“Coping with Stress”
A Sermon by the Rev. Marek P. Zabriskie
Rector of St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church
In Fort Washington, Pennsylvania
Delivered on Sunday, July 9, 2017
My father was taught to fold and reuse aluminum foil. He grew up during the Great Depression. His family lived in Ridgewood, New Jersey, an affluent town within easy commuting distance of New York City. His family was of modest means. He wasn’t given an allowance. He earned his money the old fashioned way. As a teenager, he constantly worked – cutting lawns, washing windows, and creating and selling a neighborhood newspaper.
When the time came for him to go to college, my grandparents had to pull my aunt out of school. She had been studying at Wells College in upstate New York, but my grandparents couldn’t afford to educate two children at once. My father was expected to marry and support a family, and they believed that he needed a college education. My aunt was expected to marry and start a family, and a college education was seen as a luxury for a young woman.
My dad hitch-hiked or took the bus to Burlington, Vermont, where he attended college. It was the only way that he could afford to get there. He worked his way through college. One of his many jobs was in a soap factory, where he carried fifty-pound sacks of soap powder up a ladder and dumped them into huge mixing vats. When he returned to his fraternity house, he was covered with so much soap powder that he could step in the shower and instantly lather up.
My father was ambitious. He was more of a human doing than a human being. It took years for him to learn how to be, how to sit still in a chair and watch a sunset or carry on a calm conversation. The wheels in his mind and the blood in his veins were constantly churning.
His career demanded that he constantly travel. He often had breakfast with a client in one city, flew to another city for lunch and then landed in third city to take a client to dinner or prepare for the next day. Each day the process continued. My dad was like the Energizer Bunny.
When he returned from a hard week of travel, he didn’t slow down. My dad spent Saturdays doing yard work. He cut the grass, trimmed the hedges and spread lime and fertilizer. I got to know my father was by working beside him in the yard, shadowing the man who had been missing all week. He taught me how to finger pick leaves nestled in beds of pachysandra until they were spotless. We didn’t own a weed whacker or a power mower. We did everything by hand. I thrived on my father’s compliments, and in time, I, too, became a whirlwind of action.
My father retired more than two decades ago, and now our roles are reversed. I am often the one who is now too busy to chat for long periods of time on the telephone. As Harry Chapin sang,
I’ve long since retired, my son’s moved away
I called him up just the other day
I said, “I’d like to see you if you don’t mind”
He said, “I’d love to, Dad, if I can find the time
You see my new job’s a hassle and kids have the flu
But it’s sure nice talking to you, Dad
It’s been sure nice talking to you”
And as I hung up the phone it occurred to me
He’d grown up just like me
My boy was just like me
Truly, I became my father’s son. So much so, that today’s gospel greatly impacted me. The theologians of the Early Church described the Bible as a medicine chest that contains everything needed to treat whatever ails the human soul. My ailment was an inability to be at peace with myself and with the world as it was and the need to be constantly doing and producing something of value. Today’s Bible reading became my Gospel medicine.
“Come to me all you who 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.” (Matt. 11:28-30) These words have been my spiritual touchstone. Some 30 years ago, when I applied to seminary, they sent me a form asking me to write about my favorite Bible verse, and I wrote about, “Come to me all you who are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.…” For over 450 years the Church has called them “the Comfortable Words,” for they are like the balm of Gilead for weary souls, restoring balance to our lives like medicine that heals a sick body.
While we think of Jesus as a carpenter, the Bible never mentions it. We know that his father, Joseph, was a carpenter, and we assume like father, like son. But Jesus was more like a physician. Barbara Brown Taylor has noted that instead of using medications made from herbs and spices or administering hot compresses and prescribing bed rest, Jesus told stories with the power to mend broken lives and revive faint hearts. Instead of pills and potions, he offered words like, “Stand up and walk,” “Do not be afraid,” “Weep no more” or “Your sins have been forgiven.” As he began his ministry, Jesus proclaimed release to captives, recovery of sight to the blind and liberty to the imprisoned.
His ministry was not a ministry of doing, but a ministry of saying. It was a ministry of sharing words of truth and hope. He spoke about what God has done, what God is doing and what God will do. Everything that happens in Jesus’ ministry happens because of his example and because of his words. Jesus’ words heal. They nourish, strengthen and give hope. That’s why the Gospel was, is and always will be good medicine.
Whenever we are weighed down by the stresses of life and caught up in the need to overachieve, these words – “…my yoke is easy and my burden is light” – reveal to us that if the yoke is hard and the burden is heavy, then it is not God’s burden that is giving us stress. It is a something that we have manufactured for ourselves. Hence, these words are like a spiritual compass correcting us when we get lost in too much activity, too much doing and not enough being.
They remind me of what the great American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote in one of the last poems that he penned before he died. He wrote,
Why all this fret and flurry?
Dost thou not know that what is best
In this too restless world is to rest
From over-work and worry?
There is a legend that Jesus operated a carpenter’s shop and made the very best yokes in all of Galilee. His yokes were tailor made to fit each ox. Above his shop door was a sign which read, “My yoke fits well.” Jesus invites us to yoke ourselves with him, for our burden is lighter when we share it with God. Jesus wants our burden to be manageable, like a well-fitting yoke. Stress is God’s warning signal that we are carrying a burden that God does not intend for us to carry.
Henri Nouwen wrote that “the filled, yet unfulfilled life” characterizes our culture for we live as if we believed that salvation comes from being constantly busy. Jesus says, “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.” His invitation goes out to the broken-hearted, the weary, the overworked, and to the person who was criticized at work and at home and who feels by the end of the week that she can please no one. Each one of us copes with different stresses. Yet, to each of us go out these words, “Come to me…” In the midst of our busyness with problems stacked upon problems, Jesus invites us to rest in God. St. Augustine wrote in his spiritual autobiography, “O Lord, you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless, until they can find rest in you.”
My dad is 86. He’s slowing down. A bad fall. Some heart troubles. Yet, I’ve never heard him sound more content. He still travels the country, calling me from Cape Cod, Florida or Vermont. Not long ago, he was sitting on a porch in a country inn in New Hampshire, watching a sunset and counting his blessings. He’s transformed from a human doing into a joyful human being.
I close with a Japanese translation of the Twenty-third Psalm.
The Lord is my Pace-setter, I shall not rush;
He makes me stop and rest for quiet intervals.
He provides me with images of stillness, which restore my serenity;
He leads me in ways of efficiency through calmness of mind,
And His guidance is peace.
Even though I have a great many things to accomplish each day,
I will not fret, for His presence is here.
His timelessness, His all importance, will keep me in balance.
He prepares refreshment and renewal in the midst of my activity
By anointing my mind with His oils of tranquility.
My cup of joyous energy overflows.
Surely harmony and effectiveness shall be the fruits of my hours,
For I shall walk in the peace of my Lord, and dwell in His house forever.