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The Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost                           August 14, 2016

This Weekend's Readings (click each reading to view the passage)

Jeremiah 23:23-29Psalm 82; Hebrews 11:29-12:2; Luke 12:49-56

Pastor Steve's Sermon - Stress
Pastor Steve's Sermon - Stress

Children's Sermon - Hide and Seek
Children's Sermon - Hide and Seek

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Sermon Notes from Pastor Steve...  
Rising health care costs have been a huge concern for almost everyone and every organization for some time now. And the church is no exception! In the ELCA, we have an organization called Portico, which administers health and retirement benefits for Pastors and other church leaders.
And like some other health plan administrators, Portico has spent a lot of time and effort encouraging Pastors to live healthier lifestyles, so that we can serve better and also save on health care costs. So one of the things they do every year is to ask us to take a "Health Risk Assessment". It's a survey put together by the Mayo Clinic, and it asks us about all kinds of things including the results of our annual physical, our diet and exercise routines and our sleep patterns and stress levels.
All of this is confidential, and they put $150 into my Health Spending Account if I take it. So every year, I take it without fail!
And every year, they ask about my "level of stress". You're supposed to indicate how much stress you have in your life on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being low and 10 being high. But the first year I took the survey, it wasn't really clear how you were supposed to rate yourself, since they didn't give you any metrics or examples.
So, I thought about my life and the things that caused me stress. And I thought, "well, I don't feel like I'm particularly more stressed or less stressed than most of the people I know." So, I decided that was average, and I rated myself "5".
And for the next year, whenever I logged on to my personal Portico page, I kept seeing these pleas, "YOU NEED TO WORK ON YOUR LEVEL OF STRESS"! I was directed to all manner of websites that would counsel me on how to reduce stress. And there were little vignettes of people who had successfully overcome stress in their lives!
Honestly, it was stressing me out! So I figured out how to deal with stress in my life. The next year, when I took the survey, instead of answering "5", I answered "2". Suddenly, I was complimented for my great stress management, and I stopped seeing all these apocalyptic notes about how my stress level was too high!
But that did get me to thinking about "stress." And the problem that I really had with that question was that it asked me about how much stress I had, instead of how well I was managing my stress, and whether my stress management was itself healthy.
The question really reflects the idea that "stress", in and of itself, is bad; and that the goal of life is to avoid stress at all costs.
It also made me realize that if Jesus took that survey, he'd be in a LOT of trouble! If I got apocalyptic warnings for saying my stress level was "5", imagine what Jesus would get from Portico for saying, "I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed"!  
Clearly, Jesus knows that he's under stress. He doesn't sound happy about it, but he's also not looking to get out of the stress until he's finished with his mission. Somehow, for Jesus, there was something worthwhile and important about accepting stress, even apparently a pretty high level of stress.
In our world today, whenever we hear the word "stress" we usually think of something bad to be avoided. But is there another side to stress? Could stress ever be something necessary or at least worth enduring for a while?
At least in this case, Jesus' willingness to accept stress means that:
  • He notices the problem! People are in trouble and they can't get out of it themselves. He's simply not going to pretend he doesn't see it ... (sometimes, opening your eyes and noticing the problems in the world around you brings with it stress that you could simply avoid by closing both your eyes and your newsfeeds ... (there's a meme: "My desire to stay informed is in conflict with my desire to stay sane"); Sometimes, stress is simply the sign that you notice...
  • He cares about the problems people have - if you notice, but don't care, it can really keep you from being stressed out! But Jesus does care, and he even cares about the fact that the good news he brings is going to divide people and cause conflict. Jesus can't avoid the stress unless he stops caring, and he's not willing to do that. And sometimes, stress is simply the sign that you care...
  • He's willing to act and even endure personal suffering and sacrifice in order to help. The word that's translated "stress" is a Greek word that often means physically being held down or pressed upon. It's a realization that "stress" isn't simply something you have in your mind or your gut, but actually is something that happens when you interpose yourself into a situation to help and protect someone. Sometimes, stress is simply the result of your unwillingness to stand by and let somebody else suffer...
So, my conclusion is that Jesus is right and Portico is wrong! (That's actually a pretty easy conclusion!) Stress isn't necessarily a bad thing to avoided, because sometimes it's the sign that you're following Jesus by noticing, by caring and by acting on the problems in the world around you.
Yet at the same time, stress DOES need to be managed and dealt with in healthy ways. And while Jesus doesn't explicitly address stress management in today's Gospel reading, I think this passage can help us in dealing with the real stress of our lives because it points out that:
  • Jesus notices us and even notices our stress! This is actually the only place in all 4 Gospels where Jesus says he's stressed! We often focus on how much Jesus loves or cares, or even befriends people. Yet here, Jesus says that he's stressed. He identifies with us, and implicitly says he notices and understands even our stress. And often, managing stress begins with knowing you're not alone and that God notices and cares...
  • Because God cares more than we ever could, solving all the world's problems will never depend upon the righteous indignation we generate for any problem we care about. Even more than that, God's love and care, in some way that we can't fathom, will actually win out over all the hate and evil we experience in our world. And often, managing stress really does mean, as many 12 step groups say, "letting go and letting God..."
  • Jesus was willing to go to the cross and die for the sins of the whole world. Jesus did actually endure the stress until it killed him. But he accomplished his mission, and rose again. And so even though we're called to follow and struggle and accept a certain amount of stress in the journey, the fate of the world hung on the Cross. It doesn't rest on our shoulders. And sometimes, managing stress includes remembering that our fate and the fate of the whole world depends upon God and not on us...
So there's an old saying, "Don't let stress kill you - let the church help!" But really, let Jesus help. Jesus helps us by showing us that stress isn't some horrible disease that we need to avoid at all costs, but sometimes is the necessary result of noticing, caring and acting for the sake of others.
And in enduring stress himself, Jesus shows us that we're not alone - that he understands and even identifies with the stresses of life that we face. Jesus promises that his love and care for us and for the whole world are not undone by the stress of evil and hardship we face. And most of all, Jesus calls us to remember that we aren't called to carry or solve the stress and weight of the whole world, because through Jesus, God has already done that.