A Lutheran Says What?

Sermons and random thoughts on God, the world and the intersection of the two

Breaking the Cycle Sermon on Isaiah 40 February 6, 2021

This sermon was preached at Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church in Holladay, UT on Feb. 7, 2021. It can be viewed on our YouTube Channel: Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church SLC.

The texts were:
Psalm 147: 1-11, 20c
Isaiah 40: 21-31
Mark 1: 29-39

If you are feeling weary, you’re not alone. Everyday brings a news article or story on how people throughout the world are living with a heightened sense of fear, anxiety and worry right now. Our brains and parasympathetic systems are constantly under the stress of keeping us safe without the usual breaks. Many mental health professionals are warning of the rise of people experiencing “burnout.” Herbert Freudenberger coined the term “burnout” in 1975[1] and offered three components: 1) emotional exhaustion-fatigue from caring about too much for too long or what we call compassion fatigue 2) depersonalization-the depletion of empathy, caring or compassion, 3) decreased sense of accomplishment or feeling that nothing you do matters. Burnout was a staple of our modern environment before the pandemic and now it’s rampant- 78% percent of Americans say that the pandemic has increased their stress levels, and 67% say that the stress has gotten worse as the pandemic wears on.[2] And many health and human professionals are suffering: nearly 30% of teachers are considering leaving the profession[3], 51% of doctors are reporting burnout and are considering leaving medicine[4] and in my own profession, clergy burnout is at the highest levels ever experienced. Before the pandemic over 50% of clergy quit after five years of ministry. The statistic now pushes that to 70% and trends are showing a mass exodus of clergy in the coming year after the stress of the pandemic[5]. Burnout is more than just needing a tropical vacation, although I vote we try that, or a nap, there’s no quick fix for it. Burnout is being stuck in a long-term stress cycle that you can’t complete. It’s a pattern of emotional and psychological abuse in many ways. Burnout can lead us to forget many things: our worth, our dignity, and our need for authentic connection. We not only lack energy, compassion and care for others, we lack those vital necessities for ourselves. We may blame ourselves and decide that we just need to exercise, eat, Netflix, nap, or vacation our way out of burnout. But in honesty, that usually leads to more burnout as it doesn’t heal the underlining trauma of continuing to operate under a framework that our worth is in what we produce and do for others. Burnout (and ironically recovering from burnout) has become a badge of honor in our society, as being a consumer and the flipside, being consumed is prized. But burnout isn’t God’s desire for us or creation. Rest shouldn’t be revolutionary, as God embedded rest, sabbath into the very framework of creation. God took time to just be God. The problem is that we twist the idea of sabbath and make it a “to-do” instead of a “to-be.”

While the word burnout is new, the experience is not. In 587 BCE when the Babylonian Empire ravaged Israel, destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem, and hauled the prominent Israelites away to exile, the people of Israel were already tired. They had been dealing with the Assyrian assault for nearly 150 years at this point. They had been living in the chronic stress cycle of paying tributes they couldn’t afford, oppression of their identity, separation from family and community support, loss of autonomy, connection to the land, themselves and to God. They felt useless and that they had nothing left to give. So, by the time we get to around 520 BCE, approximately when our Isaiah text we read today was written, the people are beyond tired, they are burned out. Isaiah repeats in verse 29 what the Israelites have been lamenting: Why are you hiding God? Why do you ignore us? Don’t we matter? They have lost hope that anything other than suffering, tragedy, and separation was possible for them. They were stuck in a burnout cycle.
Isaiah seems to chide them with the questions of verses 21, 25, and 28: Have you forgotten everything? Have you forgotten who God is and was and will be? Do you really think that God has forgotten you? No. God is not human, and God doesn’t forget, God will never burnout on caring, loving and having compassion for you. God heard your cries from Egypt, God hears your cries now and remembers you. The trouble is, do you hear and remember God? God remembered your need for food, water and security in the desert and provided. God heard your pleas for king like other nations. God cried out to you through the prophets telling you that giving into the world’s worries for wealth, power and status will only lead to the cycle of worry about wealth, power and status. God warned you that putting your trust in these things and in yourself will lead to the cycle of death and destruction. God calls you to remember that cycle of work and rest is holy, and leads to the cycle of hope in the promises of God to provide, that you will have and will be enough.
We need to hear this again today, and if we’re honest, again and again, each day because we forget. We forget that the more we try to control our lives, to get back to normal, back to the cycle of doing, buying, and competing, the more we forget that it is God who offers us a cycle of life. God’s cycle of holy work and holy rest is a statement of holy resistance from what the world wants, it’s a statement of our identity as God’s own, and it’s a statement of trust. We trust that we don’t have to have to have all of the answers on our own, we trust that we don’t have to hoard resources, we trust in God’s creation there is always enough. We trust that when we are at our lowest, most weary, helpless and hopeless, God sees us, and Jesus offers his hand to raise us up from our fever-pitched cycles of overdoing and fitting in and says, “be raised up for true life where you are loved for who you are and who’s you are.” We are raised up with Jesus’ love to remember that it all rests on the cycles of God’s love and wholeness, and we rest and wait and hope in God’s promises that we are more than what we do, we are enough as we are. Our power is God’s power, our strength is God’s strength, not our own. I know that this is easier said than done, I know that I have a long way to go to break the cycles of self-doubt, of proving my worth and fitting in to the world’s definition of success and value. I know that to be refreshed and renewed, I need to trust in holy rest that God will be all of who God is, who is to love all of who I am. I know that I need to free you and all my neighbors from these worldly cycles so that together we wait, rest, hope and are renewed in God’s promises to break the cycle weariness for life where we are more than enough, just as we are where we are. Amen.

[1] Page xi Introducion, Burnout:The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle, Nagasoki, E. Nagagsoki, A. 2020 Ballatine Books

[2] Stress in America 2020 www.apa.org Emma Adam, PhD, Northwestern University; Earl Turner, PhD, Pepperdine University

[3] Singer, Natasha “Teaching in the Pandemic: “This Is Not Sustainable,” New York Times 12-3-2020

[4] Frellick, Marcia, www.medscape.com, 1-25-21

[5] Barna Group 2-3-2020