What are you grateful for? How does that gratitude spur you to action? Come give thanks and find ways to give back here at Calvary.
“With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?
A PDF of the sermon as distributed at Calvary is available for download and printing.
I’m guessing most of you, like me, are a little tired. This past week, we have all been, quite literally, living in a haze as the ash and the smoke from the fires to our north have enveloped this city.
All of us are impacted directly in one way or another, but some of you, sitting in these pews today or listening online, have lost homes or livelihoods, are worried about losing homes, have family and dear friends who are displaced and have nowhere to return. This, compounded with the news of the world and the everyday demands of our lives… it’s exhausting.
If you’re paying any attention at all, and you care, even a little, I imagine you’re suffering at least a bit from what some call “compassion fatigue:” a state of physical, mental, emotional and I’d say spiritual exhaustion from wanting and needing to help but being stretched so thin and pulled in so many different directions that you become immobilized and unable to respond in helpful and compassionate ways.
You may wonder: how many times can your heart break for the news of the world?
The problem with compassion fatigue is that it can actually make us less compassionate, make us shut down and shut off those deep wells of caring because we become overwhelmed and anxious and then cynical.
Of course, compassion fatigue is also a privilege. Those undergoing the devastation of trauma itself are simply reeling, trying to survive, holding on the best they can to life.
My junior year in college, my parents’ dry cleaners caught fire- some weird electrical mishap. It was their entire livelihood, they worked twelve hour days at this place just trying to make ends meet; I spent my summers there helping out. They never took vacation days. It was a hard and not-so-gratifying job, but it paid most of the bills. And then it just went up in flames, totally unsalvageable.
I remember getting the call from my dad in the middle of the week, and I ditched classes and went straight to them. I walked through the store with them, our hopes and dreams, but also our back-breaking labor, all just ashes and smoldering cinders around us.
There are many ways to lose a home or a business, all of them traumatic. I only know the scorching pain of loss by fire. So much simply gone, up in flames and burned through and through.
The fires raging in this state, the sheer magnitude and scale are just devastating. Each home, business, and school all cradle a story.
It’s almost unbelievable, except that it’s happening. It’s real. The lives lost, the homes lost, the property, and all the potential harvest, our hearts are ripped asunder.
For those of us without homes or property in the area, as on-lookers, we want to be supportive, to help. I’ve witnessed so many people mobilized to do something. And even some who’ve brought donations to shelters being turned away because there’s just not enough space for it right now.
There are signs up in Sonoma County that say, “The love in the air is thicker than the smoke.” I believe that this is true.
But with so little contained and with so much damage to still assess, many of us are just waiting, poised to help, wondering how. And it is exhausting.
For those who are closer to the devastation and haven’t lost your home, you may feel survivor’s guilt: a feeling of shame or burden for making it when so many others haven’t been so lucky.
Between the trauma, the compassion fatigue, and survivor’s guilt, our emotional and mental states are at capacity.
Now, I want to be clear that I’m using these terms this morning colloquially, to describe general feelings and experiences we may be having. But trauma, compassion fatigue, and survivor’s guilt sometimes also can have medical and mental health conditions attached to them, so if you are experiencing depression, thoughts of suicide, or anxiety, please seek professional help.
Yes, faith sustains us and carries us in dark times. But faith and therapy are not at odds. And getting the help you need doesn’t mean you’re weak or that your faith isn’t strong enough. It means you’re wise enough and brave enough to know none of us can do this on our own and that there are professionals who are trained to give us the tools we need to keep on keeping on. I know that I am ever grateful for the therapists I’ve seen through the years who have fortified my ability to cope and grieve and mourn and process, so that I am able to be present for others.
As pastors, Victor and I can listen and pastorally care for you, but we are not trained as clinical psychologists. Our masters is not in counseling, or psychiatry, or psychology.
We have a Masters of Divinity, which doesn’t mean we have mastered the divine or are masters of a Deity. It just means we’ve studied God a lot, through scriptures, through the lived experiences of others, through other faith traditions, and through those who’ve written about God. I wish after all that time and money, I had more to offer you than I actually do.
But here’s what I do know:
God loves you, each and every one of you.
And in the midst of the chaos, God is with us.
Perhaps the best thing my MDiv did for me was force me to let go of my false assumptions of certitude, the need to be right, the desire to know something for sure. It made me a lot more comfortable with a God who is beyond all knowing, to sit with mystery and to be thankful for faith that bridges the gap between unknowing and believing any way.
And maybe that’s what Micah meant by “walk humbly” with God, to live life with humility, knowing that we don’t and won’t have all the answers. But also knowing that God walks with us, regardless.
There are some famous preachers, the Pat Robertsons of the world, who claim natural disasters are some kind of punishment for our sins. They hold a dangerous and damaging theology born of the kind of hubris and need for certainty that goes against Micah’s call to humbly walk with God. Their need to have a monopoly on truth and the power that that brings overrides any understanding they may have of a living and loving God.
I will preempt anything those preachers might say and assert now, these fires are not the results of the sins of California. God is not punishing us. In fact, today’s scripture even says that God does not require “burnt offerings.”
The fires are tragic and devastating, and if we don’t see Jesus in those who are displaced, in those who flee the fires by night, in those taking refuge in temporary shelters, and in the firefighters and first responders, the eyes of our hearts fail us. Because Christ is there. They are Jesus. “For just as you did for the least of these, so you have done for me,” he says.
The prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures were often the voice pieces of the “least of these.”
Probably because it’s been such a full and exhausting week, I realized, in a way I never have before, that Micah and the other prophets were likely exhausted, too.
They sat so close to those who were the most vulnerable, and then brought their truths to the halls of power, advocating against the injustices they witnessed and demanding change.
I’m sure they, too, felt the great burden to do something, anything, to alleviate the oppressive policies and forces that threatened the lives of so many. I bet they sometimes felt like their words were not enough, that they should be doing something more. And yet, here, today, those very words continue to encourage and spur us on, nearly three thousand years later.
In the days of the prophet Micah, there were all these rules about how to live a life of faith. Very specific rules that you had to abide by, rules that were easier if you were wealthy and powerful, but much harder (and easier to be taken advantage of) if you were poorer, less educated, and from the rural parts of society.
Micah saw how so many struggled to keep the rules, how they were often swindled and cheated when they tried to make their offerings to God. These rules, supposedly set up to provide “right” worship of God were actually oppressing and exhausting the common person.
So Micah, with these words, lifts that burden. What does the Lord require? To do Justice. Love Kindness. Walk Humbly with God.
So your calf isn’t perfect. So you didn’t present the exact right kind of offering. So you can’t seem to follow and abide by all the rules of worship. Maybe you don’t stand at the right time; maybe you don’t know all the hymns.
But how do you live your life, beyond these walls, beyond the rules of religion?
Are you fair and just? Do you notice and care for those who are oppressed or on the margins? Are you kind and loving? Are you humble and teachable?
If so, maybe that’s enough. For now, that’s enough.
When we are exhausted, when we are overwhelmed, when we see the scary apocalyptic images, it can be tempting to hunker down and look inward, to take care of yourself and your own. It’s ok to practice self-care, necessary even, so that we don’t fall into compassion fatigue, so that we don’t become numb and stop caring. But it’s also essential that we don’t just fall inward. Looking outward; doing justice, loving kindness, walking humbly, it can save us from ourselves.
I know; I know… How can doing more help when we’re exhausted? I’d imagine the way some people tell me exercising will actually help me feel less tired. It doesn’t make sense, but it does seem to work.
It may seem contradictory that doing something can help with our exhaustion.
But for so many of us, the exhaustion comes from consuming so much horrible news and information but not knowing how to help, feeling stuck at what to do next.
And here’s one just one more thing to consider: List the things you’re grateful for, the big and small things for which you give thanks. Because gratitude can break open your heart and soul allowing you to be more attuned to God’s activity in the world.
So give thanks for that parking spot- I’m not saying God gave it to you, but I am saying being grateful for it may allow you to notice God in a new and different way in your life.
The poet John Milton once wrote, “Gratitude bestows reverence, allowing us to encounter everyday epiphanies, those transcendent moments of awe that change forever how we experience life and the world.” Fill yourself with gratitude. Let yourself experience that awe in realizing how loved and blessed and cared for you are. But you have to do this intentionally.
Richard Rohr, a Franciscan friar and prolific author writes:
“Dan O’Grady, a psychologist and Living School student, told me recently that our negative and critical thoughts are like Velcro, they stick and hold; whereas our positive and joyful thoughts are like Teflon, they slide away. We have to deliberately choose to hold onto positive thoughts before they “imprint” …
Neuroscience can now demonstrate the brain indeed has a negative bias; the brain prefers to constellate around fearful, negative, or problematic situations. In fact, when a loving, positive, or unproblematic thing comes your way, you have to savor it consciously for at least fifteen seconds before it can harbor and store itself in your “implicit memory”; otherwise it doesn’t stick. We must indeed savor the good in order to significantly change our regular attitudes and moods. And we need to strictly monitor all the “Velcro” negative thoughts.” (Excerpt from Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditation, Alternative Orthodoxy: Week 2 – Turning toward the Good. Thursday, February 18, 2016).
If you’re anything like me, you’re exhausted this week. Of course you are. It’s been an exhausting week.
But I invite you to close your eyes. Take a deep breath and think back on the week.
Can you think of one thing you were grateful for? Was there a meal, or an interaction that gave you hope or brought you joy? Was there a story or a moment that made you laugh?
Hold onto those moments; savor them; let them imprint on your memory and on your heart. And let yourself be filled with gratitude for them.
True and deep gratitude will lead to action. Gratitude will lead to giving. Gratitude will change the way you see your own life, and allow you to give back to the lives of others.
Let us go with thankful hearts, to do justice; love kindness; and to walk humbly with our God. Amen.