Moses slams his letter of resignation on the desk and hands over the keys to the world's largest station wagon. A foldout map of the Promised Land falls on the ground, but he's happy to leave this family vacation in the dust.
"These aren't even my kids! Did I conceive them all? Did I give birth to them?"
God is angry and Moses is livid. "Meat? Where am I going to get meat in the middle of a dessert?!" It is one of those moments in Moses' pastoral--or should we say parental--careers when he has to pull over the car. He is spent, dried up, running on fumes. In today's world, we have a word for this: burnout. Moses is burnt out. He brings to God his own death wish and a few choice words:
"I cannot carry them all alone. They are too heavy for me!"
Too heavy. Too heavy. Sometimes we have callings that are too heavy to carry. To pastor a church. To abolish slavery. To raise a kid. To raise a kid who is not your own. Any of us who has been called by Jesus to a life of faithfulness, no matter what kind of work we do, will find ourselves here. With the best of intentions and all the faith in the world, we try to lift that calling, try to mount that burden, but our knees buckle beneath the weight. And we are stalled.
It would be easy for us to walk away. How many of you, right now, could just drop the load and walk away? Head for the shore? Tempting, isn't it? But we cannot. It's the most remarkable thing. The burden God gives us is, as artist Sara Groves puts it, "too heavy to carry, and impossible to leave."
I know a woman, a hero of mine, who is raising her grandson as her own son. She never expected her life would take this turn, to be the mom for this long. And some days it is too much. Some days, another journey through puberty is too heavy to even think about. But she could never leave. He is a light in her life. In the burden is the blessing that keeps her close to the heart of God.
And Moses has never been this close to the heart of God. The whole journey out here has been a lesson in trust. All through the wilderness, God gifts Israel with manna. It is the bread of heaven, sweet like honey, and for forty years there is always enough. Like God's faithfulness, the manna never fails. But Israel trades in its trust of God for greed. Israel wants more than enough, judging insufficient what God has deemed sufficient. So they cry out, making their demand: meat and lots of it. Moses makes the same mistakes that many of us leaders and people-pleasers do. He gives in. It never occurs to Moses to say "no" to their greedy request. Instead, Moses finds himself in a tizzy asking God where he can possibly get meat to feed all these people and throwing his hands up in the air because he cannot carry this any longer. But God never asked Moses to feed the people meat; they didn't need meat in the first place.
If there is blessing in the burden, there is also blessing in the burnout. It makes us stop and take off our backpacks and see just what we're carrying in there. While the calling might be a holy one, we often carry things God never asked us to carry in the first place. Moses was not called to carry the sin of Israel's greed. Nor was he expected to deliver meat, as if the station wagon left Egypt packed with Slimjims and 10,000 coolers of turkey sandwiches.
It is so easy to trade the call that God puts on our lives for the demands of people we meet along the way. They ask, and we don't know how to refuse. They pile on expectations, and we spend our lives trying to live up. It is exhausting trying to keep up with everything people want from us. And it's probably not what we signed up for in the first place. But somewhere along the way, we allowed others to dictate our work. And even worse, we allow their evaluations of us to define us. How do we get so bogged down by the demands and expectations of others?
I wonder--if we pick up the burdens other people give us because, in a way, they seem more manageable than the call of God.
At the end of the day, I like to go home and tell you just exactly what I've accomplished that day. I'd love to tell you that I had this many meetings or fixed this many faucets or served this much food to this many people. People generally ask us do to things we can accomplish and then feel good about checking off our to-do list. And they praise us for our effectiveness and our efficiency. But sometimes we have to ask ourselves is this what God requires of me or is this just what the people want or what I want.
There is danger in living for the demands and praise of people, even the people we serve. It's the danger not only of burnout, but of settling for dreams that are too small. Moses and Israel could only think of one thing--meat for tonight, but God dreamed of a whole Promised Land flowing with milk and honey.
The blessing in the burnout is rediscovering that dream, finding out that beneath all that extra weight we carry in our packs, there is still, at the bottom of it all, a calling. It is God-given, and it is supposed to be heavy because it is a piece of God's big dream for the world. God longs for the day when every mouth is fed, when every slave is set free, when every tear is wiped away. Nothing short of that will do. And all of us living faithfully are carrying slivers of that heavy dream, walking with God and each other toward freedom.
This dream is too big to be accomplished in a day. Sometimes, years may go by without seeing the fruits of your labor. You teach for a whole year to a class full of students who don't even seem to pay attention. You work for years trying to raise awareness about modern-day slavery and don't feel it has freed a single person. You may get discouraged and want to pick up smaller, more manageable, work. But, remember, pleas for instant gratification don't end well in this story. The good things take time; it took Israel 40 years to reach the Promised Land.
So when you are at your wits end, tied up in paper work and red tape, ready to drop everything and walk away, remember what is at the bottom of it all and where it all started. For Moses, it began in Egypt, where God heard the cries of a people in slavery. This wasn't a family vacation; this was a freedom journey. Moses is in the work of deliverance, not deli meat.
In times of burnout, a good counselor can help you get your bearings straight; Where did this all begin, Moses?
In a small corner of the desert, on a strip of holy ground, when God spoke of freedom and I said yes. I still remember the way my lips were trembling.
Were you scared?
Of course I was; I tried to say no. I told God I was the wrong guy for the job; it was a load I couldn't carry.
What made you change your mind?
God promised to go with me. And...there, there was something about that burning bush at my feet...I looked at it and I just....
What about the bush, Moses?
It was of God, it was unconsumed; it was inexhaustible--what I'm saying is: the bush didn't burn out.
Moses may burn out, you and I may burn out, but God will never burn out. There is at the heart of God a fire as inexhaustible as the dream it carries--relentless energy for the pursuit of justice, strength enough to move mountains, a deep wellspring of love for the broken world. In the flickering of that burning bush, Moses met the everlasting God who does not grow weary. And a thousand miles later, Moses is still learning the same lesson as Israel with its manna: God is sufficient.
So whatever load you carry, whatever burden you bear, rest assured that you are not alone. God is here to help shoulder the load. So yoke yourself to God. Hide your life in God. Rest your bones in God. Is there any load Christ has not already borne? Is there any sense in trying to carry the thing yourself?
No doubt, Moses succumbs to the loneliness of his office, the alone-ness of the call, and it nearly kills him. This is the predicament of many who lead. "No one else understands my work," we cry. "No one else even sees the burden I carry, let alone lifts a finger to help." That loneliness can be so real; it can extinguish you like a single coal taken from the fire.
And, sometimes, even the help of God doesn't seem to relate. Sometimes you need a pair of shoulders you can actually brush up against on the street. You need the load shared in baked casseroles or someone to watch the kids or arms to cry in or people to march with. God knows we need these things, too.
"Gather 70 of the elders," says God to Moses, "bring them to the tent of meeting. I will take some of the spirit that is on you, and put it on them, so that you will not bear the burden of this people all alone."
It's God's answer to Moses' resignation wish, 70 people to help him carry the load. And God gives us people to share the load as well--we call it church. We sometimes grumble and bicker in the back seat, but we pull together as church to share our lives and our loads and prayers and tears, casseroles and communion. Our loads are bigger than any of our own lives, but so is our church, for we also are surrounded by the great communion of saints, joined in our work by all the faithful who have come before, Moses and Miriam, Paul and Silas, Oscar Romero and Mother Theresa. Together across the ages and places there are thousands of us, marching toward that heavenly throne, shouldering together God's big dream for the world.
Let us pray. Holy God, who has borne the weight of the world, strengthen us to share your work of love, justice, and mercy. Renew us when we tire. Reignite us when we burn out. In the power of the everlasting God, Father, Son, and Holly Spirit. Amen.