Sunday, February 28, 2016

Receiving the Right Yoke: A Sermon on Stress and Rest

The Rev. Dr. Leah D. Schade
Feb. 28, 2016
Text:  Matthew 11:25-30

               “Come to me all you who are weary and heavy-laden and I will give you rest,” (Matthew 11:28).  I think that is one of my favorite sentences spoken by Jesus during his ministry.  Because I don’t know about you, but I often feel weary and heavy laden, and the idea of a rest given to me by none other than Jesus himself just makes me breath a deep sigh of relief. 
But then I read the next line and I realize why it is so difficult for me to receive this gift from Jesus:  “Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and you shall find rest unto your souls.  For my yoke is easy and my burden is light," (Matthew 11:29-30). In order for me to truly lead a life that receives the rest of God given to me both as a gift and a commandment, I actually have to receive this yoke from Jesus.  A yoke, if you’ve never heard of the term, is a crossbar with two U-shaped pieces that encircle the necks of a pair of oxen or other draft animals working together.  

Or it can one piece fitted to a single person carrying it across their shoulders with equal loads on each end, like two buckets of water.

Well, that’s the kind of yoke I’ve got on me right now.  I’m so busy, and I’m carrying such a heavy load, I can’t stop to receive this other yoke from Jesus.   There’s a song by Sandra Boyntonwhich my kids listen to called “BusyBusyBusy” which is the theme song of my life:

We’re very very busy
And we’ve got a lot to do
And we haven’t got a minute
To explain it all to you
For on Sunday Monday Tuesday
There are people we must see
And on Wednesday Thursday Friday
We’re as busy as can be
With our most important meetings
And our most important calls
And we have to do so many things
And post them on the walls…

We have to hurry far away
And then we hurry near
And we have to hurry everywhere
And be both there and here
And we have to send out messages
By e-mail, phone, and fax
And we’re talking every minute
And we really can’t relax
And we think there is a reason
To be running neck-and-neck
And it must be quite important
But we don’t have time to check.

That is my life.  We get obsessed with working and being busy.  It’s like an addiction.  The phrase, “I’m so busy,” is like a mantra in our society.  Sometimes it’s a badge of honor indicating one’s industriousness, and level of success and importance.  For other’s it’s like the plea that goes unheeded.  We feel trapped by all that we feel is required of us, all that we have signed up for and don’t know how to say no to.
A few weeks ago, I had our Confirmation students study the commandment, “Honor the Sabbath and keep it holy.”  They learned that sabbath means “a period of sacred rest.”  Our students took a “Sabbath survey” that provided a snapshot of their own level of stress and “restedness.”  How much sleep should children between the ages of 11-13 get each night?  Between 9.5 – 11 hours of sleep.  Some said they get only 8-9 hours of sleep, and I know some teens say they get 7 or less hours of sleep. It is no wonder, then, that some of them have fallen asleep in class, and others felt they needed caffeine to get through the day.  Healing for our bodies is contingent on our giving our bodies rest – and this is healthy for our hearts, minds and relationships as well.
               A number of factors are contributing to this sleep-deprived state in our children.  Some have to do with the choices they or their parents make.  For example, almost every child had either a t.v., computer, or phone in their room. Add that to 2-3 hours of sports, music lessons, or other extracurricular activities, followed by two hours of homework, and you can see the reasons for their late-night bedtimes (anywhere from 10 – midnight). 
               Part of the problem also has to do with a lack of awareness of just how tired and stressed they are.  When asked if they thought they were too busy, some said yes.  Do they think their parents work too much?  Do they think our society is too busy?  Half said yes, half no.  These young people are so used to life at a frenetic pace that they think it’s normal.  They have nothing to compare it to.  They can’t even remember a time when life was a bit slower, less rushed, and going at an easier pace, because they’ve never experienced it.
               But when asked, they were able to identify the signs indicating they haven’t gotten enough rest.  They know what happens to their mood, their body and their work when they don’t honor the sabbath.  They get grouchy, moody, lose their sense of humor, make mistakes in their school work, feel depressed, and are more likely to get sick.  We as adults have our own warning signs – high blood pressure, headaches, arguments with people, impatience, inability to concentrate, depression, and even falling asleep at the wheel when driving, which can sometimes cause a fatal accident.  So, then, failing to honor the sabbath can actually lead to death. 
The theologian Thomas Merton called this kind of busy-ness a form of violence.  The frenzied pace of our culture kills inner peace.  And when we feel that rushed and desperate, it creates suffering for others. The stress of the “workaholic” assaults the people around them.  Think for a minute of the most stressed out person you know.  Do you like to be around them?  How do they make you feel? 
I asked my kids once if they thought I was too busy and if I ever made them feel like that.  I am ashamed to admit they said yes. So I have to ask myself – what do I want to contribute to the world?  Do I really want to contribute to the stress and emotional violence of this world by continuing this lifestyle that I think I’m trapped in?  Or do I have some choices to make that I wasn’t aware of before?
 And so I decided I needed to stop again and listen to these words of Jesus – “Come to me all you who are weary and heavy-laden and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and you shall find rest unto your souls.  For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”  Then it hit me – Jesus isn’t asking me to take on yet one more burden.  He’s inviting me to take off the single yoke I have put on my shoulders, put it on the ground, and step in beside him on a two-harness yoke. 
Think again of the yoke.  I said before that there are two types – one for a single person that lays across their neck.  That really is a burden because you have to carry it all by yourself.  But the other kind of yoke is when two animals are connected together, each one bearing the other’s burden.  I realize that what Jesus is asking me is not to take up yet one more burden, but to allow him to become yoked to me, so that he can walk beside me, accompany me with his presence and bear my burdens with me.  

And I realize, too, that Jesus has been doing this for me all along in the form of people who have accompanied me in a non-stressful, anxiety-reducing way, modeling for me what it means to live a life that is at peace, honoring the Sabbath.   
Think for a minute – who is the least stressed person you know?  I’m not talking about someone who’s just a slacker and lazy.  I’m talking about someone who maintains a healthy balance, and walks at a breathable pace, and when you’re around them, it feels like you’ve just walked in from a busy city street into a quiet sanctuary.  Who is that person for you?  How do they make you feel?
Now - what type of person are you? Are you a non-anxious presence for your spouse, children, co-workers, fellow church members?  Or are you just one more person who contributes to the overall frenzy of our world?
How can you be more like the kind of person who creates a small sanctuary of peace around them wherever they go, whatever they do, and whomever they’re with do this? Here were some suggestions from the Confirmation students:  listen to music, read, dance, write/journal, take a bath/shower, play with friends, participate in a sport, play a board game, watch or listen to comedy, sleep.
Three of my favorites were “go to church”, “meditate,” and “pray.”  You can also “prune” your activities, both for yourself and your family.  Think of one activity you could give up for a season.  Learn to say “no,” politely, but firmly when asked to take on one more thing.  Learn to say “yes” to time off.  And learn to define and protect your Sabbath.
Here in our own church, people have been responding to the opportunities to take part in these practices that help reduce stress for our minds, bodies and souls.  Kristie has reported that she has more people coming to yoga on Monday evenings than ever before.  Our Bible study has been growing in the number of participants each week.  And the meditation sessions, while small in number, have been enormously beneficial to those who have attended.  And we have two more coming up  - tomorrow at 1 p.m., and I’ve added an evening session on March 10 at 7 p.m.

Think of these Sabbath practices as times of “dormancy.”  Setting aside times of dormancy is like the farmer allowing an overworked field to lie fallow for a season.  It allows nutrients to return to the soil, permits new growth to spring up, and shows respect for the land. Honoring the Sabbath is an act of faith because it shows that we trust God.  We can let go enough to allow God to work in and through us, and sometimes in spite of us!  We can put down our burdens and step in beside Jesus.  We can begin to learn a new way of working, living, and relating to others that releases stress and contributes to the health and well-being of those around us.  But it will be difficult for those of us who are so attached to our yokes.  So let me conclude with this prayer:

Let us pray:  Jesus, we are stopping, right now, here in worship to listen to your words to us, your invitation, your offering of grace in the form of rest.  We are putting down our single yoke, lifting it off our shoulders, putting it on the ground, and stepping into the yoke beside you.  Oh, that feels so much better, lighter, easier.  Teach us, Jesus our friend, so that we may learn from you how to rest.  Amen.  

The Nightmare: An American Horror Story

The Rev. Dr. Leah Schade
February 28, 2016

Last night I had one of those vivid nightmares that begins like you’re watching a movie, but then you realize you’re in the story, living the horrible dream.  It was about a monster, a small creature that had been dug up from the ground.  It seemed almost cute in its ugliness at first.  

It was small but hungry.  It started eating anything it could find. It was put in a cage.  It ate and ate and ate, grew and grew and grew.  It started with just plants at first, but then animals – small ones, then larger ones.  It was ravenous, insatiable in its appetite. 

Eventually it was realized that it had to be put back in the ground.  It had to stay buried.  As long as it was buried, it would not hurt anything or anyone.  But dug up, it would continue to grow and consume.  It had no personality, no morals.  Its desire was only to eat and grow.  And it would eventually eat its own cage, get out, and consume the whole earth. 

So a whole troop of people took the caged monster – now huge in size – back to the place from which the unsuspecting person had dug it up.  It was a swamp-like place, dark and creepy.  We started to dig a hole big enough to bury the creature.  But as we dug, we made a horrifying discovery - a whole nest of sleeping, shrunken monsters in the ground.  It was a shrieking-violin moment, a sickening twist in the story.  But we dumped the creature into the ground and quickly covered him up.  He and the other creatures had no power against the soil once we started to bury them again.

We knew someone had to stand guard at this place from then on and protect against any other unsuspecting person digging up one of the creatures.  So from then on, the guardians patrolled the grounds, telling the story to all who came along wanting to dig. 

Reflection:  As I was writing this nightmare in my dream journal (I keep one by my bed), I realized the message immediately.  The monster is fossil fuels.  

They are ugly, but were cute at first.  We thought they could be caged, kept under control, used for our purposes.  But in the end, the thing we thought we were consuming is, in fact, consuming us.  It has a voracious appetite.  No personality, no morals.  It only wants to eat and grow.  The fossil fuel industry has gotten bigger and bigger and has become this horrible nightmare.  

It’s an American Horror Story that has spread around the globe.  It’s eating its own cage and consuming the whole earth. 

After years of keeping a dream journal and paying attention to the messages from my subconscious, I have learned to discern the messages.  Sometimes they are multivalent (having more than one meaning).  But the immediate message from this nightmare came through loud and clear:

The only way to deal with the monster is to keep it in the ground. 

It has to stay safely buried in the soil and guarded so that no unsuspecting person might come along and accidentally dig it up.  It will take vigilance.  But the monster of fossil fuels – coal, oil, methane gas – must stay in the ground.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Eco Ecclesia - Interview with The Rev. Dr. Leah Schade

Dale Lature is a video blogger with a passion for connecting ecology and the Church.  He is among a growing number of individuals who recognizes that environmental issues need to be addressed at the most fundamental levels of religion - in our theology, worship, preaching, education and advocacy.  In this new series, Eco Ecclesia, he conducts in-depth interviews with others doing this kind of work, and I am proud to be featured in his second episode.

Dale notes that "the climate crisis is screaming for attention from churches," but observes that most denominations have very few resources available for congregants and only address the issue sporadically. "I'm not satisfied with an article every two to three months," he says.  "That doesn't say crisis to me."  He also recognizes that for those outside the church, the reluctance of the church to address ecological issues is "seen as yet another glaring omission in the church's life and work."

He asks some important questions:  Why is this so hard to talk about?  How can we not tell this story?  Over a period of about a year and a half, Dale and I have engaged in Skype conversations about these very questions which he has edited into this video.  While it is on the longish side, we tackle these questions with forthrightness and hope.

Here is a breakdown of the segments:

Dale's introduction and my background through minute mark 12:00

Discussing the term "eco-crucifixion" - 12:00 - 19:00

Ecofeminism - 19:00 - 24:00

Climate crisis as "blaspheming the Holy Spirit" - 24:00 - 28:00

Stages of "climate grief" - 28:00 - 32:00

Tower of Babel and capitalism - 32:00 - 37:00

Signs of hope, connection and community - 37:00 - 40:00

Dale's conclusion:  40:00 - 44:00

Friday, February 12, 2016

Islam, the Middle East and Christianity: Misconceptions, Facts, and Surprises

This is the forum I presented at my church, United in Christ Lutheran, Lewisburg, PA, on "Islam, the Middle East and Christianity: Misconceptions, Facts and Surprises." It's long (40 minutes), but if you're interested in seeing one approach to tackling this topic in a congregation, here's a model of how to do it. I'm also willing to share the Powerpoint with anyone who would like to use it in their context.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

You've Got Dirt on Your Forehead: Ash Wednesday Sermon

The Rev. Dr. Leah D. Schade

[Watch the video of this sermon here:]

I had an early appointment this morning to pick up my car from a repair job.  As I stood waiting for my vehicle, I saw a man walk in with an ashen cross on his forehead.  Obviously he had been to early morning Mass for Ash Wednesday.  But one of the service technicians looked at him and said, “You’ve got some dirt on your forehead there.”  To this man, who obviously didn’t have a background in Christianity and was unaware of what day it was, the ashes just looked like dirt accidently smudged on the forehead.  And that’s not where dirt belongs.  Dirt does not belong on the head.  It’s supposed to be on the ground, kept away from our heads and hands.

And, really, that’s what these ashes are:  dirt.  The social anthropologist Mary Douglas in her book Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo (Routledge, 1966) calls dirt any material which is “out of place.”  Dirt is a sign of disorder, an indication that the pattern is spoiled.  I remember having a fireplace and a woodstove – no one wanted the dirty task of cleaning out the ashes.  They go everywhere.  They spoil your clean clothes, the carpet, your hands.  Ashes are formless, non-differentiated.  They are a symbol of death and decay. 

Our society does not like to think about death.  We do everything we can to keep death and decay at bay, to present a clean face to the world through our Facebook pictures, our Tweets, our status updates, our web pages, indicating that we are happy, that life is in order.  Our consumer capitalist system is constructed around the task of selling you products to keep life upbeat, exciting, driven, sweet, delicious, and growing. 

But the reality is that dirt and death and loss and sorrow are an integral part of our lives. 

That’s why a ritual like Ash Wednesday is so important – because it fuses together two very powerful symbols:  ashes and the cross.  Ashes are the opposite of fire.  Ashes are cold, dead, unformed.  They are the end result of fire that has burned.  The cross is death, destruction, injustice, hatred.  It is the opposite of birth, life, nurturing, forgiveness and love.  When we bring these two symbols together, the two realms are bridged and sacredness happens.  That sacredness is inscribed right on your skin.

Douglas pointed out that, “Ambiguous symbols can be used in ritual for the same ends as they are used in poetry and mythology, to enrich meaning or to call attention to other levels of existence . . . Ritual, by using symbols of anomaly, can incorporate evil and death along with life and goodness, into a single, grand unifying pattern,” (Douglas, 41).  And that’s what this symbol of the ashen cross does.  It provides a frame in which to understand death and life, past and present.

Douglas reminds us that ritual “enlivens the memory and links the present with the relevant past.  In all this it aids perception.  Or rather, it changes perception because it changes the selective principles,” (65).  This ritual of marking you with a cross made of ashes links you to the biblical memory of your spiritual ancestors who covered themselves in ashes as a sign of repentance. 

Ashes remind us that we are made from earth and we will someday return to earth.  Our span of life on this planet is so very, very short.  A ritual like this helps us to ask the question:  am I really making the most of this limited time I have?  Am I doing something meaningful with my life?  Or am I frittering it away in shallow pursuits of ephemeral pleasures? 

I said earlier that dirt involves disorder, chaos.  But Douglas points out another truth – it is out of the formless chaos of dirt that creativity and new life arises.  So ashes symbolize the power of rebirth as well.  Remember – these used to be palm branches that grew in a warm, sunny, tropical place.  They smelled of greenness and were waved in our worship on Palm Sunday last year.

In a few days, however, they dried up, withered and shriveled.  In a ceremonial fire with our Confirmation students, we burned them and watched the fire and smoke rise into the night sky.  If we had sprinkled them on the ground, they would have been absorbed back into earth, and the nutrients would have fed the lives of grasses and plants and, in turn, insects and mammals, and even humans.  So we take these ashes and bless them, make them sacred to remind us that we, too, are part of the cycle of life begun by a God who does not leave us in the ashes, but renews us continually with creative power. 

That’s why a ritual like Ash Wednesday is so important.  Because it allows us to have access to “powers and truths which cannot be reached by conscious effort,” (95).  And it’s why attending worship and participating in rituals like Ash Wednesday and Baptism and Communion are so powerful.  They give us energy to command special powers of healing and wholeness.

These are all rituals that revolve around the theme of death and rebirth.  We die to our old lives and reborn to the new.  The ritual has the power to remake us, to reform us, to renew us.  Ours is, as Douglas might describe it, a “composting religion,” (168).  “That which is rejected is ploughed back for a renewal of life.”

And so I invite you to welcome the dirt and ash on your forehead, to embrace this symbol of death as a kind of shield against the false promises of our culture and society that create a kind of madness within us and in our relationships with each other.  Coming to church and engaging in these rituals won’t protect you from death, but it will help to keep you sane.  Embracing the cross of Jesus is embracing the truth of our fragility and vulnerability, being honest about how brief our lives are, so that we can find meaning and make the most of these bodies and minds and relationships. 

As you begin this Lenten journey, I invite you to release the false and empty promises – let me blow away like ashes from the purifying fire. And take hold of the life-giving truth, even in the midst of the dirtiness and loss and death that surrounds us.  In this cross is where we find the God we seek, hidden in the swipe of ashes. 

“You’ve got some dirt on your forehead.”  Yes.  That’s right where it belongs.


Monday, February 1, 2016

Healthy Pastor, Healthy Congregation: Why I’m Taking Steps to be More Committed and Accountable

This Lenten season I’m encouraging our congregation to take steps toward better health, healing and wholeness in mind, body, emotions and relationships.  And I’m taking this call seriously for myself as a pastor.  I recently learned from Portico, the Benefit Service provider for the ELCA, the serious nature of the overall health of ELCA clergy and what the church is trying to do to change it. 

Clergy have such high instances of stress, weight problems, hypertension and heart problems that it is becoming a characteristic of the profession.

Our health costs as a group are 23% higher than other comparable groups.  And this is reflected in the skyrocketing costs of health benefits for congregations.  Clergy work inmore stressful environments. And our population has a higher incident rate ofchronic conditions like diabetes, heart disease, asthma, kidney disease, and heartfailure.

One of the things the ELCA is asking clergy to do is to make lifestyle choices and changes that have tangible positive outcomes.  In response, this year I'm committed to being accountable to our Council and the congregation about the steps I'm taking to improve my health.  I will be including that information in my pastor's report, writing about it in my column for our newsletter, and designing a Lenten sermon series on "metanoia" - turning toward health and faith.  My hope is that this will model for our congregation taking positive steps toward better health for all of us, taking care of the temples of our bodies which God has entrusted to us. 

As I shared in a recent sermon, the Commandment that I break most often is the one about honoring the Sabbath.  Yes, I lead worship nearly every Sunday.  But I have not been taking a weekly day of rest for the last several months.  I am also not exercising as much as necessary.  Add to this the history of  heart disease, stroke and high blood pressure in my family history, as well as my own level of stress, and I realize that I could be a risk for the congregation and the church as a whole if I do not take steps to better care for myself.  So here are things I’m committed to doing in the coming year:

1. Sabbath:  Honor the day of rest once a week.  Usually this will be on Fridays.  On these days I will engage in the activities that strengthen my relationship with God, family and friends, and God’s Creation (taking walks, meditating, journaling, playing games with my kids, having “dates” with my husband, etc.).

2. Exercise: Add one additional day of high-energy exercise each week (in addition to my current practice of exercise once a week) and walking 20 minutes each day.
3. Nutrition:  Eliminate meat from my diet (I’ve committed to being a “pescatarian” - not eating meat, but allowing fish).  This is not only good for my health, but also for our planet’s well-being (see also,
 4. Accountability:  Being accountable to these commitments in my monthly reports to Council and asking for their prayerful support and encouragement.

I pray that God may give me the will and the willpower to take care of the temple of my mind, body and emotions that have been entrusted to me, as well as the relationships that are a reflection of the Divine Love that seeks to enfold me in grace.

And if you are inspired to take steps in improving your own health in mind, body, spirit and relationships, I welcome hearing from you.  Supporting each other on this journey together will help us all live into our calling to take good care of the bodies, minds and spirits God has entrusted to us.