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

 

Little Comfort Sermon for Advent 2 December 4, 2020

This sermon was preached on Dec. 6, 2020 at Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church in Holladay, UT. It can be viewed on our YouTube channel: Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church SLC.

*The written manuscript contains coarse lanuage that may not be suitable for all ages. This language is NOT in the recording. But it’s an honest account of the dialogue.

The texts were:

Psalm 85: 1-2, 8-13
Isaiah 40: 1-11
Mark 1: 1-8

It seems right now in our world that there is little comfort. We look around for what might make us feel secure, hopeful, or safe and it’s scarce. We see death tolls mounting, people suffering long term effects of a new virus, thousands of cars lined up to receive food assistance, a surge of unhoused people, continued violence and oppression of a people who only want the humanity,  justice and equality denied to them for over 400 years, and politicians on every side posturing for their own gain and comfort and not for care of people. There seems to be little to give us comfort. And I don’t know about you, but I don’t like to be uncomfortable if I can help it and it’s uncomfortable to watch other people be uncomfortable so I do whatever I can to maintain the comfort of myself and everyone around me. So I avoid difficult conversations, binge on Netflix, snack on chips and guac, hide out in my beautiful new home office and read all the books I’ve been buying off of Amazon. But there’s a fine line between comfort and denial.

Comfort is a tricky concept, and there have been more times in my life than I can count when I’ve been uncomfortable: being the new girl at school every two years or so (sometimes less), first day of college, graduate school, jobs, parenting, and, I don’t put this in sermons much, but it’s apropos here, I’m permanently uncomfortable with missing our child who died, Ben. When he died, so many people watched my discomfort and wanted to avoid it or fix it. Some brought meals, cards, flowers, spoke words like “it will be ok,” “you won’t always be this sad,” which were kind and appreciated actions but sometimes people also avoided talking to me or even looking at me and if they did, said really unhelpful things like “God needed another angel,” “God has a purpose for this” or “God is teaching you something.” To be clear, God didn’t need another angel and no God doesn’t use a 15-month old to teach his 32 year-old mother “a lesson.” I learned that when people offered platitudes that those words were more about the other person’s discomfort, their need to distance themselves hoping this horrible thing couldn’t happen to them. And I learned that all of the well-intentioned help didn’t really bring comfort. No one could fix this and pretending that they could or pretending that it didn’t happen, brought my family and me little comfort. A few weeks after Ben died, I had gone back to work at St. Matthew Lutheran church and was having a hard day. I went into Pastor Jim’s office and just sat silently slumped in a chair. He studied at me for a few minutes and said, “this is bullshit isn’t it?” “Yes!” I cried, so much bullshit! (*I said “crap” when I preached this….) and we spent the next 30 minutes proclaiming with every expletive we knew how horrible Ben’s death was. And you know what? I felt comforted. Because the truth of my pain, suffering and sorrow was named, given the space that it deserved and acknowledged. Because Pr. Jim was willing to sit in the discomfort with me and not try and fix it. I learned that real comfort, is naming truth and not being alone. Attempting to give comfort that doesn’t name the truth, or isolates a person, only leads to more discomfort, pain and suffering.

This is a truth that God knows and understands. When Isaiah proclaims “Comfort, O Comfort my people,” he’s not saying that it’s time to find a cozy blanket, a television show and chips, he’s saying that God is naming the truth of the Israelites situation-the sins that they committed resulted in these harsh consequences that perhaps had gone too far. The comfort that is needed is for the Israelites to hear, acknowledge and then act on is the truth that God is serious about how they lived together and treated each other, and that worrying about one’s own needs isn’t actually comfort. Isaiah also names the truth that the people are flaky and inconsistent and likely to stumble again. And yet, there is the comfort of the truth is that God is present and where God is, grace, mercy, love and hope are also present for all. “Here is your God,” Isaiah proclaims, God is here, with you in your discomfort, and in the truth of who you are and whose you are.

The truth of the matter is that we try to comfort ourselves. We substitute false, quick, cheap and easy comfort for the true comfort that comes from God. When true comfort comes, it names the truth, the truth of who we are and what God’s coming kin-dom means for us all. It lays us bare, like a desolate desert, and reveals the fact that we have been trying to hide from God’s truth because it’s painful, hard, and will require something from us. John the baptizer declares that we have to face the truth of the consequences of our actions, confession and repentance, for healing to begin. And it’s not individual, it’s communal, it’s always about all of us together. God’s truth is that all people, from every corner of the earth, from the rural country sides, the cities, the suburbs, are gathered equally in the comfort of the God’s presence. The good news of Jesus Christ, God with us, is found in the least of these, in the wilderness, in the poor, in the disenfranchised, in the silenced. The truth that this good news of Jesus is here to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. Being comfortable by worldly standards of wealth, status, power, isn’t the comfort that Jesus brings. Jesus brings the comfort of truth telling that frees us from own false comforts in our racial, gender and sexual orientation caste system, from consumerism, capitalism, hierarchy, self-agency and autonomy. Jesus names the truth that these comforts only lead to the discomfort and reality of communal oppression and death.

Jesus does indeed come to bring comfort, true comfort for our lives. The truth that we are a captive to sin and cannot free ourselves, the truth that we have harmed and not loved our neighbor or ourselves in the things that we have done and left undone. The truth that we contribute and fall prey to the idols of false comfort in our midst. And the truth that we can step into the discomfort of our brokenness to receive the comfort of God’s grace and mercy, together, as one people. Jesus comes to us each day, to reveal the truth that he dwells with us in the discomfort of humanity’s suffering, to be with us and surround us with God’s comfort. Jesus comforting truth is God’s kin-dom is coming: that the world will turn upside down and those of us who think that the world will always be as it is with some holding all the power and others disempowered are about to be shown something new where power is not to be hoarded but shared, where rhetoric doesn’t separate but words heal. The comforting truth to those on the outside, on the bottom rungs will be brought up and filled and those who stand as mountains will be leveled. Jesus reveals the comforting truth that no matter our discomfort, we are loved today and forever. This is comfort and good news indeed.

 

“Hold On: Here is your God!” Sermon for Advent 2, Dec. 10, 2017 Year B December 11, 2017

This sermon was preached at Bethany Lutheran Church in Cherry Hills Village. To view the sermon go to http://www.bethanylive.org and go to the correct date.

Children’s time. Gather the children and ask where do you see God around you right now? Point God out to me. It can be hard to see God sometimes can’t it? And we forget that God is with us always. Walk to the font. In the bible story I just read, there was this guy, Jesus’ cousin, who was telling people that God was with them always, forgiving them when they did wrong things and holding on to them. He was splashing them with water, what’s that called? Baptism! And the water that clings to us reminds us that God clings to us too. BUT John told the people something else. That God does hold us but that through Jesus who was coming, we will be not only be baptized with water, but God’s Holy Spirit will cling to us too! This means that we have work to do with God and for God. Just as you helped me to see God right here, right now, we have to tell everyone we meet Here is your God and God holds on to you! This is why we light a candle and say to the newly baptized person, even if they are a baby “Let you light so shine before others that they might see your good works that glorify your father in heaven.” We are part of Jesus’ light and work in the world! Jesus wants us to hold on to that truth that each one of us has important work to do. Here is a glow stick to help you remember to hold on to God. I’m going to talk some more about this and every time you hear me say “Hold on Here is your God!” I want you to wave your glow stick, ok? Let’s pray:

In many facets of our life, it might seem like we are barely holding on. I know that when our children were young, I was serving full-time in a congregation, my spouse was working full-time, we had piano lessons, ballet, t-ball, church choir, and all of the school activities, most days I felt like I was barely holding on to sanity and let alone time management to get done the mundane activities such as laundry, grocery shopping and house cleaning. We grasp each day with both hands and hope that we can just hold on through another day.

And then there are the times when we hold on because we just can’t let go of someone or something even when we should. Relationships that aren’t healthy, jobs that is no longer life giving, long held beliefs about groups of people or ourselves. Or we hold on to the way life used to be or to our vision of the way life should have been, or even the way church used to be and it can be painful or harmful to continue to hold on to those ideas. Sometimes we have to let go in order to hold on to what God is doing.

And then there are times when we don’t even know what to hold on to: what we should hold on to might be risky or down right overwhelming. Maybe a new vocation at an older age, I started seminary at 36 with two young children! Maybe a move out of state away from family for an exciting opportunity. Maybe leaving what is comfortable and known for unknown and but perhaps will be meaningful and fulfilling.

Our theme for Advent is “Hold On.” Exploring how we hold on to God and God’s promises in our lives. When we are in distress or overwhelmed with our lives or the world we live in, it can be difficult to know who or what to hold on to. In Isaiah 40, the Israelites have been taken to Babylon in exile and they feel as if they have lost their grip on God or more accurately, that God has let them go. The opening lines of our Isaiah text are words of comfort to a people who are decidedly uncomfortable with their current state of affairs. They are away from Jerusalem; the Temple is destroyed and they can’t practice their religion they way they used to or think they should.

But then the voice of God breaks in with a word of hope and words of mission for the prophet and the people. Cry out! God says.  Which can translate to Preach! The prophet responds what shall I preach? Or again a better translation is Why shall I preach! The people are turning away. Why God says? Because “Here is your God!” Right here, right now holding on to you even if you can’t feel it, or see it or know it. I am here with you, even in exile, even in discomfort, even in your own lack of faith, I am here and always have been and always will be God says! Preach this good news from the highest mountain top! Hold on to this good news that God is holding on to you, to all of you, with the power of God’s mighty arms and with the tender care of a shepherd caring for his sheep.

Our gospel of Mark this morning invites us right off the bat into our theme. Mark’s gospel begins with a bang with these words: The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Mark then immediately moves us into the mission and work of John the Baptist who essentially says to his community and to us: Ready or not, here we go! Hold on! It’s about to be a wild ride with God!

The people who were flocking to John, were desperate to hold on that perhaps their lives meant something. In first century Palestine, baptism was not a new thing. This was part of a Jewish ritual of cleansing, but John was drawing people out to the wilderness, away from the seat of government and religious authority with this message of repentance or a clearer definition is having a change of heart. Mark writes that people from the whole of Judean countryside and ALL people of Jerusalem were coming. This was extremely inclusive, it was not only the Jewish people, not only the elite, not only the poor, not only the educated, not only the religious, but all. And to this diverse crowd John proclaims something even more amazing than the forgiveness of sins: Hold on! There’s more! Not only are your sins cleansed and you can turn around to God, but through the one who is coming, all of you will be baptized by the Holy Spirit who comes and brings you all into what God is up to in the world. Here is your God! Breaking into the world, coming to you, to hold on to you, to never let you go and to bring you into the purpose and mission of the kingdom of God. Hold on!

The world around us is looking for such good news to hold on to. People are desperate for this good news, desperate for the truth, capital T truth for their lives.  As people called by God, what shall we preach to them? Or why shall we preach to them? Does it matter in a world that seems to have turned away? God tells us through our baptisms, yes! It matters that our lights shine and we hold on to our call to preach and be the good news of Emmanuel, God with us. We preach it not only to others but perhaps most importantly to ourselves. We can preach the truth of “Hold on: Here is your God” who breaks into our lives as a baby from a backwater town in Palestine. We preach Hold On: Here is your God when we bridge divisions for true dialog and healing. We preach Hold On: Here is your God when we speak out against injustices so that the road is level for all people and particularly for those who face discrimination based on color, religion, gender or sexual orientation. We preach Hold On: Here is your God when we step outside our comfort zones and hear someone else’s story of pain and are willing to share our own. We preach Hold On: Here is your God when we let go of how we think the world should be and reach out for new thing that God is up to. We preach Hold On: Here is your God when we follow Jesus and stand with the poor, the marginalized and the forsaken.

We preach Hold One: Here is your God when we receive and offer to all the signs of the promises of God for us to hold onto, even when it’s hard to grasp them. Hold On: Here is your God in water, in the bread and in the wine for us to hold on with both hands to the truth of God’s presence with us no matter how difficult, treacherous, or steep the road of our lives may be. Preach this truth of the good news of Jesus Christ with me this week “Hold on! Here is your God.” Preach it with every aspect of your lives, preach it at work, preach it at school, preach it! Preach it and hold on with your whole being to the good news of God breaking into our lives and the world with promises of love, forgiveness, mercy and hope. Hold on! Here is your God.