things to be our way. Its sometimes too hard to stay in relationship with other people or put forth the effort that it takes to be a part of the team.

The church isn’t perfect and the unity Jesus prays for sometimes seems to be an unanswered prayer.

On Memorial Day, just this past week, we were all thinking about all the heroic women and men who died for our freedom and I came across an article on the history of Arlington Cemetery and the continual need for its expansion and on some of the people who are buried there.

Apparently, there are now 63 individual faith symbols that can be selected for an individual’s headstone. I looked at them all and I counted at least four different Lutheran churches that offer symbols. The Lutheran church is not one, as Jesus prayed we would be, and that’s to say nothing of other Christian groups and denominations.

Sometimes the church has disagreed on fundamentals of the faith and sometimes egos have gotten in the way, and sometimes we have been willfully uncaring toward one another. The worst part about this is that it weakens our witness. The world says, “Why should I believe in the God they espouse faith in – they can’t get along and don’t look any different than any other group!?”

And yet this morning there is a sign in our midst.

This morning we are breaking ground on a building expansion. Our congregation – literally hundreds of people – from at least 5 surrounding counties, with various desires and tastes, have come together as one and decided what to build and when build it. We’ve agreed how to build it, what it should look like, and what materials to use. And today we will turn over dirt as the sign of what God is doing in this community to build a space for us to share the good news of Jesus Christ with people who aren’t here yet.

By comparison, my wife Sarah and I – now, I’m talking about the person I love the most in the world – have a kitchen in which subfloor is our floor and has been since sometime in the middle of Lent. Even though any one in our family could get a splinter the size of a tentpole any day, we can’t quite decide how to finish the floor, when to have it done, what materials to use. Etc. etc. and that’s only two people.

Here we have hundreds of people who have come to an agreement on what God has called us to do for the sake of the gospel in this time and place.

Only Jesus could do this! This could only be happening by the work of his Holy Spirit as Jesus makes us one by fixing our attention on God.

It can sometimes be hard to come to agreement with one another even if our goals are the same, and yet today we begin work on this new part of our physical building.

The God who loved Jesus before the foundation of the world loves us and builds us into a community of joy in order that we might be a witness to a world in need.

And the world needs the witness of a loving God.

This weekend we heard news of another mass shooting – this time in Virginia Beach, where we have friends, where we spend time, where we have been and felt safe, and we try to make sense of our ongoing inability to stop these tragedies from happening…and we pray come, Lord Jesus!

We watch as families and children on our southern border come looking for sanctuary in the US, and know that they are coming because they are trying to escape violence and persecution…and we pray, come, Lord Jesus!

We gather the people in our lives in prayer – those near and far, those who are sick, those who are struggling, those who are in need of special care… and we pray, come Lord Jesus!

The whole world sees the need for a savior, and God has called us to witness to who that savior is.

May God show the love of Jesus though us for the sake of the people who have not yet joined us, so that they can meet Christ here, come to know him as the savior of the world and their own lives, and come to join in our prayer: Come Lord Jesus!

There will be basketball on tonight. In the run up to game 2 of the NBA Finals, there’s been lots said and written about what kind of teams each city’s owners and coaches have built, who has to have what kind of game to win, about triples doubles and shooting percentages, but on this team Jesus builds, of which you and I are a part, no one is keeping those kind of statistics.

The only goal is to listen to and focus on the one who is on fire with the love of God, to listen to Jesus, who gathers us around himself to speak his word, and to send us out of his huddle to invite others to be a part of his team and through our life together to teach the fundamentals of faith and hope and love.