Bearing Burdens Together
Erina Kim-Eubanks is a co-minister at Bethel Community Presbyterian Church in San Leandro, California.
Preached at Bethel Community Presbyterian Church in San Leandro, California, on July 19, 2022.
Friends, this morning, I have a question for you:
What emotions come up for you when you have to ask for help?
Do you feel embarrassed? Nervous? Excited? Guilty? All of these emotions are real!
For me, asking for help is not an easy thing, and two specific feelings come to mind at the thought of having to ask for help. First, asking for help makes me feel guilty. As an Asian American woman, I had this sense growing up that being a burden to other people is one of the worst things you could do or be. So there is a certain amount of guilt and shame that comes up for me when I have to ask for help.
Second, asking for help makes me feel anxious. I am, admittedly, an anxious person (though a high-functioning anxious person), so asking for help is sometimes hard for me because, as stressed as I am doing something and no matter how long my to-do list, I know that if I do it myself it will get done the way I think it should be done.
So asking for help is hard. But today I want to propose that it is essential for our survival.
As we continue our sermon series Life Together in the Spirit, this morning we are focusing on the practice of sharing burdens with one another. In the face of all the various emotions that we feel about asking for help, about being dependent or, I should say, interdependent, with others, this remains true:
None of us are meant to live life by ourselves.
None of us are meant to carry all our burdens alone.
This story of Moses and the exodus community from the book of Numbers reminds us of that truth. Many of us are probably less familiar with the book of Numbers, a text that traces the journey of Moses and the people of God through the wilderness. In fact, “In the Wilderness” is the Hebrew title for this book.
In chapter 11 we find a story within a story. The people of Israel complain and grumble and ultimately receive judgment from God, but within this narrative, we also hear about Moses and what happens to him in the midst of trying to serve God and lead his community in this time of transition.
You see, the people of God have been delivered out of Egypt. They have crossed the Red Sea, they have received the law from Moses, and they are trying to figure out what it means to live life, not only in the wilderness, but as free people in the wilderness.
And we see in the beginning of Numbers 11 that some problems arise. A group of people begin complaining. Specifically, some translations call this group of people “the rabble.” The meaning of this term is unclear, but some think it refers to a mixed multitude of people, Jewish people as well as Egyptian exiles who also escaped from Egypt alongside the people of Israel, likely those in the lower grades of society.
These people are complaining about the food that is available to them. They want meat and fish and spices, and instead they have only manna. Even though they were enslaved in Egypt and are now free people, they complain—at least they ate better there. And Moses hears those complaints rising into weeping in their camp.
Imagine this Moses, who has already endured so much. He has taken on a leadership role he didn’t want in the first place as somebody who would be identified as having a disability—a speech impediment. He has taken on Pharoah head-to-head, delivered the people out of Egypt in a series of dramatic and somewhat traumatic events, walked through parted seas, led them wandering through the wilderness, and encountered God on the mountaintop in the theophany.
He’s seen God do unimaginable acts to set his people free. And all they can do is complain about eating meat. It’s in this moment that he hits his breaking point, saying: “I am not able to carry all this people alone, for they are too heavy for me. If this is the way you are going to treat me, put me to death at once” (Num. 11:14–15).
It’s all too much for him. He is exhausted. He is at his end. And so God ends up giving Moses some help. God says to Moses: “I will come down and talk with you there; and I will take some of the spirit that is on you and put it on them; and they shall bear the burden of the people along with you so that you will not bear it all by yourself” (v. 17).
God orchestrates a situation in which Moses will share the load. And we see that it is here in the wilderness that a vision for shared leadership emerges. The community ethic YHWH ushers in is outside of the norms of the Egyptian Empire, which is built on hierarchy and exploitation. It is a community ethic built on shared burdens and shared leadership. Moses does not have to bear it all alone.
Friends, we, too, live in a world that wants us to believe that the burden is all ours to carry alone, a world where the ethos of Egypt and Empire still freely reigns. We are bombarded with the narratives of grind culture and capitalism, which make us value profit and productivity over people.
We are bombarded with the Western ideals of hyper-individualism and humanism, which make us believe that we are self-made, that we can achieve whatever we set out to without the help of others.
We are bombarded with the church’s narratives of saviorism and exceptionalism that make us think that we can do it all, as if there are no limits to what we can do and who we can “help.”
And friends, I’m sorry to say, these myths simply are not true.
We are living in a moment that has reminded us of that.
The pandemic has reminded us that we are all inextricably connected. The unrelenting nature of all we’ve endured has caused many of us to hit breaking points and has shown us that we can’t just keep pushing through forever. The burdens are too much for us to carry alone.
A few weeks ago on my monthly spiritual direction call, I had my own Moses moment.
I had just experienced an intensely busy month, and I was feeling exhausted. The burdens of being a pastor, the burdens of being a queer woman of color living in these days and times, the burdens of parenting two kids under five years of age in a pandemic, the burdens of providing care and holding space for so many people without space or time for a real break, the burdens of our world and all that’s happening in an unending pandemic: I was feeling the weight of it all.
In many ways, I think I began to feel like Moses did, that I was in a position where I had to be God to people. I felt I had to hold, carry, and bear the burdens of everyone else in my life. That I had to meet everyone’s needs.
But also, I had forgotten what it meant to ask for help. To ask God for help. To ask others for help. To allow myself to be hosted, and pastored, and cared for and needy. Even though I was exhausted and overwhelmed, I convinced myself that asking others for help would be too much work for me.
My spiritual director invited me into a time of engaging God to see what God might have to say about how I was feeling. And in a time of silence, I was reminded of this particular scene in the movie Encanto, a 2021 Disney animated movie that tells a story about the descendants of a family, the Madrigals, who fled violence in their home village in Colombia and entered Encanto, a magical land. In Encanto, the family’s house is built and sustained by the magic of a constantly burning candle that protects them from harm and grants gifts to each child in the Madrigal family.
Toward the end of the movie, though, the candle’s flame has flickered and its powers wane, causing the Madrigal home to fall apart. As the Madrigal family is faced with the enormous task of rebuilding their house that lies in ruins, the song “All of You” plays. At one point in the song, Mirabel, one of the Madrigal descendants, sees all the townspeople coming and hears them say:
“Lay down your load (lay down your load)
We are only down the road (we are only down the road)
We have no gifts, but we are many.”
Though the Madrigal family bears many burdens, they aren’t alone. Their community comes in to help bear the load.
As I imagined this scene, I was reminded again that I am not alone, that I don’t have to carry the load alone. Specifically, I was reminded that when it comes to church work, I don’t have to do everything by myself. In fact, doing so will lead to death—my own death and the death of the church. Instead, we have the opportunity to do things a different way, to stand as a counter witness to the narratives of Empire that focus on individualism and production by saying, “We are gonna do this all together.”
WE get to share the load.
Friends, we are living in some pivotal times. And I believe that God is inviting us back into this practice of sharing burdens, of interdependence. We are called to bear the image of a triune God—a God of community, a God of relationship, a God of interdependence and mutuality.
In this Disability Pride Month, may we learn from the witness and the gifts of many in the disabled community who already know and embody this reality so deeply. This week I was reminded of our ancestor, Stacey Park Milbern, and her work co-creating Disability Justice Culture Club, which is both a community of collective care and a house and hub for queer, trans, disabled people of color living in the east bay. During the pandemic and over the years, Disability Justice Culture Club has been a hub for community care. They not only believe in interdependence, but also practice it.
This is why they provided hygiene kits for homeless encampments during the beginnings of the pandemic. This is why they provided resources to people with disabilities who lost electricity during power outages in the fall of 2019. This is why they created mutual aid funds for vulnerable people with disabilities throughout the pandemic. As Stacey said back in 2020, “Interdependence is going to be what saves us.”
Interdependence is going to be what saves us.
In order to liberate ourselves from the oppressing ways and narratives of Empire, we are going to have to learn how to share the load together.
So let us learn how to share our burdens with one another.
Let us practice the act of both asking for help and extending it to others.
Let us experience the life and salvation that comes from interdependence.