Thursday, February 09, 2006

Finding Your Deserted Place (A Sermon on Mark 1:29-39)

“As soon as they left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once. He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them. That evening, at sundown, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. And the whole city was gathered around the door. And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him. In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. And Simon and his companions hunted for him. When they found him, they said to him, “Everyone is searching for you.” He answered, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came to do.” And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.

I’ve been thinking about the gay agenda this week. More specifically, I’ve been thinking about the lesbian agenda. Okay, I’ve been thinking about my agenda. For all that the fundamentalist Christians might wish that the gay agenda be filled with plans to take over the world, seduce children, and make everyone wear boas (and/or comfortable shoes) all the time, my own gay agenda does not reflect that particular view. Well, maybe the boas. Seriously, though, I imagine that my agenda doesn’t look all that different from, say, Laura Bush’s. Granted, I don’t attend $25,000 a plate fundraisers. But, I do a lot of the same things that fill the days of many, many people across the country.

An average day’s agenda page for me will include getting my wife & kids off to work and school, going to school myself, dropping donations off at the food pantry, attending a meeting at church, calling friends to let them know I haven’t actually dropped off the face of the earth yet, paying bills, writing out a sympathy card or a get well card for a congregation member, sending out e-mails concerning justice issues, cleaning house, doing laundry, feeding the family, struggling through Hebrew translation, working on a paper, reading Church History assignments, and falling into bed for a few hours’ rest before I get up and do it all over again. All of this is to say that I feel that my life is pretty full. Friends, however, manage to trump me quite soundly at this busy game.

If, though, you consider a page from Jesus’ daily planner, you must fully fathom that Mark tells us that the whole city gathered around Simon and Andrew’s door. The whole city. The whole city??? Imagine every man, woman, and child in Dayton gathered around your door, wanting you to make everything better. Imagine having crowds following you everywhere you go, wanting your energy, your power, your time. It must have been absolutely exhausting. Think of it. You spend the entire day, from sun-up to sundown, taking care of a multitude of people. Not only are you busy, but you are spending yourself emotionally, as well. The physical work is the very least of it. And this was all the time, wherever Jesus went. When Jesus performed the miracle of the loaves and the fishes, it was after he had tried to get away for a break with just the disciples. The phrase “a crowd gathered” is scattered liberally throughout the gospels. The crowds didn’t just want a glimpse of this amazing teacher & healer, either. They wanted action. They wanted Jesus to do something for them. And we think we’re busy!

The thing about Jesus, and many of us, is that he had compassion for the people gathering around. When the crowds disrupted his solitude or kept him so busy that he didn’t even have time to grab a bite to eat, Jesus responded with kindness. Thinking on Jesus’ actions when pressed by crowds of needy people, emotionally needy, physically needy, materially needy, spiritually needy people, I was reminded of a conversation I overheard in Barnes and Noble the other day. A trio of teenage boys in grunge wear was discussing the possible merits of purchasing Eugene Peterson’s translation of the Bible, The Message. This was the special “remix” edition, made hip by a fancy pop art cover and an endorsement by Bono. One of the boys said, and I quote, “I don’t know if I should buy a Bible endorsed by Bono. I don’t see how people can call him a Christian. He’s a humanitarian!”

As if “humanitarian” is a dirty word. As if Christian and humanitarian are mutually exclusive terms. As if concern for humanity is not very Christ-like at all. My dictionary tells me that “humanitarian” is a noun meaning “One who is devoted to the promotion of human welfare and the advancement of social reforms; a philanthropist.” Hmm. I wanted to butt in and say, “Duh! What do you think Jesus was???”

So, if we are meant to be followers of Christ and Christ was a humanitarian, we should follow Christ in tirelessly doing for others, right? It would seem so. Except for one important part of the text that you may not have caught the first time around. “In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed.” Who among us hasn’t felt the urge to sneak off and be by ourselves for a short time of quiet and reflection? I know I regularly get the urge to sneak off to a deserted place and just be still so that I can hear God among the jangling chorus that runs all day around me. The chorus of “I need help with (insert kid project)”, “How’s your research for (insert class) going?”, “(insert name) is struggling with (insert problem)…someone should visit”, “Congress is about to pass a law about (insert bad idea) & we need to e-mail our representatives today”, “(insert valuable charity) is struggling financially and we need your donation to do our work”, “You’re one of my best friends and I really need to talk about (insert life crisis)”…I could go on for the rest of the sermon, but you get the idea.

While all of these things are important components of my part in making this place more like the Kingdom of God, and while I really enjoy my involvement in all of these things, I also know that I cannot do it all. I can do some of it. I can even do a lot of it. But, I simply cannot do it all. I am convinced, too, that the only way I can do any of it is if I take care of myself first. Jesus gave us the example of self-care. Jesus knew that recharging during quiet time alone with God is essential. There is simply no way any person can go and go and go without collapsing. If we do not refill our wells via prayer, reflection, and time to ourselves, we will not have any spiritual water to share with our sisters and brothers. This example of Jesus slipping out in the dark to be alone is not the only place in the Bible where we see Jesus making time for this.

I imagine that many of you are thinking to yourselves right now that I must be crazy. How can I possibly think that you have time to be quiet and alone? Don’t I know how busy you are? I must have more time on my hands than you do, eh? Jesus would take off in the middle of activity, as he did, without even telling people where he was going or putting someone else in charge until he got back. Do we think we are so important that the world can’t go on without us for a short while? Wayne Muller, in his wonderful book Sabbath: Finding Rest, Renewal, and Delight in Our Busy Lives, reminds us that Sabbath does not wait for us to be ready to begin. It begins, in traditional Judaism, precisely at sundown, no matter what time that comes. Sabbath, a time of rest and renewal, a time to come closer to God, is important enough that it’s listed among the big 10. Right there along with not killing, not stealing, not committing adultery. “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.”

Unfortunately, many of us were raised to believe that Sabbath was a dull time of not being able to do anything fun. Perhaps, though, if we think of it as a time to practice mindfulness, rather than a time of stricture, it will sound more attractive. If we think of Sabbath as a time to practice being lushly engaged with God and with God’s creation, we will long for Sabbath time. And God commands it of us! God commands it. The Talmud specifically encourages joyous meals, visiting and lovemaking on the Sabbath. Wayne Muller says, “The Sabbath prohibitions restrict those things that would impede our sensuality. Walk leisurely, don’t drive; walk in the garden, don’t answer the phone, turn off the television and the radio, forget the CD and the computer. Quiet the insidious technology, and remember that we live in bodies that, through a feast of the senses, appreciate the beauty of the world. Walk under the stars and moon. Knock on the door, don’t ring. Sing at the table. Eat, drink, touch, smell, and remember who you are.”

Remembering who we are is vital. It is so easy to get caught up in the gallop of daily life, so easy to be so busy helping others that we lose ourselves. Yes, there is value in the activities we are enmeshed in. But, if we lose our souls, the value is worthless. Muller tells the story of a South American tribe that went on a long march. They marched for days, but would just stop in the middle of marching, make camp and rest before moving on. They explained that the time of rest allowed their souls to catch up with their bodies. We shouldn’t be hurtling through our lives so quickly that our souls can’t keep up with our bodies.

I know that an entire day of Sabbath is impractical for most of us. My challenge to you this week is this: find one stretch of time each week, perhaps a weekday evening or weekend morning, when you can stop and rest. Find pleasurable activities to do, ones which keep you connected with God and with the world of the senses. Write this Sabbath time in your planner. Write it in pen. If you don’t feel you can devote even a few hours a week to self-care and God-listening, try a regular mindfulness practice. Thich Nhat Hanh rings a bell every so often in his Buddhist community. When the monks hear the bell, they stop to take three mindful breaths. This is something anyone can do, anywhere and at any time. Choose an activity…stopping at a red light, washing your hands, walking through a door. Whenever you do this, stop and practice mindfulness. This can be your personal “deserted place.” In practicing even mini Sabbaths such as this, your soul will be opened to the voice of God and your spirit will be renewed to continue your good work.

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