Posts

Proper 11B-21

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

“There’s a Name for the Blah You’re Feeling: It’s Called Languishing. The neglected middle child of mental health can dull your motivation and focus — and it may be the dominant emotion of 2021.”  Psychologist Adam Grant seemed to put his finger on what many people are feeling.  It’s not burnout. It’s not depression. We feel empty.  Despondent.  Aimlessness and joylessness.  Grant said languishing can feel like a “dulling of delight” and the “dwindling of desire.”

Jesus said, ‘Come away with me and rest awhile’ (Mark 6:31). I think Jesus’ invitation to the disciples has special resonance for us today. In the early uncertain days of the pandemic our brains were on high alert, ready for fight-or-flight. But after 16 months in emergency-mode, our anguish has begun to sour into languish (Adam Grant, Languishing, NYT April 19, 2021).

Vaccinations opened a doorway to relief, or maybe, a window.  We pray enough people, our friends and family, will be vaccinated throughout our country and around the world so that the pandemic does not force us again to retreat. As Peter declared from the top of Mt. Tabor, “It is good, Lord, for us to be here.” Here, gathered in prayer and song, centered in Word and sacrament, we begin to feel again what it means to be human. Our hearts and minds are calmed, renewed, and restored by grace.

Jesus bid the disciples come away by themselves to a deserted place. They have just returned from their first tour of ministry — they are officially now apprentice apostles. They are exhilarated and exhausted, filled with stories — thrilling accounts of healings, exorcisms, and effective evangelism. Perhaps there are darker stories of failure and rejection to share as well.  Hard stories they needed to process privately with their teacher.

Remember, Jesus also has just lost his beloved cousin and prophet, John the Baptist, the one who had baptized him, and who had spent a lifetime in the wilderness preparing his way.  Worse, John died by violence, a terrifying reminder that the servants of God are not immune to senseless death.  Maybe Jesus’ own end felt closer. Jesus is heartbroken.

Whatever the case, Jesus senses the disciples need a break.  They’re tired, overstimulated, underfed, and in significant need of solitude. As the crowds push in around them at the edge of the Sea of Galilee there is tenderness and longing in Jesus’ words, ‘Come away with me’ (Debi Thomas, The Gift of Rest, Journey with Jesus, 7/11/21).

In a time when the pandemic has further blurred the boundaries between home and work, rest and productivity, it is important we pause here to notice Jesus is not a high-strung workaholic.  “Instead, we find a Jesus who recognizes, honors, and tends to his own tiredness.  We encounter a teacher who pulls his overheated disciples away from their labor and striving.  We discover a savior who probes below the surfaces of our busyness, and pinpoints the hunger our manic culture won’t allow us to name: the hunger for space, reflection, solitude, nourishment, recreation, rest, and sleep.” (Debie Thomas).

God is not like all the slave drivers you’ve ever known in your life.  God is not like the insatiable gods of imperial productivity that would prefer you to be a ‘human resource’ rather than a human being. Even our favorite sports teams, that offer us so much needed fun, can lead to deepening our despair as they worship at the altar of virility, power, and wealth all in the pursuit of winning.  This can add to our own anxiety and restlessness, and manifest in further violence. By contrast, covenantal relationship with God is rooted in fidelity, mercy, compassion and forgiveness –the things that make us human rather than merely being a commodity.

Come away with me.  Jesus offers a simple antidote to a culture of overworking. Jesus offers relief for our languishing spirits. It’s sometimes called Sabbath-keeping. The good thing is you don’t need anything special to keep the sabbath. You don’t have to travel to some exotic destination.  You don’t need Instagram worthy wow.  Sabbath keeping can be as simple as pausing again to take a breath or to say the Lord’s Prayer.

You and I need the sabbath. The need for sabbath is built into creation itself. God rested on the seventh day from all the work God had done (Genesis 2:2).  The commandment about the sabbath is the longest of the commandments.  It takes up nearly one-third of the Ten Commandments.  As Rabbi Abraham Joseph Heschel once pointed out, the Sabbath is the only one of God’s creations called holy.  Everything else is merely called ‘good.’  The sanctification of time preceded the sanctification of persons. The voice of God enters systems of oppression and declares “Let my people go!” (Exodus 5:1) Let my people depart from systems of endless production. God restores my soul and anoints my head with oil. My cup is filled to overflowing.

Even as slaves in Egypt, the people of Israel observed the Sabbath.  The Sabbath was not a day merely for recovering strength.  It was not free time.  It was freedom time.  It was time to recover their identity, time to be re-humanized, re-dignified, reclaimed, and restored.

Our gospel says Jesus had compassion for the crowd for ‘they were like sheep without a shepherd’ (Mark 6:34). How quickly we lose ourselves once we begin to stray from grace. Sabbath reminds us that we are creatures and not the Creator.  Sabbath reminds us we don’t need to be anything more than we already are. Sabbath inspires imagination, rekindles desire, dispels the doldrums of our languishing.  See God shapes us again into a community that says yes to the call to follow Jesus, to love one another and the world.

I leave you today with a poem from Jan Richardson, entitled “Blessing of Rest.”

Blessing of Rest

Curl this blessing

beneath your head

for a pillow.

Wrap it about yourself

for a blanket.

Lay it across your eyes

and for this moment

cease thinking about

what comes next,

what you will do

when you rise.

Let this blessing

gather itself to you

like the stillness

that descends

between your heartbeats,

the silence that comes

so briefly

but with a constancy

on which

your life depends.

Settle yourself

into the quiet

this blessing brings,

the hand it lays

upon your brow,

the whispered word

it breathes into

your ear

telling you

all shall be well

all shall be well

and you can rest

now.

Jan Richardson, Painted Prayerbook.

Proper 10B-21
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

If you stand with your back to the famous Trevi fountain and toss a coin over your left shoulder you are guaranteed a return trip to Rome. Or so, it is said. Thousands make their wish, and cast their coins every day. It takes an hour each day just to sweep them all up. I’m told $15,000 a week, or almost $1 million a year, is collected and distributed to the poor this way. Interestingly, Chicago’s Buckingham Fountain, one of the biggest in the world, makes only about $200 a year. I remember giving coins to my kids to make a wish. All the coins in all the fountains of the world now glisten with a hoped-for wish.

“What should I ask for?” was the question Salome put to her mother, Herodias after her seductive dance won so much drunken admiration from her father, the king, he promised her anything –whatever she asked for—even half his kingdom! (Mark 6:23).

What would you ask for? If someone very rich and powerful promised to grant whatever you wanted? An invitation to Herod’s place was what many aspiring people in Jesus’ time wished for. His palace, next to the Sea of Galilee, rivalled any in the Roman Empire. He demanded the best of everything. Extravagant appointments, exotic entertainment, incredible food, wine, and all the best sort of people.

Herod’s impulsive grandiosity was exceeded only by the murderous treachery of his wife, Herodias, who saw in her daughter’s question an opportunity to end her quarrel with John the Baptist. What should she ask for? John’s head. Which the young girl did—adding her own sordid twist to the tale by requesting that it be brought to her on a platter.

What would I wish for? It’s hard to say. Imagine if the very same invitation came from God. Does that change your answer? Amazingly in scripture, we hear over and over again that God does. Jesus said, “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you” (John 15.7). And again, “I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours” (Mark 11.24). In the parable of the Prodigal Son, God reveals their own grandiose and reckless character—just like King Herod—is directed exactly opposite from Herod, toward loving all people as their own beloved children. God watches and waits for us to return from our wandering ways with a constant vigilance born of both hope and grief.

It is ironic and fateful that bad king Herod was a direct consequence of the people’s own answer to the question of what to ask God for –from a thousand years before. In the days of the prophet Samuel, “…all the elders of Israel gathered together and asked the prophet Samuel to appoint for them a king. They wanted what all the other nations had. They wanted an earthly king, a standing army, a fortified city, and all the other accompanying signs of their growing power and prestige. In other words, be careful what you wish for.

The all-too-familiar story of death and the exercise of capricious, immature, unilateral power is our gospel today. The execution of John the baptizer, opens a window through which to glimpse the stark contrast between the gospel of Christ and the ways of power that operate in the world. Mark insists that we see this. Mark’s gospel intertwines the story of John and Jesus almost from the very beginning. All the way back in chapter one, Mark told us it was “…after John was arrested, [that] Jesus came to Galilee, [following his baptism by John] proclaiming the good news of God, and saying ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near!” (Mark 1:14).

What should you ask for, wish for, strive for, pray for? The answer to life’s riddle is the secret message of Christ’s gospel hidden in plain sight: live and love as Jesus did. To open the path to your heart’s deepest desire do as Jesus does for Christ to live in you, and for your heart and mind to be changed so that things like infinity, mystery, and forgiveness can resound within you. Our small minds cannot see Great Things because the two are on two different frequencies or channels, as it were. “The Big Mind can know big things, but we must change channels. Like will know like” (Richard Rohr, Daily Meditations, A Tree of Life, 7/11/21).

King Herod heard something like this from John the Baptist. It perplexed and fascinated him to hear the truth about his life from the voice of a wild and wooly man whom he had imprisoned from the deep desert rather than from the corridors of power. God’s saving Word rang in his ears and sang to his heart, but he couldn’t “go there.” Herod never crossed over from spectatorship to discipleship.

How often do we fall into the same trap that Herod did? How different would the story be if Herod passed this test? But he doesn’t. He fails. When push comes to shove, his casual fascination with the truth isn’t enough to transform him. He remains a hearer of the good news — not a doer” (Debi Thomas, Greatly Perplexed, Journey with Jesus, 7/04/21).

Bad King Herod’s extraordinary banquet for the rich and powerful became an occasion for bitterness and betrayal. It exposed his foolishness, his precarious grip on power and lack of control. By contrast, in the passage immediately following our gospel today, Jesus bid people from everywhere to sit on the grass and provided them a feast of abundance for 5,000 men and their families from five loaves of bread and two fish. Jesus’ outdoor potluck picnic became an occasion for generosity and joy. It revealed the wisdom of Christ’s gospel and the power of grace to unlock human hearts.

The Lord said to the prophet Amos, “See I am setting a plumb line in the midst of my people Israel.” (Amos 7:7b). The gospel of Christ is such a plumb line against which to measure the thru line of our dreams. The plumb line of Christ’s gospel helps us to see the difference between Herod and John is the difference between success as the world measures it, and lasting significance. Let all the coins at the bottom of every fountain proclaim: the things worth wishing for, the things that last, the things that make our life’s striving shine in glory accrue to us as we strive for a better world and love one another. What should I ask for? Who can ask for anything more than this – to love one another as God has loved us? To love and be loved in return? Then justice will roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream (Amos 5:24).