Lay down your burden

Tim O’Brien was born in 1946 in southern Minnesota. In college, majoring in political science, he attended peace vigils and war protests, and planned to join the State Department to reform its policies. “I thought we needed people who were progressive and had the patience to try diplomacy instead of dropping bombs on people,” he said. He never imagined he would be drafted upon graduation and actually sent to Vietnam. “I was walking around in a dream and repressing it all, thinking something would [get me out]. Even getting on the plane for boot camp, I couldn’t believe any of it was happening to me, someone who hated Boy Scouts and bugs and rifles.” When he received his classification not as a clerk, or a driver, or a cook, but as an infantryman he seriously considered deserting to Canada, but he feared the disapproval of his family and friends, his townspeople and country.

So he went to Vietnam and hated every minute of it, from beginning to end. He came back to the States in 1970, with a Purple Heart and several publishing credits for personal reports about the war that had made their way into Minnesota newspapers. He expanded on the vignettes to form a book, published in 1973, with the rather blunt title, If I Die in Combat, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home.[1]

He kept writing, with an obession-like tenacity, to get to the truth that can only be told in a story. In 1990 The Things They Carried was published, which was a finalist for both the Pulitzer and the National Book Critics Circle Award. It’s a collection of interrelated stories revolving around the men of Alpha Company, an infantry platoon in Vietnam, and the things they carried.

First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross carried letters from a girl named Martha, a junior at Mount Sebastian College in New Jersey. They were not love letters, but Lieutenant Cross was hoping, so he kept them folded in plastic at the bottom of his rucksack. In the late afternoon, after a day’s march, he would dig his foxhole, wash his hands under a canteen, unwrap the letters, hold them with the tips of his fingers, and spend the last hour of light pretending.

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.

They carried diaries, photographs, binoculars, socks, and foot powder.  They carried fatigue jackets, radios, compasses, batteries, maps, and codebooks. They carried M16s and M60s and ammo belts. They carried plastic explosives, grenades, and mines.

Taking turns, they carried the big PRC-77 scrambler radio, which weighed 30 pounds with its battery.

They shared the weight of memory.

They took up what others could no longer bear.

Often, they carried each other, the wounded or weak.

“They carried all they could bear,” writes O’Brien, “and then some, including a silent awe for the terrible power of the things they carried.”[2]

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, they had tangible weight.

They carried shameful memories. They carried the common secret of cowardice barely restrained, the instinct to run or freeze or hide, and in many respects this was the heaviest burden of all, for it could never be put down, it required perfect balance and perfect posture.

They carried the soldier’s greatest fear, which was the fear of blushing. Men killed, and died, because they were embarassed not to.[3]

They had been sent on a mission, and the mission was everything. So they carried all they could bear, and then some. They carried heavy burdens in the name of freedom.

For Jesus the mission was everything. He appointed seventy and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go. He encouraged them to think of themselves as laborers in a plentiful harvest – in fact, a harvest so plentiful, that their first assignment was to ask the Lord of the harvest to send out more laborers. Am I the only one who thinks that’s a curious understanding of labor, where the workers’ first task is to ask the head of this harvesting operation to send out more workers?

Harvest makes us think of the workers in the vineyard, and of wheat and chaff, and of good soil where the seed bears fruit and yields a hundredfold. But Jesus doesn’t want us to chase farming metaphors down various rabbit holes: “See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves.” He didn’t say, “See, I am sending you out like dogs into the midst of lambs to round them up for the shepherd.” No, like lambs into the midst of wolves, which sounds terrifying, unless you trust that the promise of new heavens and a new earth is not a distant someday-somewhere-dream, and that the banquet where the wolf and the lamb feed together is close at hand — no more distant than the next town, the next house, or the next person you encounter.[4]

Now some of you find yourselves standing among the seventy and you hear yourselves being addressed and called by the voice and words of the living Christ, while the rest of us are still observing this curious scene of Jesus sending out a hefty number of his followers.

He talks about the things they would carry, or rather not carry: no purse, no bag, no sandals. Nothing, really. No purse, meaning no cash or credit card. No bag, meaning no change of clothing, no food for the next meal. No sandals, meaning no extra pair of shoes. The ones Jesus sends on his mission, he strips down to little more than nothing, just the bare essentials. The ones he sends, all they carry is peace and the announcement that the kingdom of God has come near. For everything else they depend on each other and the hospitality of strangers. This mission is an exercise in radical trust.

And nowhere in his little send-off speech does Jesus tell the seventy to pack enough food to feed the hungry, or extra outfits to clothe the naked, or a spare blanket for the homeless. He messes with our assumptions about mission. Typically, when we think about mission, whether it’s in the neighborhood or in far-away lands, we think about pooling and sharing our resources to alleviate suffering as a witness to the compassion of God. We think about works of mercy and justice, we think about giving.

But in this episode from the road to Jerusalem, Jesus sends us to proclaim the nearness of God’s kingdom not solely with the things we bring, but with our need for the gifts of others. “Eat what is set before you,” he says. The peace we seek to embody and proclaim in Jesus’ name is made manifest in how we receive and eat the food of strangers. And that is not as odd as it may seem at first.

The entire story of Jesus is built around shared meals—read through any of the gospels, but especially Luke, and you will notice that he is either on his way to eat, or teaching during a meal, or just leaving the table.  Jesus eats and drinks with all kinds of people in all kinds of settings, but there’s not a single story of him giving a dinner party. He is always a guest. Even when he says, “This is my body, which is given for you,” he’s breaking somebody else’s bread. He takes whatever we bring, our best and our worst, and makes peace from it.

And that is the peace he sends us to carry wherever we go. He challenges us to let go of the control that comes with having and giving; and to let go of the power that comes with deciding who gets what, when, and why. He wants to send us, all of us, to discover how the word of peace we carry becomes manifest when we enter the world of others—their home, their town, their country, or their worldview, their culture, their story—and eat what is set before us, literally and metaphorically.

He invites us to share in his mission by sharing in his vulnerability. “See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves.” The Lamb of God is under no illusion that his mission is a safe one. He’s on his way to Jerusalem. He knows what awaits him there. Yet he continues on the way because he trusts in the faithfulness of God whose kingdom is near.

And so he says to every generation of disciples as he said to the seventy, “Go!” Begin where you are, not where you think you ought to be or wish you could be.

Whomever you encounter, whatever house you enter, say, “Peace to you. Peace to this house.” Whenever you enter the world of another, do so not as an intruder or invader, but wait until you are invited.

Stop pretending that your mission as a follower of Jesus is solely to give others something you have and they need. Drop that baggage and meet others with humility and a willingness to receive the gifts they offer. Eat whatever is set before you. In receiving their gifts you receive them.

Discover just how near the kingdom of God is, and know it together, when Christ takes what they offer and what you bring, and prepares his banquet of peace, for you and for all.

Lay down your heavy armor. Lay down your dreams of domination and supremacy. Lay down your burden of fear and shame— and carry nothing but the yoke of Christ, nothing but each other.


[1] See https://www.pshares.org/issues/winter-1995-96/about-tim-obrien-profile; read “save my ass” for [get me out]

[2] Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried (New York: Broadway Books, 1990), 1-9.

[3] Ibid., 20.

[4] Isaiah 65:17, 25

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