August 18, 2013
Stress can make you sick. We’ve all heard that haven’t we? Stress can make you sick. It can weaken your immune system. Whenever I’m in the grip of great stress, I always manage to get sick on top of everything else. It’s as though my body is trying to tell me, “Enough already. You have to stop.” Becoming sick forces me to stop.
Stress can bring on panic attacks and heart attacks. Stress may not directly cause cancer or other kinds of diseases, but it may lead to unhealthy lifestyles which could. Stress disrupts sleep. When you are under a great deal of stress, you either can’t sleep at all or you wake up in the middle of the night with your heart trying to beat its way out of your chest. That’s stress.
Stress is often the source of digestive problems and ulcers. It makes your face break out, and your hair thin. Lately I’m seeing commercials for a deodorant that not only handles regular sweat but stress sweat. Apparently stress sweat is worse than regular sweat. Who knew?
We are a society under constant stress. Our hectic, busy lifestyles contribute to our stress. The keywords have become managing stress. We have to learn how to manage our stress and our stressors. That was an important component of my CREDO retreat in May. I worked on identifying my sources of stress and explored ways to manage that stress better. When I returned I was less stressed. Calmer. Peaceful. However in the months since, the problem has been that my stressors didn’t get the memo that they were no longer allowed to stress me out. So I stay in the learning curve on managing stress.
As I understand it, stress is an important aspect of our biological and chemical makeup. Stress is part of the fight or flight syndrome. Stress is connected to adrenaline. From what I gather, when our early human ancestors found themselves in a position of danger, the stress of that moment kicked in the adrenaline and they either got out of the way of the threat or took it on instead. Once the danger was dealt with, the stress was over. You were either the conquered or the conqueror.
Stress helps us function. It’s necessary. Stress causes problems, though, when it goes unresolved. The resolution of stress is at the crux of this passage from Luke.
Last week we got lucky. We got lucky in that the passage we heard from started off with words of love. “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” This week … not so much.
Our passage today starts off with words that do not sound anything like the Jesus we like to envision, the Jesus we appreciate the most.
“I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed!”
It doesn’t get better.
“Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided…”
Where did loving, gentle, Good Shepherd Jesus go? The only Jesus that was ever presented to me when I was a child in Sunday School? The Jesus who searched out even one lost lamb and carried it back to the flock on his shoulders? Gentle Jesus. Sweet Jesus. The Jesus we like to believe talks only about peace and love and being joyful. Yet that is not the Jesus that we hear from in this passage, is it? Jesus offers no soothing, no comfort in his words today. “I came to bring fire to the earth and how I wish it were already kindled!”
Jesus refers to himself as stressed. He has a baptism with which to be baptized and he is under enormous stress until it finally happens. We’ve noted in past sermons that at this point in Luke’s gospel, Jesus is headed to the cross. There is no turning back and Jesus knows it. His message has taken on a new sense of urgency. He knows where he’s going. The baptism that he refers to is not another dunking in the Jordan. It is the cross. It is death; painful, tortuous death. Jesus realizes this and he is under stress until it is finally completed.
The Greek word translated as “stress” in my version of the Bible means a “squeezing.” It is a pressing in. Jesus is being squeezed and pressed. Pretty accurate way of describing stress isn’t it? When I am under an enormous amount of stress I feel as though I am being squeezed and pushed and pressed from all sides. Jesus is feeling this. He has been trying all along to show the people that the kingdom of God is in their midst. It has already been ushered in. Now he tells them that it’s obvious. They can look at a raincloud and realize it is going to rain. They can feel the south wind blowing and know that the heat will be upon them. But what’s right in front of their eyes, they can’t see! Why can’t they just get it?
So Jesus has not come to bring peace. He brings division. These words may scare or perturb us, but this has been true all along, hasn’t it? Jesus was run out of his hometown. He’s ticked off just about every religious leader he’s encountered. He’s confused and scared people. He heals one person only to make another person angry at the healing. Jesus assures them of God’s love, true. But he also tells them that God is in their midst. God is working among them. The power of God’s Holy Spirit is blowing new life into what was dead. Everything is being shaken, stirred, changed. Because when God comes, things happen, life changes. Who said that would be easy or painless? Who said that the peace of God would be a warm fuzzy? Who said that the coming of the kingdom would make everybody feel just great? Not Jesus. The coming of the kingdom brings abundant life. But that life comes out of change. It also brings division.
I suspect that if we’ve been paying attention, we should already know this. Because we know that following Jesus doesn’t always win us friends. Speaking the truth in love doesn’t prevent rejection of that truth. Loving those who seem most unlovable doesn’t make them love us back. Taking the risk of saying that the message of the gospel was not just about giving us ten easy steps to heaven, but instead is a message of radical reversal. The gospel changes how we understand love, success, power and greatness, and preaching that gospel message might not bring people rushing to the pews on a Sunday morning. But if we take Jesus’ words seriously, we do it anyway. We love anyway. We give anyway. We follow anyway, because being a disciple isn’t just about being nice. It’s rarely nice. It means change and pain and division and stress. Jesus was stressed. He was being squeezed and pressed and pushed and pulled. But he never wavered from the path to the cross. So as hard as it is to hear these difficult and challenging words, because they aren’t what we expect or want, we must hear them. We must take them seriously. Even though it causes great stress, we keep running the race before us.
That is the image from the author of Hebrews. “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us…”
Throughout chapter 11, the verses that lead up to these at the beginning of Chapter 12, the author has been offering a running list of the faithful. All those who have gone before, who have followed God’s call in spite of the difficulty and pain following may have incurred. In these last verses, we hear names in that list that may not be familiar to all of us, such as Rahab; a prostitute who protected the Israelite spies and saved her loved ones in the process. It’s interesting to see Jephthah, one of the judges, listed as one of the heroes of faith. I could devote an entire sermon to his rash and questionable moral choices. But even these seemingly iffy examples still make up that great cloud of witnesses, the faithful whose shoulders we stand on; the ones who, with Jesus as the lead, help give us courage to continue running this race. They help us to persevere, to endure, to follow even if it divides us from the ones we love.
On the last day of my CREDO conference, at our last worship service, the leader of the conference preached. In his sermon he told a story of a woman he knew who hit her 40’s and hit a midlife crisis. One of the ways she dealt with this crisis was to take up running. She got pretty good at it, and decided to enter a 10K. She trained hard for it and on the day of the race, she lined up with the other runners, eager, filled with adrenaline and excitement. The starter’s pistol rang out and off she went. She ran and ran and ran and ran. She realized that she should be at the point where it was time to loop back. This was a 10K after all. Seeing a race official, she asked him about this and he told her that she was not running the 10K, she was running the marathon. The 10K started half an hour later. She was taken aback to say the least. But she kept running, all the while thinking, “This is not the race I trained for.” This was not the race she trained for, but still she ran. She complained to every official she met, but still she ran.
This is not the race I trained for. Those were the preacher’s closing comments. The race we’re running may not be the one we trained for. It may not be the race we thought we wanted to run, but we’re running it for a reason. So we must persevere, keep running, trust that we’re running the race we’re supposed to run.
Jesus ran the race he knew he was supposed to run. If he was truly human, as we claim him to be, than I imagine there were times he did not want to run that particular race. Yet for him there was no other race he could run. It was the race he was on. Perhaps all of us feel that we are running a race we didn’t train for. How do we continue to follow, to take the narrow way, to love and give and trust when so much around us tells us that doing all of this in Jesus’ name is foolishness? We look to the great cloud of witnesses, the faithful of scripture, and the faithful in our own lives. And we look to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith. We look to him, who ran even as the stress of the race pushed and pressured him. We run because he ran first. Let all of God’s children say, “Amen.”