May 2, 2021 – “Caregivers: Loving God by Loving Others” by Rev. Cody Sandahl

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First Reading = Luke 4:16-21

  16When he came to Nazareth, where he had  been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his  custom. He stood up to read, 17and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: 18“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,  because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent  me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the  blind, to let the oppressed go free, 19to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” 20And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. 21Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

Introduction

We are still in our series looking at the nine spiritual pathways. These are the ways we are designed to walk toward and love God. You won’t resonate with all of these, but we’re trying to help you identify your top 2-3 and help you deepen your relationship with God in a way that resonates with your soul.

Every week we have a list of spiritual practices on the back of the bulletin, and we have a full discussion guide for every spiritual pathway on the Spiritual Journey page of our website.

Last week we talked about activists who are willing to fight to make earth look a little more like heaven. This week we are switching gears and going in a very different direction. Those who walk the caregiver spiritual pathway love God by loving others.

I think we need to get one very key distinction out there before we begin today. There is a major difference between those who are caregivers because they have to and those who choose to care for others as an act of worship.

We’re focusing on those who choose to care for others, who go out of their way to care for others, who see themselves caring for Jesus when they are caring for others. That’s the caregiving spiritual pathway. But, with that said, if you are a caregiver by situation rather than spiritual design, you can use some of the approaches we’re going to talk about today to refill your spiritual tank and not feel as drained. So this can be useful either way, but it’s a key distinction.

It’s kind of like personalities. An extrovert is energized by a crowd. Many introverts can function in a crowd, but they get drained by it. In the same way, we can all function as caregivers when life goes in that direction. But some people are actually energized when they care for others. That’s the caregiving spiritual pathway.

Our text today is a brief snippet from Jesus’ most famous sermon. Listen for some of the ways he highlights caregiving in these few verses.

Main Reading = Matthew 7:7-12

7“Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. 8For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. 9Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone? 10Or if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake? 11If you then, who are evil, know how to  give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in  heaven give good things to those who ask him!

12“In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.

Active Compassion

Last year I hosted an outdoor group to discuss our purpose from God. We met outside near Bemis Library. It was bright and warm when we started, but it was getting dark and chilly when we ended. At the end of the session on this particular day, a few people left and a few people stuck around to chat in the chilly dark.

And miraculously – I still don’t know how – someone noticed a cell phone face down in the grass in the pitch dark. We quickly surmised whose cell phone it was. And since the Bible says to not steal, we dropped the phone back in the grass and went home.

Wait, that’s not what happened! No, we called the other person in the couple, and someone stuck around to let them come back to Bemis and get their phone back! That’s what actually happened.

We could have dropped the phone and left it and been just fine with the Ten Commandments. But that’s the difference between “thou shalt not steal” and what Jesus says in our text today, “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.”

Jesus moves us from avoiding harm to actively doing good. That’s a big time switch. “Do to others as you would have them do to you” is a much higher standard than “do not steal.” It requires action!

Or what if I told you that our church was going to adopt the same motto that Google had when it started – “Don’t be evil!” Wouldn’t you think that our church should aim to actively be good instead of just not being evil? Don’t worry, though, Google dropped that motto a couple of years ago, so they can be evil now.

Those who walk the caregiving spiritual pathway know that compassion is an activity, not a passive idea. Caregivers want to “do” something good instead of merely avoiding harm. Caregivers have active compassion. Those who walk the caregiving spiritual pathway remember that Jesus actively washed the disciples’ feet on Maundy Thursday. They remember that Jesus actively sacrificed himself on the cross for us. They remember that Jesus healed and then restored lepers into the community after being ostracized for years. They have active compassion. That is one of the defining characteristics of the caregiving spiritual pathway. Active compassion.

Serving Jesus

Those who walk the caregiving spiritual pathway also remember what Jesus said in Matthew 25, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”

Mother Teresa of Calcutta is probably the first person many people think of when they hear about the caregiving spiritual pathway and active compassion. She said that she looked behind the eyes of the poor, the sick, and the needy, and she saw the image of God. As she practiced her active compassion, she saw herself serving Jesus. Her active compassion wasn’t merely a helping hand, it was an act of worship!

And that’s the other defining characteristic of those who walk the caregiving spiritual pathway. They see Jesus in the people they are serving or helping. They bring the same level of care and effort that they would if it were Jesus himself in front of them.

We’re hosting the epilepsy support group in our back yard this weekend, and so my wife wanted to spruce up a few things in the yard. The fence with the badly-peeling paint was scraped and sanded and power washed and repainted. We got some Revive on the parts of the yard that weren’t springing back as well as the others. We got an early start on the weeding. My son loves to move the rocks all around the yard, so we re-distributed them to cover the bare spots. And of course we’ll pick up the toys and tidy things up when they actually come over.

That’s the effort we’re going through for the epilepsy support group. The caregiving spiritual pathway goes even a step further than that. The caregiver goes the extra mile and asks, “What else would I do if it were Jesus coming over?” Going that extra mile for everyday people and seeing it as serving Jesus? That’s an act of worship.

Selfless

The last defining characteristic of the caregiving spiritual pathway is actually kind of prophetic in our culture right now. Let me demonstrate.

Try to picture a graduation speech. They’re mostly in the same vein. Dream big! And then achieve your dreams! You can do anything you want if you put your mind to it! You can be anything you want to be if you work hard enough! You can have it all!

There are two issues with that kind of speech. First and foremost, it’s not true. My brother wanted to be in the NBA. And he was a really good basketball player who worked really hard at it. But he’s a half-inch taller than me and has never been able to dunk. He probably could have played at a small school in college, but the NBA was a literal impossibility for him. Well…he did work for the Spurs as a salesman, so he technically made it into the NBA. But that wasn’t exactly what he was dreaming in high school.

For me, whatever vestiges of that “you can have it all” fantasy remained were destroyed when our older son developed seizures and developmental delays. Our definition of what was important shifted dramatically and immediately and permanently. Some of you have experienced that universe-bending moment, too. Cancer. Dementia. Heart disease. Multiple sclerosis. Becoming a widow or widower. Losing a career. Bankruptcy.

So sometimes the universe just bends away from your dreams and hopes and expectations. Returning to Mother Teresa, though, she said, “Real love is always painful and hurts: then it is real and pure.” Loving in the midst of pain. Loving in the midst of hurt. Loving in the midst of dashed dreams. Loving in the midst of darkness. Loving in the midst of tears. That takes a particular attitude. That takes a selfless approach to life. And that runs completely counter to the “Rah! Rah! Me first!” graduation speech mentality that is all around us.

One of the men in our church was a long-time caregiver for his wife who had MS. And he doesn’t sugar coat it when he tells the story of what that was like. It was crushingly difficult to be there day in and day out being her caregiver. Many of you can relate in your own circumstances, I’m sure.

But we have a choice about our attitude and our mental focus during those times. We could sit around listing our reasons to be bitter. We could sit around listing every dream that has been dashed and every way our smooth path has been taken from us. Sometimes everyone has to vent, but if we do that day in and day out, we cultivate a bitter heart.

The man in our church got through it by praying every day, “Lord, give me enough strength for tomorrow.” And then the next day he prayed, “Lord, give me enough strength for tomorrow.” And the next day. And the day after that. And the day after that. “Lord, give me enough strength for tomorrow.” That cultivates a servant heart. That cultivates a Christ-like heart. That cultivates a selfless heart.

And that selfless attitude is the final defining characteristic of the caregiving spiritual pathway. You’re not going to hear about selflessness in most graduation speeches. You’re not going to hear about willing sacrifice in a graduation speech. You can find whole genres of books on getting rich or projecting a powerful attitude or winning in life. But selfless sacrifice? Not as popular.

Jesus didn’t say, “follow me because it’ll make you feel good.” No, he said, “Take up your cross and follow me.” Those who walk the caregiving spiritual pathway see the cross that they have to bear, and they take it up as an act of selfless sacrifice – as an act of love – as an act of worship. A selfless attitude is the final defining characteristic of the caregiving spiritual pathway.

Pitfalls

So to recap, at its best the caregiving spiritual pathway practices active compassion with a selfless attitude as an act of worship. Those who walk the caregiving spiritual pathway see the face of Jesus in whomever they are serving or helping.

That’s caregiving at its best. But as we have done with all of the spiritual pathways, we can also take a look at the common pitfalls.

One of the most common pitfalls in this spiritual pathway is burnout. While serving and loving others might give you energy most of the time, everyone gets worn out. Think about your car. If you just leave it sitting there all the time, things can break from lack of use. But if you run your car all day every day you’ll wear some parts out. It needs maintenance.

Burnout is when we fail to put in the time and work and energy we need on our souls. So the tire treads wear thin until they suddenly explode. Jesus offers this cautionary tale in Luke 10 when he was with Mary and Martha. Martha was busy doing all the housework while Jesus was there, and her sister Mary was listening to Jesus instead. Jesus said, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.”

Sometimes all of us need to sit at the feet of Jesus instead of always running around. Sometimes all of us need a sabbath from work. God took a day after creating the universe. And God told us to take a soulful rest every seven days, too. Working and serving yourself to the bone and burning out is a common pitfall of the caregiving spiritual pathway.

Another common pitfall of the caregiving spiritual pathway is having blinders. This can work in two different ways. Some caregivers are so focused on serving at an organization or a soup kitchen or mentoring or whatever cause speaks to them that they neglect those closest to them. They can have blinders by hyper-focusing on those who need help in their community that they can’t see the needs in their own family or friends.

And this can work in reverse as well. Some caregivers can be so consumed by the needs right in front of them every day that they can’t think of anything outside the household. They can have blinders by hyper-focusing on those who need help in their family or friends that they can’t even see the needs in their community. Having blinders toward your community or blinders toward those closest to you – that’s another common pitfall of the caregiving spiritual pathway.

Ideas

So to recap, at its best the caregiving spiritual pathway practices active compassion with a selfless attitude as an act of worship. And at its worst, this spiritual pathway can lead to burnout or having blinders.

If you walk this spiritual pathway, how can you deepen your walk with God?

Well, I have good news and I have some bad news. The good news is that there are needs all around you and you have a bazillion options for loving God by loving others. The bad news is that there are needs all around you and you have a bazillion options for loving God by loving others. You have so many options, but there are too many options! It’s like going to a new restaurant with a 13-page menu. Lots of options, but there are so many you can feel overwhelmed.

We have some outside the box ideas on the back of your bulletin, and I’ll add a few more. At my previous church, some people were particularly motivated as they thought about the challenges facing young adults. So they organized care packages with homemade goodies and other useful items, and we sent those packages to college students before finals and we also mailed similar packages to soldiers connected with our church.

A little closer to home, we just reorganized our youth ministry for middle and high school students around small groups. We have three small groups, and they meet once a month for a meal together. Your generosity actually pays for those meals and we also pay for the meal for any friends they want to bring.

At the meal, we ask for highs, lows, and prayer requests. We talk about what’s been going on over the last month. You don’t have to be a teacher to enjoy a meal with students. We could use 1-2 more people to have full, strong leadership teams for those groups. If you have a heart for the rising generation and you enjoy eating, let me know if you want more details. We could use you as we invest in our church’s goal to promote meaningful relationships across the generations.

Another example from our church is what we’ve done with our personal check-ins. Just this past week, we looked at our notes from everyone we’ve spoken with since we started checking in with people in the congregation individually. And we had specific ideas on how to better support and invest in 18 people. Carol mentioned one idea last Sunday – forming visitation teams for those who are lonely or have difficulty getting out. Visiting someone once a month for an hour isn’t a big commitment of your time, but it means the world for some of our congregation who feel isolated. And when multiple people form a team and they get a visit once a week or so? Man, that’s like sunlight breaking through on a dark and cloudy day.

In fact, I mentioned Carol. She’s absolutely gifted in this spiritual pathway. She sees things I would never see. She has ideas for addressing needs I would never imagine. She’s really, really good at this. I didn’t check with her before saying this, so hopefully she’s OK with it, but if you want to love God by loving someone else in our church, maybe ask her what the needs are right now. She’s got a great pulse on that and she is very good at coming up with ways to address the needs in meaningful ways.

The final thing I’ll mention is one that applies to the caregivers who walk this spiritual pathway by design AND those who are caregivers due to the reality of life. I mentioned that the caregiving spiritual pathway sees the face of Jesus in whomever they are helping or serving. Cultivating that awareness actually can help alleviate the emotional burden of constant caregiving.

One way to do this is to keep a daily journal of the presence of God. It works best if it’s daily or almost daily, because you’ll spot small things all over the place. If you just do it on occasion, you’ll be limited to just a few big things instead of the constant drip of the Holy Spirit all around you.

So you can set aside a time each day to write down where you noticed the presence of God. This might be something that happened. This might be something that was narrowly avoided. This might be something you felt – or didn’t feel. This might be what you did, it might be what someone else did. This might be something the person you’re serving or helping did or said. The more you write down the ways you see God, the more you’ll notice the presence of Jesus all around you.

And the more you notice the presence of Jesus around you, the more you will feel the fruit of the Spirit from Galatians 5 – “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” If you want to feel those things instead of burnout or bitterness, then write down the ways you notice the presence of God. That will help.

Summary

Sisters and brothers, the caregiving spiritual pathway loves God by loving others. At its best the caregiving spiritual pathway practices active compassion with a selfless attitude as an act of worship. Like Mother Teresa of Calcutta, this spiritual pathway looks behind the eyes of the poor, the sick, and the needy and sees the very image of God. Might we see that way? Amen.