Sermon June 21: Stressful Situations

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Faith United Methodist Church

June 21, 2015

Fourth Sunday after Pentecost

Rev. Kristabeth E. Atwood

Scripture: Mark 4:35-41, 2 Corinthians 6:1-13

Prayer of Illumination:

God of the calm and of the storm, you give us your word to guide us on troubled seas and smooth. Speak to us today. May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts bring glory to your name. Amen.

Sermon:   Stressful Situations

I’ve been in some stressful situations. I’m sure you have, too! What are some of the things that stress you out?

Some folks get stressed out about taking tests. Other folks find public speaking stressful. Driving can be stress inducing for some. Starting a new job or moving to a new town are certainly stress-producing situations. And then we have the really big stressors. Job loss. Serious illness. Losing a dear one that we love.   Legal proceedings. Life is full of stress, big and small.

One definition of stress is, “…a state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or very demanding circumstances.” We might think, then, that if we are able to avoid adverse or demanding situations we will be stress-free. Yet stress is impossible to avoid. The term stress, as it is currently used, was coined by Hans Selye in 1936, who defined it as “…the non-specific response of the body to any demand for change.” Eve good things bring a certain amount of stress. Having a baby. Getting married. Going to college. Embarking on the career of your dreams. If we try to avoid all stresses, we would also be avoiding life. A certain amount of stress is necessary to keep us growing and learning. Stress motivates us to practice, to improve, to mature.

Yet, if we don’t find a way to manage our stress, we are going to be in trouble. Scientific studies have shown that stress can cause physical as well as psychological problems. Stress manifests in stomach ulcerations, shrinking of lymphoid tissue and enlargement of the adrenals, which may lead to heart attacks, stroke, and kidney disease, among other things. As one physician wrote in the British Medical Journal in 1951, “Stress in addition to being itself, was also the cause of itself, and the result of itself.” Our stress can beget more stress, which just compounds our stress.

So we find ways to cope with our stress, that it may work for us and not against us. We do yoga and practice mindfulness. We go to counselors and talk about what’s bothering us. We knit or work on puzzles or read. There is even an ‘American Institute of Stress,’ to help us understand stress and manage it better. I try to deal with my stress by playing with my dogs and exercising. Lately I’ve found swimming to be a great way to burn off stress. Along with the physical benefits, concentrating on my breathing and my body movements helps me get out of my head and forget the stress, if only for an hour. There must be things that work for you…. What are some of the things you do to cope with stress?

For many of us religious types, prayer is a great outlet for stress. Calling on the name of the Lord. Often we think that the appropriate posture for prayer is a calm, quiet place with head bowed ~ which is a wonderful way to come to prayer. Yet the disciples in today’s gospel lesson show us that prayer can be frantic and impolite. In the middle of the sea, with the waves crashing around them, seized with panic, they yelled for Jesus.   “Don’t you care! We’re dying here! If you don’t do something NOW we are going to drown!” Desperate and stressed beyond what they could handle, they called on the name of their Lord.

And sometimes our prayer is like that too, right? Sometimes a prayer rushes to our lips as we see the oncoming car go through the red light. Sometimes, when sitting at the bedside of a loved one, our prayers are messy and interrupted with tears and runny noses. Sometimes, when we fear nothing will ever get better, our prayers are expressed through clenched jaws and bitten nails.

I’m sure Paul experienced all these ways of prayer, and more, as he lived through the trying times of the early church. In his letter to the Corinthians he listed the many stresses he endured, as we heard earlier, “…hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger…” We each could likely recount our own list of afflictions, and they would be no less important in the eyes of God.

So what do we do when we become stressed more than we can handle? Maybe we go for a run, or watch a movie, or listen to our favorite music. Maybe we also turn to God in prayer. For the disciples, their prayers were answered when Jesus woke up and clamed the storm. I know there have been days when I wished Jesus would wake up and calm the storm of my life. Yet, after stilling the waves, Jesus asked them a question, a question Jesus still asks you and I today, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?”

Even after living with Jesus and learning from Jesus and watching Jesus heal and perform miracles, the disciples still didn’t understand. No matter what happened; no matter what storms they came up against, no matter what waves crashed against their boat, (even to the point of death!), they would always be safe in the love of God. I am reminded of the beautiful question Paul once asked, “What shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword?” to which he answered,  “No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

In the decade since I was violently assaulted, I’ve thought a lot about death. What if I had died that night? What if, having survived, I face another life threatening tragedy? I am still prone to bouts of anxiety and stress. Just when I think I have conquered this thing called PTSD, something else crops up that reminds me I am still vulnerable. (As long as we are alive we are all still vulnerable.) During those times my prayers aren’t quiet or polite, “Don’t you care, God? I’m drowning here!”   But then I am inevitably reminded that nothing ~ nothing ~ not death or life, angels or demons, the present or the future or the past, any powers, height or depth will be able to separate me from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus my Lord.

As Alan Brehm elegantly wrote in The Waking Dreamer, “We say we believe God is a God of love, and that God loves us unconditionally. But the real challenge is to entrust ourselves into the care of this loving God—especially when we’re afraid. The only way to do this is to let go whatever it is we’re afraid to lose. If the essence of fear is trying to control, the essence of faith is letting go.”

Let us pray: God of empowering love, you see us through the rough waters. You reach out to us when we are drowning. You save us. Yet sometimes that ‘saving’ doesn’t look like we had hoped. Help us to trust in you. Help us to recognize that you are with us even when we feel alone. May we entrust ourselves to your ever saving love through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.