Sermons

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July 18, 2021

In 2004 some e-mails started circulating among the employees at a well-known accounting firm.  People were troubled by the behavior of a new recruit.[i]  In the middle of a busy and bustling office setting, she appeared to be doing nothing.  She just sat at her desk and stared into space.  When someone would ask her what she was doing, she would say something vague like “I’m doing thought work.”  She spent one whole day riding the elevators up and down over and over.  When a colleague asked if she was “thinking again,” she replied “It helps to see things from a different perspective.”  The other employees became increasingly agitated, and their e-mails became increasingly urgent.  Something had to be done about this new colleague.

As it turns out, unbeknownst to them, they were all participating in a performance piece called The Trainee.  The alleged employee was actually a Finnish artist named Pilvi Takala, someone whose work often focuses on disrupting social norms with simple actions.  In this case she was challenging the notion that we must be productive every minute of every day.  We all know that there are many things that distract us from productivity throughout the day – text messages, phone calls, social media, conversations with other people, hunger, exhaustion, stress.  But when someone so blatantly violates the expectation of constant productivity, it challenges so much of what we’ve been taught to value in ourselves and others.

Just a couple of weeks ago we heard how Jesus sent out the disciples two by two, telling them to travel lightly and to carry a message of repentance and hope to the surrounding villages.  At the beginning of today’s gospel, they have just returned, eager to report to Jesus what they have accomplished, all that they have done and taught.

But wait just a minute, Jesus says.  Before you do that, he tells them, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.”  Their plans for rest get thwarted by the crowds that follow them, as it turns out, but the invitation is important.  Come away and rest a while.  Jesus puts rest ahead of reporting what they might have accomplished in their recent travels.

Remember that Jesus, too, is in need of rest.  We hear again and again in the gospel of Mark how Jesus looks for opportunities to rest.  In this moment we can imagine that he is grieving the recent death of John the Baptist, wrung out by the moral failures of leaders like Herod and disappointed that he’s had to warn his disciples to be prepared for rejection everywhere they go.  No wonder he has compassion on the gathering crowds, seeing them as sheep without a shepherd.  He knows what it feels like to be disappointed and disillusioned, longing for connection.

We know what the need for rest feels like too.  We can feel it deep down in our bones, when realities and responsibilities force us out of bed even though we don’t always relish that “to do” list. We get worn out from being available and accessible 24 hours a day – to friends and family, to colleagues and supervisors, to our own worries and fears.

We get caught up in the myth that our worth depends on our productivity – that our success as humans is measured in how much we get done for how many people in how little time.

The messages from the culture around us will try to persuade us that that’s just how things are – you either measure up or people will start circulating e-mails about you.  But what a terrible way for our value to be determined.

I’m not saying that you should ignore your responsibilities and become a big slacker.  I’ve known most of you for a while, and I have yet to meet a slacker.  But how might we understand our sense of who we are and what we are worth as something apart from how much and how often we produce?

The people who decades ago decided what scripture readings would be assigned to each Sunday in a repeating three-year cycle – they made an interesting choice this week.  In today’s gospel from the sixth chapter of Mark, they decided to skip over two big moments in the ministry of Jesus.  The first is the feeding of thousands of people with just a few loaves of bread and a couple of fish.  (To be fair, the Gospel of John’s version of that story is scheduled for next week, so I suppose they figured they had that one covered.)  The other is the story of Jesus walking on water, which you have to admit has a certain dramatic flair.  I can’t claim to know their reasoning for skipping those parts this week, but I think it’s interesting that it moves our attention away from Jesus doing these big, flashy, mind-boggling things.  Instead we’re invited to see Jesus focus on the quieter things – looking after those who need rest and those who need healing.

In today’s gospel Jesus does travel – from villages to cities to farms.  He moves from place to place to seek out the people who need his compassion the most.  He’s not hanging out in some lofty place and expecting people to come to him.  He finds those who are in need of healing. 

And where are those in healing to be found in that last verse?  They are found in the marketplace.  Isn’t that an interesting detail?  The marketplace, where things are normally bought and sold, where everything has a price, where worth is determined by your ability to bargain and negotiate and get the biggest profit with the least amount of effort.  In that very place people bring those whose needs are great, those who can’t bargain or negotiate at all but want only to be healed.  Those whose value was too often dismissed because of their illnesses or disabilities or maladies.  Into that space Jesus enters to say: Your worth is not measured in terms of health or wealth.  You are worthy because you are loved.  And I love you no matter what.

The same is true for each and every one of us.  Our worth does not depend on our perpetual productivity.  Our worth does not come from our perfectionism, from our pluckiness, or from our plowing ahead while we ignore our own exhaustion and pain. Our worth comes from the love of Jesus, who longs for us to have times of rest and stillness so that we might truly experience what it means to know that love apart from anything that we do.

That rest sometimes comes in the form of vacations, but it can’t come only in that way.  Our souls need quiet moments more often than that; even a few minutes of reflection can helps us receive an awareness of God’s grace washing over us. 

Those small moments of grace can sometimes appear when we least expect them.  Often others invite us to those oases in the wilderness of our lives.  Or they come in small insights during moments when we manage to be still for more than a second.

Our furry friends often understand this idea far better than humans. A friend from California sent me a story this week about the Lutheran Church Charities (LCC) K-9 Comfort Dog Ministry.[ii]  There are teams across the country, but this piece highlighted the nine golden retrievers from Florida, Georgia, Illinois, South Carolina, and Tennessee that were sent to Miami spend time with folks grieving for family members, friends, and neighbors lost in the condo collapse in Surfside.  The dogs intuitively know that grief work is not about engaging in a frenzy of activity.  It’s about showing up with empathetic eyes and furry paws to hold – it’s about being more than doing

The people in our lives can be bearers of grace too.  In her memoir, musician Brandi Carlile tells about Dolly Parton showing up at the Newport Folk Festival. “How are you?” Dolly asks. Brandi finds herself inexplicably honest and tearful, saying: “I bit off more than I can chew with this.” “Alright then,” Dolly replies. “Let’s pray.”[iii]  So they prayed together. And then they went on to sing a rendition of “I Will Always Love You” that no one in that audience will ever forget.

Lately, when storms roll through, I try to sit for a few minutes on my tiny porch and watch it rain.  It doesn’t magically make all my stress go away, but it does settle me.  Those few minutes of stillness make me more aware that I am not in charge of the world any more than I am in charge of the rain or the thunder or the lightning.

This week, whenever you feel yourself overwhelmed by the pressures of productivity, I invite you to listen for the voice of Jesus saying to you: Come away and rest a while.  Hear him say: It’s OK to be still.  It’s OK to rest.  I love you.  Amen.

S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ


[i] How to do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy by Jenny Odell, pp. 62-64

[ii] https://www.npr.org/sections/live-updates-miami-area-condo-collapse/2021/07/14/1015663935/surfside-florida-building-collapse-comfort-dogs-therapy

[iii] https://twitter.com/amylpeterson/status/1416416682839625733?s=20

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Language is a funny thing.  I’ve never been good at learning languages, but I’m fascinated by the history of words and how we come to use them.  I believe that how we use certain words and phrases often reveals what matters to us.

I was reminded this week in a piece by Juliana Castro that verbs offer especially important clues to the way different cultures value and measure things.[i]  In English, attention is something you pay.  We talk about paying attention. In Spanish attention is something you lend.  In German attention is something you gift.  In Italian and French you “do” attention.

That American preference for the phrase “paying attention” has me thinking about all the ways that we have commodified attention.  Everybody and everyone wants our attention, and they’re hoping that they can leverage it for a profit. You’ve probably had the experience of doing a Google search – or even just mentioning an idea near your phone – and suddenly your online space is flooded with ads related to whatever it is you were investigating.

I posted a few pictures from my national parks trip, and suddenly my timeline was full of ads for tents and backpacks and every kind of outdoor gear in the world.  I want to say to the team at Facebook, “Look, just because I did glamping for a couple of days doesn’t mean that I’m going to go live in the woods now.  You can stop.”  But they’re hoping that I’ll pay attention – and that I will pay these advertisers for what they’re selling.

Notice how people pay attention in today’s gospel.  Because that attention says a lot about the world of power that Herod occupies, a world in which everything has a price.

Herod is having a birthday bash.  So he wants people to pay attention to him.  He’s invited the courtiers and officers and leaders of Galilee because of course those are the people whose attention is most valuable.

They’re all paying attention to a young woman dancing, Herod’s niece turned stepdaughter.  It’s a tangled family tree.  Herod has essentially stolen his brother’s wife Herodias.  John the Baptist had been calling attention to that move in a way that no one cared for, least of all Herodias herself.

Herodias, meanwhile, is paying attention to the politics of that party, looking for an opportunity to get her revenge against John the Baptist.

The young woman, who delights everyone with her dancing, doesn’t know what to do when Herod tells her she can have anything she wants, even half his kingdom.  This game is out of her league. She’s been taught how to be the object of everyone’s attention.  She has not been taught how to be the subject of her own life.  She runs to her mother for advice.

The girl brings back the request prompted by her mother – the head of John the Baptist on a platter.  That demand certainly gets Herod’s attention, and for reasons that are somehow related to keeping his word, Herod dispatches his soldiers to behead John.

This world is one in which everything can be bought or bartered, sold or stolen.  Herod can take the wife that he wants.  The men can make girl dance for their entertainment.  Herodias can ask for a man’s head on a platter. It’s a stark and violent reminder that in this kind of world, whatever happens always comes at a cost to someone.  In this case John pays the price for telling the truth about right and wrong.

This is how John dies.  John, the one who told people to prepare the way of the Lord for Jesus, the one who baptized Jesus, the one who lived completely as himself.  He dies because people gave their attention to the wrong things and didn’t want to be called out on it.

Jesus doesn’t play much of a role in this story.  I added a few verses, though, borrowing the beginning of next week’s gospel because I wanted us to notice how the attention of Jesus and his followers works differently than that of Herod and his circle.

Notice that the disciples do not look away from the violence and the horror of their friend John’s death.[ii]  They show up to claim the body.  They make sure that John receives a proper burial, even as their hearts must be breaking to realize what can happen when you give your attention to doing what is right.

The piece that I read about language this week also reminded me that attention and tenderness share a root, the Latin word tendere, which means to stretch or to tense.[iii]  It provides the root word for the ways that we say that we care, that we try, that we are exposed to being hurt.  What makes us tender also makes us vulnerable.

After some of the disciples tend to John’s body, Jesus then tends to his disciples.  And h does so with tenderness.  He calls them away to a deserted place to get some rest. Jesus gives them attention, not to impress them or exploit them or make sure they owe him one.  He tends to their needs because he loves them.

And though they encounter a large crowd that gets in the way of their plan to rest, Jesus also shows tenderness towards the people who have gathered.  He has compassion for them because they are like sheep without a shepherd.

We’ll hear in a couple of weeks that familiar story of Jesus feeding the thousands. For now it is enough to remember that the way Jesus throws a dinner party is so much different than the way Herod does things.

This is the most fundamental way in which Jesus is a threat to the world that Herod leads.  Herod pays attention only to what will serve his own interests.  Jesus gives his attention to those from whom others turn away.  The sick, the lost, the struggling, the worried, the anxious, the fearful.

What we give our attention to is an expression of our faith.  If you were to do an audit of who or what gets your attention on any given day, what might it reveal?  There would be some days that I wouldn’t be proud of.  On those days my attention is claimed disproportionately by things that are ultimately not important: by my phone, by the anxious stories that take up space in my head, by the distractions that don’t deserve my time. The days I feel the most satisfied are the ones on which I’ve been able to give my attention to what I love most – the best parts of ministry, my friends and family, a good book, prayer and reflection, a chance to be with people and hear their stories.

As Christians we’re almost always better able to give our attention to what matters when we remember what Jesus has given first to us – not only his tender attention, but his very life.  When our attention gets fixated on death or despair, Jesus transforms that death and despair into life and hope.

This week I hope that you won’t just pay attention.  I hope you will give your attention.  Give your attention to someone who needs it from you the most, without distraction and without expectation for repayment.

And I pray that you will receive the gift of someone else’s attention – with a holy tenderness that will nourish your soul.  Amen.

S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ


[i] https://www.are.na/blog/tenderness-shares-a-root-with-attention

[ii] https://www.spiritualityofconflict.com/readings/318/15th-sunday-in-ordinary-time

[iii] See endnote 1.

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