Too Blessed To Be Stressed – Sermon on Ephesians 6.10-20

Ephesians 6.10-20

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. With all of there, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. Pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert and always persevere in supplication for the saints. Pray also for me, so that when I speak, a message may be given to me to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it boldly, as I must speak.

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Friends, I want to share with you the secret of being too blessed to be stressed. Have you felt yourself crumbling over the demands of life? Are you frustrated with your children and their inability to actually listen? Are you worried about your loss of independence? Well then, this sermon is for you.

I know that it might seem impossible to get to a place where being blessed wipes away all the stress of our lives, but we can do it!

Here are my top five tips on how to be too blessed to be stressed:

1) Walk away from the problems! Life is too short to worry about other people. When you start to feel that stress bubbling in your gut, just walk away. We are not our brothers’ keepers. We don’t need to let other people bring us down with their worries, so just walk away.

2) Read or watch something funny! Laughter is the cure to stress. The purpose of life is to be happy all the time, so it is time for us to start embracing the hilarity of life. Instead of complaining and being stressed, we need to turn on our TVs to that witty sitcom and let the laughter loose.

3) Stop procrastinating! Seize the day. Don’t put off to tomorrow what can be done today. Avoid procrastination and stress will disappear.

4) Give your money to church! You just have to plant that little seed, and you will be rewarded one hundred-fold. Money is the root of all evil, but the point of life is to prosper. If you give you money to church, you will start to receive even more blessings than you can imagine. Give your money to the church, and you will really be too blessed to be stressed.

5) Praise the stress away! Give thanks in the midst of your troubles and peace will start to slip right in. Just look at your problems and say to yourselves, “I am thankful for this” and everything will change. But what if your too stressed to even say a praise? Try holding your arms out to your side and take in deep breath, and as you breathe out, slowly lower your arms. Once you pushed out all the air, breathe in and out 5 times in quick suggestion. I would check with your doctor before trying this, because it might not be safe for everyone, but it sure works for me!

If you follow my five easy tips, you will be too blessed to be stressed!

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Ok, let’s be real for a moment. Everything I just said, from the praising your stress away, to breathing in and out in repetition, I stole from other sermons. In just a quick search on the internet I found a seemingly limitless amount of prosperity-gospel sermons aimed at ridding stress, by being blessed. From the likes of Joel Osteen and others, I created a list of five bits of advice that I had found that guarantee to turn your life around.

Here’s the problem: All these promises of wealth, health and happiness by following a simple list, a guaranteed better life by blind faith, do not resonate with scripture.

The praise service had been hitting all the marks. The band was in sync, people had their hands up in the air thanking the Lord, and a few were even dancing in front of their fold out chairs. The gymnasium had been transformed into a space of worship, and they were quickly running out of room.

The sermon was delivered with a never ending smile, encouraging people to look on the sunny side side, celebrate successes, and praise God in all time in all places. Coffee was passed around to all the worshippers, and whether it was the caffeine or not, people were jazzed up for God.

Following the service, as was customary, the preacher waited by the door and shook hands with people as they exited. His smile had remained bright and white from the sermon throughout the whole service, and was now shining upon families as they departed. However, one woman paced back in forth at the back of the line before finally throwing up her hands and walking out.

Worried that he had done something wrong, that pastor apologized to the couple in front of him and chased the woman out the door. “Ma’am,” he shouted as she stormed off to her car, “Don’t forget to praise God!

She stopped dead in her tracks on the asphalt, made a quick 180, walked right up to the preacher, and put her finger up to his nose. “I’ve had it up to here with you and all your silly happiness and praise. I can’t stand coming to a church that won’t let me be angry.

As Christians, and as human beings, we are often told to “go with the flow” “chill out” and “relax” but Paul’s words to the church in Ephesus are a reminder to stand firm. Not with antiquated and backwards beliefs, but firm in our convictions. That woman stomped out of worship because her life was in shambles, and the preacher was telling her to be joyful and praise God. In not so many words he was telling her that being a Christian is easy, and requires us to be happy 24-7-365.

Paul’s words to the church were unpopular. We would rather hear from the prosperity preachers, and the praise preachers, that tell us how easy life can be if we only have faith in God, if we only “walk away from the problems”, if we only give our money to church.

Friends, being a Christian is not popular, nor is it easy.

Paul’s words are still unpopular because they are a challenge to such a secular society, particularly the one we live in.

Be strong in the Lord in the strength of his power. Put on the whole armor of God. There will come times when the wiles of the devil tempt us at the very heart of our being. Our truest struggles are not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against rulers, and authorities that strive for injustice at every turn.

Following Christ means standing firm in defense of justice and love. Taking up our crosses means that we will suffer for the love of God, and if we are too blessed to be stressed, then we are not working hard enough for the Kingdom.

So, take up the whole armor of God and stand firm. God has provided us with the power of truth, righteousness, peace, faith, salvation, the Spirit, and prayer. These are our tools to work against the evils of our world, we shall adorn them over our bodies for our lives, and we can remain steadfast in our convictions.

If we walk away from the problems of life, then we are not following Jesus’ command to minister to the last, least, and lost. Ignoring the stresses and injustices of life means that we are not loving our neighbors as ourselves.

If we give our money to church with the expectation that it will solve all of our problems, it will not! The offering plate of worship in not a cash register for a commodified exchange. We give as a response to God’s goodness, not as an expectation of blessing in return.

And if we try to praise the stress away, if we only want to hear about the joy, then we will continue to ignore the truth of reality and what it means to really follow Jesus.

Put on the whole armor of God because you will need it.

For a long time being Christian was just what everyone did. Most people were born into Christian families and went to the same church their whole lives without ever giving it a second thought. We lived in a Christian culture.

Interestingly enough, today following Christ means being counter-cultural. Imagine how strange a thing it is that we come back week after week to learn about being humble and risking unpopularity. We hear stories about how suffering and ridicule, if not worse, are part of our identity.

I like to joke that Jesus could use some new PR, because the stuff church offers doesn’t sell. There are no quick fixes and simple schemes. There are no “five easy steps to happiness.” Even in during Jesus ministry, the crowds grew to an incredible degree, but by the end, he was all alone marching up the hill with a cross on his back.

Jesus speaks to us through the words of scripture today calling us to be counter-cultural, to stand firm in the strength of God’s power.

“I am too blessed to be stressed” is such a strange thing for a Christian to claim. Having faith implies struggle. Discipleship is a journey filled with wonder, joy, and hardship.

This is the kind of thing that we are bold to proclaim. That God came in the form of Christ to walk among the people and turn the world upside-down. That Christ offered stories and commands that help to shape our lives so that we can shape others. That Jesus went to the very limit of his life dedicated to the profound power of love and it got him killed on a cross. That three days later he rose from the grave, defeated death, and offered salvation to the world.

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We are not too blessed to be stressed. If we are anything we are too blessed to be content. When we remember all that God was willing to do for us and for the world, it ignites a desire in our hearts to start transforming the world. When we feel God’s love in our lives through a friend, we are given the strength to do the same for someone else. When we break down and raise our clenched fists in the air at God, when we pray from the depth of our being, God shows up and starts to reorient our lives through change.

We are too blessed to be content. The world is full of rulers, authorities, cosmic powers of darkness, and spiritual forces of evil. God has blessed us to stand firm against the injustices of life and say “no more!” We will not sit idly by while the world tells people they have no value, we will not participate in a system that perpetuates economic disparity, we will not give in to the evil powers of prejudice and presumption.

We say, “no more!” and we clothe ourselves with the whole armor of God and we go marching against the evils of the world. We wear the belt of truth and open our eyes to what is really going on. We strap on the breast plate of righteousness and live according to love rather than hate. We put on shoes that allow us to get on the move and declare the gospel of peace. We brandish the shield of faith, holding on to the promises of God. We adorn our heads with the helmet of salvation, hold the sword of the Spirit, and we persevere in prayer.

We say “no more!” to the rulers, and the authorities, and the cosmic powers of darkness because we are too blessed to be content. Amen.

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Take Up Your (Cross) Collar – Sermon on Matthew 11.25-30

Matthew 11.25-30

At that time Jesus said, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; yes, Father, for such is your gracious will. All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone whom the Son chooses to reveal him. Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

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I wonder what the disciples thought when Jesus said, “my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.

Bartholomew probably nodded along in agreement, James and John might have clapped in approval, but there’s a chance that Peter said what I think whenever I come across this passage: “Is he serious?

I mean, in reality, it would seem that what Jesus is talking about here is rather ironic. My yoke is easy and the burden is light? Coming from the one who said: take up your cross and follow me, those who wish to save their life must lose it, sell all of your possessions and give to the poor, let the dead bury the dead, is it easier for camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter heaven… it seems a little paradoxical for him to claim that is yoke his easy and the burden is light. 

When we take a step back and look at the greater picture of this address, Jesus’ invitation is not to the work burdened, nor the sin-burdened, but to the law burdened, to those who felt the heavy weight of religiosity. At a time when law observance was followed by some to a ridiculous degree, Jesus triumphantly invited the weary to come to him for rest.

The promise for the weary is not, however, a rest from inactivity. What Christ offers to the tired is not a vacation from the law but a less burdensome way of fulfilling it. At particular points during his ministry Jesus’ interpretation of the law was more lenient (observing the Sabbath) and at other times more stringent (divorce, acts of mercy, forgiveness). The main thrust being that the weighted matters of the law can be simplified by justice, mercy, and faithfulness.

Compared to the other law followers of his time, Jesus is offering a lesser burden of religious existence. Yet, I can’t help but feel that there is something inherently wrong with the idea that Jesus’ yoke is easy and the burden is light.

 

It brings me more joy than I can describe to know that I have been serving as the pastor of St. John’s for more than a year. I have only begun to scratch the surface of our collective story, the way we have all come to know God in our lives, and I look forward to our continued journeys of faith.

Years ago a good friend of mine had just finished his first year in ministry, like me, when the “honeymoon” period came to an abrupt end. They say that the “honeymoon” period can last anywhere from 6-18 months; the church body becomes so excited with a new pastor that they are willing to look past the old problems to envision a new reality of faith. However, as with all things, the honeymoon eventually comes to an end. Honeymoons can end by a simple mistake from the pulpit, a forgotten phone call to a parishioner in need, or simply when the new shiny toy looses its luster. For my friend, the honeymoon came to a screeching halt during a church council meeting.

After serving for an entire year it appeared as if things were finally getting better for the church; they had new visitors attending worship, new programs had taken off, and they even had a few youth present during church gatherings. Some of the lay people had come to describe this new young pastor as the shot in the arm that the church had desperately needed. He was their little Messiah, inaugurating a new age and time for the church when it could return to its former glory.

The church council meeting took place in the damp church basement that smelled of mold and burnt coffee one evening shortly after his one year anniversary. The leadership of the church sat appropriately in the stiff folding chairs and exchanged pleasantries about the comings and goings of town until the real business came to the floor: The much needed update to the curtains in the fellowship hall. He describes the moment as a eternity of debating what color would best accent the needs of the hall where peoples’ feeling were hurt over the color-coordination. And then they talked about replacing the organ, and the sanctuary windows. They talked about the only two children in worship, just two, who were deemed disruptive to the older folk. And when they were done complaining about the children, they started to complain about my friend…

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The shut-in list was passed around the table until it arrived in his lap when someone said, “the only explanation must be that you don’t have this list. Our last pastor made sure that each of them were visited one a week.” “Thats wonderful” my friend replied, “Who visits them?” “The pastor does!” they all agreed in unison.

My friend looked down at the list and read the names of the faithful church members who could no longer attend. While he sat there in silence reading over the list one of the older women spoke up, “this is the way we’ve always done it, and we’ve always been successful

“Successful at what?” he said. “There are 36 names on this list. That means there were 4 more people on this list than there were in church last Sunday. I don’t think you’ve been successful at all.”

And thus the honeymoon came to an abrupt conclusion. 

 

My friend was young, brash, and foolish, and he was wrong. It is part of the pastor’s vocation to visit the shut-ins, to maintain a connection between the people and their church. But he was also right about something; the call of discipleship rest on all of us, not just the pastor.

Once, while I was working on a sermon, I got a call letting me know that a beloved woman from the church I was serving had just been admitted to the local hospital after having a stroke. I remember leaving my my computer and bible open on my desk, and driving straight to the hospital. I sat by her bed and held her hand as she talked to me about everything that had happened to her, her inability to move some of her fingers, her fears about being able to return to the normalcy of life, but the thing that stuck with me most was the last thing she said before I left.

“Thank you for coming to see me,” she said. “I miss my church. I’m so sorry that I haven’t had a chance to come hear you preach, but I’ve been too sick to leave the house and my hearing has gotten so bad. I miss the people. I’ve received a lot of cards that have helped to cheer me up. But you know what? No one has come to visit me. And the only reason you’re here is because I’m in the hospital.

I am a professional Christian. I have it easy. I am paid by you to live out my faith, order the church, preside over the sacraments, proclaim the Word of the Lord, and serve the needs of the community. I attend our committee meetings to help with the ordering of the church, I pray over the waters of baptism and the bread and wine of communion, I preach sermons from this pulpit every week, and when someone has a need I leave what I’m doing to be with them. Going to visit someone in the hospital is what I am called to do. However, one of the hardest things to accept and live into, is our shared commitment to take care of one another.

I went to see that woman in the hospital because I knew it was what I was supposed to do. I went because I am a pastor, but more importantly I went because I am a Christian. When I wear my clergy collar it is a constant reminder that I am called to act, think, live, and behave like a Christian. This collar has become my yoke. It sits uncomfortably around my neck as a constant reminder of who I am and whose I am. Im not proud to admit it but, sometimes, I need to wear it in order to live out my faith. Without this yoke around my neck it becomes too easy to fade into the crowd and forget my obligation to make God’s kingdom alive in the world. I am weak enough that I need to have something like this to help me remain faithful.

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And so I wonder… I ask myself: Did I go see her because it was the right thing to do? Or did I go see her because that’s what you expect me to do?

When you wear something like this around your neck you begin to act differently. It is an inescapable demarkation that I have given my life to Christ to live a radically transformed life that often feels burdensome and heavy, unlike the easy yoke of today’s scripture.

Jesus calls the weary to come to him because his yoke is easy. A good yoke is one that is carefully shaped so that there will be a minimum of chafing for the animal. Jesus’ yoke therefore is one that is supposed to be kind to our shoulders, enabling us to carry the load more easily. But I will be the first to tell you, sometimes the weight feels unbearable.

Take my yoke upon you and learn from me.” In our discipleship we are not merely called to listen to Jesus’ words and reflect on them. In other words, our faith in not one that is limited to the mind. From Christ we are to learn not only to think, but to do. We gather in this place every Sunday to learn by listening and then living out God’s Word in the world. The yoke of discipleship, much like this collar, is not one that Jesus imposes on us, but one that he wore and continues to wear alongside us. 

When the weight of discipleship begins to feel too heavy for me, I call for Christ’s help with the load. I cannot do this on my own for I am a wretched man, full of sin and devoid of glory. Only through Christ’s love and grace am I able to take up my cross, which is to say I am able to take up my collar, and live as a Christian fully and deeply. 

Imagine what it would look like if we all started acting like Jesus here and everywhere. The burden of wearing a collar like this in the world is mine to bear. But think, if you can, how differently you would act if you wore one around your neck. That’s why I have placed 100 collars in our sanctuary this morning. Take one home with you, leave it in a place where you will see it regularly, and when you do, ask yourself, “how would I behave today if that yoke was hanging around my neck?”

Christ is on the other side of your yoke, helping you to carry this burden of being his body for the world; it is not easy being Christian. The cost of discipleship is one that will cost us our very lives. And just as Christ is helping to carry your yoke, so also are we called to help one another.

When we hear about the sufferings within our community we have been given the great privilege to help carry those who are in their deepest valleys while at the same time recognize that we need to be helped through our sufferings as well.

I count myself blessed to serve the needs of this church, to wear this collar that comes at a price, to take Christ’s yoke upon my shoulders because it is through God’s love, Christ’s mercy, and the Spirit’s presence through people like you that the yoke becomes easy and the burden is light.

Let us all put Christ’s yoke upon our shoulders, let us take up our collars to live as Christ’s body for the world, serving the needs of others while lifting up one another in faith.

Amen.