July 3, 2016
Union University Church
Reverend Laurie DeMott
A woman conducting a stress management seminar began her opening session by holding up a glass of water and asking people to guess how heavy it was. People called out answers ranging from 8 ounces to 20 ounces. The woman told her audience, “What you have all guessed is the glass’s weight but I asked you how heavy the glass is. The absolute weight doesn’t really matter — what really matters is how long I hold it. If I hold it for a minute, it’s not heavy at all. If I hold it for an hour, my right arm is going to begin to ache. If I hold it for a day, you’ll have to call an ambulance. In each case it’s the same weight, but the longer I hold it, the heavier it becomes.”
“That’s the way it is with stress,” the woman pointed out. “If we carry our burdens all the time, sooner or later, that burden will become so heavy, we won’t be able to carry on. We might even end up in the hospital. We have to put our burdens down for a while so that we will have the strength to continue with the work before us.”
This is a sermon about rest, about putting down your burdens in a way that makes life bearable again, that makes life meaningful again, about laying down your burdens in a way that will give you the strength that you need to continue with the work before you.
Many Americans today are stressed out, some because of work-related stress, others because of family situations, psychological stress, or the emotional cost of divorce or grief. The American Institute of Stress says that stress is the cause of 60% of all human illnesses and disease and that 3 out of 4 doctor’s visits are for stress-related ailments. Too much stress, the site warns, can actually shrink the brain in regions tied to emotional health leading to chronic depression or anxiety.1 Our minds, like our bodies, become fatigued by the cares of this world and when we are under too much stress it literally hard for us to process anything besides our own weariness and worry. Our brains become cluttered with the debris of everyday concerns — What’s on the schedule? Where do the kids have to be today? When is my doctor’s appointment? I’ve got to get the lawn mowed before it becomes a jungle — and our thoughts become clogged with the unbidden and unwanted anxieties and feelings that accompany our everyday interactions — What will the doctor find? Are my teenager’s friends trustworthy? Was I too harsh with that co-worker? How can I face another day alone? Do people like me? All of these thoughts, all of these anxieties and worries about the future and concerns about the past, all of the regrets and grief, all of the simple weariness of not having a minute to catch our breath gets in the way of our ability to have wholesome relationships with others and with ourselves. And then, to add to our stress, we feel guilty for being stressed out: we should be stronger, we say to ourselves; we should be better at handling all of this, we shouldn’t let it get to us so much, we shouldn’t take it on on other people. And so now, in addition to being stressed out, we are stressed about being stressed out, and depressed about being depressed, and feeling inadequate for being so inadequate. Wrapped up in a ball of worry, insecurity, and guilt we can no longer see anything but our own emotional fatigue. Worst of all, we can no longer perceive the presence of the one who might save us from ourselves.
In his letter to the Romans, Paul urges, “Be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.”
When our minds are battered and weary and worn, even God has problems getting through so if we are going to live lives that are good, acceptable, and perfectly tuned to the will of God, we have to find a means of renewing our minds, Paul says. We’ve got to find a means of laying our burdens down so that we can rest.
The American Institute of Stress says that the solution to our problems is that we should all take a vacation.
“Spaniards take 30 days of vacation every year,” the website chides us. “The French take 7 weeks, but Americans average only take 10 days off a year. No wonder you are stressed out.” The website advises, “Go to Disneyland. Take your family camping. Enjoy some hotdogs cooked over the grill, a good ball game, watch some fireworks. Just take a break, for Pete’s sake.”2
Now, I’m not against vacation and in another week, I’m going to follow their advice and head up to my family cottage for a little down time but with all due regard to the American Institute of Stress, I don’t actually think more vacation time is going to solve our problem. When I was in seminary, I spent a summer working as the Park Chaplain at Salt Fork State Park in southern Ohio. The committee that hired me said that in addition to conducting Sunday worship, I should spend my weeks walking around the campground introducing myself to the families camping there letting them know that I was available if they needed to talk.
“You see,” the committee explained, “for a lot of people this may be the first time all year that they’ve spent this much time together as a family and it can be really stressful for them.”
In other words, vacation get-aways can sometimes just exchange one sort of stress for another and even if you get along well with your family and friends and have the time of your life while you are away, too often when you return, you just pick right up where you left off except now you have 1000 emails you need to return instead of 100. Moreover, some of the fundamental things that cause our soul weariness — grief, insecurity, anxiety, frustration, fear — aren’t cured by distraction. We might be able to get a moment’s relief from them by filling our minds with other activities but the problems and worries will still be there waiting to overwhelm us again as soon as we let our guard down.
Psychologist Matthew Jepsen says that trying to cure our problems and emotional distress through distraction is like fighting with a ball in a pool.
“You don’t like these stressful feelings,” he says, “you don’t want them and you want them out of your life. So you try and push this ball under water and out of your consciousness. However, the ball keeps floating back to the surface, so you have to keep pushing it down or holding it under the water and it consumes all of your attention and energy. You can’t even swim because you are so busy keeping the ball out of sight.”3 Some people try to hold the ball under the water by literally drowning their problems in alcohol or other addictions; some people become hard and emotionally closed off so that the hurt can’t surface; most people just trudge doggedly on, holding the ball under water as long as they can, and when their strength fails them, taking a quick break or engaging in a distraction long enough to get their breath again, and then returning to pushing the ball — their problems and their sorrows — back under the water to hold it out of sight as long as they can.
But this is a sermon about real rest, about putting down your burdens in a way that makes life bearable again, that makes life meaningful again, about laying down your burdens in a way that will enable you to feel the grace of God and discern what is good and acceptable and perfect again.
Paul says, “I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God.” To experience the grace of God, Paul says, is to give over to God not just the good parts of us — not just the strong and confident and finely crafted parts of us — but our whole selves to God. We should lay our whole selves on the altar, handing over to God in worship everything that is us, the good, the bad, and the ugly. Place on the altar of worship these living and broken down bodies with our aching joints and stainless steel hips and pacemakers and herniated disks and impartial limbs and even our malignant cells; hand over to God in worship these living and broken down minds — these obsessive compulsive neural networks, these anxious and fearful thoughts, these sadnesses and griefs, these frustrations and inadequacies, these addictions, these worries that keep us up at night. Place it all on the altar of God as a living sacrifice.
“Here I am, God,” Paul urges us to say. “I place myself on the altar to you. I look like a perfectly awful gift but I’m handing myself over to you anyway because it’s all I’ve got to give and so I’m giving you all I’ve got.”
And listen to God’s response to this most imperfect blemished sacrifice: God says, “This is holy. This is acceptable. Your gift is holy to me; your gift is acceptable to me. You are holy to me, you are acceptable to me.”
It is at the altar, where we have placed our whole selves, where we finally find rest, because if this gift of ourselves in all of our stressed out imperfection is holy and acceptable to God, then who are we to say that we are not acceptable to ourselves? We can finally rest from the struggle to get away from the imperfect self that we are and accept ourselves in all of our imperfections. We can choose to spend our energy focusing not on the people we are not but focusing instead on the life that we can live for God in spite of ourselves.
Michael Jepsen says, “What would happen if you stopped trying to push the ball under the water and just let it go? It would pop up, float on the surface near you, and its presence would probably bother you for a while, but if you let it float there for a while, with your hands off, it would eventually drift away and out of your life. And even if it didn’t — even if the ball remained in the pool with you — at least you’d be better able to enjoy your swim rather than spending your time fighting!”4
When we offer our whole selves to God in worship, our attention is no longer on our imperfect selves but on the joy of worship, on the beauty of God’s goodness, and on the wholeness we receive in service of God. The grief, the sorrow, the irritations and frustrations, the worries and the fears, don’t necessarily go away — they may still be there floating in the pool with us — but our eyes are on God. And we know that God’s eyes are on us, holding us in loving embrace and saying, “Holy and acceptable. Holy and acceptable. Now, let us see what we can do in the world together.”
The comedian and late night host Stephen Colbert grew up in a devout Catholic family, the youngest of eleven children. When he was ten years old, his father and two of his brothers, Peter and Paul, were killed in a plane crash. His older siblings were all in college or on their own when it happened and so the crash left him alone with just his mother.
“It was just me and Mom for a long time,” Colbert recalls, “And by her example I am not bitter.” Even in those days of unremitting grief, she drew on her faith that the only way to not be swallowed by sorrow, to in fact recognize that our sorrow is inseparable from our joy, is to always understand our suffering, ourselves, in the light of our gratitude for God’s grace.
“It was a very healthy reciprocal acceptance of suffering,” he said. “Which does not mean being defeated by suffering — acceptance is not defeat — acceptance is just awareness…. It’s our choice, whether to hate something in our lives or to love every moment of them, even the parts that bring us pain….. At every moment, we are volunteers.”5
The apostle Paul, the man who had not so long ago before his conversion on the road to Damascus been the angry Christian-hating invective-spewing Saul, had every reason to spend the rest of his life in grief consumed by guilt over his past. He had every reason to worry about the future and the challenges of contentious congregations and crucifying Romans. He had every reason to berate himself for his imperfections — his quick temper, his slow long winded sermons that could put men to sleep, his ugly mug, and his bruised broken body. He had every reason to be consumed by stress.
But instead he found rest. He placed his whole self on the altar, focusing his eyes squarely on the one he served, and said, “Here I am. Use me as you will,” and God said, “Holy and acceptable. Let us see what we can do in the world together.”
I invite you now to the table, or in the words of Paul: “I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.”
2. ibid, my paraphrase
3. https://contextualscience.org/thoughtemotional_avoidance_and_acceptance_ball_in; my paraphrase
4. ibid; my paraphrase